Note: Also published at the "Opinion Journal" and Chrenkoff. Big thanks to James Taranto and Joe Katzman for their continuing support for spreading the good news, and to everyone else for their assistance with links and publicity for the project.
On Saturday, 9 October, for the fifth time in my life I went into a polling station and cast a vote in Australian federal election. The same day, but several hours later and on the other side of the globe, millions of people were exercising their democratic right to vote for the first time in their lives.
In my earliest political memory my father and I are hunching over a radio set, listening with the sound turned down to Radio Free Europe and the news of armed resistance against the Soviet invaders springing up around Afghanistan. The year is 1979, I am 7 years old, and this is the first time I'm hearing about the mysterious and romantic mudjahedin and their struggle against the Red Army - the topic not surprisingly absent from Poland's communist media. Over the next few years we would continue to follow the events in Afghanistan with somewhat mixed feelings; the unspoken support and sympathy for the brave Afghans fighting against communist occupation, but at the same time sadness for the fate of the Red Army troops, most of them unwilling conscripts forced to fight somebody else's war in a faraway country. There but for the grace of God goes I, thought my friends' older brothers of the draft age.
Recalling this story as I came out of my Australian polling station made me realize that for most of my life, and certainly all the time I have been conscious of world events, Afghanistan has been what many would colloquially - and unkindly - call a basketcase; a harsh and impoverished land, forever doomed to be riven by war and suffocate under foreign or domestic oppression.
Yet finally, after a quarter of a century, Afghanistan is getting better. Peter Bergin, a veteran journalist and certainly not a George Bush cheerleader writes:
"Based on what Americans have been seeing in the news media about Afghanistan lately, there may not be many who believed President George W. Bush... when he told the United Nations that the 'Afghan people are on the path to democracy and freedom.' But then again, not many Americans know what Afghanistan was like before the American-led invasion."
Bergin recently visited the country after a few years' absence. His surprised verdict: "What we are seeing in Afghanistan is far from perfect, but it's better than so-so."
For Afghanistan, "better than so-so" is better than I can recall it ever being in my lifetime. That it's "better than so-so" only three years after the end of the dismal Taliban rule is a reason enough to celebrate. Here are some causes for optimism about the country's future.
- For once, over the last few weeks it was hard to avoid the coverage of Afghanistan. The presidential election had enough of the novelty value - for the Afghans as well as for the international media - to keep the story in high rotation through several news cycles. And to their credit, despite grumbling about precarious security situation across the country and procedural problems with the poll, most media observers agreed that the very fact the election was taking place was a good news in itself. Perhaps after the 2000 saga of hanging chads it was too much to expect that the Afghan election would be perfect. As the "Straits Times" wrote: "It's not who wins that's vital, but the fact that the country is holding its first ever direct election after decades of turmoil." Or as the United Arab Emirates' "Khaleej Times" put it: "People win the first round in Afghanistan."
- It fell to New Jersey's "Express Times" to put the event in perspective: "Despite some technical glitches, Afghanistan's first democratic election in the country's 5,000-year history went off peacefully." This report from Reports painted the typical picture of the election day:
"Opposition claims of electoral fraud failed to dim international enthusiasm for Afghanistan's historic presidential elections yesterday, with world leaders welcoming the largely peaceful poll and massive voter turnout.
"Local and international election monitors dismissed opposition calls for a new poll after it was found that the ink used to stain voters' fingers to ensure they cast only one ballot was easily washed off... [T]he Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said demands for new polls were 'unjustified'. The Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan said a 'fairly democratic environment has generally been observed in the overall majority of the polling centres'."The FFEF also noted that the threats of violence by remnants of the Taliban regime largely did not eventuate. The only incident of note occurred when a convoy carrying ballot papers was attacked in Uruzgan province and three policemen were killed. 'Security on the whole has been much better than pessimists had expected,' the FFEF said. That led some observers to suggest the terrorist-harbouring Taliban, ousted by a US-led invasion in late 2001, was a spent force."
- As another report noted: "After months of what proved to be empty threats, military commanders and ordinary Afghans said yesterday the vote was a serious setback for the holdouts of the hardline Islamic regime that was driven from power by U.S. bombs almost three years ago for harbouring Osama bin Laden. 'Yesterday was a big defeat for the Taliban and a huge defeat for al-Qaida,' said Lt.-Gen. David Barno, the top American commander in Afghanistan. 'It shows that the political process is overwhelming any influence they may have.'
"Voters also said the Taliban had been exposed as weak. Bismillah Jan, a driver for an aid group in this southern city, where the Taliban began, said his fear of attacks Saturday quickly disappeared when he saw the heavy security on the way to the polling station where the atmosphere 'was like a festival.' 'This government has the support of the world and the help of God,' said the 20-year-old, who recently returned home after a spell as a refugee in Pakistan. 'The Taliban are weak and they are fading day by day'."
- The turn-out has been described as "massive" by the UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva. Fittingly, "[a] 19-year-old Afghan woman, living as a refugee in neighboring Pakistan, was the first citizen to vote in her home country's landmark presidential election."
- Not surprisingly, the election evoked powerful emotions among the Afghan people:
" 'Finally the day has arrived. I am so happy, it's like a dream. I feel that we are finally human,' said Zahooba, a toothless old woman of 65 who walked half an hour on shaky legs to the polling station to cast her vote for President Hamid Karzai... Rahgul, a 45-year-old matriarch came with 11 women from her family to cast her vote for Hamid Karzai. 'Our father said we should come early and vote. We are so happy. I can't believe today is the election,' she said adding that the men in her family were also voting for Karzai. She was not worried about attacks or explosions. 'The Taliban warned us but we are not scared. We are Afghans,' she added... "[V]oters were overwhelmingly enthusiastic, calling polling day the happiest day of their lives and saying that they hoped it would usher in big changes. 'Today we can vote. We change the future of our country and our lives. After decades of war I know that now things will change,' said 25-year-old Abdul Haq."
- Women were among the most enthusiastic voters:
"In the courtyard of the Haino School for Girls close to Kandahar's main mosque, scores of women lined up Saturday morning, chatting excitedly and pressing around the doors of the small classrooms used as makeshift polling booths...
"After squinting at the pictures on the long green ballot - most of the women were illiterate - almost all chose Karzai, a fellow Pashtun. An ethnic Hazara challenger appeared to be running a distant second. None was considering the lone female candidate from distant Kabul..."At a polling station in Kabul, Gul Sum, a 60-year-old ethnic Hazara housewife wearing a black veil, showed off a thumb stained with the ink from special pens shipped in from India... Sum said the vote would help glue the country back together after more than two decades of violence and poisonous ethnic division. She prayed that militants would not make good on their threat to attack the process. 'In the line waiting with me, there were women from all the different groups: Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara,' Sum said. 'For the first time, women are having a say in the future of Afghanistan. We are fed up with war'."
- On the other side of the world, the Afghan-American residents of "Little Kabul" in Fremont, California, were also happy about the election in their home country, as this photo shows.
- In the end, the day's importance was best summed up by Jeff Raleigh at the US embassy in Kabul who told me:
"Three years and two days ago, American troops came to Afghanistan to free a people who had been subjugated by a cruel and vicious oppressor. Today, I witnessed what their sacrifices and efforts, and those of other coalition troops, the international community and my colleagues at the US Embassy had helped to win.
"I visited three polling places in Kabul today and saw Afghan men and women lining up to exercise, for the first time in this nation's tortured history, the freedom to select their leader.
"I watched as men and women, who been warned by the violent remnants of a defeated oppressor that exercising their freedom to vote would result in death, defiantly come to polling places to cast their votes.
"I saw women, who had been not allowed out of their own homes under the old regime, walk freely into the voting booths and cast their ballot for their choice for President.I saw today what freedom looks like."
- Getting to that point and making the October 9 possible was, of course, a story in itself. Organizing the election presented a monumental logistical challenge in this rugged and impoverished country:
"Along roads and rivers and even across mountain peaks, heavily-laden donkeys joined the procession of jeeps and trucks, motorcycles and boats that carried all the equipment necessary for the October 9 election to voting centres across the country.
"It took a massive logistical effort to supply all of the nation's 4,800 polling stations. The deliveries included 30,000 ballot boxes and polling kits and the indelible ink to be use to mark voters' fingers to prevent fraud. The operation has cost 120 million US dollars, excluding registration."William Hogan, chief of logistics for the Joint Election Management Body, JEMB, said that planning for the elections started in April, 'A huge amount of equipment was moved in a very short period of time.' Voting equipment was delivered to eight major regional centres across the country. More than 2,000 trucks, four Mi8 helicopters, 135 donkeys, and even boats in Bamyan and Jalalabad carried the election material."
- Just as important as striving to overcome logistical challenges was the less tangible effort to affect old attitudes and ways of thinking - to install some local democratic software, so to speak, on the electoral hardware provided by the Afghan authorities and the Coalition. The role of women was one of the changing facets of Afghan society, evident not just in the queues of Afghan women lining up to vote, but also in the presence of Afghanistan's first female candidate:
"Dr Massaouda Jalal is not a winner yet, but she has won at least something just by contesting the presidential elections in Afghanistan as the only woman candidate. Dr Jalal, 41, just about qualified to contest past the minimum age of 40. This makes her also a younger candidate than the 13 males in the contest, including President Hamid Karzai."
- Said Dr Jalal about her candidacy: "A lot of women are clearly very happy that I am contesting... In meetings, and on local radio and in the newspapers many are raising their voices to support me... Women do not support the Taliban. Democrats, technocrats, the youth do not support the Taliban. But I have lived through those bad days. After the international community came in I decided to put myself forward even though I have never been a part of any political organisation. If anybody at all, I represent civil society."
- Dr Jalal did not win the election, but she took one of many first steps on behalf of all Afghan women on their road to full political participation. And while she provided the example, countless others ensured that women were given all the opportunity to vote. In Kandahar, for example, teams of female election educators worked very hard, despite threats and dangers, to make sure that women in that southern Afghan city were not intimidated away from the polls. " 'We have great concerns about our security,' says one woman. 'We have small children, we are scared for them.' 'We are happy with Karzai. Since he came to power women can work, go to school, but we are concerned about security and suicide attacks,' explains another. 'If you are scared about security, we have security. It is just propaganda. Don't be afraid. Please, for God's sake, this is a golden chance. It is not a Taliban government where you could not go out even if you were sick,' [one of electoral workers] Shukria says." Read the whole story and see also this photo of staff of the International Organization for Migration showing a poster about reconstruction of Afghanistan as part of campaign to motivate women refugees to take part in the election. And this photo of "[a]n Afghan girl dressed in a burqa [who] smiles after attending a class where she learned to help run polling stations at the women's association in President Hamid Karzai's home town of Kandahar." Kandahar, of course, used to be the stronghold of the Taliban.
- The women's role did not just finish with casting the ballot: "Until three years ago Afghan women could not work, study or step outside without being shrouded in a burqa. Now they are part of the wheels of democracy, collecting ballots and preparing to count them. At a counting center on an Afghan Army base on the outskirts of Kabul Wednesday, scores of women worked at checking, consolidating and sorting ballots before the counting begins.
" 'There are heaps of women working here,' said David Avery, chief of logistics for the Election Commission, which is jointly staffed by US and Afghan officials. 'We also had very large numbers of women working as civic educators and trainers on the election'."
- Despite concerns about holding elections in an uncertain security climate among people with no previous experience of democracy, the election was a success because ultimately the people of Afghanistan wanted it to be a success:
"Afghans display an infectious enthusiasm about the poll... The burly nomad with a henna beard and a fierce scowl grips the pen between his thick fingers. Turgul cannot read the election material around him, but is determined to practice the first vote of his life. The turbaned tribesman drags the pen across a scrap of paper. 'Just like that,' he says uncertainly, holding aloft the squiggle that will mark his choice... Yesterday Kuchi nomads gathered outside their tents on a hillside near Kabul for a lesson in voting. Shah Faqir, a one-eyed sheep farmer, was unable to read but could point to the photograph of his chosen candidate, Hamid Karzai, the country's interim leader. 'He stopped the fighting and brought stability to this country,' he said. 'The others are bad guys. If they win, the gunmen will return and the country will be destroyed'."
- Electioneering brought Afghanistan into first direct contact not just with the mechanics of the ballot paper and the ballot box, but also political marketing:
" 'If you are showing the new Afghanistan, you cannot do it with a photo of a cemetery!' explains an exasperated worker with the media production house guiding Afghan presidential candidates into the murky world of political marketing. On this occasion it is the aides of warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostam who are getting a lesson in the harsh realities of the medium is the message.
"Dostam, a powerful former communist warlord who controls much of northern Afghanistan, has an image problem in Afghanistan where he is known for his role in the civil war of the 1990s in which tens of thousands of people died and which paved the way for the fundamentalist Taliban militia to take power.
"His team hadn't taken this into account and 'wanted to show Dostam in front of a cemetery for "martyrs" in the war against the Taliban,' says Christian Marie who works as an advisor at the Kabul production house Awaz.
"Awaz has received United Nations subsidies to create radio and video clips for the 18 candidates contesting the October 9 polls. It also provides posters and advice on political marketing to the presidential hopefuls."In Dostam's case, his representatives were finally persuaded to choose other photos -- one of the general in front of a building site and one in which he is wearing traditional Afghan costume. Only the slogan has been retained: 'Dostam, for a new Afghanistan'."
- Electioneering also moved onto the streets: "If the frantic efforts of the men sticking posters up all over Kabul are anything to go by, Saturday's historic presidential elections should be closely fought. From street corners and shop windows and the walls of bombed-out buildings, candidates' faces stare imploringly everywhere, some several layers deep where rival campaigners have plastered over each other's work." Regardless of any practical shortfallings in the conduct of the election, Grant Kippen, electoral adviser attached to the Washington-based NGO National Democratic Institute, was optimistic:
"[E]xpecting overnight Western-style democracy where none has existed for two centuries is, he says, unrealistic. 'Community leaders and elders in such places may have behind-the-scenes talks with campaigners, asking them what they will promise, and may then advise people to vote accordingly. But that is the way things have traditionally been done here -- it is just a bit different from election campaigns in the West.' "The important thing, he insists, is not to get it perfect first time but to at least make a start. 'At least, this is a relatively straightforward vote, which everyone can easily understand, whereas the parliamentary elections are bit more complex,' he said. 'It will be an important first run for future occasions'."
- In other words, Rome wasn't built in a day. You can read more about the use of posters and visuals to campaign in a country with high illiteracy rates. There was also a more high-tech electioneering taking place, with Afghan cell phone users receiving a campaign text message from Hamid Karzai.
- Not just the Afghans at home, but also Afghan refugees in neighboring countries were keen to exercise their new-found democratic right:
"Abdul Wahid's desire to vote in next month's Afghan presidential election is driven by a simple logic. 'I will vote because I have become sick of war,' said the unemployed teacher from the northern province of Faryab, who has been living as a refugee in Pakistan for the past three years. 'When I was born, there was fighting in Afghanistan. Now I am 22 years old and am a father of a son, but the fighting is still going on.' "Wahid said he did not want his children to live with the violence, as a dozen other jobless refugees, some with long flowing beards and turbans, looked on. Wahid was hopeful that the presidential election Oct. 9 would help end the violence in Afghanistan, ravaged by more than two decades of war and factional fighting that forced millions to take refuge in neighboring countries, including Pakistan."
- An intensive effort went into making it possible to those still in neighboring countries to vote:
"An intensive training programme is under way to train over 1,000 election staff recruited to administer the out of country 9 October Afghan presidential poll in Pakistan, according to an official of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). 'We've completed step one - and almost step two as well - of our (IOM) training programme. In the first phase, seven international staff members of IOM were trained along with 15 Afghan nationals,' Darren Boisvert, Public Media Officer for IOM's Afghanistan Out of Country Registration and Voting (OCRV) programme told IRIN from the northern Pakistani city of Peshawar on Monday.
" 'This group of senior international staff and Afghans will then train another 64 people who will be responsible for training the over 10,000 election workers needed to register voters and supervise polling on 9 October,' Boisvert said, adding, 'At present, the IOM is conducting the training sessions in four main centres of Quetta, Peshawar, Islamabad and Abbotabad.'"More than a million Afghans living in Pakistan and Iran are expected to vote on 9 October, after three days of registration starting from 1 October."
- In fact, there was so much interest in voter registration among the Afghan refugees, that the operation had to be extended in Pakistan to accommodate the numbers. In the end, large numbers of refugees took up the opportunity to vote: "Some 850,000 Afghan refugees voted in their country's first direct presidential election with a turnout of 80 percent of those registered in Pakistan, the head of the electoral operation said on Sunday. Around 590,000 Afghans voted in Pakistan out of the 738,000 who registered, said Peter Erben, head of the International Organisation for Migration's (IOM) refugee voting operation in Pakistan and Iran."
- In a great gift for Asia's newest democracy, "[t]he government of India as part of its contribution in rebuilding post-war Afghanistan has decided to help build a parliament house for the post-Taliban central Asian state, Afghan presidential spokesman said Wednesday. 'This building with an estimation of 20 million US dollars will be built near the Darul Aman Palace in southwest Kabul,' Jawed Ludin told reporters here at a news briefing."
- The election also provided the opportunity to give children their first lesson in democracy:
"Sonam Hashemi was considered something of a rank outsider when she started campaigning to be elected president in Afghanistan. The only female candidate in a male dominated society, her campaign speeches of sexual equality and other lofty goals had not been a great success.
"So no one was more surprised than Sonam when the votes were tallied and she discovered she had been elected president. Her supporters cheered wildly. Her two male vice-presidents threw their arms in the air in triumph.
"And then the bell rang for the end of school."Sonam was a participant in a day long 'lessons in democracy' course organised by a Danish-Afghan non-governmental organisation called the Mobile Mini Circus for Children (http://www.afghanmmcc.org/). The group scouts for talented children among the legions of underprivileged youngsters in the country and trains them as a troupe to entertain and educate other Afghan children."
- Read also this story about the important educational role of the Afghan media: "Radio Karabagh may be a microscopic study in how to build a wide, proprietary interest in one of the essential pillars of democracy, a vigorous media and a free press... [S]mall stations such as Radio Karabagh have borne much of the burden of educating the populace about the candidates, the process and importance of voting...
"Founded in February with help from Internews, an international nonprofit group, Radio Karabagh is a primary source of information in an area of the country where illiteracy averages, by one local estimate, about 70 percent. According to Abdul Hamid Mobarez, the dapper, French-speaking deputy minister of information and culture, stations such as Radio Karabagh are signs of a media boom in Afghanistan. In Kabul, he says, at least five daily newspapers are published, 70 private publishing houses have opened and several radio stations, including one for women, vie for attention. But Kabul is not Afghanistan, and even in Karabagh, little more than an hour's drive away, media of any sort are a rarity."
- Yet they are slowly springing up around the country, providing invaluable service to the people. Not all radio programming is as civically important, but it is still breaking new ground in this deeply conservative country:
"A dozen men sat near a fruit stand, straining to hear the tinny radio play yet another Afghan love story, of a girl who fell hard for a boy.
"Over the hum of a nearby generator, the men listened to the radio announcer read the girl's 16-page love letter. Then the inevitable heartbreak came: The boy's parents forced him to marry someone else...
"This radio show, with the uncatchy name 'Young People and Their Problems,' has become one of the most popular programs on the most popular radio station in Kabul, Radio Arman. The show's host reads letters from young people, mostly tragic love stories of girls who loved boys who were married, of boys being forced to marry their cousins, of the cruelty of fickle hearts."But the letters also speak of social problems in Afghanistan: the ravages of opium, the oppression of women and the fears of becoming a man's second wife. Letter writers, basically anonymous, tell stories of infidelity, rape and depression."
- Meanwhile, more is being done to educate the next generation of Afghan journalists (link in PDF): "USAID grantee Sayara launched its Novice Journalism Training Program at Balkh University in Mazar-i-Sharif, which was modeled after the very successful program in Herat. The program will train print and radio journalism students to produce radio programming. As part of an intensive summer-school curriculum, the students produced the program Saday-e Jawan (Voice of Youth) focusing on issues of concern to young people in Mazar-e Sharif."
- Education should be an eye-opening experience; it certainly was for these three Afghan youngsters:
"They thought they knew about America. In the United States there are no Muslims, they were taught. America's goal is to destroy Islam, to kill Muslims.
"Khushal Rasoli, Abdulahad Barak and Abdulahad Fasil, teenagers in Afghanistan, cowered in fear when they learned that the war between the United States and the Taliban was over, and the nation they feared was now in charge of their homeland.
"Their fear lasted about a week. After it was clear that American soldiers were not indiscriminately killing the faithful, and that Muslims - Afghan Muslims - would be in charge of the new government, the America the three young men thought they knew became the America they wanted to know firsthand."Today, Barak, Fasil and Rasoli are attending South Florida high schools, discovering an America that both confirms and defies the propaganda they were taught in the boys-only schools of Kabul and Kandahar."
- The three boys, who together with almost 60 other Afghan kids are the beneficiaries of a State Department program, now have the opportunity to catch up on their education and learn more about the world: "Before, we could not study the modern subjects... Physics, chemistry, biology, computers, English - these were things we were never taught," says Barak. "I have never studied in a coed school," adds Rasoli.
- In other good news for Afghan education (link in PDF), "[i]n 2004, USAID has printed 15,084,060 textbooks and distributed 10,046,202 for use in its accelerated learning activities and other Ministry of Education (MoE) classes. The program also trains teachers, implements accelerated learning programs and provides advisers to the Ministry of Education. Primary education programs are underway in Nangarhar, Faryab, Baghlan and Kunduz provinces. Since 2002, USAID has published and distributed over 40 million textbooks."
- In health news, 40,000 workers will travel on foot, on horseback, and on motorcycles to even the remotest parts of the country to vaccinate more than six million Afghan children under the age of five against the life-threatening polio virus. "Every province in Afghanistan will be covered, in a joint initiative between the Afghan Ministry of Health, UNICEF and the World Health Organization.
"Afghanistan remains one of just six countries in the world where polio is still endemic, although health experts believe that the National Immunization Days, led by the Government and its partners, have played a crucial role in reducing the number of new cases from 27 in 2000 to just three so far in 2004. The last reported case occurred in May 2004, making the past five months the longest 'polio free' period in recent Afghan history."
- And to combat infant mortality, which continues to be a big health problem in Afghanistan, USAID has funded and launched in September a nation-wide Midwife Education Programs(link in PDF).
- Meanwhile, the US troops are testing an ingenuous high-tech way to ensure that proper medical care continues even after they're gone: "U.S. Army physicians in Afghanistan will test 'talking' prescription bottles to ensure children receive their proper medications after physicians and other humanitarian workers leave a village. The workers typically leave behind a supply of medications with a village elder, who may forget instructions given for specific medicines. The prescription bottles, from Rochester, N.Y.-based MedivoxRx Technologies, are designed for use by blind or illiterate patients. At the press of a button, an embedded computer chip programmed in the local language describes the name, dosage, frequency, warnings and refill instructions for the medication."
- More refugees continue to return to Afghanistan. 30 thousand have made the trip back home from the Iranian city of Isfahan alone since March this year.
- Women also continue their quest for rights and equality: " 'There is more space opening up within governance for women to be involved and there is a lot of advocacy for women's rights,' [says] Chandni Joshi, regional director for South Asia at the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)... The women are participating in trade fairs, even in India, to confirm their passion to be entrepreneurs, she added. 'There is a sense of relief among women that they are heading somewhere.' Yet Joshi cautions against a dramatic sea change overnight in South Asia, including Afghanistan, since 'the women have been hit so hard; we have to give them more time to change'."
- In cultural news, "President Hamid Karzai inaugurated Afghanistan's rebuilt national museum... Karzai cut a pink ribbon to mark the completion of the refit of the two-story museum, whose building was destroyed in civil war and whose collection was further decimated by the Taliban... Some $350,000 has been spent since 2003 to fix the building, which lies in the shadow of a gutted former royal palace in the war-ravaged west of the capital. Culture Minister Makhdom Raheen said 2,500 artifacts had been recovered from the collection, which was once one of the finest in Central Asia with 100,000 items dated back several millennia."
- And finally in sports news, more stories of spirit and determination: "Devastated by warfare and abject poverty, Afghanistan wants to show the world its spirit thrives. Leading the way is Mareena Karim, who along with Sharifa Amahdi will be the first Afghani female to ever compete in the Paralympic Games. The shy 14-year-old flew into Athens as the youngest member of a nine-person delegation, which includes three more athletes. On 21 September she will compete in the 100m in the T42 classification." Karim, who lost both her feet in a childhood accident, was encouraged to participate by Dr. Abdul Baseer, the Secretary-General of the seven-month-old Afghanistan Paralympic Committee, "after she entered a school literacy program he was promoting. She also enrolled in public school for the first time last term after girls were finally admitted to the institutions following years of discrimination by the former Taliban government."
- USAID, which since the fall of the Taliban has been a significant contributor to rebuilding of Afghanistan, lists the following brief but useful summary of the milestones on the road to a better future:
"10 million Afghans registered to vote Five million children vaccinated
School enrollment explodes
3.7 million refugees return
Private construction booming
New Afghan currency introduced
Agriculture output nearly doubled
Afghan National Army and National Police created
Regional militias disarming"
- You can obtain more details on each of these points by following the links on the USAID website.
- After decades of stagnation, Afghan economy continues the difficult task of catching up to the rest of the world:
"Afghanistan took its first steps towards a capital market with an auction... of capital notes which will allow the country's banks to determine a market-driven interest rate. 'This is an important step for us. It is the beginning of a capital market for us,' Central Bank governor Anwar Ul-Haq Ahady told reporters. "The overnight rate of the Da Afghanistan Bank Capital notes was set at 3.5% and the one-month lending rate at 3.6%. The two winning banks were the local Millie Bank and Pashtany Bank. Previously the country's interest rates were set by bureaucratic and political decisions rather than market forces, Ahady said. The notes are the first short-term capital instrument in the embryonic banking system and will sharply increase liquidity."
- Despite security and infrastructure challenges, Afghanistan's private sector is slowly reviving from the bottom up: "When the Taliban regime collapsed in November 2001, Habib Gulzar quickly returned to Afghanistan to revive the trading empire built by his father and grandfather and crippled by two decades of war. Commuting from Dubai, where he had settled in 1991 and set up Gulzar International, an import-export company, he opened nine trading offices around the country and invested $5m in a series of Toyota service shops. In September, Mr Gulzar began construction of a $25m Coca-Cola bottling plant, marking the biggest investment to date by a member of Afghanistan's diaspora - a population that Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan's finance minister, sees as key to reviving the collapsed manufacturing and commercial sectors.
- There's a lot more of interest in this report, so read on.
- As the Afghan economy expands, there is always more scope for foreign help. The Asian Development Bank, for example, has recently promised some valuable assistance: "The Asian Development Bank... said that it would help Afghanistan to stimulate private sector activity and attract foreign direct investment by co-financing an investment guarantee facility. The ADB said in a statement that it had approved a loan of 5 million US dollars and a guarantee of 10 million dollars to provide political risk guarantees to eligible investors and financiers... Citing an analysis by the World Bank, the ADB said that there is an encouraging potential level of foreign direct investment in Afghanistan, with demand coming from sectors such as energy, telecommunications, Internet services, banking, hotels, housing, food and agribusiness, textile, steel, oil and gas, and mining."
- The European Commission, meanwhile, has adopted the proposal for the Sixth Reconstruction Programme, valued at 34 million euro [$42 million], as part of its 400 million euro [$494 million] package to Afghanistan for 2003-04. The main elements of the program are:
"7 million euro [$8.6 million] will be used to fund a consolidation phase of an ongoing rural recovery programme ensuring that achievements are sustained and investment losses avoided. 9.4 million euro [$11.6 million] will help to re-establish a functioning public animal health system to ensure healthier and more productive livestock. 10 million euro [$12.3 million] will further support the reform process in public administration in particular, extending reforms to the provinces. 6 million euro [$7.4 million] will go to support human rights and civil society, in particular to support the emergence of a professional journalistic community and to address the problem of domestic violence. 1.6 million euro [$2 million] will be used for audits, evaluation and information purposes."
- Germany, too, is providing valuable training assistance to get the Afghan economy going. Sandra Holzherr tells me about her involvement:
"Since August 2002 I am coordinating several qualification programs in Afghanistan which ILTIS GmbH is carrying out by order of the German Foreign Office. And everytime I travel there I see progress and still an unbelievable motivation of the people to change everything to the better. Since 2002 we have trained 16 multipliers in the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and founded together with them the Afghan Management Training Center. In the meantime those trainers have already multiplied their newly gained knowledge ín modern public administration in more than 25 own seminars. In the Ministry of Finance we have implemented a document management system and reorganized the central archive. "And in the Ministry of Commerce 25 leader from state-owned companies have been trained in business administration. Ready now, to take over the business and start producing. Everywhere we find such an immense willingness to learn and strong efforts to make the necessary changes. Of course, my experience is limited to Kabul, but it is there where the seed of change must grow first."
- You can visit this website to find out about all the initiatives in more detail.
- China, too, is continuing with her assistance to Afghan authorities: "The Chinese government donated a large number of office equipment and recreation materials to the Afghan transitional government... in a fresh bid to further promote the traditional friendly ties between the two countries... The new shipment includes 400 desktop computers, 300 printers, a number of TV sets, digital cameras, as well as footballs, volleyballs and athletic garments with a combined worth of 1 million US dollars." Previously, China donated 20,000 pairs of police uniforms and boots as well as 8,000 police overcoats and communications equipment and vehicles worth $1.4 million. And Pakistan has handed over to Afghanistan the last 30 of 200 trucks in the last installment of a $100 million reconstruction package.
- In transport infrastructure news, "[t]he [Indian] Border Road Organisation would soon start work on a 'rare project' connecting Afghanistan with Iran which will make most South Asian Republics directly accessible through India by road. Talking to reporters after inaugurating a steel truss bridge over Tumin Khola river along the Singtam-Dikchu road today Director General of BRO, Lt.Gen. R Singh said the Rs 400-crore road project was gifted by the government of India to Afghanistan last year after the fall of the Taliban regime in that country. 'The 220-km road will connect Zaranj in Afghanistan with Iran and once it is completed Indians won't have to travel to South Asian republics via Pakistan as is the case at present,' he said."
"During the past three years, traders have poured into Afghanistan's busy bazaars. About a dozen banks have set up shop in Kabul during the past year and two wireless telecoms providers have invested more than $100m... The Afghan Investment Support Agency, a government organisation set up as a 'one-stop shop' for investors, has registered nearly $500m in new private-sector investment since November 2003. More than 99 per cent of the investments registered were less than $10m, and 85 per cent were less than $1m.
"Noorullah Delawari, head of AISA, ticks off a list of recently-registered projects that he says point to growing momentum in the private sector: a $40m cooking oil factory in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, an $8m sugar mill project, and a $15m tobacco processing plant.
"To smooth the way for investors, IASA has cut the wait for an investment licence from weeks or months to five to six days, says Mr Delawari. The agency arranges visas for foreign visitors and sorts out paperwork."Through its development arm, AID, the US government is helping build a series of industrial parks. Afghan officials broke ground in July at the Bagrami park, just outside Kabul, which will house Mr Gulzar's Coca-Cola plant."
- More aid comes in for Afghanistan's most vulnerable: "US Agency for International Development (USAID) awarded a $4.6 million grant to the NGO Consortium for the Psychosocial Care and Protection of Children, consisting of Christian Children's Fund (CCF), International Rescue Committee (IRC,) and Save the Children Federation (SC)... USAID’s Displaced Children and Orphans Fund has committed $4.6 million to assist particularly vulnerable Afghan children and youth including orphans, disabled children, working children, and former child soldiers."
- A team of Italian doctors has recently developed a new treatment for leishmaniasis, a skin disease contracted through insect bites. The new treatment considerably speeds up the recovery for this common complaint in Afghanistan. "The doctors of the Italian contingent have healed about 1200 people in 2 and a half years, according to the NGO 'Hope World Wide', which runs the clinic bearing the same name on the Jalalabad road, and Italian ISAF soldiers have saved about 8000 afghans from the disease's consequences."
- Humanitarian assistance and help for the people of Afghanistan also continues on grassroots level. Kindergarten teacher from Albany, Elsie De Laere, for example, has spent her summer holidays in Kabul teaching children at two local schools, one for street kids, the other for older girls. "The young children in the war-torn city loved to paint and were always ready to learn, she said. 'The street children would be on time (to class) despite ... having to work all morning or begging in the streets, they were there,' she said. Her friend held a training conference and 120 teachers attended, she said... She is looking for money or grants so she and her friend can return to Kabul in March or April."
- Two ex-servicemen are also helping: "Troy White of the Dale City Volunteer Fire Department and Ben Jost, Prince William Fire and Rescue, are stationed together in Afghanistan where they're helping to rebuild schools, said Sarah Graham-Miller, Dale City Volunteer Fire Department spokeswoman. They've seen 'a lot of children who have nothing,' Miller said.
"The two firefighters, members of the 129th Infantry Division of the Virginia National Guard, decided to 'reach out' and get their brethren back home to help out, Miller said. 'The most important things that they are looking for are children's coats, shoes and gloves and also paper and pens for the schools,' Miller said. "The Dale City Volunteer Fire Department, along with Prince William Fire and Rescue will collect the donations and figure out a way to send them to Afghanistan, Miller said. 'With a little luck we can have it there in time for an early Christmas for all these kids,' Miller said."
- Check out the story for details if you can help. And it's not just the adults who are trying to give a hand:
"He's only nine-years-old, but RJ McDowell is quite the organizer. A growing stack of school supplies collected by RJ and his classmates at Rice Creek Elementary proves it. They plan to ship them to the other side of the world in a few days to RJ's dad, National Guard Lt. Col. Ray McDowell, 'My father is in Afghanistan.'
"RJ and his friends might not know it, but they're part of a well-established international effort to aid students in the war-torn country. President Bush called on American kids to help their Afghan counterparts after the fall of the Taliban more than two-years-ago."US schools and the Red Cross have since sent money and thousands of boxes of school supplies and RJ says it's for good reason, 'Because the people in Afghanistan don't have that much school supplies over there'."
- Lastly, the little Afghan boy, Djamshid Popal, whom you might remember from the previous editions of this segment, has been discharged from the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children after undergoing a life-saving heart surgery.
- Twenty five years of constant conflict have made Afghanistan one of the most heavily armed societies in the world. Now, much needed disarmament continues to gather pace:
"[T]he United Nations Mission there (UNAMA)... announced that nearly half of all operable and reparable heavy weapons in the country have been turned in. So far, 1,916 heavy weapons have been cantoned in Jalalabad, Gardez, Kunduz, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kabul, Kandahar and Herat, while the process is scheduled to begin... in the Panjshir Valley, according to UNAMA spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva... "Meanwhile, the number of officers and soldiers who have started their return to civilian life 'is rapidly approaching the 17,000 mark,' the spokesman reported. Those men are beginning the process of reintegration into civil society. So far most have chosen to go into agriculture, while others are seeking training in areas like carpentry, tailoring and metal work. A small percentage has opted to join the national army and the national police."
- The former fighters are now employed to make the country safer from the scourge of landmines:
"Jamaladeem, the team leader of the EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) team of Handicap International Belgium, works his knife up through the rock-hard desert ground. The 43-year-old former mujahideen fighter uncovers eight 12.5mm cartridges, buried 15 years ago by surrendering Soviet troops. The fuses are still intact.
"Two bearded mujahideen warriors, armed to the teeth, stand alert, ready to defend the demolition team in case of a raid by scattered Taliban or bandits. In the background a colleague creeps past the open hatch of an old Russian T-52 tank. A warning cry sounds and Jamaladeem stops work immediately. Inside the vehicle lie 30 rocket-propelled grenades, each easily capable of blasting its way through the steel armor of a tank."Afghan's mountainous border with Iran is pocked with numerous caves and hideouts, making security a constant challenge. But work continues, with the retrieved ammunition stowed aboard a flat bed pickup. Another few square meters of Afghan soil cleared of danger: millions more lie in wait."
- The ex-mudjahedin are also dismantling more conventional weapons that litter the Afghan countryside:
"On a flinty hill overlooking Kabul, Ahmed Naseer leads a team of the mine-clearing charity Halo Trust, dismantling the wreckage of 78 huge Soviet anti-aircraft missiles that once formed Afghanistan's 99th Rocket Brigade.
"The rockets were probably already old when the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan in 1979, but nobody ever got around to dismantling them until U.S. B-52 jets blasted the hillside when coalition forces invaded in 2001."Today the missiles lie twisted in storage tubes next to the rusty shrapnel piles of their launching trucks. Many of them are loaded with toxic and explosive rocket fuel, and some are still armed with live warheads."
- Meanwhile, the new Afghan army is expanding to meet new challenges:
"On September 26, a new Afghan National Army unit, the Northern Eagle Army Corps or Corps 209, based in Mazar and comprised of 3,000 soldiers, was officially formed. This followed the formation last week of the Hero Army Corps in Kandahar, the Lightning Army Corps in Paktia and the Central Army Corps in Kabul. The Victory Army Corps was to be officially inaugurated in Herat on September 28.
"Defense Minister Marshal Fahim made the announcement at a ceremony in the presence of defense ministry officials and the heads of the Coalition and International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, troops. General Atta Mohammad, now governor of Balkh province, was also present."Fahim added that by next June there would be another army corps formed in Kunduz and one in Nangarhar province, bringing the total number of soldiers in the new Afghan National Army to 70,000. By then, it is anticipated that all militias in the country would have been disarmed and dissolved."
- The reach of the new Afghan army also keeps growing: "The Afghan National Army stood up its first regional command headquarters outside the Kabul area in Kandahar Sept. 19. Establishing regional commands of the Afghan National Army is a milestone step for the general security of Afghanistan and for the strengthening of the Afghan government, officials said. This regional command and the ones to be stood up in Gardez, Mazar-e Sharif and Herat mark the permanent Afghan National Army presence in the four regions of Afghanistan." Says the governor of the Kandahar province, Yousef Pashtoon: "Today is not an ordinary day. After 25 years of war, we have been able to set up our military units and corps to safeguard the identity of our nation and to defend our people." The second regional command headquarters has now opened at Gardez.
- The recruitment efforts also continue to expand: "Recruiting for the Afghan National Army extended to the country's northeastern province that touches China with the opening of the newest National Army Volunteer Center Sept. 7."
- In addition, the US authorities are also planning to build five new bases for the Afghan army at the cost of around $1 billion. The bases will be constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers at Kabul and four regional commands planned in Gardez, Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif.
- Among some of the recent successes of the Afghan and the Coalition security forces: killing of Maulvi Abdul Ghaffar, the Taliban commander of the Uruzgan province; the Afghan police seizing ton of explosives in Kabul; the arrest of 25 suspects linked with Taliban and al Qaeda, also in Kabul; killing in an air raid 25 suspected militants in the province of Uruzgan; and the seizure of a 40-feet oil tanker loaded with explosive materials in southern province of Kandahar.
- In a non-terrorism related success, "Afghan special police have seized 17 tons of drugs and 16 tons of chemicals in a series of raids in eastern Afghanistan. The British Foreign Office in London said in a press release that agents of the Afghan Special Narcotics Force also destroyed 47 opium presses."
In the late 1980s, my Polish compatriot, journalist and photoreporter Radek Sikorski had clandestinely traveled with mudjahedin through Afghanistan, the experiences he described in his book "The Dust of the Saints". Now working at the American Enterprise Institute, Sikorski recently had a chance to go back to Afghanistan:
"Nothing like hot dust in one's face and the roar of a low-flying helicopter gunship to make a man feel alive. The last time I heard that sound in Afghanistan was in 1987: A patrol of Soviet Mi-24s were spitting gunfire at the house in which I was hiding with a mujahedeen convoy, in a village near Kandahar. This time, though, the sound of gunships--these decorated with the American white star instead of a Soviet red on the side--did not make me duck. On the contrary: The sound of helicopters in Kabul is now hopeful evidence of the foreign presence giving Afghanistan its best chance in 25 years."
Much has changed in Kabul, Sikorski adds: "If you can call it progress, the BBC World Service is broadcast on local FM radio, there's a "John Kerry for President" cell in Kabul, and you can buy Fahrenheit 9/11 on DVD before its release in the U.S. (My copy cost $3 and promptly malfunctioned.)"
Well, no one said it would be perfect.
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