A wounded Afghan police officer is carried away from the site of an
explosion in Kabul on Friday. Several large explosions rocked a busy area in
the centre of Kabul on Friday with Reuters witnesses
describing shootings in the area. (REUTERS/Omar Sobhani)
Fawzia Koofi, third from left, in the Afghan parliament. (Tom Hanson/ The Canadian
She has braved death threats and assassination attempts so a few religious hardliners in parliament probably isn’t a big deal for Fawzia Koofi. The brave Afghan politician tried but failed on Saturday to push through a vote in parliament on the controversial Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
The hardliners blocked the legislation. To give a sense of Koofi’s uphill battle, MP Khalil Ahmad Shaheedzada told The Associated Press: “Whatever is against Islamic law, we don't even need to speak about it.”
Quite what is unIslamic about banning child marriage, forced marriage, domestic violence and the practice of families exchanging females to settle disputes is unclear.
The 60 female parliamentarians cannot expect help from their president Hamid Karzai either. He introduced the law by presidential decree in 2009 but it has not been ratified by parliament. He has not taken on the might of the religious fundamentalists to speak up for women.
Koofi tried to bring the vote into parliament on Saturday so it could be signed into law which would prevent future presidents from repealing it.
But the fight is not yet over. Progressive Afghans are hitting back.
A coalition of 100 Afghan civil society groups have released a statement calling on parliament, the government and the international community to pass the law and reminded them of their obligations to safeguard Afghan women.
“While Afghanistan has too much to prove on good governance and eliminating corruption front, the law remains as one of few landmark achievement to bring pride to this nation to avert all the images of past brutality and medieval treatment of women in the country,” the statement from Afghan Civil Society read.
Humayun Bayani, a scholar put the responsibility on the shoulders of the Afghan government.
"The question now is whether President Karzai’s government will submit to the traditionalist and conservative elements and appease them and the Taliban by keeping quiet about the law or will it push for its enactment?" he wrote in Eurasia Review.
Koofi who plans to run for president in the 2014 elections chided her opponents in a tweet: “Afghan leaders need to adjust themselves with societal changes of Afghanistan, a small group tries to block any progress.”
Hamida Ghafour is a foreign affairs reporter at the Star. She has lived and worked in the Middle East and Asia for more than 10 years and is the author of a book on Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour
An Afghan woman discusses planting a kitchen garden in a small village outside Herat. (Courtesy: World Vision)
The flowers you gave your mom yesterday for Mother’s Day probably look lovely on her dining table this morning and the brunch to celebrate now a cozy memory of the weekend as she gets back to the business of being a mother. The school run, packing lunches, sorting out laundry to name a few.
For some Afghan mothers that means sowing fruit and vegetable seedlings in the kitchen garden as the spring planting season gets underway.
Chronic malnutrition is a major problem in Afghanistan – 60 per cent of children suffer from stunted growth and one in three are underweight. To help mothers learn how to make sure their children get the nutrients they need, the charity World Vision has started 770 gardens in two provinces which are the worst affected and looking to expand the program.
Eggplants, tomatoes, carrots, radishes, okra, are some of the foods mothers in Ghor and Baghdis provinces are planting which they will harvest later in the summer to cook for their families.
I spoke to Lindsay Gladding, World Vision Canada’s senior program manager who is in Herat city, the capital of the western province of Herat where she is starting to identify villages that have the worst nutrition problems.
The issue isn’t lack of availability: Afghanistan’s fertile valleys yield delicious and plentiful produce ranging from apricots to pomegranates, apples to beans, tomatoes, spinach and many more.
The trouble is getting it to the table.
"We know mothers have responsibility for preparing food for their families and the experience we’ve had is the fruits and vegetables are not accessible," she told me. "They don’t have the seeds and if they do have seeds in the markets the families don’t have money to buy it."
With the help of Afghan authorities, the charity identifies families which have the worst malnutrition. Those who have access to a bit of land are given a choice of fruits and vegetables to grow. The seeds are nurtured in a greenhouse and after a few weeks the young saplings are transferred to the ground.
Gladding said in some villages cooking demonstrations are held in health clinics where mothers are invited to watch. Or sometimes, mothers with healthy children become involved in teaching their neighbours how to prepare nutritious foods. But access to clean water to maintain the gardens is a big problem and in many cases women have to walk an hour to the nearest well or stream.
The Afghan diet is heavy on carbohydrates and starch: rice, served with bread or potatoes and if they are lucky a little bit of mutton. All of this cooked with a lot of vegetable oil. Good food is linked to good health.
"The one thing we hear a lot is the high maternal mortality rates and infant mortality rates and I want to stress that malnutrition is a significant cause of both," Gladding says.
Something to think about before rolling your eyes next time your mom tells you to finish your broccoli.
is a foreign affairs reporter at the Star. She has lived and worked in the Middle East and Asia for more than 10 years and is the author of a book on Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour
Abrams tank in Lima, Ohio. Lawmakers have devoted nearly half a billion dollars in taxpayer money over the past two years to build improved versions. Military officials say they have plenty of them. (AP Photo/General Dynamics Land System)
Remember that gotcha moment in the 2012 U.S. election campaign?
It was during the final presidential debate, when Republican candidate Mitt Romney charged that under President Barack Obama’s watch, the U.S. navy is “smaller than at any time since 1917.”
“Well, Governor,” retorted Obama, “we also have fewer horses and bayonets … we have these things called aircraft carriers.” Cue the laugh track.
Now history seems to be repeating itself as farce, but without the laughs.
Instead of horses and bayonets, the army is being offered $436 million in taxpayer’s dollars for some reconditioned Abrams tanks. And this at a time when the fiscally challenged U.S. has left Iraq, is exiting Afghanistan and has no appetite for a ground war anywhere we know of.
Even the prospect of chemical weapons in Syria hasn’t set the 2,400 massive armored machines the army still possesses lumbering over the desert.
In fact, it’s saying “tanks, no thanks.”
But curiously, the fiercely cost-conscious Congress is insisting, in rare bipartisan accord.
“If we had our choice, we would use that money in a different way,” army chief of staff Gen. Ray Odierno told AP -- aware that the military was under Congressional orders to cut about half a billion dollars (a few paltry million more than the tank funds) from its budget over the next decade.
The bottom line?
The defence plants are deeply embedded in the shaky economies of Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states that host some 560 contractors for the Abrams program, and would feel painful shocks in their communities if the program shut down. While corporations are offshoring their production lines and the major infrastructure projects Obama is pushing may not materialize, the military is still the backbone of the economy.
The U.S. spends more on defense than anything else except Social Security and its 2014 estimates show a projected $618 billion for defense spending -- topping $524 billion for Medicare.
“If there were no need for defense spending,” says analyst Kimberly Amadeo, “the budget deficit would be just $126 billion instead of $744 billion.”
Meanwhile, a new report from the Congressional Research Service says, “only a small proportion of U.S. workers is now employed in factories, as manufacturers have shifted low-value, labour-intensive production, such as apparel and shoe manufacturing, to other countries.” They warn of the possibility of more “hollowing out” to come.
The tanks may not end up on America’s foreign battlefields, but they’re already in the fight at home.
Olivia Ward has covered the 2008 and 2012 U.S. elections, and has written about conflict, human rights and politics from the former Soviet Union to the Middle East and South Asia, winning national and international awards.
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who stood up to the Taliban by going to school and was
shot in the head by the militants for her bravery, has been named one of Time magazine’s 100
most influential people in the world and her pensive, youthful gaze looks at us from
the black and white cover.
“The Taliban almost made Malala a martyr; they succeeded in
making her a symbol,” wrote Chelsea Clinton in the magazine.
The 15-year-old is recovering well from her injuries. In March she returned to the classroom, studying
at a girls' high school near her family’s temporary home in England where she
was flown for medical treatment last year.
She signed a $3 million book deal, landed the cover of a
bastion of the liberal American establishment and the UN named November 10 Malala Day. Her fame and position as a global
advocate for Muslim women is assured.
But something else makes Malala extraordinary and sets her apart from millions of other Pakistani and Afghan schoolgirls who yearn for an
education: Malala’s first champion in life was her father. In that context,
she is a lucky girl. Mothers in Afghanistan and Pakistan often wish their girls could enjoy better opportunities in life than them, but it rarely happens unless the
The fathers almost always make the final decisions about their children’s
future with one eye kept on the family's honour, which is always tied to a girl's personal reputation. It takes a big man to ignore social pressures of a rural Pashtun culture
that values girls only as mothers and housewives and a society that considers
girls who are educated beyond primary school as unsuitable brides. Those attitudes are prevalent in areas not under Taliban
control. In places like the Swat Valley, where the Yousafzais lived, the
family had the additional terror of Taliban death threats against those who
sent their girls to school.
Ziauddin Yousafzai is an enlightened man. He ran a school named
after a Pashtun poet warrior. He was an active supporter of girls’ education who
wrote his daughter’s birth on the family register -- unheard of in a society that
values only boys. He admitted to the New York Times once that his daughter was
special, and that after his two younger sons went to bed, Malala was allowed
to stay up and talk politics. On Malala’s first day of school in England
it was Ziauddin who accompanied her.
The American magazine covers may come and go, celebrity
endorsements from the likes of Angelina Jolie fade, but for Malala it will be
the enduring support of her father which will hold her in good stead throughout
Let’s hope Ziauddin Yousafzai now inspires other fathers in
Pakistan and Afghanistan to do the same.
Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai and her father Ziauddin walk to
school in Birmingham, central England, on March 19. (LIZ
Hamida Ghafour is a foreign affairs reporter at the Star. She has lived and worked in
the Middle East and Asia for more than 10 years and is the author of a book on
Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour
Afghan police officers destroy an opium poppy field in Noorgal, Kunar province, east of
Kabul, Afghanistan on Saturday.(AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
The opium poppy fields of Afghanistan are a sign
of what direction its farmers believe the country is heading -- and it is not
On Monday the United Nations Office on Drugs and
Crime said opium cultivation will increase for the third year in a row in its
early assessment of 2013’s crop. In 12 out of 34 Afghan provinces production is
As Afghans look ahead to the post-2014 landscape
when all NATO combat soldiers leave, they see opium poppy as a certainty in
what is going to be an unpredictable phase. The total production of opium poppy -- the
plant is the raw material for heroin -- is expected to reach about 388,000
acres, which is how much was being grown in 2008 when Afghanistan supplied 90
per cent of the world’s heroin trade and before eradication and support
programs for farmers began turning the tide.
In the UN’s survey of 533 villages, 66 per cent
said “high sales price of opium” was the reason why they grew the crop and 10
per cent mentioned a lack of government support as the reason.
Kandahar, Helmand and Zabul are all badly hit by
the Taliban-led insurgency and it is no coincidence opium cultivation is higher
there than anywhere else in the country. When life is as dangerous as it
is in Afghanistan, people want a sense of security.
Heroin traffickers and the
Taliban, sometimes working together, give the Afghans what their government and
the international community cannot.
But it is predatory because the farmers fall into
deep debt trying to repay the loans. In some areas if farmers refuse to grow
opium poppy, they are threatened with dire consequences, Peters says.
The level of organization is extraordinary.
“In some parts of Helmand and Nimroz provinces in
the last six or seven years there have been efforts to reclaim desert area and
to irrigate desert areas and turn it into farmland for poppy,” she says. “It is
not poor share-croppers who are irrigating, it is rich drug traffickers.”
By contrast, the Afghan government can’t match
these levels of organization and money.
This year, the Afghan government will hand out $18.2 million (U.S.) as rewards to provinces that
reduced poppy cultivation or didn’t grow it at all.
But Afghans need a lot more, says Mark
Schneider, senior vice-president of the International Crisis Group think-tank. Particularly since dry opium pays $203 per kilogram. Licit crops can’t
match that price: farmers earn 41 cents for a kilogram of wheat.
“That is where you hope if you have a lot of
incentives like physical security, you can provide health care, schools, roads
and it will convince farmers not to grow. But farmers have little basis for
believing that’s going to happen,” he says.
Opium poppy has always been grown in Afghanistan
but its rise in the role of the economy runs parallel to the Soviet invasion
and later civil war.
Agriculture has historically been the backbone of
the country -- the country has plenty of fertile land and produces delicious
apricots, pomegranates, raisins and pistachios to name a few -- but the rural
infrastructure has been destroyed over the last three decades. The Soviets began destroying
irrigation canals in the 1980s and the Taliban finished off what was left.
James Brett, co-founder of Plant for Peace, which
helps rural communities, says investing in rebuilding Afghanistan’s agriculture
would transform society.
“I’ve been here for six years and the donor
support we’d need to do this is less than one per cent of the billions that have
been spent over the last decade,” he says in an interview from Kabul. Cold
storage facilities to store produce and keep it from spoiling before it can get
to international markets is one practical solution. At the moment if the farmers are lucky
their goods are shipped to neighbouring countries such as Pakistan.
“The Pakistanis store the fruit in cold storage
and when it is out of season sell them back to the Afghans at a higher price,”
he says. “This is the best place for horticulture in the world but the Afghans are
importing fruit from places like China, it’s absurd.”
Hamida Ghafour is
a foreign affairs reporter at the Star. She has lived and worked in the Middle
East and Asia for more than 10 years and is the author of a book on
Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour
At least every few years, the aid world seems to be jolted with the news of an
attack on humanitarian workers.
Last year, four aid workers with the organization Medair were
kidnapped in Afghanistan. A year earlier, two aid workers with Doctors Without
Borders were shot to death in Somalia by a former colleague.
Five years earlier, in 2006, the Sri Lankan government was
accused by Swedish-led monitors of conspiring to kill 17 employees of the aid
agency Action Against Hunger.
A Swedish organization called Civil Rights Defenders has a new
gadget it says may help aid workers who come under fire.
The agency is distributing a bracelet equipped with a GPS
system. When someone activates it, or if the bracelet is pulled off forcefully,
the GPS tracker is activated and will send information about its location.
The bracelet also posts messages to Twitter and Facebook. The
agency says that will make some governments think twice about conspiring to
kidnap aid workers.
Inspired by the case of Natalia Estemirova, who was kidnapped
and killed while documenting human rights abuses in Chechnya in 2009, the group
said it would give out 55 bracelets over the next 18 months.
The group has a link for interested aid workers to sign up for
alerts from the bracelets.
Rick Westhead is a foreign
affairs writer at the Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South
Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on
international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead
In this 2011 file photo, American-born Islamist militant Omar Hammami, right, and deputy leader of Al Shabab Sheik Mukhtar Abu Mansur Robow,
left, sit under a banner which reads "Allah is Great" during a news conference
of the militant group at a farm in southern Mogadishu's Afgoye district in
Somalia (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)
When Osama bin Laden wanted to share his thoughts with the
world, he would videotape himself, and though a network of couriers, get that
tape into the hands a broadcaster who was willing to air the clips.
Twitter has given at least one self-proclaimed enemy of America a more
immediate way to communicate.
Born and raised in Alabama
by a Southern Baptist mother and Syrian-born father, Omar Hammami moved to Mogadishu in 2006 and fast became one of the most visible
faces of Somalia’s
war. Seven years later, Hammami is using social media to threaten America, and
have exchanges with analysts, academics and journalists alike.
Hammani, aka @abuamerican, has roughly 1,100 followers on Twitter
and has posted some 1,200 messages on the site. He recently agreed to an
interview with Wired magazine, using Twitter’s direct message function.
“I believe in attacking U.S. interests everywhere,” he told
the magazine over the course a week-long correspondence. “No 2nd thoughts and
no turning back.’
Remembering 9/11, he wrote his neighbours “acted as if they
would not fix my car unless I denounced bin Laden and praised George Bush. 9/11
simply made me more politically [conscious], not knee jerk tho.”
Terror, he told the magazine, was never “my ultimate goal.
jihad was my obligation and the nwo” — that is, the New
World Order — “my enemy.”
Last month the U.S. placed a $5 million bounty on
The Star’s Michelle Shephard wrote last May about Hammami’s
online biography, in which he remembered a year spent in Toronto in 2004. Hammami’s year in Toronto came after he
converted to Islam and quit university in 2002, dashing his father’s dream that
he would become a surgeon.
Rick Westhead is a foreign
affairs writer at the Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South
Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on
international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead
Afghan children play Ghursai, a traditional game
played in the countryside of Jalalabad on April 1(. Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images)
Taliban peace talks are back on the agenda but even before the starting pistol could be fired they reached a deadlock.
Afghan president Hamid Karzai visited Doha, Qatar, last weekend where the emir of the state announced that an embassy in Kabul would be opened.
Not much else happened.
The Taliban, some of whom live there in anticipation of future negotiations, are still refusing to hold direct talks with Karzai because they dismiss him as a western stooge.
So what else can be done?
The best way to marginalize the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan is to give the Pashtun tribes more responsibility for security and reduce the power of the central government, according to a trio of experts with long ties to the country.
“That the tribes was the way to go and remains the way to go was never a shadow of doubt in my mind,” said Ken Guest, a former Royal Marine with 32 years of experience in Afghanistan, in an email. “I lived among them well enough to know how enduring their system is.”
A small, professional army and police force supporting indigenous tribal security forces should be established and those tribal fighters should be drawn from communities to which they would be responsible, according to a paper, ‘The Tribal Path’ Guest co-wrote with scholar Lucy Morgan Edwards and fellow former Royal Marine Ram Seeger.
Shoring up the tribes and giving them more control would secure the land and pave the way for proper nation-building.
“If these could be established and put into effect they would revolutionize the situation in Afghanistan,” the paper reads.
The current strategy for post-2014 -- a powerful central government commanding a large army -- goes against the grain of the country’s history. Most tribal leaders have historically viewed their rulers in Kabul with suspicion and the Taliban have capitalized on that.
The peace talks are going nowhere partly because the Taliban perceive themselves to be winning, as the 2014 deadline for withdrawing all western troops looms closer. They see talks as a discussion of surrender terms.
Those conducting the negotiations are jihadists who have been able to coerce or gain support of the tribes.
“This failure has been further aggravated by the support the west has given to warlords and to a government deemed by many Afghans to be corrupt and illegitimate,” the paper reads.
Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, are playing a duplicitous role in the talks. The spies have their own regional agenda to install a malleable government in Kabul, Morgan Edwards said.
“Ultimately the problem seems to be that the international community thinks this is about two sides in a war coming to the table to hammer out a deal,” she said in an interview.
“What it does not realize is that this is about Pakistan controlling the situation and wanting to control and manipulate the endgame.”
She added: “In Kabul people asked me why the British are 'appeasing' Pakistan and selling Afghanistan down the river over the talks and endgame.”
Hamida Ghafour is a foreign affairs reporter at the Star. She has lived and worked in the Middle East and Asia for more than 10 years and is author of a book on Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour
The world has been working towards this goal since 1988 -- and today, it finally looks within reach. Despite some significant setbacks (including the bloody attacks on immunization workers in Nigeria and Pakistan), 2012 proved to be a very good year for the polio eradication effort.
is now endemic in just three countries: Afghanistan, Nigeria and
Pakistan. In 2011, these countries saw 650 cases;
in 2012, there were 223.
And India, once considered the most challenging country for overcoming polio, has not recorded a new case in more than two years.
"(Last year) had the fewest number of polio cases ever reported in recorded history, in the fewest places, fewest countries, fewest number of districts," Hamid Jafari, the World Health Organization's director of polio operations and research, told reporters.
"So it has really brought us to a very important and unique opportunity to actually complete polio eradication."
1) To stop all natural transmission of the virus by the end of next year.
2) To strengthen routine immunization programs in high-risk countries and phase out oral polio vaccines.
3) To ensure that samples of polio virus are safely stored -- a requirement that must be met before a country can be certified as polio-free.
4) To ensure that the lessons learned (and infrastructure developed) can be applied towards future health campaigns and interventions.
There will be two major obstacles in seeing this plan through -- the first being that $5.5 billion.
"It’s absolutely essential to
be able to fund these activities and continue through th entire period of six
years in order to achieve the goal," said John Sever, vice-chair of Rotary International's committee to end polio. "We’re aiming to get that money committed up
front so that the entire series of events can take place."
The other obstacle, of course, are the security risks. If immunization workers are unable to carry out their tasks safely, then the campaign is doomed to fail. Jafari said a "multi-pronged strategy" is being applied to combat this problem -- one that recognizes that every security threat is "highly contextual at the local level."
"Each of these areas, provinces and districts ... have found security coordination committees that are working very closely with the polio operational planning," Jafari said.
The campaign will also ramp up efforts to engage community members, particularly local and religious leaders, thus involving them in the eradication effort, he added.
"The vaccinators should be from the local communities and they are vaccinating their own children and their own communities," Jafari said.
Jennifer Yang is the Star’s global health reporter.
She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in
2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow
her on Twitter: @jyangstar
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