U.S. in tricky recovery effort at Afghan crash site
By David Brunnstrom
KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. forces were conducting a tricky search and recovery operation on Thursday in mountainous eastern Afghanistan, where a U.S. helicopter carrying 17 U.S. troops crashed after being hit by militant fire.
The operation in Kunar province bordering Pakistan had been hampered by the presence of militants in the area, cloudy weather and rugged, heavily wooded terrain, said U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jerry O'Hara.
"It's a search and recovery operation in a tactical environment, which means we have to ensure security throughout," he said, declining to provide more details.
All aboard, who included elite U.S. Navy Seals, were presumed to have died in Tuesday's crash, a U.S. official in Washington said on Wednesday.
The casualties would be the heaviest for U.S. forces in an incident linked to hostile fire in Afghanistan since they invaded and overthrew the Taliban in 2001.
The U.S. military has yet to confirm the deaths. A statement on Thursday said U.S. forces had secured crash site and were "assessing the cause of the crash and the status of the 17 service members."
It said U.S.-led forces were continuing an anti-militant operation codenamed "Redwing" in Kunar but gave no details.
The twin-rotor Chinook, which crashed during an anti-al-Qaeda operation, was probably struck by a rocket propelled grenade, General Peter Pace, vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff told a Congressional hearing in Washington.
Taliban spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi said the guerrillas shot down the Chinook with "a new type of weapon" he did not describe.
It was the second crash of a U.S. Chinook in Afghanistan in less than three months and came amid a surge in guerrilla activity aimed at derailing Sept. 18 parliamentary elections, the next big step in Afghanistan's difficult path to stability.
Another Chinook came down in a dust storm in Ghazni province on April 6, killing 18 Americans, including 15 troops.
At least nine U.S. military helicopters have crashed in Afghanistan since 2001, including one MH-47 Chinook shot down in March 2002, killing six U.S. Special Forces troops.
In early June, the U.S. military said a helicopter had been attacked in Uruzgan province by a suspected surface-to-air missile. Such weapons, supplied by the United States, were used to great effect by guerrillas fighting Soviet occupiers in the 1980s, but the Taliban have not been known to use them.
If confirmed, Tuesday's deaths would bring U.S. combat fatalities in intensified guerrilla activity since March to 31.
Before Tuesday, the Pentagon had reported 149 U.S. military deaths in and around Afghanistan since 2001, including 77 killed in action, against the more than 1,700 deaths in Iraq since 2003.
Rescuers Reach U.S. Helicopter Wreckage
By DANIEL COONEY, Associated Press Writer
KABUL, Afghanistan - Rescuers have reached the wreckage of a U.S. special forces helicopter that crashed into a rugged mountain ravine in eastern Afghanistan, but there was no immediate word on the fate of the 17 troops on board, a U.S. military spokesman said Thursday.
"We are at the wreckage as we speak," U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Jerry O'Hara told The Associated Press. "We are conducting search and recovery operations. But we are more into the recovery stage."
He declined to elaborate on efforts to find survivors or the bodies of the 17, who were thought to have perished in Tuesday's crash.
A military statement said U.S.-led coalition forces are "currently assessing the cause of the crash and the status of the 17 servicemembers who were on board the MH-47 helicopter."
O'Hara said "there are still bad guys in the area" around the crash site and that troops were having to "do a recovery and a tactical operation at the same time."
Militants are believed to have shot down the MH-47 helicopter as it was bringing in reinforcements for a battle with suspected al-Qaida fighters.
If those aboard are confirmed dead, the crash would be the deadliest blow yet to American forces in Afghanistan, already grappling with an insurgency that is widening rather than winding down.
A storm that hampered rescuers from reaching the wreckage on Wednesday had passed by Thursday. Recovery operations have also been made difficult by the rugged terrain of the remote crash site, reachable only by foot, and the continued fighting with militants.
Officials in the United States said they knew of no communications from the crash site near Asadabad, in eastern Kunar province.
Even before word of the crash was announced, a Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility and said he had footage of the attack. As of Thursday, no video had surfaced.
U.S. military spokesman Col. James Yonts said the helicopter was fired on as it was approaching a landing zone in the mountains. It flew on but crashed about a mile away at dusk.
U.S. officials cited reports from the region that the helicopter either crashed or made a perilous landing on the side of a mountain, then went down into the ravine, suggesting little hope of survival. They said, however, they could not confirm the deaths, and spoke on condition of anonymity since rescue operations were still underway.
Only eight months ago, Afghan and U.S. officials were hailing a relatively peaceful presidential election here as a sign that the Taliban rebellion was finished. That bravado has been yet another casualty in a war some feel could escalate into a conflict on the scale of Iraq's.
The loss of the helicopter follows three months of unprecedented fighting that has killed about 465 suspected insurgents, 43 Afghan police and soldiers, 125 civilians, and 29 U.S. troops. Afghan and American officials have predicted the situation will deteriorate before legislative elections are held in September.
The Taliban have stepped up attacks, and there are disturbing signs that foreign fighters — including al-Qaida — might be making a new push to sow mayhem. Afghan officials say the fighters have used the porous border with Pakistan to enter the country, and have called on the Pakistani government do more to stop them.
The crash was the second of a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan this year. On April 6, 15 U.S. service members and three American civilians were killed when their chopper went down in a sandstorm while returning to the main U.S. base at Bagram.
Pak-Afghan bus, rail links discussed
The News International (Pakistan) / June 29, 2005
ISLAMABAD: Plans for bus links between Pakistani and Afghan cities as well as trade matters were discussed here on Tuesday at a meeting between officials of the two countries.
A 10-member Afghan delegation, headed by Transport Minister Dr Inayatullah Qasmi, held talks with Minister of State for Communication Eng Shahid Jamil. The meeting reviewed progress on plans to start a bus service between Peshawar and Jalalabad and another between Quetta and Kandahar via Chamman. Matters related to facilitation for traders also came up during the talks.
Welcoming the Afghan delegation, Shahid Jamil said Pakistan was interested in strengthening the infrastructure in Afghanistan and further expanding two way trade, which has now touched $1 billion.
The Afghan minister thanked the government and people of Pakistan for providing generous help to their Afghan brothers during their long stay in Pakistan. He said the religious and cultural ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan were deep-rooted and Pakistan was taking keen interest in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
Qasmi stressed the need for further strengthening the existing relations. He requested the Pakistan government to open a transport office at Chamman and also allow Afghan trade transporters to have access to Karachi and Qasim ports.
It was decided that all issues would be sorted out in detail by the standing committees which would be constituted by July 15 and hold its first meeting in Islamabad on August 15, to present its report to the Ministry of Communication.
Shahid Jamil assured the Afghan delegation that all their recommendations would be discussed in the Joint Economic Commission and approval would be sought. Chairman National Highway Authority, Maj-Gen Farrukh Javed informed the Afghan minister of the progress on the Torkham-Talalabad Road. He also offered help for the construction of other highways in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Afghan Minister for Trade Dr Inayatullah Qasmi called on Minister for Railways Mian Shamim Haider and apprised him of the problems being faced by Afghan traders in shipments of their goods by trains from the Karachi Port to Afghanistan.
He said goods reached too late in Afghanistan and no action was taken against the persons responsible for delay and pilferage. He said the Afghan government was keen to strengthen the rail and road links with Pakistan. He sought Shamim's cooperation to resolve the problems of Afghan traders.
Secretary Railways, Shakeel Durrani informed the minister that the Afghan traders should lodge the complaint with the police about any complaint of theft or any other problem, so that legal action could be initiated.
Railways Minister Mian Shamim Haider said the project of laying track from Chaman to Spin Boldak was under active consideration by the present government. After this the railways track would be extended up to Qandahar, he said, adding that both the projects would facilitate the Afghan trade. He assured full cooperation from the Pakistan Railways to the Afghan minister.
UK under fire over Afghan opium
Wednesday, 29 June, 2005, 20:41 GMT 21:41 UK BBC News
The poppy is Afghanistan's most profitable crop
Charles Clarke says the UK has not made enough progress in fighting Afghan opium production after the UN stated cultivation was at record levels.
The UN World Drug Report says poppy cultivation rose there by 16% last year covering 131,000 hectares.
Conservatives say the UK was given a key role in tackling the issue in 2001.
Tory David Davis accused ministers of failing, saying: "Heroin exported from Afghanistan makes its way through our porous borders into our communities."
War on drugs?
He said the problem fuelled escalating gun crime on British streets.
"It is no wonder the number of hard drug users in this country now tops a million people and is increasing," he said.
"Labour have not just failed in the war on drugs, they haven't even begun to fight it."
According to the UN the area under cultivation for opium poppies rose from 80,000 in 2003 to 131,000 hectares last year.
A Home Office spokesman said that G8 interior ministers agreed at their Sheffield summit earlier this month to increase resources to help Afghanistan with tackling drugs cultivation.
He said Britain had already given £70m over a three-year period towards countering narcotics.
The UN report said: "Of greatest concern is the fact that opium poppy cultivation has been introduced into previously unaffected areas and is now found in all 34 provinces of the country."
Afghanistan Violence Rising, More Troops to Be Sent (Update1)
June 29 (Bloomberg) -- Insurgent violence in Afghanistan is rising and expected to worsen, and more troops will be sent there ahead of the nation's parliamentary elections in September, the No. 2 U.S. military official said today.
The U.S. has 18,000 troops in Afghanistan and may add about 1,100, the same number it added before the nation's presidential election in October 2004, Marine Corps General Peter Pace, vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs, told reporters during a break in a Senate Armed Service Committee hearing.
The U.S. will send ``whatever number we need to ensure the security,'' and NATO also ``will send in extra troops,'' Pace said. NATO has about 8,300 troops in Afghanistan. There are about 42,000 trained Afghan police and 24,0000 national army soldiers, Pace said in a written response to the panel's questions.
U.S. and Afghan forces are still fighting the Taliban, an Islamic militia that ruled the country until December 2001. The Taliban were sheltering al-Qaeda when it carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S.
Afghanistan's new government is ``going to succeed despite the violence,'' Michigan Senator Carl Levin, the ranking Democrat on the armed services panel, said in an interview. ``I am more optimistic about Afghanistan than I am about Iraq.''
In Iraq ``you've got people pouring over the borders who are jihadists,'' Levin said. ``The same thing is true in Afghanistan but it is more diffuse, dispersed. In Iraq it can become more focused and even more threatening to the creation of that government than the Afghan jihadists can do to the Afghan government.''
The Taliban has stepped up attacks as U.S. and Afghan forces carry out more intensive patrols near the border with Pakistan, and as warmer weather has made mountainous regions more accessible to Islamist fighters.
A U.S. helicopter carrying 17 American troops was shot down yesterday as it returned from a commando mission, Pace told the armed services panel. The soldiers' fate is unknown, according to the military. Taliban rebels said they carried out they attack, Qatar-based al-Jazeera television reported. Pace said the aircraft was shot down.
Forty suspected rebels were killed and five U.S. soldiers and two Afghan policemen were wounded in fighting June 22 in southeastern Afghanistan, the U.S. military said. Four U.S. soldiers were wounded June 13 in a suicide car bombing attack near the southeastern Afghan city of Kandahar, the stronghold of the former ruling Taliban militia.
Earlier this month, two soldiers were slain in an attack on a U.S. base in Shkin near the Pakistan border, two were killed by a homemade bomb, also near the border in southeastern Afghanistan, and one soldier died in an ambush in eastern Paktika province.
Prior to yesterday's helicopter crash, 195 U.S. personnel had been killed in Afghanistan since Operation Enduring Freedom began there in October 2001, including 81 in combat and 114 in non- hostile incidents, according to the Pentagon.
The rising drug trade in Afghanistan is also a concern, said Republican John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Senate panel.
``The quantity if drugs emanating from Afghanistan is increasing exponentially over the past 18 months and this can't be permitted because it's undermining some of the good work,'' Warner said.
Australia to consider sending troops to Afghanistan, Downer says
SYDNEY, June 30 (AFP) - Australia is considering sending troops to Afghanistan, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Thursday, adding that the apparent downing of a US helicopter showed there was much to be done to ensure security.
Downer refused to say whether Australia, a staunch US ally, had received a specific request for more troops but said deployments were reviewed on an ongoing basis.
"We have constant discussions with our friends and allies about this issue," he told reporters.
"We always are prepared to consider the issue and we'll be having another look at it fairly soon as to whether it would make any sense for us to make a further contribution to Afghanistan or not.
"We don't have a closed mind about it. But it is something the government will have to have a look at and have to have a think about."
Downer said the end of Australia's peacekeeping mission to East Timor and the success of law and order programmes in other areas of the Pacific had freed troops for other regions.
Australia currently has just one soldier engaged in land mine clearance in Afghanistan.
But Canberra deployed some 150 Special Air Service soldiers to the country to assist the US-led invasion in late 2001.
The US-led coalition is fighting a mainly guerrilla war against remnants of the ousted Taliban regime and other insurgents.
Australia also has about 900 troops in Iraq.
Downer said he had not doubt President Hamid Karzai would welcome the return of Australian troops to Afghanistan, where he said the international community still faced a challenge.
"We know of course of the crashing of an American helicopter which reminds us that there is still a good distance to go to ensure there is really effective security in Afghanistan," he said.
"It's a bit difficult in that respect but overall Afghanistan is better off than it was under the Taliban."
A total of 17 US servicemen were on board the Chinook helicopter which came under fire during an anti Al-Qaeda mission Tuesday in the Afghan mountains. Their fate is still unclear.
The Taliban have claimed responsibility for downing it.
Canadian soldiers begin deploying to Afghanistan hotbed Kandahar
TERRY PEDWELL Wed Jun 29, 6:56 PM ET Canada Press
OTTAWA (CP) - Nearly 200 Canadian soldiers began heading to Afghanistan's violent Kandahar region Wednesday to establish a base for a reconstruction team that will depart in a few weeks.
It's the first time Canada has deployed a provincial reconstruction team or PRT, made up of soldiers, Mounties, members of the Canadian International Development Agency and Foreign Affairs personnel.
A unit from Canadian Forces Base Kingston, Ont., began to leave Canada on Wednesday. The soldiers will prepare a camp for the reconstruction team at a U.S. air base in Kandahar.
"They'll be departing out of Trenton (Ont.) on service flights over the next couple of days," said Defence Department spokesman Capt. Darren Steele.
Unlike the Canadian soldiers at Camp Julien in Kabul, who had to set up camp from scratch, the startup team will have buildings to work with.
"They'll go in, prepare the quarters, the work area, lay the lines for computers," said Steele.
The full 250-member reconstruction team is scheduled to begin flying over in about three weeks, coming mainly from Edmonton's First Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group.
"This is the first one for us going in," said Steele. "Their mission in broad terms is ongoing support of the government of Afghanistan, supporting the institution's . . . reconstruction projects.
"A lot of what they'll be doing is laying the groundwork for Canada's PRT operations in the future."
Canada's elite Joint Task Force 2 commandos are also expected to provide protection for the team, although Defence officials refused to provide details or even confirm their participation.
The provincial reconstruction team operation will be a logistical nightmare for the Defence Department.
At the same time, soldiers from Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, Ont., will head next month for Camp Julien, where they'll replace the 700 Canadians who've spent the last six months working with ISAF, the NATO-led international peacekeeping force in Kabul.
"It's a lot of co-ordination to move the troops," said Steele. "They'll all be moving at the same time."
As operations begin in the Kandahar area, where dangerous al-Qaida insurgents and the Taliban remain, soldiers in Kabul will work double duty.
"While they're providing ongoing support to ISAF, they will be also preparing Camp Julien for a close down and move to Kandahar later this year," Steele said.
Some of the equipment from Kabul will be sent for repairs or storage. However, the bulk of it will be forwarded to Kandahar, where Canada is sending an additional 1,000 soldiers, beginning in December.
Critics of the provincial reconstruction team mission warn that Canadian soldiers could face dangers in Kandahar similar to those seen by American forces in Iraq.
U.S. officials predict the fighting in Afghanistan will intensify in the coming months as al-Qaida and Taliban fighters attempt to destabilize national assembly elections scheduled for September.
AFGHANISTAN: Interview with governor of isolated Nuristan province
KABUL, 28 Jun 2005 (IRIN) - Development work and aid has all but dried up in the eastern Afghan province of Nuristan because of the lack of security and only a minimal government presence. Like many other eastern and southern provinces of the country, it is still reeling from the consequences of more than two decades of conflict.
Mohammad Tamim Nuristani, the newly-appointed governor of Nuristan, said in an exclusive interview with IRIN, that Nuristanis were faced with an extremely poor humanitarian situation and called on aid agencies and central government to revise their activities in the remote province.
Many national and international NGOs have scaled back activities in Nuristan because of insecurity on the ground. The last operational NGO in the troubled valley, Afghan Aid, ceased operations after an armed attack on its sub-office there. But the newly assigned governor - an Afghan technocrat who has returned from the west - claims the situation has changed and the way is now open for the re-establishment of aid delivery to the destitute province.
Nurestan, meaning ‘land of light’, lies on the southern slopes of the Hindu Kush. The inhospitable region used to be known as Kafiristan, or ‘land of the infidels’ because it was inhabited by an ethnically distinctive people, who practised animism until their forcible conversion to Islam at the end of the nineteenth century. Nurestanis live in isolated villages in deep, narrow mountain valleys, surviving on subsistence agriculture, growing wheat, fruit and raising livestock, mainly goats.
QUESTION: What is the general situation in Nuristan now?
ANSWER: The humanitarian side, we have a lot of problems. In fact over the past hundred years no development has taken place in Nuristan. In the last three years a lot of money came to Afghanistan but even a drop of it was not spent on Nuristan.
We do not have good roads. The local government is not strong enough in the province because nobody has helped us. We have problems with insufficient numbers [in the] of police force. We do not have any professional Nuristanis in the local government institutions and Afghans from other parts of the country are not willing to go to Nuristan to work due to remoteness and a lack of facilities on the ground.
We have to start from zero. I started two and half months ago, my priority is to build the roads between the villages and [to the] capitals of other provinces.
Q: The aid community has marked Nuristan as a ‘no go area' due to insecurity, how would you tackle this problem?
A: There is a perception that Nuristan is an insecure province but I don’t see any problems. In the last three years we had only three major incidents involving aid workers. Security inside Nuristan is not a major issue but how to get to Nuristan is a matter of concern.
We do not have a lot of local extremists in all parts of Nuristan, only in Kamdish - eastern Nuristan - and that is due to a lack of police and stronger government presence and that the district is bordering Pakistan.
There are no border police and everything can happen in this situation. Comparing the security of other provinces where there are more Afghan National Army and national police forces, our problem is very small.
If we talk about soft targets, we are now soft targets. We do not have enough guns to protect ourselves and still we feel secure enough. But you see, in the southern provinces of Zabul, Kandahar and Helmand, they are killing police officers every day. They’re killing district administrators. A lot of bomb attacks are there.
While, in the whole of Nuristan, we had only one incident in Kamdish when the office of the Afghan Aid [an International aid agency] was set on fire and even in that case they did not kill any staff members of the NGO. Kamdish is exceptional because it is a border district with no border police and infiltration is easy.
We have a problem of local disputes over land and water but not the insurgents. The local disputes do not affect NGO activities.
The problem is how to get to Nuristan and the only way to come here is through the troubled eastern province of Kunar.
And once you enter Nuristan you will see there are no people with guns, we don’t have any major warlords, while in Kunar we see bombs, rocket attacks and other insurgent activities. That is why a lot of national and international NGOs do not want to pass through that province.
In the past most of the local administration staff were not capable of running the affairs. I am now implementing an overall reform on the district level, which would also help with [improving] security.
Q: What are the major humanitarian problems you are faced with?
A: They are health, poverty, unemployment and a lack of roads. From 1 January we have lost the whole health coverage of the entire province when the remaining aid agencies scaled back. In the last six months we have had no active clinic or hospital across Nuristan. We are very dissatisfied with the work of the ministry of health in the province.
Prevalence of tuberculosis, whooping cough, diarrhoea and other preventable diseases are very high in the area, as well as the rate of maternal and child mortality. Unemployment and poverty are at their peak and if we don’t tackle these problems it will create a huge problem for us here.
If we don’t solve these problems the enemies will misuse this opportunity and use the unemployed against us. While there is no NGO activity and no government short-term or long-term projects, the unemployment is rising more and more.
And due to lack of roads, people have to walk long hours and even days to reach the nearest public facility such as a school, hospital or clinic.
Q: How serious is the issue of local disputes and will it come to an end?
A: We have three major (local tribal) disputes in Nuristan. One is between the Kushtuz and Kamdish people from 12 years now. Another is (between the) Arans and Wigal and again it is land and water dispute. And in western Nuristan we have the Zunya and Peyar dispute.
I have started working on reconciliation of the tribes involved in the disputes. With the issue of Kamdish and Kushtuz, with the help of UNAMA [United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan] we are very close to solving the dispute there. The resolution of disputes takes a bit of time as it has been there for very long and a lot of people have been killed or disabled and even the entire Kushtuz village had been burnt.
Q: What are the means of security in the province?
A: Nuristan is more managed by community councils than police and army. Traditionally the Shuras [councils] are the decision-makers and always consult with people. People also listen and obey what Shuras decide. In fact a community support is more sustainable than support of thousands of troops.
But still we need police and army for the security of borders and districts. We don’t have enough police and security resources. We need the Afghan National Army and much more police to fill the gap mainly in the districts.
In the entire province we have 560 police officers and in the huge area of Nuristan, which has a 250 kilometre long border with Pakistan, it is impossible to maintain security without a proper and well-trained border police force. We rely on people and that is why, even without police, the situation is under control.
Q: What is your message to NGOs, central government and the donor community?
A: In the last two and a half months I have been knocking every door including the United Nations. I call on the donors and NGOs to come to Nuristan and see if there is any major security problem now.
We did not have any Al-Qaida [militants] before and Nuristanis were not with Taliban either. The province was a base for anti-Taliban groups. All you see is in the computers and emails of NGOs and donors that ‘Nuristan is a no go area’. The UN says they cannot work there because it is insecure but I hope everybody come and see what is going on here.
Even the US-led provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), which are stationed in neighbouring Kunar, are not doing any major assistance in terms of security or reconstruction in Nuristan.
Meanwhile we have been neglected by the central government because Nuristan has been rather a calm province and never a centre of attention for Kabul. We did not have warlords, no major attacks and maybe therefore there is no national police or national army deployed. Often, in some ministries, they do not even know if there is a Nuristan, as we never come under debate.
Q: What are your top priorities of short and long-term projects?
A: I am appealing to everybody to help us, especially on the road construction. I am working on a plan to extend 37 km road from the central valley to Laghman, which will then be a shortcut to Nuristan and you will not have to pass through Kunar.
Meanwhile, I think reviving tourism in Nuristan will be a key issue in boosting the economy and infrastructure in this historical and spectacular province.
We have had some discussion with the ministry of information, culture and tourism to start some tourist helicopter flights from Kabul to Nuristan, like the Kabul-Bamyan tourist flights they have already started.
We can arrange hiking, trailing, rafting, fishing, birdwatching and many other things, as Nuristan is a paradise of nature. In winter we can provide skiing. We don’t have any development funds but we have talked with some private sector enterprises to establish hotels and other facilities for visitors.
Brave new post-Taliban look
Designer Sara Rahmani rethinks the burqa and in the process gives Afghan women a breath of fresh air, the Tribune's Kim Barker writes
By Kim Barker / Chicago Tribune / Published: June 24, 2005
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Sara Rahmani never bought her own burqa during the Taliban regime, which forced women to wear the all-encompassing garment.
But now the Taliban regime is gone, and Rahmani is burqa-happy. She buys burqas by the dozen. Rahmani, a clothing designer who has started her own company, then has her tailors cut up and resew the burqas. The result: the burqa shirt.
"I thought to myself, the Taliban period is finished," Rahmani said. "What should we do with all these burqas?"
Rahmani and her clothing line say much about the possibilities in the new Afghanistan--in Kabul, at least. She is a woman running her own company, something impossible only a few years ago and still unusual enough that she was picked to meet First Lady Laura Bush when she visited in March. Rahmani also was featured in Afghan Women and Business magazine. She is 34 and still single--a rarity in Afghanistan.
Rahmani, who favors a classic, conservative look of a gauzy head scarf, a gray pantsuit and black heels, is also challenging convention. She is taking an item like the burqa--still worn by women in most of the countryside and the city--and changing it.
Many Afghan women have always worn the burqa, for cultural and Islamic reasons. But the Taliban made all women wear it, turning the garment into a powerful symbol of repression in Afghanistan.
Trying one on for the first time is like pulling on a cage. The burqa is surprisingly heavy, similar in shape to a sheet, with a space that fits snugly around your head. A rectangular net covers your eyes. Breathing can be an exercise in hyperventilation. When you walk, a fan of stiff pleats billows around you.
"Hood yourself and think about what the feeling is like," Rahmani said. "It is suffocating. When you exhale, the breath you put out, you breathe back in. You can't see anything clearly. You see everything through a net."
When the Taliban came to Kabul, the six women in Rahmani's house shared two burqas, taking turns going outside. When her family fled to Pakistan to escape the Taliban, Rahmani had to wear a burqa in the car. She recited verses of the Koran because she was so nauseated she thought she might die.
For her burqa shirt, Rahmani got rid of the head covering. She moved the rectangular net down, to a space just below the neckline. Rahmani crafted sleeves out of the billowy pleats of the burqa. Her creation looks like an elaborate peasant shirt that stretches almost to a woman's knees, with bell-bottomed sleeves. It looks good with jeans.
Rahmani sold her first shirt to the aunt of a friend, from Germany. She sold the second and third during a trip to Italy last year for Afghan women entrepreneurs. These burqa shirts pulled in about $60 each, a lot of money in Afghanistan, which inspired Rahmani to start her own clothing line, Sara Afghan.
She sells mostly to foreigners, because her prices are too high for Afghans. A burqa costs $12. A burqa shirt runs $35.
Rahmani even ships overseas--she recently had an order for 60 burqa shirts. She also sells mini-burqas, which she said foreigners buy to cover their wine bottles.
"She's very creative," said Mina Sherzoy, director of the USAID-supported entrepreneurship development program for Afghan women, which has 537 female members. "When I saw her work and talent, I said, `You can do this on your own.'"
Rahmani has since expanded her line, blending traditional Afghan clothing with Western styles. A green and purple robe, like the one President Hamid Karzai often wears, has been turned into a woman's suit, with a tailored jacket and a short skirt. A Pashtun blanket is now a hip, long jacket for women.
Business is still tough. Rahmani spends about $2,000 a month on salaries, rent and other expenses. She figures she has borrowed about $50,000 so far from her brother, who lives in America. Her shop is so out of the way, it's difficult to find--on the second floor of a building on a side street in Kabul.
But Rahmani likes to count her successes. She employs 11 people, one man and 10 women, who all are widows and orphans.
Jobs are scarce for women in Afghanistan. Fawzia Hashimi, who guesses she is 34 or 35, is one such widow, now able to feed her six children on her own.
"We are very proud of Sara," Hashimi said. "She's a champion for the country. She's a sister to us."
Yet blue burqas hang from hooks on the back of the door where the women work. A burqa is draped over a sewing machine.
These burqas are not destined to be shirts; they belong to the women who work here. Most women wear burqas only while out, taking them off inside homes or at work.
Hashimi and the others say they like the burqa. They wear them everywhere.
"This is our culture, so we are wearing it," Hashimi said. "But some people like it as a shirt."
Unsure of a better life, millions of Afghan refugees head back home
Rachel Morarjee June 20, 2005 Middle East Times
Pul-e-Charki, AFGHANISTAN -- After a quarter century in Pakistan, the prospects awaiting Mohammed Hussain in his home province of Baghlan in northern Afghanistan are pretty bleak. But he is returning anyway.
The 64-year-old head of a family of eight is one of 100 families from the Hari Pul refugee camp in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province who have packed their meager possessions onto brightly painted trucks and made the long trek back home.
"Life in Pakistan was getting difficult. The police would harass us and ask us for money. Jobs were hard to find. There is no water and no shelter in my home village, but it was the only option," Hussain says as he squats among veiled women and screaming children.
Hussain and his family are among the poorest people at the Pul-e-Charki encashment center on the outskirts of Kabul, where refugees returning home arrive to receive a small cash benefit from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
For decades Afghans have constituted the world's single largest refugee population. At the height of the country's 25 years of war 6 million people lived overseas and 2.1 million Afghans remained displaced in 2004.
Around 3.5 million refugees have returned back in the last three years - including more than 700,000 last year - from more than 70 countries across the globe, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Most of those were from neighboring Iran and Pakistan and the flood of humanity is set to continue, with Iran still hosting just over 1 million people, mostly Afghans, and Pakistan a further 961,000, also largely from Afghanistan.
The stream of refugees at the center mirrors the different fates of those who fled the Soviet invasion in 1979, the civil war that followed or the subsequent strictures of the hardline Islamic Taliban regime.
Similar fears unite them. Will they find a home? Will they find a job? How will they provide for their families?
Both in rural and urban areas there is a "lack of employment" as Afghanistan's war-torn economy struggles to its feet, Jacques Mouchet, country director of UNHCR sys.
"The problem of housing in urban areas is much more acute. There is a lack of infrastructure and social housing that refugees can live in," Mouchet says.
Before returning to her homeland, Hajira Abra Raqeeb, 40, spent eight years in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, where she cleaned houses and washed clothes for wealthy people and worked as a seamstress.
"I wonder what my destiny will be here? How I will feed my five children now that I am too sick to work?" she says, wiping tears from her eyes.
Raqeeb, who sports a nose ring, fled the Taliban after they beat her for trying to work as a cleaner, despite the fact that she was the family's only breadwinner because her husband was paralyzed.
The next family in the queue to claim their benefits reflects another side to the influx of returnees.
The women wear neatly pressed clothes, their manicured hands dripping with gold jewelery, but after eight years in Moscow they, too, are unsure about what the future holds.
"We've got no house to come back to but we hope we'll be able to find teaching jobs again," says 52-year-old Hamida Mohammed Din, who has returned with her sister Freshta and her 17-year-old daughter Miriam to join their brother, a former army officer who has been offered a job at the Afghan ministry of defense.
Miriam, who wears tight jeans and a long denim top and has a silver-studded handbag slung over her shoulder, has never worn a veil before.
"It's difficult for girls here but it's only the first few days, so who knows if it will be tougher or not. I'll miss the social life in Moscow," she says.
Some people are optimistic about the future. Mohammed Amin, 43, worked for the Red Cross in Peshawar, Pakistan, where he has lived for over 20 years before coming to work for another charity in Afghanistan.
"I was waiting for an improvement before I returned. Now we have a democratically elected government and we have peace and things are better than they have been for years, so we came back," he says standing in amid his 10-person family, the female members of which wear burkahs.
For others there was little choice as governments in Iran and Pakistan continue to turn a blind-eye to the harassment of refugees and close the camps where they have been living.
Pakistan has ordered the closure by the end of June of all camps in the restive tribal regions of South and North Waziristan, where the military has battled militants linked to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The UN refugee agency said that 85 percent of the 38,000 Afghans in the camps had agreed to return to Afghanistan voluntarily, while the rest would be relocated to other camps.
Zakirullah, who worked as a laborer in Pakistan capital Islamabad, says that extortion and harassment from Pakistani police had been so intolerable that there was no choice but to head back to northern Afghanistan.
"I don't have land or a house but if we don't go back and rebuild our community then no one else will," he says.
"You have to begin to build the future."
Five killed by flash floods in southeastern Afghanistan
KHOST, Afghanistan, June 30 (AFP) - Severe flooding caused by torrential rains in southeastern Afghanistan left five people dead and washed away scores of homes, officials said Thursday.
"The bodies of four men and a woman were found in Ismail Khail district," Mohammed Zaman, deputy police chief of Khost province, told AFP, adding that only one had been identified.
"Thirty-six people were caught in a little island in the middle of a river and had to spend the night there. They were rescued Thursday morning," he added.
Khost authorities said the floods claimed lives and caused damage because many trees on nearby mountains had been chopped down for fire wood.
In mid-June flash floods and storms left 48 dead as they swept 12 provinces in northeastern, northern and eastern Afghanistan.
Afghanistan this year suffered its worst winter for a decade after seven years of drought and has little infrastructure to cope with flood waters resulting from storms and melting snow.
At least 580 people died from disease, avalanches and road accidents during the winter months this year in remote parts of the country.
Karzai opens military compound in Gardez
By Ilyas Wahdat
GARDEZ, June 29 (Pajhwok Afghan News): President Hamid Karzai inaugurated a military compound costing $70 millions in the southeastern city of Gardez, capital of the Paktia province.
The huge compound for the Army Corps No 203 is spread over a 1.5 kilometer area can house as many as 4,500 soldiers. The president assured armed forces of all possible facilities, hoping they would measure up to the security challenge.
Corps Commander Rahmatullah Raufi told Pajhwok Afghan News the project was financed with part of $250 million assistance pledged by the US for the provision of facilities to Afghan army around.
Tribal elders and governors of Khost, Paktia and Paktika also met with President Karzai and briefed him on the situation prevailing in their provinces.
Paktia Governor Hakim Taniwal informed this news agency that Karzai himself paid a visit to the newly-built army headquarters and joined soldiers for lunch.
UN finishes disarmament in Afghanistan
BEIJING, June 30 -- The disarmament phase of the UN demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of former fighters program or DDR program will be completed Thursday in Afghanistan.
Japan's ambassador to Afghanistan Norihiro Okuda says the program has had success, but he said many challenges remain.
"DDR has been a great achievement, but we knew that DDR alone will not be able to solve all the problems that this country has about those illegal weapons."
Since 2003, more than 60-thousand soldiers have handed in their arms in the country.
Afghanistan's government recently launched a new campaign aimed at ridding the country of illegally-held weapons left over from a quarter century of war.
The program, which will run for up to three years, aims to disarm up to 18-hundred groups, such as criminal gangs and private militias.
New Ghazni governor takes charge of office
By Sher Ahmad Haider
GHAZNI CITY, June 29 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Ghazni's new Governor Haji Sher Alam Ibrahimi formally took charge of his office on Tuesday.
Appointed as governor of the province under a presidential decree a week earlier, Ibrahimi was introduced to provincial bigwigs at a ceremony here by Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali.
Speaking on the occasion, Jalali praised the new governor's role in improving law and order in the central capital, where he headed a military corps. He said Sher Alam had worked in close coordination with police to ensure peace and security in Kabul.
Addressing the participants of the ceremony, the governor pledged he would pay special attention to ongoing reconstruction efforts and promotion of literacy in the southern province.
Ghazni's former governor Asadullah Khalid, deputy of the Information, Culture and Tourism Ministry and scores of government officials were present on the occasion.
A resident of the Paghman district, Haji Sher Alam Ibrahimi was a military commander of Abdur Rab Rasool Sayyaf's Ittehad-i-Islami during the jihad era. He also served as commander of the central military corps during Hamid Karzai's interim presidency.
Earlier, the interior minister laid the foundation stone of a university and Ghulam Jilani Jalali Cultural Society in the province.
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