Nine Afghan Boys Collecting Firewood Killed by NATO Helicopters

March 2, 2011
By ALISSA J. RUBIN and SANGAR RAHIMI
The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Nine boys collecting firewood to heat their homes in the eastern Afghanistan mountains were killed by NATO helicopter gunners who mistook them for insurgents, according to a statement on Wednesday by NATO, which apologized for the mistake.

The boys, who were 9 to 15 years old, were attacked on Tuesday in what amounted to one of the war’s worst cases of mistaken killings by foreign-led forces. The victims included two sets of brothers. A 10th boy survived.

The NATO statement, which included an unusual personal apology by the commander of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, said the boys had been misidentified as the attackers of a NATO base earlier in the day. News of the attack enraged Afghans and led to an anti-American demonstration on Wednesday in the village of Nanglam, where the boys were from. The only survivor, Hemad, 11, said his mother had told him to go out with other boys to collect firewood because “the weather is very cold now.”

“We were almost done collecting the wood when suddenly we saw the helicopters come,” said Hemad, who, like many Afghans, has only one name. “There were two of them. The helicopters hovered over us, scanned us and we saw a green flash from the helicopters. Then they flew back high up, and in a second round they hovered over us and started shooting. They fired a rocket which landed on a tree. The tree branches fell over me and shrapnel hit my right hand and my side.”

The tree, Hemad said, saved his life by covering him so that he could not be seen by the helicopters, which, he said, “shot the boys one after another.”

General Petraeus pledged to investigate the attack and to take disciplinary action if appropriate.

“We are deeply sorry for this tragedy and apologize to the members of the Afghan government, the people of Afghanistan and, most importantly, the surviving family members of those killed by our actions,” he said. “These deaths should have never happened.”

It was the third instance in two weeks in which the Afghan government has accused NATO of killing civilians. NATO strongly disputes one of those reports, but another — the killing of an Afghan Army soldier and his family in Nangarhar Province on Feb. 20 — was also described as an accident.

The attack on the boys occurred high in the mountains outside Nanglam in the Pech Valley of Kunar Province. American troops are preparing to close their bases in the valley in the next several weeks, in part because their presence has vexed the villagers, who would prefer to be left alone. The area is poor, and the only major road was built to service Forward Operating Base Blessing, according to local residents.

A rocket attack on the base on Tuesday led to a helicopter search for the insurgents responsible, the NATO statement said. The base is surrounded by mountains and is the frequent target of Taliban fighters, who shoot down on it from the rocky heights.

The helicopters “returned fire at the assessed point of origin with indirect and aerial fire,” the NATO statement said. “Regrettably there appears to have been an error in the handoff between identifying the location of the insurgents and the attack helicopters that carried out subsequent operations.”

Villagers — who heard the gunfire in the mountains and worried when the children did not return home — went to look for them. The boys had been out since the morning, local people said.

“As soon as we heard about the attack on the village’s children, all the village men rushed to the mountains to find out what really happened,” said Ashabuddin, a shopkeeper from Manogai, a nearby village, whose nephew Khalid was among those killed.

“Finally we found the dead bodies. Some of the dead bodies were really badly chopped up by the rockets,” he said. “The head of a child was missing. Others were missing limbs.”

“We tried to find the body pieces and put them together. As it was getting late, we brought down the bodies in a rope bed. We buried them in the village’s cemetery,” Ashabuddin added. “The children were all from poor families; otherwise no one would send their sons up to the mountains despite the known threats from both insurgents and Americans.”

Khalid, 14, was the only male in the family, Ashabuddin said. “He was studying in sixth grade of the orphanage school and working because his father died four years ago due to a long-term sickness. His father was a day laborer. He has 13 sisters and two mothers. He was the sole breadwinner of the family. I don’t know what would happen to his family to his sisters and mothers. They are all female and poor.”

President Hamid Karzai, who was in London for an official visit, condemned the attack “in the strongest terms possible.”

Calling it “ruthless,” he questioned whether the Western goals of combating terrorism and securing Afghanistan could be achieved if civilians continued to die.

More than 200 people gathered in Nanglam on Wednesday to protest the boys’ deaths, witnesses said. Waving white flags, they shouted “Death, death to America!” and “Death to Obama and his colleagues and associates!”

An Afghan employee of The New York Times contributed reporting
from Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

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Outrage at threat to secret shelters where women hide from death

woman in Afghan shelter
A child bride, forced to marry at 11, fled and took refuge in one of the shelters. (Photo: Getty)

By Jerome Starkey
in Kabul
The Scotsman

Secret shelters which protect women from murder, forced marriages and ritual mutilation will be turned into “virtual prisons” that make women less safe, under Afghan government plans to wrest control of them from local charities, women’s activists warned yesterday.
The exact whereabouts of the safe houses and the identities of the women who hide there are carefully guarded secrets, but proposals seen by The Scotsman would put government staff in charge and force them to inform police of anyone who goes inside.

Campaigners said the draft legislation was pandering to conservative male prejudices that shelters harbour prostitutes, and they warned it would roll back years of hard-won progress towards improving women’s rights.

“We are outraged by this bill, which is a patent effort of the Afghan government to stop the work of non-governmental organisations on behalf of women’s rights,” said Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women (WAW). “Clients who have suffered heinous abuses, whose lives are in danger, or who have nowhere else to go live in WAW’s secret shelters while counsellors and lawyers help them find justice.”

Ms Naderi’s network sheltered Bibi Aisha, a former child bride whose husband sliced off her nose and ears after she fled their home to escape horrific beatings. The teenager ran to her father’s house but he handed her straight back to the men who disfigured her. Aisha, now 20, is in America getting counselling ahead of reconstructive surgery.

Ms Naderi also claimed that Sediqa, a young woman whose gruesome stoning was filmed on a mobile phone, would still be alive if she had had access to a shelter.

Afghan women's shelter (NYT Photo)
Afghan women in a shelter in Kabul. (Photo: Lynsey Addario for the New York Times)

There are only 14 shelters serving Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and activists urged the government to open more, if it wanted a stake in how they are run, rather than trying to interfere with the few already open.

The new legislation, which appears to undermine President Hamid Karzai’s public commitment to improving women’s rights, follows unfounded allegations from senior government officials that the shelters were fronts for brothels. It is being drawn up by the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.

Afghanistan’s deputy justice minister, Dr Qasim Hashimzai, said a government investigation found no evidence of prostitution, but he said some shelters had “discipline problems”. He insisted women had “nothing to fear” from the new law which prescribes strict conditions for who can be admitted and rules for how and when they can be released.

Wazhma Frogh, a prominent women’s activist in Kabul, accused the government of succumbing to conservatives.”It will turn the women’s shelters into a kind of women’s prisons,” she said. “At least, now, when women escape violence, there are some options for them. Anybody who is at risk, we help them.”

However, Enayatullah Balegh, a senior member of Kabul’s influential council of religious scholars, said: “These houses are not safe for Afghan women, according to Islam,” he said. “They are not shelters. A shelter or a safe house for a woman is the family home.”

Although shelters are often run by local charities, they are mostly funded by international donors, including the USAID, the EU and the United Nations.

Sediq Muslim, the head of the Fatwa Department at Afghanistan’s Supreme Court, who was part of the team charged with investigating shelters, claimed it was inevitable that women in shelters would turn to prostitution.

“Of course, if a shelter is working under control of foreigners, without the police or (the intelligence service] or the government’s knowledge, then the women will be prostitutes. They do bad things inside,” he said.

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West’s portrayal of Afghan war deceptive: group

By Jonathon Burch
Reuters Canada

Download the ANSO report


KABUL (Reuters) – Foreign military assertions that security in Afghanistan is improving are intended to sway Western public opinion ahead of a troop withdrawal and do not reflect the reality on the ground, a security advice group said.

“Indisputable evidence” that conditions are deteriorating included a two-thirds rise in insurgent attacks in 2010 compared with the previous year, according to the EU-funded organization, that advises aid groups on safety.

In one northern province raids more than tripled, the group said in a report.

A war review by U.S. President Barack Obama last month said “notable operational gains” had been made and the Taliban’s momentum arrested in much of the country and reversed in some areas, but gains were fragile and reversible.

Those findings have been echoed by military commanders on the ground. On Wednesday, General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO-led forces, delivered an upbeat assessment of 2010 in a message to foreign troops and civilians.

“Throughout the past year, you and our Afghan partners worked together to halt a downward security spiral in much of the country and to reverse it in some areas of great importance,” Petraeus said in the message.

The Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), which advises non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on security, said positive “strategic communication” messages were only aimed at preparing the way for troop withdrawals scheduled to start this year.

“No matter how authoritative the source of any such claim, messages of this nature are solely intended to influence American and European public opinion ahead of the withdrawal,” the group said in its quarterly report, designed to help aid groups make decisions involving security.

“(The messages) are not intended to offer an accurate portrayal of the situation for those who live and work here,” the group said. The report is not released to media but Reuters obtained a copy. (Click here for a copy of the ANSO report.)


“THIRTY-THREE ATTACKS A DAY”

Obama has pledged to begin gradually withdrawing U.S. troops in July, as Afghan forces slowly take control over security.

This is part of a wider plan by President Hamid Karzai for Afghans to take the lead in securing the whole country by the end of 2014, an ambitious goal endorsed by Western leaders, who are under domestic pressure to bring forces home.

ANSO found militant attacks were up 64 percent last year compared with 2009, and an average of 33 incidents had taken place every day. While violence may have decreased in some areas, it had dramatically increased in others, the group added.

“If losses are taken in one area they are simply compensated for in another as has been the dynamic since this conflict started,” ANSO said.

Casualty numbers on all sides are at record levels. A total of 711 foreign troops were killed in 2010, by far the bloodiest year of the war and up from 521 in 2009.

But ordinary Afghans bear the brunt. According to U.N. figures, 2,412 civilians were killed and 3,803 were wounded in the first 10 months of last year, up 20 percent on 2009.

The insurgency has also been rapidly spreading out of traditional strongholds in the south and east of the country and into previously peaceful areas in the north and west.

Militant attacks in six northern provinces increased faster than the average for all of Afghanistan, more than doubling in five and tripling in Sar-e-Pol, ANSO said.

In the south, where foreign and Afghan forces have stepped up offensives over the last year, the increase in insurgent attacks suggested the capacity for militants to conduct raids had “improved substantially.”

Helmand province saw a 124 percent increase while attacks rose by 20 percent in Kandahar, it said.

Although there had been a decline in attacks from August onwards, this most likely reflected seasonal factors consistent with previous years, ANSO said, and attacks in December 2010 were 47 percent higher than in December the previous year.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

© Thomson Reuters 2011 All rights reserved.

Download the ANSO report

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Nowhere to Turn: The Failure to Protect Civilians in Afghanistan

ReliefWeb


Protection of civilians must be at the heart of Afghanistan ‘transition’ strategy, warn aid agencies.

2010 is already the deadliest year in a decade for civilians, but risks could increase unless NATO takes immediate action

International military forces must take urgent steps to protect civilians caught up in the escalating conflict as they plan for the handover of responsibility for security to the Afghan government, warned leading aid agencies today (Friday 19 November 2010).

The call comes as NATO leaders gather for a major summit in Lisbon on November 19-20 where they are expected to discuss the transition plan drawn up by US General Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan.

Twenty nine international and national aid agencies including Oxfam, Afghanaid and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, have released a new report – Nowhere to Turn – which urges NATO to do more to improve the training and monitoring of Afghan national security forces during the transition period.

Ashley Jackson, head of policy for Oxfam in Afghanistan, said:

“Transition of security responsibilities to Afghan forces faces enormous obstacles. There is a grave risk of widespread abuses by the national security forces, which can range from theft and extortion to torture and indiscriminate killing of civilians. NATO member states, who train, advise, fund, and arm those forces, share responsibility for making sure this does not happen, but so far we have seen little action on the ground.”

The report notes that Afghan soldiers and police are poorly trained and command systems are weak. It says that there are no effective mechanisms for registering community complaints and that civilian deaths caused by Afghan forces are not adequately investigated or tracked. The report calls on NATO to rectify this as a key part of its transition strategy.

Nader Nadery, Commissioner for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, said:

“Recent revelations of abuses by Iraqi security forces and militia – and the fact that we are already seeing abusive behaviour by militias in Afghanistan – should be sounding a warning bell. There is still time to get the right controls in place in Afghanistan. But NATO must act now.”

The agencies argue NATO should abandon dangerous schemes such as the so-called “community defense initiatives”, which involve supporting local militia groups to fight the Taliban.

They say that the international forces must immediately stop arming these community militias. Recruits are barely vetted, receive little training and are often accountable only to the local commanders. Far from helping to stabilise the country, they are likely to contribute to the growing instability.

2010 is already the deadliest year for Afghan civilians since 2001, with civilian casualties up 31 percent in the first six months alone. Security is rapidly deteriorating across the country with even the previously stable north reporting a 136 percent rise in civilian deaths.

Anti-government groups cause most Afghan civilian casualties. However, the report warns that while NATO forces have taken steps to reduce the direct harm their operations cause to civilians, their military tactics are continuing to put Afghan lives at risk. A key factor behind NATO’s reduction in direct civilian casualties is the decrease in the use of airstrikes since 2009. However, the agencies warn that there is a risk that such casualties may now increase as there has been a dramatic rise in airstrikes in recent months.

“More civilians are being killed and injured than ever before and Afghanistan is more insecure than at any time in the past nine years. We are concerned that unless urgent steps are taken now, the violence will continue to escalate in 2011 and civilian suffering will only increase,” said Farhana Faruqi-Stocker of Afghanaid.

Get the full report (Oxfam)

  • Signatories to the report are ACSF, ACTED, Action Aid, ADA, Afgana, Afghanaid, AIHRC, AMI, AWN, AWSDC, CAFOD, CHA, Christian Aid, CIVIC, CoAR, Cordaid, CPAU, DACAAR, HRRAC, Ibn Sina, ICCO, INTERSOS, NRC, Open Society Foundation, Oxfam, Peace Direct, SMO, Tearfund, War Child UK.
  • The report focuses specifically on the impact of security strategies on Afghan civilians. As humanitarian organisations, the signatories to the report Nowhere to Turn cannot comment on the effectiveness of security strategies in achieving their intended military objectives.
  • NATO has command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, which operates in Afghanistan under the mandate provided by UN Security Council resolutions 1386 (2001), 1510 (2003), 1868 (2009) and other resolutions.
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Afghan women continue to suffer despite the West

Daniel Flitton
The Age (Australia)
November 13, 2010

Malalai Joya believes the solution to the Afghanistan conflict is the withdrawal of foreign troops. Malalai Joya, November 2010Photo: John Woudstra

Malalai Joya – the youngest woman elected to the Afghanistan Parliament, in 2004, who then faced death threats for her outspoken criticism of tribal warlords – said the image of Afghan women was being unfairly used to justify the foreign presence.

”The tragic situation of women under the Taliban was a very good excuse for the US and NATO after the 9/11 tragedy to occupy the country,” Ms Joya told The Age yesterday during a visit to Melbourne.

Time magazine recently featured a cover photo of a mutilated, 19-year-old Afghan woman, Aisha, after her nose and ears were hacked off by her husband. The photo carried the caption: ”What happens if we leave Afghanistan.”

But Ms Joya said despite the presence of the Western troops, women continued to suffer.

”They replaced the Taliban with fundamentalist warlords, who are the same like the Taliban – they are misogynist and have committed many crimes against women and human rights,” she said.

”Today, most of the women are wearing the burqa just to be alive because of security reasons.”

Ms Joya will discuss the Afghanistan conflict at a public lecture today at Deakin University in Burwood.

She describes herself as a member of a ”war generation” – born in 1978 shortly before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – that has seen the crippling effects of civil war and the rise of the Taliban.

She said the 68 women now in the Afghan Parliament only served a symbolic role.

Elections earlier this year were marred by corruption and Ms Joya said she refused to participate so as not to legitimise a flawed process.

US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates – in Melbourne this week for meetings with Australian counterparts – flagged a transition by US forces to Afghan control in 2014.

But Ms Joya said the only solution to the conflict in Afghanistan was the withdrawal of foreign troops and support for education and social networks.

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Afghanistan climbs up Human Development Index

KABUL, 8 November 2010 (IRIN) – Afghanistan has climbed over a dozen places up the annual UN Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI) – from 181 out of 182 countries in 2009, to 155 out of 169 this year.
Women wait for vaccinations.
Women wait for child vaccinations in Faizabad, Badakhshan
© Salma Zulfiqar/IRIN

Described as a human development indicator, the HDI “measures the average achievements in a country in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living.”

However, Afghanistan is still among the world’s 23 Least Developed Countries, according to the UNDP report: About 42 percent of Afghans are living in poverty; life expectancy at birth is 44.6; there is one doctor and two hospital beds for every 5,000 Afghans. Under-five mortality is 275 per 1,000 live births, and the maternal mortality rate is 1,400 per 100,000 births. Over half of Afghans do not have access to safe drinking water; 63 percent lack access to improved sanitation.

Despite their numerous difficulties, over half of Afghans are satisfied with their living conditions, says the report. Meanwhile, Transparency International, a Berlin-based corruption watchdog, ranks Afghanistan the third most corrupt state in the world in 2010.

Read the original report.

Read the 2010 Human Development Report (PDF).

View transparency.org’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2010.

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Security in Afghanistan Is Deteriorating, Aid Groups Say

By ROD NORDLAND
The New York Times

Indicators of insecurity in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — Even as more American troops flow into the country, Afghanistan is more dangerous than it has ever been during this war, with security deteriorating in recent months, according to international organizations and humanitarian groups.

Large parts of the country that were once completely safe, like most of the northern provinces, now have a substantial Taliban presence — even in areas where there are few Pashtuns, who previously were the Taliban’s only supporters. As NATO forces poured in and shifted to the south to battle the Taliban in their stronghold, the Taliban responded with a surge of their own, greatly increasing their activities in the north and parts of the east.

The worsening security comes as the Obama administration is under increasing pressure to show results to maintain public support for the war, and raises serious concerns about whether the country can hold legitimate nationwide elections for Parliament next Saturday.

Unarmed government employees can no longer travel safely in 30 percent of the country’s 368 districts, according to published United Nations estimates, and there are districts deemed too dangerous to visit in all but one of the country’s 34 provinces.

The number of insurgent attacks has increased significantly; in August 2009, insurgents carried out 630 attacks. This August, they initiated at least 1,353, according to the Afghan N.G.O. Safety Office, an independent organization financed by Western governments and agencies to monitor safety for aid workers.

An attack on a Western medical team in northern Afghanistan in early August, which killed 10 people, was the largest massacre in years of aid workers in Afghanistan.

“The humanitarian space is shrinking day by day,” said a CARE Afghanistan official, Abdul Kebar.

The International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, does not routinely release detailed data on attacks around the country, and the Afghan government stopped doing so in mid-2009. United Nations officials have also stopped releasing details of attacks, though they monitor them closely. Requests for access to that information were denied.

ISAF officials dispute the notion that security is slipping from them, pointing to their successes with targeted killings and captures of Taliban field commanders and members of the Taliban shadow government.

American military officials say the increased level of violence is related to the rise in the number of its forces here. The last 2,000 of 30,000 new American troops are expected to arrive in the next week or two, military officials say. The result is more military operations, they say, and more opportunities for the insurgents to attack coalition forces.

That does not entirely explain the increased activity of the Taliban in areas where they were seldom seen before, and where the coalition presence is light, however.

Last year, American military leaders adopted a strategy of concentrating operations in what they identified as 80 “key terrain districts,” mostly in the south and east of the country, less than a fourth of Afghanistan’s districts.

The idea was to attack the Taliban where they were strongest, and concentrate forces where populations were largest.

While how many fighters the insurgents have is a matter of estimate and conjecture, the impact they have had is easy enough to judge.

Last month, ISAF recorded 4,919 “kinetic events,” including small-arms fire, bombs and shelling, a 7 percent increase over the previous month, and a 49 percent increase over August 2009, according to Maj. Sunset R. Belinsky, an ISAF spokeswoman. August 2009 was itself an unusually active month for the insurgency as it sought to disrupt the presidential elections then.

With one attack after another, the Taliban and their insurgent allies have degraded security in almost every part of the country (the one exception is Panjshir Province in the north, which has never succumbed to Taliban control).

The Afghan N.G.O. Safety Office says that by almost every metric it has, Afghanistan is more dangerous now than at any time since 2001.

The most recent troop buildup comes in response to steady advances by the Taliban. Four years ago, the insurgents were active in only four provinces. Now they are active in 33 of 34, the organizations say.

“We do not support the perspective that this constitutes ‘things getting worse before they get better,’ ” said Nic Lee, director of the Afghan N.G.O. Safety Office, “but rather see it as being consistent with the five-year trend of things just getting worse.”

Despite the spread of the conflict, humanitarian organizations say they are still able to serve Afghans in much of the country. They have to be much more careful, restricting their movements and pulling back from some areas altogether.

They use Afghan workers rather than international staff members. They avoid travel by road and take greater security precautions. They have also taken to operating incognito as a matter of routine. As a result, while insurgent attacks have more than doubled since last year, attacks on N.G.O.’s have actually declined by 35 percent, Mr. Lee said.

Because of the lack of security, CARE, like many humanitarian groups, no longer uses the country’s principal highway, the Grand Trunk Road connecting Kabul, the capital, to Peshawar in Pakistan. CARE has 10 offices around the country to manage its 1,000 employees, but its own international staff members can safely visit only four or five of them, according to a spokeswoman, Jennifer Rowell.

Likewise, there is no longer an Oxfam sign on display in the entire country, although the British-based aid group finances projects in scores of villages, mostly staffed by Afghans.

“Most N.G.O.’s don’t send foreigners to most places any longer,” said Ashley Jackson, head of policy and advocacy for Oxfam in Kabul, referring to nongovernmental organizations. Like many major aid groups, Oxfam now subcontracts much of its work in the provinces to partners, usually Afghan aid groups.

The threat to government workers is just as severe. Last month, Afghan police and army officials asked the Independent Election Commission to cancel 938 of its proposed 6,835 polling centers, almost 14 percent, because it could not guarantee security for those areas. Polling places in 25 provinces were affected.

On Tuesday the election commission said it would cancel 81 other polling sites, nearly a fifth of the polling places in eastern Nangarhar Province, which was relatively safe during last year’s presidential election. The commission has warned that it may have to close still more polling centers in other provinces if the authorities cannot provide adequate security for voters.

Only 500 international observers are coming to monitor these elections, compared with more than a thousand last year, according to Jindad Spinghar of the Free and Fair Election Foundation. International observers will be able to go only to provincial capitals, not rural areas, where most of the population lives, he said. The election foundation, the leading Afghan monitoring group, has had to cut back its own observers, who will be watching only 60 percent of polling places.

“Because the control of the central government is decreasing,” Mr. Spinghar said, “power brokers and warlords will be able to use their influence at the local level, where there are no observers.” It was in just such areas in 2009 that widespread voting fraud took place, resulting in a disputed and internationally discredited presidential election.

Military officials counter that they are making headway against the Taliban. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the ISAF commander, said recently that NATO forces had killed or captured 2,974 insurgents this summer, 235 of them commanders. Last December, the military assessed Taliban strength at 25,000.

“While we do not routinely release data on total attacks around the country, we did expect the number of attacks to go up as the number of ISAF troops increased,” said Major Belinsky, the ISAF spokeswoman.

“We are pushing into areas where the Taliban have enjoyed safe haven in the past, and we are taking that away from them,” Major Belinsky said. “They are putting up a tough fight, with more tough fighting to come, but we are making progress.”

A top coalition general bristled recently when asked about views among some critics that NATO was losing the fight. “How do they know we’re losing? I can lay out rhyme and reason about where we’re making progress. We’re building, they’re destroying. I say to them, prove it.”

Multimedia presentation on insecurity.

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Malalai Joya: Don’t be fooled by this democratic façade – the people are betrayed

Malalai Joya in Kabul (AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
The Independent
Thursday, 20 August 2009

Like millions of Afghans, I have no hope in the results of today’s election. In a country ruled by warlords, occupation forces, Taliban terrorists, drug money and guns, no one can expect a legitimate or fair vote. Even international observers have been speaking about widespread fraud and intimidation and, among the people on the street, there is a common refrain: the real winner has already been picked by the White House.

President Hamid Karzai has cemented alliances with brutal warlords and fundamentalists in order to maintain his position. Although our constitution forbids war criminals from running for office, the incumbent has named two notorious militia commanders as his vice-presidential running mates – Karim Khalili and Mohammad Qasim Fahim, both of whom stand accused of brutalities against our people.

Deals have also been made with countless fundamentalists. This week saw the return from exile of the dreaded warlord Rashid Dostum. And the pro-Iranian extremist Mohammad Mohaqiq, who has been accused of war crimes, has been promised five cabinet positions for his party in exchange for supporting Mr Karzai.

Rather than democracy, what we have in Afghanistan are back-room deals among discredited warlords who are sworn enemies of democracy and justice.

The President has also continued to absolutely betray the women of Afghanistan.

Even after massive international outcry – and brave protesters taking to the streets of Kabul – Mr Karzai implemented the infamous rape law, targeting Shia women, to gain support of the fundamentalist elements in the election. He had initially promised to review the most egregious clauses, but in the end it was passed with few amendments and the barbaric anti-women statements not removed. As Human Rights Watch recently stated: “Karzai has made an unthinkable deal to sell Afghan women out in return for the support of fundamentalists.”

And the two main challengers to a continuation of the Karzai rule do not offer any change. Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah are both former cabinet ministers in this discredited regime and neither has a real, broad footing among the people.

Mr Abdullah, as the main candidate of fundamentalist warlords, has run a wide campaign with money he is receiving from the Iranian regime. He and some of the Northern Alliance commanders supporting him have threatened unrest if he loses the vote, raising fears of a return to the rampant violence and killing that marked the civil war years of the 1990s.

All of the major candidates’ speeches and policies are very similar. They make the same sweet-sounding promises, but we are not fooled. Afghans remember how Mr Karzai abandoned his campaign pledges after winning the 2005 vote.

We Afghans know that this election will change nothing and it is only part of a show of democracy put on by, and for, the West, to legitimise its future puppet in Afghanistan. It seems we are doomed to see the continuation of this failed, mafia-like, corrupt government for another term.

The people of Afghanistan are fed up with the rampant corruption of Karzai’s “narco-state” (his own brother, Wali Karzai, has been linked to drug trafficking in Kandahar province) and the escalating war waged by Nato. In May of this year, US air strikes killed approximately 150 civilians in my native province, Farah.

More than ever, Afghans are faced with powerful internal enemies – fundamentalist warlords and their Taliban brothers-in-creed – and the external enemies occupying the country.

Democracy will never come to Afghanistan through the barrel of a gun, or from the cluster bombs dropped by foreign forces. The struggle will be long and difficult, but the values of real democracy, human rights and women’s rights will only be won by the Afghan people themselves.

So do not be fooled by this façade of democracy. The British and other Western governments that claim to be bringing democracy to Afghanistan ignore public opinion in their own countries, where growing numbers are against the war.

In my tours to countries that have troops in Afghanistan, I’ve met many bereaved parents who have lost their loved ones in the war in my home. I am very sorry to see governments putting the lives of their soldiers in danger in Afghanistan in the name of bringing democracy. In fact the soldiers are serving the strategic and regional interests of the White House and the consequences of their occupation so far have been devastating for my people.

I believe that if the ordinary folk of Afghanistan and the Nato countries were able to vote, and express their wishes, this indefinite military occupation would come to an end and there would be a real chance for peace in Afghanistan. But today’s election does nothing for that.

The writer is an Afghan politician. In 2005, she became the youngest person to be elected to the new parliament, representing Farah province. Her new book Raising My Voice is out now

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Afghan feminists fighting from under the burqa

Jon Boone in Kabul
guardian.co.uk
Friday 30 April 2010 17.30BST

Afghan women wearing burqas walk towards a market in the center of Kabul.

Afghan women wearing burqas walk towards a market in the centre of Kabul. Photograph: Emilio Morenatti/AP

As a committed feminist, there are few symbols of women’s oppression that Parween hates more than the burqa.

But compromises are necessary in a country where fighting for women’s rights can be a controversial and dangerous business, and she is not above donning the all-concealing garment if it helps her to stay one step ahead of the authorities.

“I don’t like the burqa, but sometimes I have no choice when I’m moving around Kabul – it’s a great disguise,” she says. Parween, who is in her mid 20s, is not using her real name. The only personal information she reveals to the Guardian is that she spent much of her life growing up in a refugee camp in Pakistan, attended Kabul University, and is a member of one of the country’s most intriguing and secretive organisations: the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or Rawa – regarded as a dangerously subversive outfit by the authorities.

Official disapproval means the group has many of the attributes of an underground movement. Parween only knows a handful of other members because, like a terrorist network, it operates through a cell structure. The idea is to protect the wider membership of around 2,000 women by not allowing a single activist to reveal names to the NDS, the country’s intelligence service (which Parween refers to as Khad – its name during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s when the service was controlled by the KGB).

During Taliban rule, Rawa ran secret girls’ schools and filmed the state killings of women using cameras hidden under their burqas, creating footage that helped to fuel international outrage against the regime. Members are careful to regularly move their meetings to different houses, and no one keeps any incriminating materials in their home.

Rawa’s magazine is stashed in a “very secure place” and is produced and distributed with enormous difficulty. Librarians who have dared to stock it have had the NDS on to them.

Withering critiques

Such precautions might seem extraordinary for an organisation that runs orphanages, female literacy classes and is committed to improving the lot of women – a commitment that President Hamid Karzai and his international backers frequently cite as one of the success stories of post-Taliban Afghanistan.

But Rawa is famous for its withering critiques on what it sees as the underlying problems for women: Karzai, the warlords who surround the president, the Taliban and, for good measure, the US-led Nato forces in the country.

Attacking hardline Islamic conservatives and, in Parween’s words, “Karzai’s criminal government”, wins Rawa few friends. On its website are harrowing images of women who have been abused by their husbands or have turned to self-immolation as a means of escape from a life of abuse. Running alongside them are diatribes against some of the most powerful men in the land. One headline says that flushing vice-president Mohammed Fahim down a toilet would not be enough to cleanse the “warlord-mafia regime of Karzai”.

With enemies like that, Rawa’s eight orphanages, each with around 800 children, and four female literacy centres are run under different names.

“The government sees Rawa as Maoist planning to overthrow the government, and against the mujahideen,” Parween said.

“Khad is always following us and finding reasons to visit our orphanages and accuse them of being run by Rawa. They accuse us of opening up a brothel and allowing foreigners to visit.”

Having the word “revolutionary” in their title does not help, Parween admits. But she said the organisation would never drop the name, because serves as a reminder that “we need a revolution in the treatment of women like European countries had before”.

Covert recruitment

Parween says the NDS believes that Rawa is using the orphanages to persuade more young women to join the association. “They probably have a point there,” she laughs. “Women who come to our literacy classes have no idea that it’s organised by Rawa. But through the books that we use, we help to raise their awareness of women’s rights and some of them eventually become members.”

The NDS is particularly demonised among Rawa members because of its alleged role in the assassination of Meena Kamal, the association’s founder, in 1987. She was killed in the Pakistani city of Quetta, after leading the association for 10 years. She and Rawa became famous for public demonstrations against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.

Kamal set up Rawa as a student at Kabul University, which in the 1970s was a hotbed of political activity and spawned many Islamist groups that Rawa still regards as deadly enemies.

The group particularly despises the country’s warlords, the former resistance leaders who are regarded as heroes by their supporters and blamed by their enemies for a period of anarchy, corruption and brutal suppression. Various militia leaders still enjoy considerable political power and, as Parween points out, hold views just as radically restrictive to women as the Taliban.

She says: “They have very bad laws against women and at that time they made Afghanistan the house of terrorists. It was not Mullah Omar who invited Osama Bin Laden to Afghanistan, it was [Abdul Rasul] Sayyaf [a mujahideen leader]. They are criminal and with them in power, we cannot have a democratic government.” Rawa’s uncompromising stance has earned respect among rights campaigners. One western gender specialist said Rawa is suspected of the being main organising force behind the extraordinary public demonstration last year against a law that gave Shia males the right to demand sex from their wives while denying them basic rights, including leaving the house without permission. Hundreds of women took part, braving an angry counter-demonstration. It was thought to be the first time since the 1970s that women had dared to take to Kabul’s streets.

But others say their radicalism comes at the cost of effectiveness. Wazhma Frogh, an independent women’s activist, says only a tiny minority of literate, urban women are even aware of the “ghost” association. “They have created trouble for other women activists who are usually labelled as linked to Rawa.”

Despite the role the US-led intervention in Afghanistan played in sweeping away the Taliban, and unlike the many mainstream women’s groups who look to western embassies for moral support in their various struggles for equality, Rawa has no time for Nato, which it heavily criticises for killing civilians.

Parween said: “There are three enemies in this country: the Taliban, the [former mujahideen commanders] and the Karzai government, and foreign troops. All three of them commit crimes against our people.

“When the foreign troops go, we will only have two left to deal with.”

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

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Afghans Prepare for Presidential Elections

Afghans Prepare for Presidential Elections

Voice of America
London 06 August 2009

As Afghanistan prepares to hold presidential elections later this month, issues such as security, corruption and lack of economic development are at the forefront. But many say one key promise seems to have been forgotten – improving the rights of women. Veteran Afghan women’s rights advocate, Malalai Joya, made the case recently during a visit to London.

In London, Malalai Joya is free. Free of her burqua, free to gaze from a window without fear of being shot, and free to speak her mind on the issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Joya is here to promote her memoir, “Raising My Voice”. It documents her life from when her family was forced to flee Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, to the present day. She says her generation has only ever known war.

She brings out a photo of young girls going to school in Kabul in the 1960s. She says women then had more freedom than they do now. She says the fight for women’s rights and against government corruption must continue.

“You know, the truth itself is enough to give me hope, power, determination,” said Joya. “Also, the suffering of these poor suffering people of my country, innocent people of my country…men and women.”

VOA first met with Joya last year in Kabul – after an arduous drive through the city with Joya’s bodyguards directing every move to make sure no one was following and the meeting would be safe. Here, she wears her burqua.

“Most of the women are wearing burqa just to be safe. I wear burqa because of security,” she said.

Joya has reasons for ensuring her security. Besides five assassination attempts, she was ousted from the Afghan parliament in 2007 – where she sat as its youngest elected member – on charges of insulting the parliament.

Still, she refuses to be silenced. “The silence of good people is worse than the actions of bad people,” said Joya.

It’s images like these motivate Joya. She says Afghanistan’s women and children are suffering the most.

These photos, taken by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, document an increasing and frightening trend of self-immolation, or suicide by fire, among Afghan women.

“They don’t have a human life. Situation is like hell for them, as there is no justice,” said Joya.

Afghanistan will go to the polls later this month but Joya says she has no confidence a truly democratic government will be elected.

And, it has become increasingly difficult for people like Joya to speak out. Many, including journalists, have paid with their lives.

Joya says she knows she could be next. “I don’t fear death. I fear political silence against injustice,” she said.

Malalai Joya says if the fight for women’s rights does cost her her life, there are many young, brave women in Afghanistan who will carry on her fight for freedom.

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