Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Iranian spring 

Revolutions do devour their children:
The pictures on the office wall were all of autumn landscapes, the dry leaves matched by the thin, reedy tones of the ageing former revolutionary behind the desk.

"I'm not in a position to advise the youth on reform," he said yesterday when asked what wisdom he had for Iran's young electorate before presidential elections next Friday. "They should go and find out for themselves."

Few would recognise Abbas Abdi, 49, as the leader of the students who stormed the American Embassy in Tehran in October 1979. High on the hope of a new Iran after the Shah's deposition, the students from the capital's Amir Kabir university caused an international crisis by holding US staff at the embassy hostage for 444 days.

But most revolutions destroy their own vanguard, and Iran's was little different. Mr Abdi was released from jail a month ago. It was his second term in the capital's Evin prison, where he served 2 1/2 years, much of it in solitary confinement.
As Karim Sadjadpour, representative for the International Crisis Group in Tehran, says of the regime: "Ideologically it is bankrupt. People don't believe the leadership and they don't feel they live in a country where there is a representative democracy... They have no allegiance with the revolution. The gulf will only increase with the coming years." Sentiments supported by the latest research, as reported by the essential Regime Change Iran blog:
A recent public opinion survey of Iranians, conducted by The Tarrance Group, surprisingly found that a vast majority (74%) of Iranians feel America's presence in the Middle East will increase the probability of democracy in their own country. The survey, which was the first of its kind, found, two-thirds of Iranians believe that regime change in Iraq has been a positive for both neighboring countries: with 66% believing that it served Iran's national interests, while 65% believed the Iraqi people will, in the long-run, be better off.

Commissioned by the Iran Institute for Democracy, the survey discovered that a solid majority (65%) of Iranian adults consider fundamental change in Iran's system of government, especially its Constitution, a must to bring freedom and more opportunities to their homeland.
There's one country whose citizens are desperate to burst out of the Axis of Evil shell. Let's hope that this year will be the year. Imagine that, an almost unbroken chain of democracy from the Mediterranean to Central Asia.


My heart bleeds, part 467 

Issam Ghazzawi, a spokesperson for Saddam's legal team, is playing the world's smallest violin on behalf of his client:
Ghazzawi said recent pictures of Saddam Hussein in his underwear that appeared in the British Sun newspaper showed that the former Iraqi leader's basic human rights were being violated.

"You see that his rights are violated as a human being, not only as a president," Ghazzawi said.

"He's not treated well in the prison regarding to his status as prisoner of war and president of Iraq."
That's ex-president of Iraq, Mr Ghazzawi, in case you missed the events of the past two years, and all things considered, soon to be an ex-human being. Saddam, just like everyone else, deserves a fair trial, but it's one of those rare cases in the history of justice where the final verdict is beyond doubt right from the start. Saddam should enjoy being able to parade around in his underwear while he still can.


Friday, June 10, 2005

French economy - ready to meet its Waterloo 

This is all going to end in tears:
France's poet Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin drew inspiration from his imperial hero Napoleon yesterday as he launched a battle plan to get the nation "working again" after it rejected the European Union constitution.

In a grandiose speech that was long on oratorical flourishes but short on radical reforms, the suave new political leader - dubbed "a wannabe Ralph Lauren model" by French Elle magazine - outlined his strategy for fighting France's stubbornly high unemployment rate of 10.2 per cent within 100 days.

Les Cent Jours (100 days) is the title of Mr de Villepin's book about Napoleon Bonaparte's journey towards his abdication after Waterloo.
Alarm bells going off. Napoleon's idea of reducing unemployment (not that unemployment had been a problem or a consideration for the early 19th century governments) was to conscript all the young people and send them on a 15-year rampage through Europe, including the famous Russian adventure, which resulted in some half a million soldiers (both French and allied) fertilizing the vastness between Moscow and the Polish border with their bones. Not really a good inspiration for reviving France's stagnant economy.

As indeed aren't "the 100 days", seeing that they (again) ended in disaster (for Napoleon, at least). De Villepin might be "suave" and a "poet", but if he's planning to follow Napoleon's footsteps from bad (Elba) to even worse (St Helena) via the disastrous (Waterloo), then God help France's economy.

At the root of France's economic malaise is Napoleon's recognition of England as "a nation of shopkeepers" and the concomitant long-standing hostility to the idea that English policies should be adopted as opposed to scorned and fought against. In the end, though, even a Great Leader can't make underperforming economy fix itself by his fiat, a seemingly simple proposition that the French political elites still haven't quite come to grasp with.


Rumors of purges 

The normally sensible "Australian" errs on the side of caution (?), in its Washington correspondent Geoff Elliott's piece on Guantanamo:
Amnesty International's description has been widely criticised for being an exaggeration, given the scope of the brutal Soviet gulag system of forced labour camps in which millions are said to have died.
"Said to have died"? Name those conspiracy theorists who make such bizarre allegations about the peaceful and productive Soviet labor camps.


GMO swine wins 

I don't like Greenpeace, but this seems like a bit too much:
The environmentalist group Greenpeace has gone on trial in a Copenhagen court as the first organization charged under new Danish anti-terror laws introduced after the attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.

Greenpeace was charged under the new legislation last month following a protest by a group of activists in October 2003 at the Copenhagen headquarters of the Danish Agriculture association against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) used in the Scandinavian country's booming pork industry.

The individual protestors, who entered the Danish Agriculture building and reportedly hung a banner reading "No to GMO swine" from a window, have been accused of violating domestic peace.

The new terror legislation allows the courts to hold organizations responsible for the actions of their individual members, which according to prosecutors clears the way for the charges brought against Greenpeace.
I'm reminded of the US anti-racketeering laws, originally designed to fight the organized crime, but are nowadays routinely used by lawyers to sue just about any group or organization, for example, all Catholic dioceses in America and Vatican for "conspiracy to conceal child sexual abuse."

I only hope that Europe will prove as successful in pursuing real terrorists as it is with Greenpeace.


"My God, doctor. This is unbelievable!" 

Good to know that we, in the West, don't have a monopoly on crazy academics. Read this exchange between Egyptian historian Professor Zaynab Abd Al-Aziz and a host on Saudi Iqra TV:
Abd Al-Aziz: "The decision to impose one religion over the entire world was made in the Second Vatican Council in 1965."

Host: "Huh?"...

Abd Al-Aziz: "Yes. The decisions of the 1965 Vatican Council included, first of all, absolving the Jews of the blood of Christ. This decision is well known and was the basis for the recognition of the occupying Zionist entity - Israel. The second decision was to eradicate the left in the eighties. I believe we've all witnessed this. The third decision was to eradicate Islam, so that the world would be Christianized by the third millennium."

: "Why is America hostile to Islam, although we never had and never will have the same conflict with them we had with Europe?"

Abd Al-Aziz: "Well, do you remember what we just said about the Second Vatican Council in 1965 and about Christianizing the world? It was agreed upon and pre-arranged. John Paul II prepared a five-year plan, on the eve of the third millennium, Christianize the world. His address in 1995 was based on the assumption that by the year 2000, the entire world would be Christianized. Since the plan was not accomplished, the World Council of Churches assigned this mission to the US in January 2001, since the US is the world's unrivaled military power. They named the decade between 2001-2010 "the age of eradicating evil" - "evil" referring to Islam and Muslims.

"The Crusader war is ongoing, because it has been a religious war since the dawn of Islam. Later, colonialism, missionaries, and Christianization were introduced. The Crusader war is ongoing. The Inquisition courts exist to this day. As I told you, the pope who was appointed a few days ago, headed the Inquisition Court, which is now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

"When in January 2001, the World Council of Churches delegated this mission to the US - what did the US do? It fabricated the show of… is it September 9 or 11?"

Host: "11. Please explain this to me."

Abd Al-Aziz: "Yes, of course..."

Host: "You mean to say that the World Council of Churches delegated the mission of Christianizing of the world to the US."

Abd Al-Aziz: "Yes. And how could the US win legitimacy for this without anyone saying that they are perpetrating massacres and waging a Crusader war? It fabricated the 9/11 show. I call it a fabrication because much has been written on this. We are also to blame. Why do we accept a single perspective? Countless books were written, some of which were even translated into Arabic, like Thierry Meyssan's 9/11 - The Appalling Fraud and Pentagate. "Pentagate" like Watergate... He brings documents to prove that the method used in destroying the three (sic) towers was "controlled demolition.

"This is an architectural engineering theory, which was invented by the Americans. They teach it in their universities. They make movies and documentaries about it. They incorporated it in movie scenarios and then carried it out in real life. Why do we accept this?"

Host: "My God, doctor. This is unbelievable! You're saying that this destruction...…"

Abd Al-Aziz: "...was a controlled demolition. The building collapsed in its place, without hitting a single building to its left or right. The three towers fell in place."

Host: "In the same method they use in movies and plays?"

Abd Al-Aziz: "Yes, Exactly like that. That is how the US won international legitimacy. You could sense the (9/11) operation was pre-planned because many things were revealed in the days that followed. For example 4,000 Jews caught influenza on that exact day. They set a timer, and all 4,000..."

Host: "By God, you crack me up! They all set a timer and got influenza on the same day. So the building was completely empty of Jews."

Abd Al-Aziz
: "Much has been written about this. 150 Congressmen demanded an inquiry."
"My God, doctor. This is unbelievable!" and "By God, you crack me up!" happen to be my reaction, too (although I can't say that I'm laughing). Professor Abd Al-Aziz might have been a consultant on the recent German public TV production which presented pretty much the same thesis, minus the "Christianizing the world" angle.

I should start a competition about how many crazy conspiracy theories you can count in the good professor's interview. My favorite, though, undoubtedly has to be the one about the World Council of Churches delegating the mission of Christianizing of the world to the United States. I remember in the good old days of the Cold War, the WCC was one of those organizations that the Soviet Union could always count on to come out and slam America and the West on this or that issue, mostly nuclear disarmament (of the US, not the Soviets). Hence, I always thought that the WCC was primarily another one of those soft-left international lobbies rather than a hard-core missionary body hell-bent (or, rather, heaven-bent) on converting the world. Now, thanks to professor Al-Aziz, I stand corrected.

Reading this interview, one no longer wonders while much of the world has such a twisted image of the United States. It is also interesting to note how much overlap there is between the Islamofascist and hard left critique of America and its foreign policy. Home-grown lefties might not talk too much about those 4,000 Jews who caught the flu on September 11 (that's because, as far as the leftoids are concerned, instead of working at the WTC, all the Jews were already too busy controlling America's foreign policy in Washington DC), but there is a strong agreement on many other points. No wonder that Gorgeous George Galloway is now openly calling for the Red-Green alliance (hat tip: Tim Blair):
Mohammad Basirul Haq Sinha: "You often call for uniting Muslim and progressive forces globally. How far is it possible under current situation?"

George Galloway: "Not only do I think it's possible but I think it is vitally necessary and I think it is happening already. It is possible because the progressive movement around the world and the Muslims have the same enemies. Their enemies are the Zionist occupation, American occupation, British occupation of poor countries mainly Muslim countries. They have the same interest in opposing savage capitalist globalization which is intent upon homogenizing the entire world turning us basically into factory chickens which can be forced fed the American diet of everything from food to Coca-Cola to movies and TV culture. And whose only role in life is to consume the things produced endlessly by the multinational corporations. And the progressive organizations & movements agree on that with the Muslims.

"Otherwise we believe that we should all have to speak as Texan and eat McDonalds and be ruled by Bush and Blair. So on the very grave big issues of the day - issues of war, occupation, justice, opposition to globalization - —the Muslims and the progressives are on the same side."
Speaking of GGG, British journo Johann Hari has 15 questions for his supporters.


All blasphemers are equal but some blasphemers and more equal than others 

Mark Steyn makes some of the points I made a few days ago, but he makes them so much better, which is why he writes for "The Spectator", "The Daily Telegraph" and many other great publications, while I write for my own blog (requires registration, hat tip: Dan Foty):
I don't know why Muslims at Gitmo are flushing the Koran down the can, and it's hardly my problem. But, when three times as many detainees 'desecrate' the Koran as US guards do, it seems clear that the whole Operation Desecration ballyhoo is yet another media crock and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and all the rest are complaining about nothing. Or is Koran desecration one of those things like Jews telling Jewish jokes or gangsta rappers recording numbers like 'Strictly 4 My Niggaz': are only devout Muslims allowed to desecrate the Koran? No doubt that's why the Egyptian foreign minister and co. had no comment on last week's suicide bombing at a mosque in Kandahar, which killed 20, wounded more than 50 and presumably desecrated every Koran in the building. But, in that case, how come Robert Mugabe is allowed to bulldoze mosques into rubble?...

In the Middle East, as Baby Assad's pitiful 'State of the Union' speech underlined, free Iraq is a more potent force than all the stagnant dictatorships. In Afghanistan the other day, 600 clerics participated in a ceremony stripping Mullah Omar of his religious authority. And, if it's Koranic desecration you're after, how about this under-reported news item from the original Islamic republic a few weeks back? In Iran, revellers marked Tchahr Shanbe Souri, the traditional Persian fire festival, by chanting 'Down with the Islamic Republic!' and hurling Islamic texts, including the Koran, into the bonfires. The politicised Islam promoted by the Ayatollah, Osama and the Taleban is already on the wane. It was in essence a parasite leeching on to Western decadence and lack of will. And that's always been the real issue, as the bogus Guantanamo furore demonstrates only too well.
But really, read the whole thing.

In fact, I'm almost tempted to start another regular column called "Where's the outrage?" to document the hypocrisy of those who cry foul at the slightest offense given to their religion by the Americans, but who all but ignore blasphemy and sacrilege committed wantonly by their own or by some other politically convenient parties, or those for whom religious tolerance is a one-way street. Lest you think I'm picking on a specific group, the column would also be open to the Western sophisticates who think that all religions deserve equal scorn - except Eastern religions because it's trendy, native religions because you can't be culturally insensitive to native people, and Islam because, after all, who needs a fatwa to spoil a dinner party? - which pretty much leaves a whole lot of scorn for Christianity only.

I'm not actually easily offended by "Piss Christs" or piss Korans, though I quickly form an opinion about people who make either. All I'm after is equal treatment and equal tolerance - and remember, tolerance doesn't even mean you have to like it, approve of it, or subsidize it; you simply have to... well, tolerate it. That's the great principle on which our Western pluralist, free societies are built. And thank God (whichever one you pray to) for that.


Chrenkoff on CNN 

The blog, that is - not me personally.

"Inside the blogs" with Abbi Tatton. About Charles "Holocaust" Rangel. Video courtesy of Dem Bloggers.

By the way, Michelle Malkin and the Shape of Days are maintaining the rage. All I can say is that with the rhetorical inflation out of control, I hope that the left will never have to encounter, confront and describe some real evil, because having debauched their wheelbarrow-fuls of "Hitlers", "Nazis" and "gulags" on home-grown politicians, they won't know how to describe it. Then again, judging by the past track record, they won't recognize the real evil in the first place - so, no evil, no problem.


Thursday, June 09, 2005

Who wants to be a Mullah Omar? 

(with apologies to a "Spectator" cartoon from three years ago)

Controversy at the Australian edition of a popular game show:
Lawyers for terrorism suspect Jack Thomas will lodge an official complaint about a television quiz show question they say could prejudice his trial.

Mr Thomas, charged with receiving financial support from al-Qa'ida, providing the group with resources or support to help carry out a terrorist attack and having a false passport, was the subject of a question on Monday's Who Wants To Be a Millionaire.

On the program, a contestant answered a $1000 question that asked: "Suspected of associating with the terror network al-Qa'ida, Joseph Terrence Thomas, was dubbed what? a) Jihad Jack; b) Joe Blow; c) Terror Terry; or d) Thomas the Tank Buster."

Thomas's solicitor, Rob Stary, said yesterday he would lodge a complaint with the Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions this week.

"I think it's completely inappropriate to trivialise the matter when court proceedings are well and truly in place," Mr Stary said. "These are serious charges, and my client is entitled to the presumption of innocence."
The answer, by the way, is a). Thomas is indeed entitled to the presumption of innocence, but the question refers not to his guilt or innocence but to a popular nickname given to him by the media. Even that is not completely out of place, seeing that Thomas has actually changed his first name to Jihad when he converted to Islam in 1996. Still, considering his original first name, the more accurate designation would have been Jihad Joe (with an added benefit of sounding like an antithesis, that it is, of G.I. Joe).


Hysteria of Charles Rangel 

The rhetorical horse once again bolts and runs away from the Dems:
Top House Democrat Charles Rangel complained on Monday that the Bush administration's decision to concoct a "fraudulent" war in Iraq was as bad as "the Holocaust."

"It's the biggest fraud ever committed on the people of this country," Rangel told WWRL Radio's Steve Malzberg and Karen Hunter. "This is just as bad as six million Jews being killed. The whole world knew it and they were quiet about it, because it wasn't their ox that was being gored."
It's not actually quite as bad as it seems:
Asked to clarify his Holocaust comparison, Rangel told Malzberg: "I am saying that people's silence when they know terrible things are happening is the same thing as the Holocaust, where everyone would have me believe that no one knew those Jews were killed over there."
Initially I though, this is not as bad as it seems; Rangel is not making a grossly offensive comparison of the liberation of 26 million people from tyranny with the killing of 6 million Jews. What a relief. He's merely making a stupid, inaccurate, and hysterical comparison of the public reactions to both events. Stupid, inaccurate, and hysterical, because after all, Iraq, in all its aspects and from all the perspectives, is the most talked about issue in the world today.

But then I reread Rangel's comments. This is what he's saying:

The officials in the Roosevelt Administration knew that the Holocaust was going on, but kept quiet and did nothing about it (not wanting at this point to get involved in a debate whether the Holocaust could have been "stopped", for example by bombing the death camps or the train lines leading thereto; but remembering that at all times the United States was actually engaged in a total war against the perpetrators of the same Holocaust).

The officials in the Bush Administration knew that the war in Iraq was "fraudulent" and "terrible things [were] happening", but kept quiet and did nothing about it.

So, you see, it's actually worse than it looks, because Rangel is comparing the moral callousness of an Administration about atrocities being committed by somebody else, with the moral callousness of another Administration about atrocities being committed by that Administration. In the Rangel moral universe, therefore, bringing freedom and democracy to millions of Iraqis is as bad as killing six million Jews - both horrible enterprises should have been stopped by the US government but weren't.

In a week that saw Guantanamo Bay described a gulag, I can't say I'm too surprised any more by Rangel's remarks.

Update: Lorie at Polipundit has another perspective, and Decision 08 is proposing the Bipartisan Anti-Inflammation Pledge of 2005. We should be so lucky.


Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The ripples 

It seems that the EU constitution is now also losing support in New Europe (link in Polish).

In May, some 60 per cent of Poles supported the document; immediately after the French and Dutch votes this fell to 51 per cent, and today it's only 40 per cent (with 35 against and 25 undecided).

The most Eurosceptical are the elderly and residents of rural areas. The most enthusiastic those younger and with higher education.

EU Commissioner Gunter Verheugen told Polish media that there is no favorable climate at the moment for the further expansion of the Union. Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Turkey are already under consideration (although the eventual inclusion is not guaranteed), and the window of opportunity might have closed for Ukraine, Serbia and Macedonia. Creating second class Europeans who aren't good enough to belong to the club is not a good idea - but it creates a scope for sensible European governments, together with the United States, to step in and embrace the unwanted of New Europe; show them who their real friends are and stabilize these new democracies by inclusion in political, economic and military structures.


A must-read of the day 

This has already become the most linked piece on the right side of the blogosphere, but now it's available hassles-free via "The Opinion Journal" - if you still haven't seen it, don't miss Debra Burlingame's expose of how the trendy left is hijacking 9/11's Ground Zero to commemorate just about everyone and anything but the victims of Islamofascist terrorism. Debra is the sister of Charles F. "Chic" Burlingame III, pilot of American Airlines fight 77, which was crashed by the terrorists at the Pentagon on September 11.

It's clear that to many on the left the 3,000 who died in the rubble of Twin Towers are no more than a nuisance, because their untimely demise have served to open a veritable Republican Pandora's Box of nasties such as neo-conservatism, the democracy crusade, war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, and Guantanamo.

The lesson: history's losers should not be allowed to build society's monuments.


They all look the same to me in the light 

It's not racist because a Dem says it:
"The Republicans are not very friendly to different kinds of people. They're a pretty monolithic party. They all behave the same and they all look the same. It's pretty much a white, Christian party."
Now, imagine the RNC chairman making an off-hand observation about the Dems: "They're all just blacks and Hispanics; they all look the same. It's pretty much a minorities, irreligious party."

Even if Dean doesn't quite mean it like that, it still comes out that being white and/or Christian is somehow wrong. Since whites will clearly constitute majority of the American electorate for at least another few decades, and Christians indefinitely (mostly because Hispanics, who make the fastest growing section of the population are as Christian as they come), the Democrats wonder why, with this sort of attitude, they keep losing elections.

Actually, some, to their credit, don't - like Joe Biden, Bill Richardson and John Edwards who disavowed Dean's previous comments about Republicans never making a honest living, or Wade Randell, a Dem fundraiser in the Silicon Valley, who commented upon Dean's latest: "We need a Democratic National Committee that is convincing white Republican Christians that they should be voting for us - not vilifying them."


You want the truth? You can't handle the truth 

I only recently got around to reading Mark Steyn's review of "Revenge of the Sith" - which, as anything that Mark writes, is highly recommended, or indeed, as anything that Mark writes doesn't need to be recommended - and one paragraph jumped out at me:
The heart of its mythic pretensions is the transformation of Anakin, boy hero of the three 'prequels', into Vader, black-hatted villain of the first three movies. For Lucas, the revelation of this degeneration was supposed to bring the Star Wars story full circle and explain the primal forces driving the original film. And what does Lucas come up with? Well, Anakin's worried that his beloved Padme might die in childbirth.
This brought back memories of a discussion I've read somewhere a few years ago on the fact that Hollywood seems to be so absorbed by inter-personal relationships - particularly those based on love - that it cannot easily envisage other motivations for characters' actions.

This, of course, is not a problem in all the "revenge"-type movies, where the hero goes on a rampage to avenge the brutal deaths of his (usually) wife and children. It doesn't happen too often in real life, true, but at least it's easy to imagine an ordinary, law-abiding citizen in these circumstances picking up an M-16 and a machete for some "eye for an eye" action. But "love is all" starts wearing a bit thin when historical characters are in play. Thus, Joan of Arc (in Luc Besson's version a few years ago) becomes a fearless warrior after some marauding soldiers rape and murder her older sister. "The Patriot" is a very reluctant one, becoming a Revolutionary hero after the Redcoats kill his young son. And William Wallace in "Braveheart" only learns to value freedom (or "frreedoom") when the English authorities kill his Scottish lass of a secret wife. Historical reality is starkly different - for example, Joan's sister was killed by the fellow Gaulic Burgundians, and not the English invaders, and Wallace's wife was actually English and outlived him.

And now, Anakin also does it for love. Well, mostly; like Mark "Deep Throat" Felt, Anakin is also annoyed that he's being overlooked by his superiors, so there is also the element of wounded pride and thwarted ambition that pushes his over to the Dark Side. Lastly, there is a political element; Anakin, sort of, comes to believe that the Republic sucks, Jedis are the bad guys and Empire is a better option, but these sentiments remain underplayed, and one never knows how much of it all is merely a convenient rationalization for Anakin's "they don'’t appreciate me, so I'll show the bastards" routine.

To put it simply: in real world - particularly when we are talking about big picture politics - ideas matter, but Hollywood just doesn't seem to get it, opting time after time for emotions. Our best and brightest creators don't seem to realize that throughout history people who changed the world were driven not by a sense of loss, and often not by self-interest (such as greed or lust for power), but out of commitment to abstract ideas: liberty, equality, brotherhood, or love of one's nation or ethnic group. Maybe it's because of the bed-hopping nature of the entertainment industry, maybe it's because of its obsession with therapy and pop psychology, maybe it's a distillation of soft leftyism (remember, Iraq was all about oil, or in a movie cliche way, about avenging the 1993 assassination attempt on Bush Sr.).

No wonder that Hollywood which will not give us Anakin who becomes Darth Vader to bring (as he sees it) the order of the Empire to the anarchic and dysfunctional Republic, will also not give us celluloid politicians and soldiers who love America and want to share the bounty of liberty with the rest of the world.


Amnesty Anti-American 

In the past week, traffic on Amnesty's Web site has gone up sixfold, donations have quintupled and new memberships have doubled.
So that's what it was all about? (hat tip: Powerline) Sadly, while the publicity stunt seems to have worked very well for Amnesty, its new found popularity means that the recent influx comes from that section of the society which thinks the United States is the biggest threat to human rights worldwide, rather than, say, countries which actually hold political prisoners, maintain real gulags and labor camps, and suppress liberties. And while it bodes well for the anti-American left, what about the victims of persecution world-wide, who are increasingly losing the spotlight?

Some seventeen years ago, I briefly joined my high school branch of Amnesty International. It was 1988, the Wall was still standing, and having only just come to Australia from communist Poland, the plight of political prisoners was close to my heart. It was explained to me then that Amnesty's main tool were letter-writing campaigns, which - surprisingly - seemed to frequently work. The authorities in country X, having imprisoned Y, usually an opposition figure, a human rights activist, a journalist or an intellectual, would often relent after finding themselves flooded by thousand of letters from around the world calling for Y's release. It was also explained to me that Amnesty would not try to help political prisoners who advocated or engaged in violence - only proponents of peaceful activism and non-violent resistance would receive AI's support.

I'm sure that Amnesty still does these things, but sadly, the emphasis seems to be agitating against the world's oldest and second largest democracy about treatment of detainees, most of whom (though certainly not all) are members of terrorist or para-military groups implicated in gross human rights abuses, murdering civilians and propping up dictatorships. This is not wholly Amnesty's fault - Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo seems to be all that interests the mainstream media - not North Korean gulags, Chinese labor camps, or Iranian prisons. Giving Amnesty all the benefit of the doubt, maybe by bashing the US is the only way the organization can generate any sort of wider interest in its work. I suspect, however, that this is a far too generous an explanation of AI's recent behavior, and in any case this tactic will only result in further drift of this once non-partisan groups into the open arms of the left.


Guest blogger: Mesopotamia Redeemed, part 7 

After a long break, our guest blogger Dan Foty continues his quest for the origins of the Western legal system - in an unexpected locality of ancient Mesopotamia, or present-day Iraq (for the links to previous parts, click here).

Mesopotamia Redeemed -– Part VII

As described in Part VI, the Hammurabi code provides the best extant summary of the collected wisdom of numerous centuries of Mesopotamian (chiefly Sumerian) experience with the practical issues involved in the rule of law. It also shows how the Mesopotamians were able to deal with a number of very complex and surprisingly "modern" legal ideas - ideas which were well-known to the Sumerians.

As described earlier, it is particularly unfair to characterize these laws as "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" in concept - due to two statutes among the nearly three hundred in the Hammurabi code; in reality, the stipulated sanctions were in the form of fines. In addition, there were numerous provisions for "extenuating circumstances," in which the exact particulars of the situation were central to reaching the appropriate conclusions. The hierarchy of Sumerian legal procedures is also evident; there were lower courts in the various cities, procedures for appeal to higher courts, and even a "supreme court"” in Babylon. At all of these levels, there were procedures for judicial review and oversight.

The statutes themselves involved both basic laws regarding "crimes and punishments," along with detailed regulation of commercial activities and social interactions. To a large degree, these Mesopotamian codes served combined purposes which we now tend to regard as separate -– the constitutional basis of society and governance, the statutes of civil and criminal law, and the regulatory framework for commercial activities (including caravans). An interesting sidelight in the enumerated statutes of the Hammurabi code is that there is no statute number 13 -– even in ancient Mesopotamia, 13 was considered to be an unlucky number that should be avoided.

In addition to the mundane, we can note with a degree of admiration that these early law codes already were wrestling with abstract legal concepts - tort, reckless endangerment, "“takings" -– which are frustrating and difficult even to this day. In their criminal laws, the Mesopotamians also showed experience with the concept of "“mens reas"” (criminal intent) -– that the intent of the accused party was as important as the specific actions which occurred. Finally, we can note that these codes clearly stated the importance of legal precedent in judicial practice; in addition to the legal implications, this also serves to show that the Hammurabi code was not “early,” but that it carried the sensible intent that the prior accumulated centuries of records and decisions should be used directly in any "“contemporary"” situation.

It is also interesting to note that fines for man-to-man offenses were paid directly to the offended part -– not into the state treasury:
4. If he satisfy the elders to impose a fine of grain or money, he shall receive the fine that the action produces.
Judges were held to high standards, and there were procedures for the impeachment, removal, and firing of errant or corrupt judges:
5. If a judge try a case, reach a decision, and present his judgment in writing; if later error shall appear in his decision, and it be through his own fault, then he shall pay twelve times the fine set by him in the case, and he shall be publicly removed from the judge's bench, and never again shall he sit there to render judgment.
There were also harsh sanctions against perjury; for example,
3. If anyone bring an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if it be a capital offense charged, be put to death.
Without a basis in truth, no legal system can function.

In terms of contract law, there is even a provision (embedded inside a statute covering an obscure topic) for declaring a contract "null and void"”:
37. If any one buy the field, garden, and house of a chieftain, man, or one subject to quit-rent, his contract tablet of sale shall be broken (declared invalid) and he loses his money. The field, garden, and house return to their owners.
"Breaking a contract"” was meant quite literally -– the contract tablet was smashed.

The Hammurabi code also contains extensive provisions regarding property law and the protection of property rights. As noted in early sections, the Mesopotamians - all those centuries ago - had learned of the importance of private property (and its protection) as one of the most fundamental underpinnings of a civilized society; this concept is clearly embodied in all of the law codes of Sumer, Akkad, and Babylon. As described above, the most common sanction for non-violent offenses involved fines; this is the case for intentional property damage, where specific fines were specified for specific infractions. For example,
59. If any man, without the knowledge of the owner of a garden, fell a tree in a garden he shall pay half a mina in money.
The protection of private property was also sanctified with very strong punishments for robbery, theft, burglary, and similar malfeasances; for example,
21. If anyone break a hole into a house [breaking and entering for purposes of burglary], he shall be put to death before that hole and be buried.

22. If anyone is committing a robbery and is caught, then he shall be put to death.
Along the same lines, looting was regarded as a particularly heinous offense:
25. If fire break out in a house, and someone who comes to put it out cast his eye upon the property of the owner of the house, and take the property of the master of the house, he shall be thrown into that self-same fire.
While the punishments (death) are arguably harsh, these statutes in the Hammurabi code inform us that private property was sacred to the Mesopotamians, and the violation of those rights was treated as a capital offense.

Despite the direct and simple statutes regarding property offenses, the Hammurabi code also deals with more intricate situations. For example, the issue of the receipt of stolen property is very complicated; it is possible that others received or purchased stolen property while unaware that it was indeed stolen. The code provides several very complex statutes with regard to this matter:
9. If anyone lose an article, and find it in the possession of another: if the person in whose possession the thing is found say "A merchant sold it to me, I paid for it before witnesses," and if the owner of the thing say, "I will bring witnesses who know my property," then shall the purchaser bring the merchant who sold it to him, and the witnesses before whom he bought it, and the owner shall bring witnesses who can identify his property. The judge shall examine their testimony — both of the witnesses before whom the price was paid, and of the witnesses who identify the lost article on oath. The merchant is then proved to be a thief and shall be put to death. The owner of the lost article receives his property, and he who bought it receives the money he paid from the estate of the merchant.

10. If the purchaser does not bring the merchant and the witnesses before whom he bought the article, but its owner bring witnesses who identify it, then the buyer is the thief and shall be put to death, and the owner receives the lost article.

11. If the owner does not bring witnesses to identify the lost article, he is an evil-doer, he has traduced, and shall be put to death.

12. If the witnesses be not at hand, then shall the judge set a limit, at the expiration of six months. If his witnesses have not appeared within the six months, he is an evil-doer, and shall bear the fine of the pending case.
These statutes provide very detailed procedures for establishing culpability - or even if any crime has been committed in the first place. Statute 9 in particular clearly echoes its Sumerian predecessors, and shows the high regard which the Mesopotamians had for private property. The goals were to identify stolen property, to identify and punish the thief and any culpable traders in the stolen property, to absolve any innocent handlers of the stolen property, and to return that stolen property to its rightful owner.

The code also specifies a provision for someone who has custodial responsibility for the property of others, with goals similar to those noted above:
125. If anyone place his property with another for safe keeping, and there, either through thieves or robbers, his property and the property of the other man be lost, the owner of the house, through whose neglect the loss took place, shall compensate the owner for all that was given to him in charge. But the owner of the house shall try to follow up and recover his property, and take it away from the thief.
As in the earlier Sumerian codes, there are also several statutes dealing with the "adverse possession"” of property - that is, property ownership being transferred from the original owner of property to the long-term user of that property:
30. If a chieftain or a man leave his house, garden, and field and hires it out, and some one else takes possession of his house, garden, and field and uses it for three years: if the first owner return and claims his house, garden, and field, it shall not be given to him, but he who has taken possession of it and used it shall continue to use it.
The concept of adverse possession was also introduced into English common law, and so is present in all descendants of that system; it remains one of the more little-known but controversial aspects of property law to this day.

Another complicated aspect of property law which is found in the Hammurabi code (and its Sumerian predecessors) is that of "tort"” -– that is, liability for the damage (or devaluation) of someone else'’s property, even if that damage was inadvertent. In the Mesopotamian law codes, this concept is confined very narrowly to matters of agriculture - specifically, liability for damage caused by the flooding of neighboring fields due to poor irrigation practices:
53. If anyone be too lazy to keep his dam in proper condition, and does not so keep it; if then the dam break and all the fields be flooded, then shall he in whose dam the break occurred be sold for money, and the money shall replace the grain which he has caused to be ruined.

54. If he be not able to replace the grain, then he and his possessions shall be divided among the farmers whose grain he has flooded.

55. If anyone open his ditches to water his crop, but is careless, and the water flood the field of his neighbor, then he shall pay his neighbor grain for his loss.

56. If a man let in the water, and the water overflow the plantation of his neighbor, he shall pay ten gur of grain for every ten gan of land.
Additional scholarship on legal documents contemporaneous with the Hammurabi code indicates that there was also a "takings clause"” in practical usage. Certain royal officials could (under certain circumstances) requisition and take the private property of ordinary citizens; however, these officials were required to provide a complete written account of this taken property to the citizen, so that he could take that receipt to the king and receive compensation.

Another complicated concept evident in the Hammurabi code is that of "mens reas"” -– a requirement that there be criminal intent demonstrated if there is to be criminal prosecution. This is notable in one particular statute:
206. If during a quarrel one man strike another and wound him, then he shall swear, "I did not injure him wittingly," and pay the physicians.
The notion that there is a difference between a "civil offense"” and a "“criminal offense"” was one that was clearly known to the Mesopotamians.

Yet another complicated concept appears in the Hammurabi code -– that of "“reckless endangerment."” In the code, the notion is quite limited; for example, it appears with regard to the bringing of a frivolous charge against another party which could carry the death penalty as punishment:
3. If anyone bring an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if it be a capital offense charged, be put to death.
This concept also appears in harsh sanctions against incompetent physicians inflicting injury on patients, and implicitly in several other statutes.

"“Reckless endangerment"” is a difficult legal concept, since it is in essence an opposite of "criminal intent." The notion is that in some situations, while there was no direct criminal intent, the behavior of the offending party was so unnecessarily and willfully negligent - leading to serious injury or damage to another party -– that the behavior should be classified as criminal. The Mesopotamians were also clearly aware of the basic notions of this legal concept and its duality with other concepts.

As noted earlier, the Sumerian and Babylonian law codes served many functions which eventually came to be regarded as separate; they combined "constitutional"” law, criminal law, civil law, social law, and the regulation of commercial activities -– all in a single code. Thus, in addition to the types of provisions already discussed, the Hammurabi code also contains large blocks of statutes relating to more mundane daily matters of life.

A very large block of the code, statutes 128 - 191, constitutes "family law"” and the regulation of such matters. There are numerous very detailed provisions; for example, there is a set of statutes dealing with the division of property following a divorce:
137. If a man wish to separate from a woman who has borne him children, or from his wife who has borne him children: then he shall give that wife her dowry, and a part of the usufruct of field, garden, and property, so that she can rear her children. When she has brought up her children, a portion of all that is given to the children, equal as that of one son, shall be given to her. She may then marry the man of her heart.

138. If a man wishes to separate from his wife who has borne him no children, he shall give her the amount of her purchase money and the dowry which she brought from her father's house, and let her go.

139. If there was no purchase price he shall give her one mina of gold as a gift of release.

140. If he be a freed man he shall give her one-third of a mina of gold.
Another block, statutes 215 - 225, provides regulation of medical practice. Interestingly, statutes 224 and 225 apply specifically to veterinarians; these involve animals used as draft animals and beasts-of-burden in agriculture.

The final major aspect of the code is a large block of statutes regarding commercial activities and trade, including caravans. Once again, these regulations are rather detailed. In total, they clearly indicate that commerce and commercial activities were of the utmost importance to the Mesopotamians and their prosperity. Being devoid of most natural resources and being rich only in their agricultural products, these highly-developed trade networks were of the utmost importance and were thus treated with special care in the laws.

Several of these statutes show that the sinews of commerce had developed to a very remarkable level. For example, there is a provision regarding the requirement for "paperwork" in trade:
103. If a merchant give an agent corn, wool, oil, or any other goods to transport, the agent shall give a receipt for the amount, and compensate the merchant therefor. Then he shall obtain a receipt from the merchant for the money that he gives the merchant.
The "receipt"” here seems to serve two functions. First, in terms of the goods, the "receipt" serves the purpose of what is today called a "bill of lading"” -– that is, an itemization (both qualitative and quantitative) of the goods contained in a shipment. The Mesopotamians were well-aware that in commercial activities the best policy for preventing problems (even unintentional ones) was to "get it all in writing."” Second, the notion of a "“receipt" for the money"” is interesting; other contemporary documents show that these "“receipts"” could be written in one place and redeemed for payment in another place -– in other words, the trade system was so sufficiently advanced that the concept of "checks"” and "“checking accounts"” had already been invented.

The existence of these sorts of "“receipts"” also indicates something further. Other contemporary records show that the caravans were so regular that they were used for purely third-party shipment of goods and as a postal service for documents.

A final interesting aspect of the Hammurabi code is that it contains stipulations for "“product warranties"” -– specifically, warranties for buildings and boats. The statutes regarding the integrity of houses provide a rudimentary form of building code. If a house is being constructed by a builder and is proving to be inferior, the builder is responsible for making things right:
233. If a builder build a house for someone, even though he has not yet completed it; if then the walls seem toppling, the builder must make the walls solid from his own means.
If a completed house collapsed and killed any of the occupants and the fault was found to be due to shoddy construction by the builder, the sanction was very severe:
229. If a builder build a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.
The statute regarding boats also provides for a "product warranty,"” and specifically stipulates a one-year warranty:
235. If a shipbuilder build a boat for someone, and do not make it tight, if during that same year that boat is sent away and suffers injury, the shipbuilder shall take the boat apart and put it together tight at his own expense. The tight boat he shall give to the boat owner.
It is unclear why a period of one year was mandated.

The Hammurabi code capped the development of law codes, legal systems, and the understanding of the concept of the rule of law as it developed in Mesopotamia. Since it is much more fully preserved than any of its Sumerian predecessors, it is the easiest to study and understand (both literally and contextually). It seems reasonable to assume that the earlier Sumerian codes (which may yet be further recovered by new archaeological discoveries) contained similar specific provisions, while taking the same basic tone as to their intent and the problems which they were created to address. The Hammurabi code served both of these functions very clearly - it directly stated the general intentions of the code (the establishment of justice and the rule of law), while also providing a set of specific statutes which, overall, were very clear and unambiguous.

As noted earlier, when the Hammurabi code was recovered, it was the oldest known code of laws; thus, it seemed to provide a "“beginning" to the concept of the rule of law. Of course, later discoveries eventually identified the Sumerians, and showed that Sumerian concepts of law went back several centuries before the Hammurabi code; the Hammurabi code was based very heavily on these predecessors, and is in fact a culmination of all those centuries of effort.

However, while the Hammurabi code was not a beginning, it sadly seems to have been an end. While the Hammurabi code was used widely throughout the region (in Mesopotamia and far beyond) to varying degrees for several more centuries, the centuries of "“the rule of law"” in Mesopotamia were coming to a close. After the fading of the Hammurabi'’s Old Babylonian Empire, Mesopotamia came increasingly to be dominated by absolute monarchs and authoritarian warlords. This topic will be considered in Part VIII.


Tuesday, June 07, 2005

An open letter to Alexander Solzhenitsyn 

Dear Aleksandr Isaevich

Let me at the outset express my admiration for your work and your courage over the years. No history - and certainly no moral history - of the twentieth century can be written without the mention of your contribution to the struggle against totalitarianism.

This is why I read with interest that a few days ago you gave your first interview in three years to a TV program "Vesti Nedeli" on Russia's Channel Two. In that interview you mostly discussed the conditions in your country and your disappointment with the political process there, but you also had this to say about the current US foreign policy:
"[Over ten years ago, the US] launched an absurd project to impose democracy all over the world... The US has a strange idea of democracy - they first interfered with the Bosnian situation, bombed Yugoslavia, then Afghanistan, and then Iraq... Who is next, perhaps, Iran? ... The US must understand that democracy cannot be introduced by force, by the army."
In the past, you were certainly right about communism, now you're probably right about the state of contemporary Russia - but I'm afraid you're very wrong about the American foreign policy.

There is nothing strange about the American idea of democracy and nothing absurd about the American project to "impose" democracy all over the world. I certainly rather have people going around and introducing democracy than going around and introducing tyranny - a proposition that you, a victim of communism and a former islander of the Gulag Archipelago, would hopefully agree with.

Since you are a Russian and a son of the Orthodoxy, I can understand - though not share - your partiality towards Serbia in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. While it's true that all sides have committed atrocities in these conflicts, it was Serbia, under the leadership of that despicable opportunist, communist-turned-nationalist, Slobodan Milosevic, who was the aggressor, first against the Slovenians and the Croats, then against the Croats and Muslims of Bosnia-Hercegovina, and finally against the Muslim people of Kosovo. Milosevic's dream of the Greater Serbia has only led to an European comeback - after forty five years' absence - of concentration camps, ethnic cleansing and genocide. The fact that the Americans have finally "interfered in the Bosnian situation" and then bombed Yugoslavia over Kosovo, means that today the region is finally peaceful, reasonably stable, and that its people - including the Serbian people - can now enjoy some freedom, and yes, even democracy. Without the mainly American intervention, the slaughter would have gone on - more territory grabbed by Serbia, another few tens of thousands murdered, another few hundred thousands - or even millions - ethnically cleansed and displaced. Is this the free, post-communist world you were fighting for?

Then the United States bombed Afghanistan and Iraq - although I regret your emphasis on the means without considering the end - the freeing of some 50 million people from the tyrants and oppressors who were as vile as anything that the Soviet communism had ever spewed out in its ignoble history.

Which brings me to your broader point - that it is impossible, or in any case wrong, to try to spread democracy by force. Japan and Germany both strictly speaking prove you wrong, although we can quibble about whether democracy there was introduced or merely restored by force. More importantly, though, what happened in 1945 and afterwards shows something far more important and demonstrates that you are missing the point about what America is doing right now: the US is not imposing democracy on the end of a bayonet, it is not parachuting parliament buildings and carpet bombing with politicians -– no, it is creating some basic conditions in which democracy can grow. And the most basic condition is ending dictatorship. All the other prerequisites aside, democracy has no chance to develop while tyrants - like Saddam or Mullah Omar -– maintain a stranglehold over their people. We all wish that transition to democracy could always be peaceful - like it largely was across the Soviet empire. But your own people had to wait for over 70 years for that to happen, and mine for forty five. How long would the Iraqis and the Afghans, and how much more slow, lingering suffering could the world tolerate?

You are right, in a way, that democracy can't be imposed - that is, if the people don't want democracy, no one - not even the mighty America - can force them to embrace it. But America doesn't have to impose democracy - the people of Iraq and Afghanistan want it and are choosing it for themsleves. Now that America has removed the biggest roadblocks, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan are building that democracy by themselves, with some small assistance from foreign friends.

You might recall that in October last year millions of Afghans, and then in January this year millions of Iraqis, went to the polls, most of them for the first time in their lives. They did not do so under America's gunpoint - American GIs were not forcing people to vote - quite the opposite: people went to the poling stations under the gunpoint of terrorists who did not want them to vote. Millions chose to cast their votes risking death from the enemies of democracy.

Democracy is a process - its road is long and often uneasy, and its success in the end depends on the willingness of the majority to embrace, protect, and defend the system. I wish the people of Iraq and Afghanistan the best of luck on that journey. And in the end, all that matters is not that America wants to see democracy spread around the world, but that the Iraqis and the Afghans -– and others elsewhere -– want, and deserve, freedom and democracy just as much as the Poles and the Russians. Thanks to America's "absurd" policy, they now finally have a chance to work on that dream.

I'll leave the last words to Helen Szamuely, who a few years ago, wrote this about your attitude towards the American intervention in the Balkans:
His horror at Western interference would have been somewhat more acceptable if he had not spent many years of his exile in the United States excoriating the West for not carrying out the allied intervention in the Russian Civil War with greater effect and getting rid of the Bolsheviks. Apparently he does not think that what happened in 1918 was an unjustified interference in another country's internal affairs.
History is full of "ifs", but one of the most intriguing - and the painful ones - revolves around the question of the Allied intervention - had it been more forceful when the Bolsheviks were at their weakest, maybe the world would have been saved the horror of the Red Plague.

We did not prevent the rise of Milosevic, or Saddam, or the Taliban, but at least we were able to put a sudden stop to their reigns - and that's better than sitting back and doing nothing. And one less "if" becoming a reality.

Sincerely yours

Arthur Chrenkoff


The forgotten war 

It's hard to believe that as the whole world seems to be now dealing with the third millennium challenge of militant Islam (in itself a return to the first millennium), there are still some corners of the world where the seminal struggles of the last century are still playing themselves out. This story is one such reminder:
At least 36 bus passengers were killed and scores more wounded when Maoist rebels detonated a landmine along a road in southern Nepal yesterday in one of the bloodiest attacks against civilians in the nine-year-long insurgency.

The bus, which was travelling near Narayangadh, in Chitwan district, home to one of Nepal's most famous national parks, was crammed with more than a hundred passengers inside and on the roof.

It was blown apart as it went through the village of Madi, an area where Maoist rebels have been gathering in strength over the past couple of years. Army officers who arrived soon afterwards described a scene of carnage. "The place is littered with blood. Limbs are scattered around the site," one said. "Many women and children have been killed."
A few Nepalese villages must be among the last few places in the world - except certain Western university faculties - where Mao is still seriously venerated. Even in his homeland, Maoism has been successfully supplanted by Dengoism, or Marketism-Leninism. Nepal is notoriously impoverished, and if rebels have to remain wedded to a politically authoritarian program, at least they could adopt the pro-market policies of Mao's heirs. As it is, the "People'’s War" has cost 11,000 lives since 1996 and has managed to send this once tranquil Himalayan kingdom down a spiral of violence and instability, which recently saw the recent suspension of democracy by the King.

Speaking of Mao, it looks like Jung Chang (of the bestselling "Wild Swans" fame) and her husband historian Jon Halliday have written the definitive biography of the monster:
Just so you know where they stand, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday declare in the very first sentence of their impeccably detailed biography of Mao Zedong that he "was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other 20th-century leader." And that's one of the more positive things they have to say about the man who is still widely revered as the founder of modern China. To Chang and Halliday, Mao was a scheming opportunist who butchered his way to the top, then squandered the lives and wealth of his people in a bungled quest for global influence.
Sounds like a great book.


Bunker, R.I.P. 

An early friend of Chrenkoff, a fellow blogger Michael Reed, a.k.a. Bunker Mulligan, has passed away suddenly, after a heart attack.

His family write: "Bunker will be laid to rest on Friday, 10 June, at the San Antonio National Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, we request any memorials for him be made to Homes For Our Troops. Further information can be found at www.homesforourtroops.org."

My deepest sympathy goes to Bunker's family. We will all miss you.


Syria - move on, nothing to see here 

Ignoring international pressure and rising domestic frustration, Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian President, failed yesterday to announce broad and imminent reforms as he opened an eagerly awaited conference of the ruling Baath party.

In an address lasting barely ten minutes, Mr Assad told the 1,250 delegates: "We are convinced the ideas and precepts of the Baath party are still of relevance and respond to the interests of the people and the nation in its desire for unity, freedom, justice and development."
Oh, that's alright then.

The Baath party, with its unpleasant mixture of nationalism and socialism (sounds familiar?) is a sad relic of the "“bloody twentieth century", a dinosaur at odds with the recent climatic change throughout the world and throughout the region. Its emphasis on a closed political system, combined with a closed economic system, and seasoned with a fair sprinkling of paranoia, chauvinism and "blame others"” mentality is a recipe for continuing stagnation and misery. But I'’m preaching to the converted.

It'’s not a good sign that Assad Jr, after hints of a thaw, has decided to bury his head in the sand, a natural resource of which there is plenty in Syria. Perhaps to get the reform process going right now would have looked too much like a humiliating and face-losing backdown to American demands, but by opting for the status quo, Bashar has merely postponed some sort of an inevitable, keeping his country in a North Koreanesque state of suspended animation, without any aces, however, that Kim still holds, such as nuclear weapons and one of the world'’s largest armies.

Indeed, judging by his speech at the congress ("Flanked by grim-faced party officials, Syria'’s youthful President looked out of place as the ageing delegates made their speeches. The delegates greeted each new speech with polite applause."”), Assad does indeed want to follow the Asian model - not so much North as South Korean:
"“Our citizens aspire to improvements in their living conditions and in public services... This cannot happen without higher growth rates."
The problem is the Syrian economy is growing, but not fast enough to catch up on all the lost time. Many Asian countries have managed to delay political reform for decades by giving their citizens prosperity instead (in the end, the rising living standard led to inevitable demands for political rights, but by that stage the reforms were able to unfold peacefully and no one got shot). Syrians are getting edgy without either.


Tuesday links 

Plenty of good reading out there:

Democracy Project observes the return of the 9/11 Commission -– fast becoming a permanent political tribunal.

At Kosmoblog: Europe must choose between being a small and cohesive political entity or a larger common market.

Lorie at Polipundit asks if Tom Harkin has a direct line to God.

At NRO, Jim Robbins discusses the now infamous 2002 Downing Street memo and notes that as an Iraq war smoking gun, it's of a pretty localiberre. At Quillnews, former oil industry lobbyist Thomas Collins, weighs in on the controversy.

Davids Medienkritik notes another new low for Germany'’s public television -– a movie which alleges that the Bush family was involved in 9/11 attacks.

Black conservative blog Booker Rising has interesting discussion about debt relief for Africa and Bob Geldof's latest campaign. Can be read in conjunction with Powerline'’s latest as well as Captain Ed's liveblogging of a blogger news conference with Geldof.

Don't miss the latest Carnival of Revolutions at Publius Pundit.

John Hawkins interviews an ex-Marine and a syndicated columnist Jack Kelly: "Iraq has proven to be a quagmire, as the people on the left have asserted, but it'’s a quagmire for Al Qaeda, not for the United States."

Chester discusses the differences between the Ho Chi Minh'’s Trail and the Euphrates Lines of Communication (will the MSM ever stop running those Vietnam parallels?)

The New Editor discusses R J Rummel and the Red Plague.

Stop the ACLU has a petition calling on the Congress to investigate the Union'’s document shredding.

And at Riding Sun - a nice photo essay about our troops in Iraq.


Guest blogger: Postcard from Basra 

A good friend of this blog, Steven Vincent, reports from Basra, in southern Iraq. Steven is the author of "In the Red Zone: A Journey into the Soul of Iraq", some of the best reporting to come out of post-liberation Iraq (reviewed here), and he's currently working on a follow-up. Steven also writes for his own blog, where you can regularly check on his progress.

Dear Arthur--

Greetings from Al-Fahya, Sindbad'’s old port-of-call, where the days are hot, the evenings balmy, Chinese-made rockets periodically fall into the Shatt and half the religious parties vying for control of this southern Iraqi city are stalking horses for the mullahs of Tehran.

You don'’t hear much about Basra these days, mainly because Baghdad tends to suck up the media oxygen. Down here, though, the Baathi Saddamites and homicidal martyrs of the north seem a world away and a species of humanity apart from the generally copasetic Shia (with the obvious exception of Moqtada al-Sadr). Here, too, aside from the occasional marooned Sunni fanatic, people scoff at the idea that the "“insurgents"” form some sort of patriotic "“Resistance,"” viewing them instead as majnoon, or "“crazy."” Conversely, British troops earn high marks and even Amriki comes in for some scattered praise. "“People here say they hate the U.S., but most of them are lying," says a local journalist. Occupation, where is thy sting?

Still, all is not rosy on the Shatt-al-Arab. Two years after its liberation, Basra still resembles something out of a Sergio Leone movie--a town of unpaved streets, crumbling buildings, corrupt politicians, suspicious-minded residents, sudden outbursts of violence. Over the last week, for example, gunmen killed up to 100 ex-Baathists (as I'’ve noted elsewhere, to some there is no such thing as an "ex"” Baathist.) Ask about the identity of these murderers and people claim they don'’t know--a denial that's not exactly true: Basra's police chief recently admitted to a U.K. Guardian reporter that he believed that Iraqi cops themselves were complicit the Baathist assassinations.

Electricity--for those unfortunates without access to a generator--is on for one hour, off for five. The water still bears the poignant bouquet of a cistern, while garbage remains Basrans de facto landscaping material. There are no cinemas, no theaters, no parks--nothing for thousands of bored young (and not so young) people to do except stroll the Corniche (a promenade beside the Shatt-al-Arab), plan future weddings with their first cousins or join a religious party.

As for me, readers of my website redzoneblog.com know that I am proscribed from wandering about alone, or even in the company of Iraqis. While no one quite knows how to gauge the security threat, a bounty still lies on foreigners' heads, enticement enough for Iraqi criminals or terrorists to execute a sahafee snatch-and-grab. Which means I basically spend my free time in Basra languishing in the hotel, smoking narghiles and ordering yet another delicious meal of lamb kabobs. Better this, of course, than being outfitted for an orange jumpsuit.

Besides the heat and lack of municipal services, a few major issues engage the imaginations of those Basrans capable of conceiving a world beyond their neighborhood mosque. One is so-called "federalism," or decentralization. The majority of locals I'’ve spoken with--from members of the feared Garamsha tribe, reputed to be behind most of the crime and kidnapping that roils the city--to the head of Basra's Central Bank, want to loosen administrative ties with Baghdad. For decades, Saddam's thugs have micromanaged the goings-on of this (and every other Iraqi) city, dictating everything from the directors of water and sewage departments to who gets accused of being a Da'’wa Party member and executed. This long-standing anger with Baghdad, combined with a post-election eagerness to assume more autonomy, is encouraging today'’s Basrans to agitate for more control of their affairs. Especially since regional governance promises rewards far beyond determining the next local transportation minister, but fluus, maal--in other words, money. Lots of money.
In the cards that the Grand Croupier dealt to Iraqi cities, Basra holds all diamonds. Oil, agriculture (including the date industry), port facilities, tourism (the Shatt-al-Arab and nearby Marshlands)--the resources here are breathtaking. "Baghdad will be a ghost town, while we will make Iraqi rich again," one business leader predicts. Others envision the city becoming the next Dubai, or even greater: the center of commerce and trading for the Gulf Region, and perhaps the entire Middle East. "“Ten years, maybe 15," is the timeline you often hear for this projected miracle.

And miracle it will seem, at least at this point. Basra has everything--wealth, a motivated population, access to the sea, a relatively secure environment. But like the old joke about the baseball team that is just three men short of World Series glory--Ruth, Gehrig and Mantle--the burg is missing three crucial elements: a rehabilitated infrastructure, a working banking system and overseas capital. This last exasperates business leaders, who believe that if foreign corporations and banks awaken to the fact that the city has such a safe and secure environment for investment, Basra, like Sindbad of yore, will once again set sail for prosperity and fame. (Never mind that last month a car bomb nearly obliterated the manager of the Central Bank, along with two army officers he was traveling with...but whaddaya want, this is Iraq.)

And so Basrans toil in the blazing heat of the Arabian Gulf, waiting for fate, kismet, providence, grace--or perhaps the more earthly mechanism of globalization--to inspire them to reclaim their former greatness. They'’ve been waiting for two years--suffering for decades longer than that--yet despite their current privations, seem prepared to endure for more years to come. "Basra is the mother of Iraq, the source of its wealth and we will be again, insha'’allah,"” Mahmoud Saddoun, chairman of the province'’s Governing Council told me recently. Iraqis are patience people, and some dreams just won't die.

Yours from the land where dreams of riches dance like djinn on the desert horizon,

Steven Vincent


Monday, June 06, 2005

Our crusading media 

A great perspective from a British journalist, Kevin Myers, on the legacy of the Deep Throat affair (hat tip: Dan Foty):
Whatever [Felt's] motive, the project was utterly disastrous for Nixon, and nearly as disastrous for journalism. For contrary to what most members of my profession believe, we journalists are not a particularly courageous or morally gifted species and, moreover, are pathologically inclined towards group thinking. And so, inspired by the Watergate example, all over the English-speaking world, young journalists got it into their not very imaginative heads that their primary duty was to expose corruption in government.

Travel back 25 years and ask a journalist whether he would prefer a scoop either into secret killings and burials by the IRA, or into MI5 operations in Belfast; nine times out of ten he would leap at the latter. For to gain kudos within our profession, we had to be instinctively against the government and its agencies. The swiftest way of drawing a torrent of derision upon your head in the company of your fellow journalists would have been to praise the security forces. Yet we know, the most flagrantly, extravagantly, wickedly corrupt and corrupting organisation throughout the Troubles was the IRA.
Muckraking journalism exposing corruption and scandals of our governments has a long tradition, but Myers in right that post-Watergate the overall ethos of journalism in the Western world has changed, with the once marginal assumptions becoming a part of the mainstream of journalistic thinking: the authority is to be viewed with extreme suspicion, your own government and its agencies are presumed guilty, everyone else will be given the benefit of the doubt. This set of attitudes is partly related to the view that most of our society's institutions are conservative, and therefore at odds with beliefs and sentiments of majority of journalists. The other aspect of it is that our governments make for such easy targets.

Yesterday, I was reflecting on the different reactions within the Islamic world to sacrilege committed by Muslims and non-Muslims:
Most likely this stark contrast between the outrage in one case and the deadly silence in the other is a sort of an underhanded compliment for America - the recognition of the fact that if the United States have done (or is said to have done) something wrong, you can jump up and down, burn the stars and stripes, chant against the Great Satan, and the Great Satan will profusely apologize for hurting your feelings. But if the Islamic extremists do something wrong - something sacrilegious and offensive - and you start jumping up and down in protest, the extremists will simply come over and kill you.
I think broadly applies to our home-grown journalists, too. The government and its agencies, such as the military, are constantly targeted because they are, in effect, sitting ducks: they will take accusations and will answer them in a civil manner. Yes, there will be some stalling and cover-ups from time to time, but more often than not the authorities will respond and accommodate criticism. There is preciously little personal and physical risk for a journalist in attacking the powers that be - they won't kill, imprison, or intimidate in return -– and the rewards, in terms of public adulation, work recognition, and professional advancement, are virtually unlimited.

Contrast that with tackling some of the real enemies of the free and open society, like organized crime, or domestic and foreign terrorist organizations. Go after them, and you might end up in concrete shoes on the bottom of the river, or with your throat slashed in some hovel in Pakistan. Mafia or Al Qaeda will not hold inquiries in response to your allegations, and won't give out press conferences to give the media an opportunity to cross-examine their officials. They won't fold because of passionate editorials, or buckle under pressure from the opposition politicians armed with media revelations.

Any wonder then, that - even without taking political bias into consideration - our crusading journalists prefer to storm own castles?


Good news from Afghanistan, Part 13 

Note: Also available from "The Opinion Journal" and Winds of Change. As always, thanks to James Taranto, Joe Katzman, and all of you for continuing support. Please also note that because of the Memorial Day weekend, the publication of this "Good news" has been postponed, so it now contains the news for the past five, and not the usual four, weeks.

Over the last few weeks, Afghanistan has been in the news again - unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons. The media pack has made a brief re-appearance in Afghanistan to report on carefully staged "spontaneous" riots, which briefly erupted around the country, ostensibly in protest over a report in "Newsweek" (later retracted) about desecration of Koran by the American military personnel at Guantanamo Bay.

Sadly, in the rush of commentary about Afghanistan's slide into anarchy and America's deteriorating position in Kabul, most of the international media again missed or downplayed many other stories, some of them arguably far more consequential than an anti-government rampage whipped up by opponents of President Karzai. Take this story, for example:
A crowd of 600 Afghan clerics gathered in front of an historic mosque yesterday to strip the fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar of his claim to religious authority, in a ceremony that provided a significant boost to the presidency of Hamid Karzai.

The declaration, signed by 1,000 clerics from across the country, is an endorsement of the US-backed programme of reconciliation with more moderate elements of the Taliban movement that Karzai has been pursuing ahead of the country's first parliamentary elections, due in September.

Symbolically, the ulema shura, or council of clerics, was held at the Blue Mosque in the southern city of Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban movement.

At the same venue in 1996 the Taliban leader held up a cloak said to belong to the Prophet Mohammed, which is kept in a shrine in the mosque. He was proclaimed Amir ul-Mumineen or Leader of Muslims by the same clerical body, one of the few occasions the title has been granted anywhere in the Islamic world in the modern era.
This important gathering and its implications were reported by only a handful of news outlets around the world - in stark contrast to the news several days later about the assassination at the hands of the Taliban of the head of the council and the suicide bombing at the historic mosque during his funeral, which appeared through hundreds of media outlets around the world.

Faced with this sort of media coverage, President Karzai expressed his exasperation during his recent visit in the United States: "Sometimes - rather often - neither our press, nor your press, nor the press in the rest of the world will pick up the miseries of the Afghans three years ago and what has been achieved since then, until today."

Below, then, the last five weeks' worth of stories that were yet again completely overshadowed by terrorism and violence.

SOCIETY: Registration of candidates for the September parliamentary election has closed, with some 5,300 Afghans putting their hands up: "Of the 5,531 hopefuls registered with the poll panel for the parliamentary vote, 2,826 are men and 212 women; for provincial council seats, 2,705 people including 319 women are in the run." To the satisfaction and relief of the officials, the registration has concluded peacefully. You can read more about the process, as well as the challenges of the next few months here. The voter registration will commence on June 25.

Meanwhile, both the candidates and the electors face a dilemma: "Would you want to run for office as a toothbrush? How about a meat grinder?... The Joint Electoral Management Body, JEMB, made up of a small army of international advisors along with nine Afghan election commissioners, has come up with a solution: create 400 generic symbols that have no religious, ethnic or political significance, and assign one to each candidate. Hence, voters this fall could be deciding whether they want a toothbrush, an electric plug, a hairbrush or a broom to represent them."

Afghan democracy is meanwhile maturing with growth of a multi-party political system:
A leading politician who ran against Hamed Karzai in last year's presidential election has announced the creation of a new coalition that hopes to win a majority of seats in the national legislature this autumn, and create a parliamentary form of government.

Mohammad Yunus Qanuni, who ran for president last October, said that the National Understanding Front (Jabha-ye-Tafahhum-e-Milli), made up of 11 political parties, would act as an opposition to the Karzai government.

Once in parliament, the bloc will seek to amend the constitution to replace the current system of government, which it believes gives the president too much power. Instead, the coalition favours a system in which "the prime minister is chosen by parliament, and power is shared between the president and the prime minister", said coalition spokesman Sayed Ali Jawed, of the Hezb-e-Wahdat-e-Islami party.
Quanuni's bloc, as well as another party, Mustafa Kazemi's Iqtidar-e-Milli, have been recently registered by the authorities. "So far, of 88 parties having submitted applications, 67 have registered with the Ministry of Justice."

And it seems that the democratic bug is proving very infectious in Afghan society:
For the first time in the history of the eastern Afghan provinces, barbers have form a committee, calling themselves Pak Salmanian or the clean barbers with the hope of taking part in the forthcoming provincial elections.

Barbers attending a meeting held in the provincial capital of eastern Nangarhar,Jalalabadd, from Kunar, Laghman and Nangarhar, nominated Saida Gul as their leader and representative.
According to Saida Gul, "A barber's life is in a bad way, because people no longer respect them in the society. So they have taken matters into their hands and want to address their own problems by having a representative." And another member of the association said that "democracy was at play and their rights were finally being met."

A new youth movement is aiming to put aside past conflict and build a better future for the country:
Hundreds of young men, fed up with the ethnic animosities that have long divided Afghanistan, are traveling the country preaching peace and brotherhood.

"Just yesterday our youngsters were trying to kill one another, but today they're thinking about national unity and they want to live as brothers," said Haji Sarajuddin, a teacher from Kandahar province.

Sarajuddin recently accompanied about 200 senior high school students from the traditional Pashtun stronghold in the south to Mazar-e-Sharif in the north, in an area where ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks are in the majority.

The two regions came to symbolise the deep divisions that marked the years of strife of the Nineties.

But in April, nearly 300 students in Mazar-e-Sharif warmly embraced their fellow countrymen from Kandahar when they met at a local hotel.

The students, all in their teens or early twenties, were too young to have participated in the years of civil war.

"We know that due to the conflicts, a lot of distance has come between the peoples of Afghanistan," Mohammad Nazar, 23, told IWPR. "You can't bring about national unity by just talking, so about 30 of us at schools in Kandahar got together and decided to do something practical."

From the core group of 30, the unity movement boomed, said Nazar.

The young men say they have no political agenda other than reconciliation. They have taken their message not only to Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, but also to other northern regions such as Parwan, Baghlan, Takhar and Kunduz, to Paktia and Zabul in the south, and to the capital Kabul and the nearby Wardak province.
Meanwhile, the Karzai administration gets an additional boost as some of his past enemies are coming in from the cold:
A Taliban splinter group, widely regarded as a moderate camp, on Monday pledged support to the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai.

Abdul Hakim Mujahid, heading the political wing of the Jamiat-i-Khuddamul Furqan, categorically declared aversion to the trail of murder and mayhem stemming from Taliban activities in Afghanistan.

In an exclusive interview with Pajhwok Afghan News, Hakim said they had snapped all links to the hard-core Taliban leadership after joining Khuddam's council three years ago.

Khuddam resumed activities in Peshawar (NWFP) soon after the ouster of Taliban from power in 2001. Last year, its leader Mohammad Amin Mujadeddi said the party, launched more than 30 years back, had been reactivated.
In a recent TV interview, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, "a former foreign minister for the ousted Taliban militia called on his former comrades to hold talks with the U.S.-backed Afghan government, and criticized Osama bin Laden for never caring for his host."

In the capital, a symbol of national unity is undergoing restoration:
Darulaman Palace, a symbol of national unity and independence since 1929, is being rebuilt after being left a shell of a building by years of civil war.

Designed by German and French architects and constructed mostly by hand between 1919 and 1929, Darulaman was commissioned by the then king, Amanullah Khan, who is still revered for ending British influence on the country.

Darulaman was used by the Afghan defence ministry from the Soviet occupation of 1979 onwards. It was severely damaged in 1991 and 1992 during the factional fighting that brought an end to communist rule.

"Darulaman palace represents the link between the old and new Afghanistan," said Nasrullah Stanekzai, deputy minister of information, culture and tourism.

When completed, the new palace will be used by Afghanistan's legislature for offices and meetings, although the body does not plan to convene there for its regular sessions.

The three-phase, 70 million US dollar reconstruction project is being undertaken by the Darulaman Reconstruction Foundation with financial assistance from German donors as well as expatriate Afghans living in Germany.

Rebuilding is expected to take three years. The project will employ an estimated 1,500 workers, said Abdul Hamid Farooqi, a foundation member.
Afghanistan is also receiving other support for the development of democracy: "The National Democratic Institute (NDI) together with the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) will train potential candidates competing for the Wolesi Jirga (the Lower House) and the Provincial Council elections, to be held concurrently on September 18... The training organized by NDI, will initially take place in eight major provinces and consist of training sessions on the election process and the requirements for political candidates."

USAID is also involved in training of political candidates: "In preparation for the parliamentary elections, voter education programs include independent candidate and political party training, with over 12,000 Afghan participants across 8 provinces. Judicial support includes human rights and women's rights training to 3,037 local community members in 6 provinces, judicial personnel training, the distribution of the Afghan Constitution and legal code, and English training for legal professors."

Afghan activists are also receiving recognition for their work: "Three democratic activists from Afghanistan have been chosen to receive the 2005 Democracy Award of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which will be presented on July 13 at an event in the U.S. Congress. The three honorees are leaders of civil society organizations who have distinguished themselves in educating average citizens and local leaders about the basic values and principles of democracy, the rights of women and ethnic minorities, strategies for peace-building and conflict resolution and the importance of broad political participation."

After decades of lawlessness, Afghanistan legal system is also receiving some much needed attention and assistance. A new law regarding the structure and authority of lower courts has been recently approved. "In this connection, 36 judges took oath of office and will later head the criminal, civil, trade and common security tribunals."

The Afghan government has also recently approved a new Juvenile Code, which gives Afghan children some much needed legal protections:
One key provision in the new Juvenile Code, which was formally adopted by the Afghan cabinet in February 2005, is the increase in the age of criminal responsibility from seven to 12 years, as well as recognizing the definition of a child as being anyone under the age of 18.

The code also introduces important protection for children under the process of the law, including no child can be held without trial for more than two months, and children awaiting trial will be kept in the care of their families or guardians. The new code provides a broader range of measures for children convicted of crimes, including official cautions and probation as an alternative to custodial punishments.
USAID continues to support the growth of the Afghan justice system through projects large and small:
A small but significant advance for Afghan democracy was made April 27. The Hirat Province districts of Guzara and Obe opened courthouses as part of the Afghanistan Rule of Law Project.

"After 25 years of warfare and the destruction or decay of so many courthouses, this event celebrates a new beginning," said Inge Frylund, a rule of law adviser with the U.S. Agency for International Development. "The opening of a new courthouse symbolizes the newfound importance of (the) rule of law in Afghanistan."

USAID funded the projects, but Afghan citizens did all the work.

"The architects, engineers, contractors and builders were all local Afghans working together to build the courthouses," said Kenneth E. Hennings, west regional development adviser for USAID.

Each project cost $90,000, including all the furniture and books.
Read also this report about the progress of civil service reform throughout Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is finally getting mapped, which will have immense benefits for land titling:
On April 3rd a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between USAID/Land Titling & Economic Restructuring in Afghanistan (LTERA) & the Afghan Geodesy & Cartography Head Office (AGCHO). The LTERA project has begun training a team of mapping specialists from the AGCHO in a fast and affordable technique using aerial photography for mapping. LTERA is providing equipment and capacity building in geo-spatial mapping technology and AGCHO is providing mapping materials, coordinates and a flying permit to restart the mapping of Afghanistan, which was interrupted by years of war.

Mapping is an essential component of LTERA's initiative to move Afghanistan towards a unified, modern system of property registration. "Only 30% of Afghanistan has been properly mapped," said Engineer Abdul Raouf, General President of AGCHO. "We still have 70% to go."
While the lot of a woman in Afghanistan is still a difficult and often dangerous one, many previously unheard of opportunities are opening up for the long forgotten majority of the population. An Afghan province, for example, is slowly adjusting itself to the first female governor:
High in the snow-capped Hindu Kush, visitors stream to see the new governor. A huddle of turbaned men carrying plastic sunflowers in a gold vase nod respectfully. The British ambassador flies in from Kabul. By morning's end, the office is filled with 25 bouquets of fake flowers, and a calf is tethered outside.

Nothing unusual, then, in a culture that prizes deference to authority, except for one thing: The new boss is a woman.

Habiba Sarobi is Afghanistan's first female governor, a major advance in a society where only four years ago, under the Taliban, women were denied everything from school lessons to lipstick.
Girls and women are finding new expression through sport and exercise:
From the corner of a Kabul basement, next door to a barber shop, come high-pitched and most unusual sounds. A small posse of Afghan girls shout "heey-ya!" as they practice karate jabs, kicks, and punches.

The eldest of the bunch, Nargas Rahimi, returned to her Afghan homeland last year after growing up in Iran. "I saw that Afghan women didn't have the faintest idea about exercise. So I came here to act as an example for Afghan girls and to help them take part in Afghan society," she says.

With the help of several new Kabul fitness clubs (with women-only hours) like the Khusal Khanmeena gym, Afghan girls and women are getting their first taste of sports. Girls' schools here are also introducing athletics, and the women's Olympic committee is now training some 1,500 Afghan girls to compete abroad. Last summer, for the first time in the nation's history, two women competed in the Olympics.

After years of being cloistered in their homes during Taliban times, women are now looking to private gyms and sports clubs as one of the few pathways opening up for women and girls trying to reemerge into a society that remains highly segregated - and dangerous. Two weeks ago, a woman was stoned to death for adultery.

"Sport can be used as a vehicle for creating a safe space, an entrance into the public sphere," says Martha Brady, a program associate with the Population Council in New York who has worked on bringing sports to girls in Egypt. In many countries, she says, "you can see an 8-year-old girl outside kicking a ball around. You don't see her when she's 13 because she's sequestered at home."
And the Iranian consulate in Kandahar city has recently donated more than 1,000 books to the local Women's Affairs Department, with promises that it will soon open literacy and computer centers for women throughout the city.

After the initial rush, which saw millions of Afghan refugees coming back home from Iran and Pakistan, the trickle continues. Over 50,000 Afghan refugees have returned home from Pakistan since the resumption of UN-assisted repatriation programme in March. 400,000 are expected to do so by the end of the year. Meanwhile, "in a bid to entice Afghan refugees in Pakistan back home, Kabul has announced it is building homes in six or seven Afghan provinces for about 48 thousand families in 2005."

Afghanistan's independent media is thriving in a climate freer than anything experienced before in country's recent history. Afghan TV has just undergone modernization: "The Afghan National Television... switched over to a new digital system. The conversion from analogue to a digital system took two years and was finalised with financial assistance of $7.44 million from the government of Japan."

Read this story of Afghanistan's new must-see TV:
A bearded man from the bazaar is whisked into a barber shop, where he's given a shave and a slick haircut. After a facial, he visits fashion boutiques.

In a few tightly edited minutes of television, the humble bricklayer is transformed into an Afghan metrosexual, complete with jeans, sweater, suede jacket, and sunglasses.

It may sound like standard reality TV fare in the West, but it's edgy in Afghanistan. Tolo TV aired the show only once.

But in a pop culture as barren as the mountains here, Tolo's mix of MTV-style shows and hard-hitting news programs has turned the up-and-coming network into an entertainment oasis.

Today, it's a kind of must-see TV that has government officials leaving work early to catch their favorite show. But it's also a lightning rod for Afghan critics who see the station as a threat to the country's Islamic values.
Some programming, however, aims to combine entertainment with more serious messages:
On the outskirts of the Afghan capital Kabul, Daud Maqsoudi and several other men and women were sitting around, talking about village reconstruction.

"We should be united and rebuild Chamanistan [Afghanistan]. Lets consult with everyone and find out how to rebuild our land," Haji Tawab, who was introduced as the community elder and head of the Shura [community council] was heard saying. Tawab's call was followed by a murmur of agreement from the group.

Maqsoudi and the others are not rural villagers but renowned Afghan actors recording the new "Let Us Build Our Village," radio soap opera that was aired for the first time on Wednesday. The new programme is only the second radio soap opera after the BBC's popular ten-year-old "New Home New Life" programme.

Like the BBC's offering, "Let us build our village" is also broadcast in Dari and Pashtu. It's the brainchild of the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD), and designed to realistically portray both the joys and hardships of life in rural Afghanistan. The programme will focus on progress in construction and reconstruction of rural communities.

"Afghans are really fond of soap operas and the experience of New Home New Life proved that soap opera dramas can be one of the best means of bringing people together and raising awareness of rural areas," Maqsoudi, the director and editor of the new drama, who also wrote for the BBC soap, said.
Meanwhile, Ajab Gul, Afghan cinematographer living and working in Afghanistan is predicting a revival of Afghan cinema, as he and many other artistic exiles are slowly returning back home. One of them is Babrik Shah, a former mudjahedin commander in the war against the Soviet occupiers and the star of Gul's latest film.

Community radio, too, is moving beyond its first baby steps: "USAID funded student radio stations in the Herat and Mazar Novice Journalism Training Programs (NJTP) are becoming increasingly self sufficient thanks to commercial sales. In Herat these funds are used to provide additional English language and management training for NJTP students, while in Mazar the funds are building a second studio in the radio station Rabia Balkhi. This facility will provide students with more live broadcasting opportunities and studio time."

Speaking of radio, music is a big hit after the Taliban-induced absence of many years:
Music was anathema to the Taliban, but now a programme of music charts broadcast by a private radio station every Friday has become a "must listen" for Afghans.

Until the US-led invasion in late 2001 toppled the regime led by Mullah Omar, anyone found listening to music faced a brutal beating and incarceration.

These days Arman FM, the country's only private radio station, broadcasts its "Top 40" on Friday to a large and devoted audience.

There are no useful national statistics, and so gauging the most popular songs demands considerable improvisation.

Arman - which means roughly "Request" - sends out its staff to the music shops of Kabul to conduct a weekly survey on which cassettes are most in demand.

Once the most popular singer is found, Arman's musical editors decide which of the songs to choose for the hit parade.
Music from the region is proving to be the most popular, including that of Ahmed Zahir, "the Afghan Elvis Presley", dead for 26 years but still on top of the charts.
Arman is popular not only for the charts. Listeners can phone in and talk on air. There are also music request programmes, and when games with prizes are broadcast, the entire mobile phone network occasionally goes down under the overload.

The station receives around 2,500 calls and letters every day, some of the missives running to pages and decorated with hearts carefully pasted on.

News is also an important part of the station's broadcasting. When there is news of major national or international significance, the music programme is interrupted for a news flash.

Three brothers of Afghan origin from Australia established the broadcaster, which went on air for the first time in April 2003 with a total staff complement of just nine.

Today there are 170 people working for the station, many of them crammed into just four rooms in a house in the centre of Kabul which is now much too small.

The venture has been a commercial success, the station earning a profit from its advertising.
Meanwhile, "an independent Pashto magazine - the first-ever initiative of its kind in the literary domain in the southern Ghazni province, hit the newsstands on Wednesday [4 May]. The bimonthly mag, Lawang (clove) seeks to provide an outlet of expression to the literati - particularly youths - of the province famous for its rich cultural history in the not-so-distant past."

And in a contribution to preserving cultural and historic heritage, "the French government will build a history museum in the capital city of Mazar, in northern Baghlan province. The head of the provincial information and culture department, Saleh Mohammad Khaliq said there have been no museums in the region since 1981, and this new building will house Afghan heritage and historical artifacts. Balkh Province is perceived to be a province of great historical importance in Afghanistan where many artifacts dating back to the Kushanid Dynasty, Buddhist and Greek era, and Islamic ages were found."

On a somewhat lower-brow level, Kabul is now playing host to a circus - a spectacle that many residents of the capital are seeing for the first time in their lives.

Health system is being slowly rebuilt, often with much needed assistance from overseas. The International Midwives' Day on May 5 was marked in Kabul with the launch of the Afghan midwives' association, with some 300 women from around the country present. Child and mother mortality remain a very significant problem in Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia will construct a hospital, a nursing school and playgrounds near the Kabul airport. Also in Kabul, "a diabetic center opened at the city's Maiwand Hospital as part of a bid to treat for free patients suffering from the disease... Prof. Mahmood Gul Kohdamani told Pajhwok Afghan News the project costing $38,000 was funded by the International Diabetes Federation (IDF). Currently, the center has 10 beds." A new 30-bed private hospital has opened in Deh Kepak district. And this German initiative will help Afghanistan's most vulnerable victims:
Children injured by landmines will be among those to benefit from a new paediatric hospital built and run by Germans in the Afghan capital Kabul.

Although the hospital, financed largely by the German charity Peace Village International, has been accepting patients since the beginning of the year, last month saw the formal opening, presided over by German ambassador Rainald Steck, Afghan Health Minister Mohammad Amin Fatemi and Irene Salimi, a well-known human-rights advocate who has long worked to aid Afghans in general and children in particular.

The 40-bed German Paediatric Hospital has the capacity to administer general anaesthetics to young patients. Before, such patients would have had to travel abroad for this treatment.
Japan, meanhwile, has recently donated $4 million-worth of equipment to two medical labs in Kabul.

Also: "An eleventh salt iodisation plant in Afghanistan began production... in the Bagrami district of Kabul, with the capacity to generate up to 40 metric tonnes of iodised salt per day for the capital's population and surrounding provinces. The new "Namak-e-Zendagi" - or "Salt of Life" - plant, which has been supported by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health and UNICEF and is managed by a private company, will supplement the existing supply of iodised salt within the area. Lack of iodine is a major cause of medical conditions such as goitre and physical stunting, brain damage in newborn babies, as well as impairing intellectual development and educational potential amongst children."

There is also some unfinished business now being taken care of: "Afghan health workers battling polio will set off into remote mountains next week hoping to reach about two million children who missed an immunization drive because they were cut off by heavy snow. Afghanistan is on the verge of eradicating polio with only one case reported so far this year compared with 27 in 2000." And an anti-smallpox vaccination drive is being currently prepared.

Education system, too, is rising again. With another recent grant assistance of $40 million, the World Bank is taking stock of its work to help rebuild the Afghan education system:
Over the past three years, the government of Afghanistan has made notable efforts to revive the higher education sector in parallel with ongoing progress in primary and secondary education. Eighteen higher education institutions have reopened their doors and enrollment has jumped from 4,000 students in 2001 to 37,000 in the fall of 2004. As in primary education, the enrollment profile is skewed with approximately two-thirds of students in their first and second years. With students returning from Pakistan and other countries and the students graduating from high schools, demand for higher education is on the rise, not only in terms of enrollment but also in terms of relevance of curricula and quality of teaching.

The Strengthening Higher Education Program aims to progressively restore basic operational performance at a group of core universities in Afghanistan, and to provide an institutional base for the development of an agenda focusing on tertiary education development, capacity building and reform. The program is envisaged as the first-phase of a long-term higher education development program in Afghanistan. In addition, it will act as a catalyst to attract various resources to the Afghan tertiary education sector with a long-term development framework. The program also facilitates and finances partnership program agreements for Kabul Polytechnic University, Kabul University, and four regional universities (Balkh, Herat, Kandahar and Nangarhar) with established foreign universities.
USAID continues to support training of teachers: "USAID supports several teacher training programs, including Master Trainers who train local teachers, through the Accelerated Learning program and through literacy programs at the Women's Teacher Training Institute. Over 7,500 teachers have received formal classroom training and 65,000 teachers in remote areas have been trained through the Radio Teacher Training Program."

Afghanistan is also getting closer to having own educational radio and TV:
Afghan broadcasting authorities have just reserved a TV and a radio FM frequency for Educational Radio and Television service to open a dedicated channel specialized in educational broadcasting. This concession was facilitated by UNESCO in the framework of a $2.5 million project funded by the Government of Italy for the upgrade and rehabilitation of distance education services in Afghanistan, and under which transmitters suitable to go on air in the given frequencies will shortly be provided.

After being almost totally destroyed during years of civil conflict, the building housing the Educational Radio and Television Centre (ERTV) of Afghanistan's Ministry of Education has been fully renovated and equipped with computers, radio-Tv production equipment and Internet, and is again operational since July 2004. UNESCO has already provided three months of intensive training in fields such as TV and radio techniques, use of digital equipment, programme production, English language proficiency and computer literacy. On December ten ERTV's "key" production staff -including two female producers- received advanced training at the Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and in the Malaysian Educational Broadcaster.
In higher education, Afghan academics are receiving some valuable direct assistance from overseas institutions. For example, at the San Diego State University:
Six Afghan professors are learning basic computer skills from their peers at SDSU as part of an ongoing effort to help rebuild the higher education infrastructure of the war-torn country.

"What we had was destroyed. We are more optimistic now," said Mohammad Tahir Torakay, a professor and head of what's left of the Department of Agronomics at Nangarhar University in Jalalabad.

In June, the Afghan professors will complete their month-long visit to San Diego to learn basic computer and internet skills at a learning laboratory at SDSU's City Heights Community Technology Center.

SDSU faculty and staff have been participating since last year in efforts to establish new computer-aided learning opportunities at Nangarhar University, including the installation in 2004 of a satellite-based computer laboratory that provides broad-band internet access to faculty and students for the first time. Their work is part of an ongoing project funded in part by Rotary International and The Fred J. Hansen Institute for World Peace.
And another group of Afghan academics is studying at Indiana University how to revive higher education back home:
"Our methodology of teaching is so much older. I need to know about that new methodology of teaching," said Mohammad Zaher Osool.

"When we finish, we transfer our knowledge to Afghanistan. We hope to bring a change there," said Mohammad Hakim Azimi.

University Professor Zarghona Achekzai is grateful to be teaching again. She was forced to quit for five years under Taliban rule. "At first it was difficult for all of the women because after a long time for the first time they go to the university and job for the first time and it was difficult," she said.
Read this extensive report from Steven Kelley, sports columnist at "The Seattle Times" about Afghanistan's only golf course and the triumph of the spirit it represents for its founder:
Kabul Golf Club is the pride of Afzal Abdul, who is symbolic of so many people I met traveling around this massive country last week with a delegation from the remarkable international aid organization Save The Children.

Neither the Soviet tanks, nor the civil wars, nor the Taliban's repression has robbed Afzal Abdul of his passion. The mines, the bombs, the fear that comes from 30 years of war hasn't taken away his love of golf.

How much do you love the game? Have you been jailed twice and charged with the crime of being a golfer? Afzal Abdul has.

The Soviets locked him up during their occupation in the 1980s. They built a compound adjacent to the ninth hole and every day watched the golfers suspiciously.

Finally, they stormed his clubhouse, closed down his course and put him in jail for six months, without giving him a reason. He believes they must have thought he was conspiring with the golfers to overthrow the Soviets...

Ten years later, the Taliban broke into his home as he slept, took all of his golf clubs, his shoes, all of the certificates and trophies he had won and jailed him for two months.
As Kelley writes: "This course is a metaphor for Afghanistan. It is the story of the country, really, condensed into nine holes of golf. It may be chewed up and littered by the devastation delivered by all of the wars. But it is surrounded by beauty that robs your breath. And with the Taliban government gone, hope now glimmers for Kabul golf, just as it does for all of Afghanistan."

In other sports news, "the Afghan Karate team has come second in the Asian "full-contact heats after winning a gold medal, beating their strongest opponent Japan... Qasim Ali Haideri, an Afghan refugee living in Iran won a gold medal in the middle weight category and 6 bronze medals were won by other Afghans."

And traditional British sport, popular elsewhere in South Asia, is starting to conquer Afghanistan:
A cricket craze seems poised to sweep the country following the surprisingly strong showing by a team of young Afghans at a recent international competition. Their success came despite the fact that they don't even have enough shoes for all the players.

The team - made up of youths between 13- and 15-years old - finished second out of 14 teams in their age bracket at the Asian Cricket Council Cup finals held in April in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Afghanistan's Hashmatullah Rabani was named the tournament's best player and Sanauallah Mohib was honoured as best bowler.

While the game has been played here since at least 1992, it has only been in the last four years, since the fall of the Taleban regime, that it has been able to flower.
RECONSTRUCTION: There is some good overall news for the Afghan economy: the currency is stable, as are fuel and gas costs; gold prices are up, but foodstuffs are down. Afghanistan is also getting its first international money transfer system with the United Arab Emirates, which is home to some 200,000 Afghans. And an United Arab Emirates-based Bank Alfalah has opened a branch in Kabul, "raising the number of the private banks operating in the country to a dozen... With a growing deposit base, Bank Alfalah offers facilities such as transferring remittances, credit cards, auto loans, home loans, ATMs, long-term finance, trade finance, structured finance and investment in money market and forex market."

In direct reconstruction assistance, the European Union has announced it will be delivering 340 million euro ($417 million) in aid in 2005/06 on top of 660 million euro ($809 million) already spent in Afghanistan.

The communications network keeps expanding throughout the country, bringing Afghanistan into the twenty-first century:
Before the fall of the Taliban in November 2001, 27 million Afghan citizens had to make do with approximately 20,000 working telephone lines. Domestic connections were spotty, while only a handful of expensive satellite phones could dial internationally.

Today, through the extraordinary efforts of the Afghan Wireless Communication Company and its parent company, Telephone Systems International (TSI), more than 300,000 citizens subscribe to the Afghan wireless network, with coverage in twenty cities and an additional twenty cities slated for service by the end of the summer.

The development of the Afghan wireless network has been the mission of Ehsan Bayat, an Afghan-American who fled Afghanistan in 1980. Observing the need for a comprehensive communications network in Afghanistan, Bayat partnered his United States-based company, TSI, with the Afghan Ministry of Communications to launch a wireless network that Bayat hopes will be "the digital artery of our nation, allowing communication, commerce, and electronic exchanges to flow easily among all Afghans."

This digital network "leaves no part of Afghanistan untouched," according to Bayat, who adds "by the end of the summer, we will have three-quarters of the nation covered."
Existing providers are grumbling about the government's decision to grant additional GSM mobile phone licences, but the market is growing and the increased competition is really paying off for the consumers:
Roshan, started by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, Monaco Telecom International and U.S.-based MCT Corp., has been operating in Afghanistan for 18 months.

With the country's landline system virtually non-existent after decades of conflict and neglect, Roshan and the other GSM provider, Afghan Wireless Communication Company, have about 800,000 subscribers, or three percent of the population.

That total is expected to grow to one million by the end of the year, Khoja said.

The Telecommunications Ministry says the new licenses will generate revenue for the government in fees, attract more than $200 million in new foreign direct investment and create thousands of skilled, well-paid jobs.
Says one operator: "When we came in to Afghanistan 18 months ago you used to pay $3 a minute for an international call, $1.50 for a local call and you used to have to pay $350 to have the access unit to get the service. Today, you can go into a bazaar and you can basically get service from one of the two operators for about $60, with a phone and sim card, and you're paying 10 cents a minute anywhere in the country and, at most, 50 cents for international calls per minute. Very, very competitive."

And there's more good news for Afghan consumers:
The Telecommunication Ministry had decided in principle to allow the private sector to launch the digital phone service at the district level.

Telecommunication Minister Amir Zai Sangeen told a news conference here on Tuesday the objective behind the decision was to enable people in the countryside to have access to a better communication system.

Currently, the digital phone facility is available in 11 provinces only and that too under a stringent government control. But as a result of Tuesday's decision, the private sector can now launch the service after seeking permission letter from the ministry concerned.
As mobile communication is experiencing a boom, 2,000 Afghan boys in Kabul are making a living selling pre-paid cards.

With another recent grant of $45 million, the World Bank takes stock of its work to help rebuild Afghan transport infrastructure:
More than two decades of conflict combined with a lack of maintenance has resulted in the deterioration of large part of Afghanistan's road network. This has meant that the road network has been rendered only partially usable with high transportation costs. Today, more than 50 percent of the main road network is in poor condition.

The Emergency Transport Rehabilitation Project (ETRP), funded by a World Bank credit of US$108 million, approved in March 2003 aimed at restoring road and airport infrastructure in Afghanistan. Under this project, the government funded the rehabilitation of the Kabul - Doshi, Pol-e-Khomri-Kunduz - Shirkhan Bandar highway, including already completed work on the Salang tunnel; rehabilitation of Kabul International Airport including reconstruction of damaged runway pavement, provision of airfield ground lighting, and other related equipment to support safe airport operations; and rehabilitation of secondary roads.

The supplemental grant of US$45 million for the Emergency Transport Rehabilitation Project approved today, will increment the project budget for Kunduz-Taloqan-Kishem road rehabilitation, and other components for satisfactory completion of the project. The project is expected to be completed by the Ministry of Public Works and Ministry of Transport by June 2007.
Afghanistan might finally be getting - for the first time - a railways connection with abroad:
The government of Afghanistan plans to build its first international railway, linking the former Taliban stronghold city of Kandahar in the south, to Pakistan, said Public Works Minister Shorah Ali Safari.

Safari said in an interview today that he submitted a proposal to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's cabinet 10 days ago and "hopes" the project will be approved this year for construction to start in 2006. He didn't elaborate on financing.

The country now has less than a kilometer (three-fifths of a mile) of railroad, built by the Soviet Union to supply its troops. Afghanistan, with a population of 29 million, prevented the British and Soviets, which both tried to rule the country, from building railways, seeing them as invasion tools. The U.S. invaded in 2001 and ousted the fundamentalist Taliban government.

"Time has changed," said Safari, 60, speaking in the Iranian city of Mashad. "Trains are no longer used to invade countries -- they'll boost our economy and benefit our people."
And an important road project is helping to rebuild infrastructure and create jobs:
The reconstruction of the 78 kilometers long Kandahar-Arghistan road - costing more than $1 million - started on Sunday [8 May].

Funds for the project, to be completed in three months, would be provided from the development budget, Kandahar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai said, adding the road would link his province with Oruzgan and Bamiyan.

The Kandahar's Public Works Department reckons the scheme, having a propitious effect on the economy, will offer 9,000 people employment opportunities.
Kabul airport, meanwhile, will be getting an upgrade, thanks to Japan: "Japan will provide Afghanistan about 28 million US dollars in grant aid for the construction of an international terminal at Kabul International Airport under an agreement reached by the two countries... The terminal is scheduled to be completed in 2007. Currently, both international and domestic services use the same terminal at the airport. The new terminal will be created for international flights and the existing terminal will be used for domestic services."

Just in time, too, as Air Arabia, the Middle East region's first and only low-fares airline, is opening a route between Bahrain and Kabul.

In energy news, a "pipe dream" is getting close to reality:
Back in the days of the Taliban, Mir Sediq was an engineer for Unocal, working on a pipe dream: bringing natural gas from Turkmenistan down through Afghanistan to Pakistani ports on the Arabian Sea.

Today, Mr. Sediq is minister for Afghanistan's energy, mining, and industrial sector, and he's confident that the pipeline is coming close to reality.

Driven by a Pakistani economy growing at nearly 7 percent a year and higher energy prices, the pipeline, on paper, is the closest thing to a win-win scenario as one can find in Central Asia. For Pakistan, expected to run out of its own reserves in five years, the pipeline will help sustain growth. For Turkmenistan, it helps to provide a market for its substantial gas reserves. And for Afghanistan, it could mean from $200 million to $350 million per year in transit fees.

In the rough parlance of oil industry executives, that beats a kick in the head.

"This pipeline is an opportunity for Afghanistan, and we would like to keep Afghanistan a place that is open and attractive for foreign investment," says Sediq. "The foreign investment rate of return is 17.5 percent, based on the assumptions that the gas reserves in Turkmenistan are enough and the consumption rate in Pakistan remains high. Only security of the pipeline is left, and the government of Afghanistan is capable of providing security."
As the report notes, "it wasn't so long ago that the pipeline was thought to be dead. Taliban attacks in the south appeared to be on the increase, and other sources of energy, such as Iran or Qatar, were more attractive. But growing Pakistani demand, increased Afghan stability, and higher energy prices for Turkmenistan have made the pipeline increasingly feasible. This week, President Hamid Karzai told donor countries the project was a top priority - on a par with the war on terror and opium eradication."

Thanks to Indian authorities, the Afghan capital should be getting more power soon:
Committed to building infrastructure in Afghanistan, the government is all set to clear the... Pul-e-Khumri to Kabul power transmission project that will bring the much-needed Uzbek power for the capital. The project is to be executed by the Power Grid Corporation.

Sources said that the Finance Ministry has already approved the key project after a nod from the committee on non-planned expenditure. It is now waiting for a green signal from the Cabinet after which the public sector undertaking would take on the construction of the 205 km transmission line.

As part of the reconstruction exercise, Kabul would be getting 300 MW of power from a hydel power venture in Uzbekistan. Power would first be evacuated from the power station all the way upto Pul-e-Khumri and thereon to Kabul.
There are also plenty of small-scale projects to electrify Afghanistan. For example, thanks to the Aga Khan Foundation, villagers in Khenjan district, 50 kilometers south of the northern Baghlan province are now getting electricity from two hydroelectric and diesel-electric generators.

And some infrastructure initiatives are the result of local private charity: "An Afghan businessman has donated more than 19 million afghanis (about $400,000) for a water supply project in a village of Guzra district in the western Herat province."

Afghanistan's links with the region are expanding. Pakistani authorities are opening another 10 border crossings with Afghanistan, in addition to the two currently in operation. The trade between the two countries is definitely on the rise: "Pakistan's exports to Afghanistan have almost reached the mark of $1 billion, recording a growth by 84 percent in the last 10 months of the current fiscal year." Afghan economy is still very underdeveloped and will take some time before its exports to Pakistan reach significant levels.

Meanwhile, 50 Iranian enterprises are currently operating in Afghanistan. They are "involved in production of potable water, medicine, polyethylene pipe, electrical switches, concrete, computer and liquid gas cylinder filling device as well as wood industry, construction of houses and restaurants and establishment of dental clinics."

Agriculture still remains Afghanistan's main industry and employer - and the efforts are underway to modernize the sector. The United Nations, for example, is helping Afghan farmers to become more efficient:
The United Nations agricultural agency is set to oversee the distribution in Afghanistan of around 14,000 grain storage silos - produced by local tinsmiths and technicians - to farmers in nine provinces.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said the aim of the project is to help reduce post-harvest losses, improve grain quality, increase the income of farmers by allowing them to sell grain during the off-season when prices are more favourable and enhance household food security.

Some 220 tinsmiths and technicians in the country are currently being trained through the project in an effort to build local capacity and improve the quality of local silo production.

"The small metallic silo has been adopted by many developing countries as appropriate, affordable technology for small- and medium-scale farmers to prevent food losses," said Tim Vaessen, FAO's Emergency and Rehabilitation Coordinator.

The locally produced silos, with grain storage capacities ranging from 120 to 1,800 kilograms, will be given to individual farmers, farmers' groups and cooperatives.
USAID is helping too: "Farmer training programs take a holistic approach, including: agricultural best practices taught through crop demonstrations and radio programs, infrastructure construction (farm to market roads and irrigation systems), high value crop production such as potatoes and grapes, microfinance practices, quality control measures, poultry production, livestock health services, agricultural processing and marketing, agri-input dealer training, business and management skills through Village Based Seed Enterprises. To date, 642,732 farmers have been served through these programs."

Also: "Laboratories to test the quality of imported food will be set up at all strategic ports and cities in Afghanistan, with 1 Million euro [$1.22 million] donated by the German government... The agreement was signed on May 16 between the UN director of food and agriculture and Obaidullah Rameen the minister of agriculture and livestock in the capital Kabul."

Read the story of one of the people who are making it happen:
Randy Frescoln had to make something out of nothing during a six-month assignment as a rural development worker in Afghanistan.

With no money to spend and no real job description, Frescoln set out to rebuild the war-torn Asian nation's agriculture. The job tested his ingenuity, creativity and, ultimately, his survival skills.
Lastly, you can always try to cash in on notoriety: "Provincial officials in eastern Nangarhar say they aim to develop the mountains of Tora Bora, once believed to be an Al Qaeda stronghold and a hide-out for Osama Bin Laden into a tourist attraction."

HUMANITARIAN AID: One of the poorest countries in the world, Afghanistan still needs much direct assistance to help its people in the short term. A significant proportion of that assistance is being provided by governments, but international and non-government organisations and individuals are also contributing.

Here's one program run by the International Organization for Migration:
The labour intensive programme underway throughout the province is aimed at stabilizing living conditions of communities with vulnerable populations; encouraging participation in a variety of legitimate income generating activities through the quick disbursement of cash and other resources to targeted groups and at raising the quality of public infrastructure while fostering cooperation between the local, district, provincial and national government officials and the affected population. So far, there are 23 projects under the programme that will employ an estimated 10,000 skilled and unskilled labourers for a period of 50 days each. More projects, which will employ even more people, are in the pipeline with all due to finish by the end of the year.

In the capital of Badakhshan, Faizabad, one of the projects is improving irrigation for farmers. The city is located in a valley with great potential for agriculture, but most fields are rain-fed only due to poor irrigation systems. IOM engineers have designed an improved intake for the canal so the volume of water available for irrigation will increase substantially. This will allow more farmers to water their fields and to increase agricultural output...

Other projects include the rehabilitation or construction of water supplies, roads, bridges, schools and clinics.
Four thousand houses for victims of war are being constructed by the authorities in Behsud district of the eastern Nangarhar province.

Meanwhile, to help education "a UK-based charity donated books to refurbish two school libraries in Dehdadi district, about 30km from" Mazar-i-Shrif. "About 2,000 books on such diverse topics as cultural, historical, and social works were donated to improve the libraries of Abida Balkhi and Bibi Zainab Girls' High Schools, which were pillaged during the prolonged civil strife."

Kids from Georgia are also helping: "Twenty thousand preschoolers from Primrose Schools recently raised $20,000, which was matched in-kind by School Specialty, and used to purchase 250 active learning kits for several schools in Afghanistan. The first shipment arrived in Kabul, with additional kits set to arrive over the next few weeks. The first school to receive the kits sent back a thank you note and photographs of smiling Afghan children playing with the learning toys."

So are kids from Minnesota - although more help is needed to make it happen: "When a Minnesota soldier stationed in Afghanistan put out a call for shoes to be donated to Afghans, the Brainerd High School French Club was quick to respond, collecting 1,100 pairs of shoes in the club's recent shoe drive. But the BHS students now need about $1,000 to ship the shoes to Afghanistan." See the story for details if you can assist.

THE COALITION TROOPS: The Coalition forces throughout Afghanistan continue not only to provide security but also assist with the reconstruction of the country and provision of humanitarian aid.

In western Afghanistan, Task Force Longhorn is reporting on their contribution:
Eight months and almost five million dollars... 221 projects completed or in progress, such is the legacy of Combined Task Force Longhorn.

From the youngest to oldest, from men to women, the CTF Longhorn reached out and touched the people of western Afghanistan.

"We have completed projects that range from building 10 new schools to air dropping humanitarian assistance supplies and then almost everything in between," said Maj. Rick Johnson, Regional Command West civil affairs officer.

CTF Longhorn took over for Task Force Saber in Oct. 2004, and has led the way ever since in providing humanitarian assistance and provisions to the Afghan people.

Projects started during TF Saber's era were completed by Longhorn, which includes four new schools in the Shindand district of the Farah province.

"Building schools has the largest and longest impact," said Johnson. "They can't be destroyed or misused as easily as vehicles. The entire community gets excited. The locals are very serious about education, even the warlords."
The Khost Provincial Reconstruction Team , meanwhile, is winning hearts and minds:
Maj. Carl Hollister says he has spent more time building schools and an electrical grid than fighting terrorists, but feels that his work has done as much as the force of arms to cut back Afghanistan's insurgency.

Leading a convoy of armored Humvees through the dusty streets of this city near the border with Pakistan, the U.S. paratrooper says his troops are ready to do battle at any time with the Taliban remnants and al Qaeda militants seeking to undermine the government of President Hamid Karzai.

But as commander of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Khost, his primary job is to oversee projects aimed at winning the hearts and minds of Afghans.

Interviews with local residents suggest that the program is working. "Life is a lot better now than it was under the Taliban," said Atta Attaullah, who runs a small shop that sells DVDs to U.S. soldiers.

Security remains a major concern for traders like him, who travel in large groups because of carjackings and terrorist attacks because they cooperate with the Americans. But since the fall of the Taliban, he said, "Girls and boys can go to school, and they don't have to pay the teachers. The coalition forces established a lot of schools, water pumps and roads."

Rahmat Ullah, a shop owner by day and a general practitioner by night at a local clinic, said the change of government had allowed him to complete his medical degree at Khost University. "U.S. forces bring us peace and freedom," Dr. Ullah said. "It's worth a lot of sacrifice."
In southern Afghanistan, the troops are building the first road linking Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces:
Creating the first road to directly connect the remote city of Tarin Kowt with the southern city of Kandahar is a monumental task no matter how you look at it.

No one knows that better than the Soldiers of Task Force Sword, the engineers of Combined Joint Task Force-76.

"Everything has to be trucked or flown in," said U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Scott Walden, Task Sword's operations sergeant major. "The areas through which this road is being constructed are so remote that many of the items our soldiers need have to be flown in."

The Soldiers are responsible for the road's "bottom half." They make sure the area where the asphalt will be laid is level, that water on it drains and that culverts run along it to handle the draining water.

"The number of Soldiers we have working on the project changes as we speak," he said. "Right now it's probably about half a battalion of engineers."

Walden explained the U.S. Agency for International Development will add an asphalt-like substance after his unit completes its work.
Project is expected to be finished before September.

Near Kabul, the troops from Indiana National Guard are trying to help the locals rebuild their lives:
Children are one of the Guard's key focuses. The troops tell News 8 that one in four Afghan children will not live to the age of 10. The need can be overwhelming... One orphanage News 8 visited is home to nearly 700 children. Even more take classes there. One teenager, Kalimullah, said the kids were happy to see American soldiers. "All of children want you here because they bring security, they bring peace, all of the children like [you]," he said.

Members of the Indiana National Guard also bring jobs to the locals. When News 8 was at the orphanage, people were being hired to lay blacktop. The commander emergency relief program provides the money to pay for projects that rebuild Afghanistan. LtCol Paul Grube of New Albany, Indiana is in charge. "The reality is if they can't feed their families then Taliban will pay someone $20 to fire a rocket. And so we've got to put the economy back together and once the economy is together then the quality of life is better and they're not so willing to go to war," he said.

The United States is spending $87,000 to fund a new kitchen going up at a teaching hospital. At the moment, all they have is a makeshift stove.
Work is often taking soldiers to the remotest areas of the country
During a four-day road trip into the far northwest corner of Afghanistan, a provincial reconstruction team based in Herat visited more than two dozen settlements, several of which weren't even on the map.

The journey covered 265 miles, lasted 78 hours and encompassed four districts. Led by a small civil affairs staff, the 16-member team met community leaders, explored remote areas and gathered information that could be of use in the future.
The Coalition forces are also increasingly involving the Afghans themselves in the reconstruction effort, hoping that the skills learned in the process will have positive future spin-offs:
Pushing at each other, Afghan men crowd together early in the morning, hoping to be the one accepted into a trade school to earn $3 that day and, more importantly, a skill that will provide a future.

In a nation where unemployment remains a pressing problem, the Contrack Construction Training Center is a place where Afghans are paid to learn necessary trade skills that upon graduation will help them obtain jobs with Contrack International, one of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' main construction contractors.

The Corps' Afghanistan Engineer District is committed to encouraging the employment of Afghans. "Our hope is that at some point we can reach the entire Afghan workforce," said U.S. Army Col. John. B. O'Dowd, district commander, at a recent news conference.

"A majority of workers on our projects are (Afghans) and 75 percent of the workers involved in our new construction projects are Afghans," he said.
The troops are also winning local support through some less than usual projects:
The American Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in the eastern city of Jalalabad... completed rebuilding a main mosque costing $29,000.

The spacious Spin Jumaat (White Mosque) in the city center can house thousands of worshippers, said Nangarhar Governor Haji Din Mohammad, who lauded the American PRT's gesture.

Although foreigners themselves did not offer prayers, he observed, "their rebuilding of the mosque is a good lesson for terrorists, whose propaganda campaign against American presence here knows no end."
Elsewhere, the Coalition forces also support local culture and religion:
The day before members of the Khost Provincial Reconstruction Team visited this small village in northern Khost province, a man brought his sick son here from Peshawar, Pakistan, in the hopes that powers from the shrine here would cure him.

No one knows if his visit was successful, but it is just one example of how revered the shrine here is.

Considered the second holiest site in Khost province, the Faquirana shrine is the destination for many Muslims who believe it has healing powers.

At more than 80 years old, however, the shrine was badly in need of repairs. Recently, the Khost PRT gave the village $7,200 to help restore the shrine and a mosque just down the road.
As one of the local residents said, "The Taliban are all over the Afghanistan, but we didn't get anything from them... But the Coalition is a friend of Islam."

And in another similar project:
The Khost Provincial Reconstruction Team is providing $22,000 to help repair a mosque and adjacent buildings damaged by rockets fired by insurgents.

PRT members attended an April 27 press conference at the mosque that marked the start of reconstruction on the buildings damaged in the terrorist attack.

Enemy fighters had fired rockets at Forward Operating Base Salerno March 22, from somewhere near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

One of the rockets fell short of its intended target and instead hit near a mosque in the small village of Khodigi Kalay, just outside the southern perimeter of the base.

Although the rocket missed the mosque by about three feet, shrapnel from the rocket caused significant damage to the mosque's facade, porch and a support pillar.
In a country where the health system is struggling to cope, any assistance that the troops can offer is welcome. Actions such as this are routine: "Medics from Forward Operating Base Salerno christened a new clinic just outside the base May 5 by treating 100 local Afghans as part of a Medical Cooperative Assistance Program. Medics from Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the FOB Salerno Hospital, along with two local doctors saw about 100 patients. Most of the patients had minor problems and were given medicine and sent on their way. This was the first MEDCAP at the clinic, which was completed April 25 at a cost of about $20,000."

Here's another example:
In a country where preventive medicine is not readily available, the Task Force Victory Surgon Cell can make a big difference by going to remote villages to treat local people.

"We are here to identify any medical problems the Afghans may have, treat what we can, and refer the serious cases to the hospitals," said Dr. (Col.) Richard Hines, a family practice doctor with the cell.

The surgeon cell is comprised of Soldiers who practice many forms of medicine. Doctors, veterinarians, medics, and entomologists are a few of the professionals in the surgeon cell here, said Hines.

During operations, four stations are set up to control the flow of people and animals: a women's clinic, a men's clinic, a well-check tent for children and a livestock clinic, said Maj. Jamie Blow, a preventive medical officer with the surgeon cell.
There is also help for children:
Children suffering from difficult-to-treat medical conditions in rural Afghanistan may have no better friend than the U.S. Marines of "America's Battalion."

Over the course of their deployment to Afghanistan, the Marines and Navy corpsmen of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, have come to the aid of several children who were not receiving treatment for serious injuries.

One teenager, Syed Ullah, recently received a prosthetic eye after Marines on patrol in Nagalam learned of his wounds.

"Last year an insurgent's 107 mm rocket landed in Syed's village during an indiscriminate attack that has become the mainstay of (the insurgents') tactics," said Marine 1st Lt. Justin Bellman, executive officer of the 3rd Marines' Company I. "The rocket sent shrapnel into his face and arms, disfiguring him."
Troops at the Kandahar Airfield's U.S. medical facility have also recently treated a 3-year old girl, brought to a forward operating base by her mother, and suffering with 2nd degree burns.

Read also the story of Air Ambulance personnel who are regularly flying medical evacuation missions for Afghan civilians. And sometimes, medical help can have important security side-effects:
An Afghan boy whose father received treatment from a visiting U.S. military medical team last week turned a cache of ammunition and drugs over to coalition forces April 21.

The boy led Afghan National Army and coalition forces to a house in a village 10 kilometers away from Ghazni. The ANA approached the house's owner, who claimed he had no weapons inside. Afghan and coalition forces searched the dwelling and discovered a cache of 13 rocket-propelled grenades, a Russian-manufactured machine gun, a mortar round, several improvised-explosive-device components, plastic explosives, numerous rounds of ammunition and two bags of opium.
The troops often "adopt" certain local institutions, as this action shows:
One of the easiest and most effective ways U.S. Soldiers can win the hearts and minds of Afghans is through the children. Troops from Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Combined Joint Task Force-76, got a chance to win the hearts and minds of young Afghans May 9 during a trip to an orphanage and all-girl school.

The troops, most of whom are based out of the Southern European Task Force on Caserma Ederle in Vicenza, Italy, visited the side-by-side installations in Charikar, a village near Bagram Airfield. While there they handed out school supplies, toys and clothing to the kids.

The HHC Soldiers adopted the two installations taking donations from various individuals, groups and organizations from their home stations and the States. The school and orphanage were adopted by the previous HHC troops that the CJTF-76 troops relieved in March. The last time they visited, however, was November.
In agriculture, "the American contingent in the Italian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) and US-based aid agency Catholic Relief Services on Monday donated $30,000 for staving off a looming threat posed by locusts in western Herat."

It's not just the American troops, of course. This, from the Italian contingent:
Today in the village of Qal eh ye Shanan, a games park created by the Italian military contingent (CIMIC) opened after two weeks work under the direction of the men of the "2nd Reggimento Genio Guastatori di Trento". The work - a memo reads - involved the installation of games equipment, the creation of a garden with benches, a volleyball pitch and the removal of tons of refuse from the games park about 1500 metres from 'Camp Invictia', the Italian base in Kabul.
Thanks to generous help from back home, the Italian soldiers are also constructing a school for the village. And the troops are also helping nuns help the locals:
The Italian contingent keeps on supporting Kabul's population. In this case, the help is for the so-called "angels of the sky", the three nuns of the Little Sisters of Jesus congregation who are still in the country: Chantal (French), Mariam (Swiss) and Chaterine (Japanese). The men of the 8th artillery regiment 'Pasubio' delivered 5 tonnes of humanitarian aid to them, to be handed out to the local people. The goods include 1800 kg of clothes, 700 of bedcovers, 2000 of food, 500 of toys and 800 of shoes. The logistics operation being led by col. Francesco Franza will have to deliver 1,350,000 litres of water for showers, toilets, bakeries, laundries, 58,000 hot meals; 69,000 litres of mineral water; 105,000 litres of diesel fuel, and repair armament devices and means of transport, take care of road maintenance and provide health assistance with ambulances.
In another action, the Italian-run Provincial Reconstruction Team has donated much needed medical equipment to a hospital in Herat; "the Italian civil-military team donated seven beds, 24 tables, a microscope, an operating table, and a stretcher,." The team has already spent $400,000 on public projects in Herat, and construction will begin soon on a center for the blind.

Meanwhile, French troops have finished building a school: "Built near the villages of Bandikhaneh, Sangaw, Shaykhu and Qal Eh Ye Miran the Katacha primary School will be able to give education to more than one hundred children of those villages. Seven classrooms, administration and teacher's office, sanitary facilities are now ready for the new school year. Initiated less than 10 months ago by the French Battle group, with funds from the European community delegation for Afghanistan for an amount of 60 000 euro (100 000 $)."

And Egyptian military personnel is providing valuable medical service to Afghan people at the Egyptian hospital:
Tears of joy spring to the corner of Khan Mohammad's eyes as he talks about what the Egyptian doctors have done for his son, Abdul Hafiz.

One afternoon, Hafiz stepped on an active mine. The explosion sent pieces of shrapnel into a portion of his small intestine, said Dr. (Lt. Col.) Hany M. Fares, the chief consultant of surgery with the Egyptian Hospital.

"He required a minor surgery to repair his small intestine," said Fares. "We cut out the damaged piece of intestine and then sewed it back together"...

Every day, the doctors and nurses at the Egyptian Hospital treat Coalition patients and local Afghans with stories like Hafiz's. The hospital staff treats 300 to 400 patients a day, said Col. Emad Rabie, commander of the Egyptian Hospital...

From serious problems to preventive medicine, the doctors and nurses at the Egyptian Hospital see it all...

There's a multitude of highly skilled doctors, nurses and professional services offered at the hospital, said Rabie.

The hospital has a gynecological clinic, radiology tent, ophthalmology clinic, pediatrics clinic, surgery tents, lab tent, internal medicine clinic, dentistry clinic and tropical medicine clinic.

Every six months, the hospital staff rotates out. The present staff has been here for three months. In the past three months, the hospital has treated 26,000 patients and performed 300 operations.
SECURITY: In a good sign for the future security cooperation between Afghanistan and the United States:
Most of the Afghans support President Hamid Karzai's bid to have long-term security ties with the United States.

President's spokesman Jawed Ludin told a news conference after the assembly of more than 1,000 chiefs and regional leaders, which Hamid Karzai summoned in the presidential palace... to debate on relationship with the US and whether permanent bases should be given to the US forces in Afghanistan.

"Our findings from today's discussions were that people are very positive about this, and I think that people are thinking, by and large, exactly on the same line as we had expected," Ludin stated and added that Karzai would discuss long-term strategic relations with the US when he meets President George W Bush this month.
On that topic, you can read the joint declaration issues during President Karzai's recent trip to the United States, which sets out in detail the future of the strategic partnership between the two nations.

According to some experts, the recent tactic of the Taliban to concentrate their forces and fight (which is not working out very well for them as they are generally getting wiped out - see stories below) is a result of the success of the Coalition and Afghan forces in making Taliban's previous guerilla tactics untenable:
Ian Kemp... an independent defense analyst in London... notes that the Afghan population, as a whole, is less sympathetic to the Taliban than it had been to mujahedin who fought the Soviets during the 1980s. He says that as support the Taliban is eroded further, it is more difficult for militants to find villages where they can safely take shelter after conducting a guerilla attack.

"The U.S.-led coalition is gradually eroding the sanctuary that was previously enjoyed by the guerilla fighters -- thus, making it far more difficult for them to operate the classic mujahedin hit-and-run attack upon their opponents and then retreat into a vast sanctuary and even cross the border into Pakistan. The Taliban today do not enjoy the popular support throughout the country. And, of course most significantly, the fact that the Pakistani forces are operating along the Afghan-Pakistan border makes it more difficult for the Taliban to operate," Kemp said.

Newly constructed provincial roads and an expanded number of U.S. forward operations bases also have strengthened the abilities of the U.S.-led coalition and reduced areas of potential sanctuary for guerilla fighters in Afghan provinces like Khost, Zabol, Uruzgan, and Kandahar.
According to Colonel Gary Cheek, commander of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, many of the clashes with the Taliban are now "limited to the border region where insurgents can launch small-scale attacks, then attempt to return to Pakistan."

One recent security operation certainly demonstrated that peace is settling over some previously dangerous parts of the country:
When the U.S. Marine Corps' 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment ventured into the Tora Bora mountains recently to hunt down enemy fighters, they instead found Afghans eager for a brighter future.

The mission, dubbed Operation Celtics, began as an offensive in an enemy sanctuary - the rugged mountains of Nangahar Province that stretch along the Pakistan border.

It was one of several missions launched this week by Coalition troops to locate insurgents. Afghan National Army soldiers took part in the operations. "Lima" Company Marines were prepared for a fight, but found themselves sipping tea with village elders.

In the first few days of the operation, the Marines distributed roughly eight tons of civic aid. And not a shot was fired.
The amnesty program for Taliban leaders and fighters continues to bear fruit:
A top Taliban commander and dozens of his men have surrendered to the Afghan government as part of an arms-for-amnesty scheme, a military official said Tuesday.

Mulla Abdul Khaliq, locally-known as Haji Malam and 40 of his guerrillas on Monday surrendered to Afghanistan's military forces in south-central Uruzgan province, Muslim Hamed, the military commander of southern region told AFP.

"He was a big Taliban regional commander. His surrender will help in security in the region," the general said.

He said Khaliq was organising most of the anti-government insurgencies in the Uruzgan area where the remnants of the Taliban have been frequently attacking government targets and US-led troops since their regime was toppled by a US invasion in late 2001.
In another recent defection:
Peals of laughter rang through the remote Afghan farmhouse as neighbours rushed to welcome home the long-lost son of the soil. Hugs and handshakes were exchanged. Teenage boys offered trays of sweet tea. The women waited patiently in a back room, silent and unseen as ever.

The bearded man at the centre of the hubbub, Mufti Habib-ur-Rehman, allowed his solemn face to crack into a grin. "It's good to be back," he said.

Smile he might. Days earlier Mr Rehman, 35, a one-time Taliban governor, had been a wanted man. He lived as a fugitive across the border in Pakistan, 20 miles to the south. He had not seen his family in years. US troops were offering a $2,500 (£1,360) award for his capture, dead or alive.

Last month, after secret negotiations brokered by local mullahs - and promises from the Americans not to shoot - he came in from the cold.

"I am not a terrorist. I am here to work for the reconstruction of my country," he said before pledging allegiance to the president, Hamid Karzai.

Mr Rehman is one of dozens of mid-level Taliban officials who have defected to the government this year, a process which US officials hope is the beginning of the end for the insurgency that has dogged them since 2001.
Two more low-ranking Taliban officials have joined the reconciliation process in late May, and the Afghan authorities are planning more:
The Afghan government has announced an initiative designed to repatriate noncriminal combatants and insurgents back into Afghan society.

Professor Sibghatullah al-Mojaddedi announced the Tahkim-e Solh, or Strengthening Peace, program at a May 9 news conference in the Afghan capital of Kabul. Mojaddedi will serve as a commissioner for the program.

The program is designed to urge members of the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin and other anti-coalition militia who have not been involved in criminal activity to return to Afghanistan from foreign lands. The goal, Mojaddedi explained, is to "help unite Afghanistan and guarantee our country's sovereignty, peace, stability, and a secure environment for all Afghans."
The authorities are also getting tough on militants:
The president of Afghanistan's supreme court has issued a fatwa or religious edict saying that anyone who kills a foreigner will be sentenced to death. Fazli Hadi Shinwari, who also heads the Council of Islamic Leaders in Afghanistan, said that the recent kidnapping of Italian aid worker, Clementina Cantoni was also against Islamic teachings and that they had decided to issue the fatwa against all of these actions.

"Those who come to our country, respecting our laws and helping us are untouchable, according to the Islamic law," said Shinwari in an interview with the Italian daily, Il Giornale, explaining why such a strong fatwa was issued yesterday by the Council of Religious leaders, against killing foreigners. The fatwa adopted by the supreme count states that: "If a foreign guest of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is killed, the punishment for the assasination is the death penalty."
The demobilization of armed militias continues throughout Afghanistan:
More than 50,000 former Afghan military troops have disarmed, and 90 per cent of them have entered a programme aimed at helping them to re-join society...

"The most popular area of reintegration is agriculture with 43.6 per cent of participants choosing that option," Ariane Quentier, spokesperson for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), told a press briefing in the capital Kabul. "Vocational training is a distant second with 26.9 per cent participation."

Of the 50,514 soldiers who have laid down their arms, 44,995 have entered into the reintegration programme.

Ms. Quentier also announced that nearly 31,000 light and heavy weapons have been collected under the Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) process. "The discrepancy between the number of collected weapons and disarmed soldiers stem from the fact that certain weapons are manned by more than one soldier," she explained.
Here's more about the program:
Once a combatant, 34-year-old Abdul Ghafour wakes each day to begin his new life as the sole carpenter in the tiny village of Janat Bagh. The father-of-five, once a trained RPG [rocket propelled grenade] launcher in the former 54th military division, now helps to reconstruct his own village in northeastern Kunduz province's Khanabad district.

Ghafour's was one of the very first militias to be decommissioned through the UN-backed disarmament demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programme in November 2003.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are supporting Kabul's efforts to honourably decommission the Afghan Military Forces (AMF). This is being achieved through the Afghanistan's New Beginnings Programme (ANBP), the official name of the DDR scheme. Today it is considered a major step towards restoring national security and creating an enabling environment for further security sector reform.

After surrendering his gun, Ghafour chose to take up carpentry in his efforts to rebuilt his life and reintegrate into society, while at the same time learning how to read. In addition to having a proper trade, he is also one of the few people who can read and write in Janat Bagh where most of the adults are former combatants and youngsters who missed school due to years of displacement.

"The DDR has healed the wounds of two decades of war. Now I am an important person in the village. I earn up to 5,000 Afghanis [US$100] and can read sign boards of pharmacies' and doctors'," Ghafour explained. "Nowadays I am often hired a month in advance as this is the season of construction here," he said proudly.
Recently, "fifteen former Jihadi commanders voluntarily surrendered their arms under the UN-backed Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) process. Commanders including Pir Mohammed, Arbab Wali, Haji Agha Gul, Noor Khan, Mamoor Hassan, Mullah Omar, Ghulam Hazrat, present security chief, and Najibullah, director of the national security, handed over 776 light and heavy weapons and 120 cars to officials in Takhar province on Monday [23 May]." And in the latest development, Gul Baghlani, former deputy commander of Jamiat-e-Islami in the northern Baghlan province handed over to the authorities three trucks full with all his remaining arms and ammunitions.

As a useful follow-up to the demobilization and disarmament program, under a new $3-million initiative, "a Japanese organisation will arrange vocational training courses in nine Afghan provinces for people surrendering arms under the DDR plan, the disabled and the jobless... Defence Ministry estimates say 56,000 militiamen have been disarmed during the past two years and 48,000 of them have already got civilian jobs after undergoing such training."

Full Afghanization of security begins:
U.S. forces are beginning to hand over security responsibilities to the Afghan National Army.

As the Bobcats of B Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, pull their troops from the Tarin Kowt area, the ANA's 3rd Kandak, 1st Brigade, 205th Corps, are moving in.

Replacing U.S. forces with ANA troops at a forward operating base is the first operations exchange to take place.
Meanwhile, a training program begins to make the border security more professional:
Changes are taking place on the borders of Afghanistan, and one man is leading the way.

Afghan Col. Safe Aube, commander of the Transitional Afghan Border Security Force, and 229 border-security volunteers from across the country are replacing the existing border police forces in Islam Quala, on Afghanistan's border with Iran in Herat province.

"The mission is to replace the existing border police with my men so that those men can be retrained to enforce the rule of law," said Aube. "Once the men are trained, they will return, and we will then move on to the next border site and do the same thing."

This pilot program is planned for 13 other border locations around the country. The hope is to put an end to corruption and increase revenue through proper taxes instituted at the borders.
Soldiers from Combined Task Force Longhorn, stationed in western Afghanistan, are lending a hand in the training.

Read also this story of Afghanistan's first military police unit. Says U.S. Army 1st Lt. Rusty Clark, officer in charge of MP mentoring: "These guys conduct operations exactly how they are taught; they maintain a high degree of motivation and attention to detail. It is amazing to have soldiers that are trained on individual tasks and you bring them together to perform some pretty complex operations. They still have some challenges, but their progress is incredible."

Italy has also given committment to help train the Afghan Army. And Turkey is donating $1 million towards modernization of the Afghan armed forces. Meanwhile, on a smaller scale, "the American Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) donated motorcycles, vehicles, wireless sets and other equipment to Nangarhar border police."

American forces are constructing the security infrastructure for the Afghan army:
Fourteen bases are being developed throughout the country for the Afghan National Army's 3,500-man brigades, but long before these bases are put in place, a team of engineers from the Office of Military Cooperation-Afghanistan puts in many hours of planning and research.

One of the their latest projects is a new brigade base at Jalalabad in Afghanistan's Nangarhar Province, where U.S. Army Maj. Andrew Kirkner, an engineer with the Defense Resource Sector directorate at OMC-A, recently led a site reconnaissance for the new base.

"The recon allows us to look at the terrain, to see whether it is suitable for construction," said Kirkner. "We prefer relatively flat terrain because it is easiest to build on and keeps the cost of the project down."
In local law enforcement, some Kabul cops are getting more mobile:
Around 40 trained police personnel of the 10th security check-post Sunday started round-the-clock patrols on city roads on special bicycles and motorbikes, in a step to boost security in the capital.

DynCorp, with financial assistance from the United States, began training 32 of the policemen for patrols on bicycles and six on motorbikes in early February. Having undergone the three-month training, the cops were awarded certificates at a ceremony here yesterday.

One of the trainees, Aminullah said in a chat with Pajhwok Afghan News: "With the help of bicycles, we would be able to patrol more areas in less time. Earlier, we would patrol on foot."
And some female cops in Kabul are getting better facilities:
A hostel to accommodate 100 female police officers was opened in the capital Kabul by the Counter narcotics department and the women's ministry.

The hostel which was built with the aid of US$ 632,000 from the German government has a kindergarten, sports rooms, and classrooms. The accommodation was specially to provide homes for women working in the Kabul police force who don't have anywhere to live.

There are eight girls currently training at the police academy, and police trainers hope that the new accommodation would attract many new recruits from the provinces.

The director of the Police academy, Gen. Shir Aqa Rohani said that after the fall of the Taliban, about 2,027 students graduated from the police academy, and out of these 57 were women. He said the female police officers were assigned to the counter narcotics department at the Kabul airport.
The Taliban continue getting disarmed:

The Afghan authorities recovered a significant arms cache in the Farah province on May 3, including "several anti-aircraft machine-guns, dozens of rocket-launcher rounds, mortars and ammunition";

The Italian forces of Trento's 2nd Sappers have uncovered a huge weapons cache on May 18; the contents included: "55 HEAT rockets mod. PG2; 7 HEAT rockets mod. PG7; 2 single use launchers mod. RPG 18 with rockets; 7 antipersonnel mines mod. PMN; 5 detonators for antipersonnel mines PMN; 8 charges for rockets PG7; 1 crate of ammunitions cal. 12,7 mm; 2 kg. of explosive (balistite); 1 kg. of plastic explosive; 17 S5 KPB 57 mm rockets; 1 107mm HG rocket";

"Police claimed on Tuesday [May 24] having recovered a huge cache of weapons in Dawazi Kho district in the southern Paktia province... On a tip-off, he said, police raided the area and seized a huge quantity of heavy and light arms including anti-aircraft guns, machine-guns, 130 boxes of ammunition and parts of heavy weapons... Some days back, Paktia police had recovered a huge quantity of arms and ammunitions from a house in the Dand Patan district";

On the same day, police discovered 140 kilos of explosives and ammunitions in the eastern Sarobi district, about 75 kilometers east of Kabul;

In other recent security successes:

The killing of four Taliban in an airstrike on a suspected insurgent camp in central Afghanistan on April 30 (three civilians also died in the attack);

On April 30, "a senior Taliban commander was killed and another captured alive in clashes with Afghan and coalition forces in militancy-plagued Zabul and Kandahar provinces";

Overall, according to Afghan authorities, some 100 Taliban were killed by the secuirty forces in April;

The arrest of four Taliban fighters in an counter-insurgency operation in the Uruzgun province on May 1; two more Taliban militants, Mullah Rozi and Mullah Abdul Razzaq, were arrested there on May 2;

The capture of six Taliban by a joint patrol of Afghan police and US Army in a small village in Kandahar province on May 2;

The arrest by the Pakistani authorities of a Taliban man suspected of killing pro-American guerrilla leader Abdul Haq in October 2001;

Twenty Taliban killed and six arrested after a battle with American and Afghan forces near Deh Chopan in Zabul Province on May 3 (the death toll has subsequently risen to 40);

Another 20 Taliban were killed near Kandahar in a battle that also left nine Afghan Army soldiers dead on May 3;

"Officials in the southern province of Kandahar claimed on Saturday they had arrested 15 Taliban activists and four foreigners in an operation conducted by the Afghan army and US forces. Kandahar Corps Commander Gen. Muslim Hamed told Pajhwok Afghan News four Chechens and five wounded Taliban were among the detainees. The crackdown on insurgents lasted three days, he added."

"Four suspected Taliban fighters were killed while a policeman was injured in a clash in the southern Zabul province" on May 8;

The arrest of four gunmen in Moqur district of the Ghazni province on May 8;

Twenty three Taliban killed in a fierce firefight with the Marines (two killed in action) in the eastern province of Laghman on May 9;

The arrest on May 14 by the Afghan police in Sorobi district, 60 km east of Kabul of two Afghans and one Pakistani in possession of four remote control bombs and one bag of explosives destined to be used in attacks against the American forces;

"Security officials have discovered and defused a quantity of explosives on the Kabul-Nangarhar road, in Sarobi District [in eastern Nangarhar Province]. It is said that the explosives were intended to destroy the Naghlu hydroelectric dam";

On May 15, Afghan security forces "discovered and diffused several small bombs attached to two remote control devices on the Paktia-Khost highway about 40 kilo meters from Khost city"; in Paktia, quantities of arms and ammunition were seized;

The arrest on May 16 of a man who confessed to a bomb attack against the Kabul Air Force University last year;

"Police managed to thwart a possible rocket attack in the southeastern Paktika province, interior ministry said Tuesday [May 17]... Police discovered and destroyed 13 scud rockets which were ready for launch in a village at Argon district of the province;

The arrest in the central Uruzgan province of 15 Taliban fighters on May 17;

Following a tip from a local informant, "a raid by Afghan and coalition forces May 16 resulted in the capture of three insurgents suspected of using improvised explosive devices near Khowst";

Four Taliban with weapons and explosives arrested in Dand district outside of Kandahar City on May 18;

Twelve Taliban killed in a clash with American forces near the village of Gayan in Paktika province on May 21;

Two Taliban fighters were killed and 10 others detained in an operation in Deh Rawood district, Uruzgan province, and three Taliban operatives including Mullah Abdul Bari, a prominent Taliban commander in the south of the country, captured in the neighboring Charchino district on May 23;

A huge weapons cache seized by the Afghan army troops in Ajrestan district of Ghazni province after a shootout on May 25;

The arrest on May 26 of 19 people allegedly involved in a bombing of Baghlan-based Provincial Reconstruction Team convoy, which left two Dutch soldiers injured;

On May 26, "security forces arrested five suspected fighters and seized 350 shotguns during a crackdown on insurgents in Shahre Safa district of the southern Zabul province";

Six caches of munitions seized by Coalition forces (three of them turned over by Afghan citizens) on May 27; "In all, 172 cases of anti-aircraft ammunition, 130 mortars, 57 recoilless rifle rounds, 45 cases of machine gun ammunition, 17 anti-personnel mines, four rockets and three hand grenades were found. Afghan police also discovered and turned in three Russian-manufactured machine guns and one mortar system";

"Eleven Taliban soldiers have been killed and three others including a high-rank commander arrested in Afghanistan's southern province of Zabul" on May 30;

Up to nine Taliban fighters killed on May 30 "during three near-simultaneous attacks against Afghan and coalition positions along the Afghan-Pakistan border"; no Afghan or Coalition casualties were sustained.

The war on drugs is progressing across the country:
Last year at this time, the southeastern Afghan province of Nangrahar was covered with pink and white poppies, producing a quarter of the nation's opium crop. This year, after President Hamid Karzai announced a jihad or holy war against drugs, Nangrahar is almost 80 percent free of poppies.
There are still many challenges: corruption has to be fought, and farmers have to be assured of alternative livelihoods lest they be tempted to return to poppy cultivation. The report continues:
Eradication is just one of the more visible efforts to control the drug trade. With President Karzai's government fully engaged, the international community - with Britain in the lead - has developed a multipronged approach to Afghanistan's pervasive drug industry, including:

- A public affairs campaign to transform attitudes about drug production and use;

- Assistance for rebuilding the judicial system, including the Counternarcotics Prosecution Task Force and counternarcotics detention facilities;

- Creation of alternative livelihoods;

- Enhanced interdiction efforts.

"We now have the basis of all these key elements in place in Afghanistan," says Steve Atkins, a spokesman for the British Embassy in Washington. "It took 30 years in Thailand, which was a much less complex program. [Afghanistan] is a great challenge and one we don't underestimate."
The UN research is pointing towards some progress: "A new UN survey identifies a positive trend in opium-poppy cultivation in the majority of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. While researchers suggest that opium-poppy crops have grown in five provinces, the broader decline marks the first time in four years that such harvests have fallen in Afghanistan." According to the authorities, "anti-drug forces confiscated 40 tons of opium in the first five months of this year, compared to 135 tons during last full year [2004] and 10 tons in 2003."

The Afghan government is also launching a new campiagn against opium cultivation. And the governments of Afghanistan, Great Britain and Iran are increasing tripartite cooperation against production and trafficking.

Action hereos get drawn into a fight against drugs:
Villagers in eastern Afghanistan are being shown the country's first anti-opium movie, combining heroism, romance and an educational message, in an attempt to eradicate the flourishing drug culture in the region.

Black Poison, a film project described by its creator, Shafiq Shaiq, as an "action-adventure with romantics and heroics", has been shown to audiences in village squares across the Nangarhar province.

The film features real heroin laboratories and frequent bloody shoot-outs between police and dealers in the mountains.

Mr Shaiq, an Afghan media mogul who campaigns against the drug trade through a newspaper, cable TV network and radio station mini-empire, says he turned to film to wake up young people who are spellbound by the aura of the gunmen who strut about his native city of Jalalabad, in the heart of Afghanistan's eastern poppy fields.
In other recent successes of the war on drugs:

On May 2, anti-narcotics officials in Nangarhar and Herat provinces seized 100 kilograms of opium and arrested a drug dealer;

50 kg of heroine seized in the eastern Nangarhar province on May 8;

3,225 kg of seized hashish torched by the authorities in the southern Paktika province on May 24;

"The Afghan Interior Ministry's Rapid Reaction Force (RRF) destroyed a poppy crop spread over 200 acres of land in Banu, De Salah and Pule Hesarak districts of the northern Baghlan province" on May 25;

The arrest of three drug smugglers after a firefight with police near the border with Turkmenistan on May 29;

The raid on Bahram Shah village, the remote trafficking center near the Pakistani border, which netted two tons of opium and 550lbs of heroin;

Seizure of 180 kg of fine quality heroin by the police in the Herat province - the largest seizure of this type so far.

Afghanistan many successes - large and small - on the long and painful road to normalcy might not always get reported internationally. Fortunately for the Afghan people, they are taking place every day, whether or not the cameras are there to record them for our benefit.


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