We Shouldn't Yawn

Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard, who traveled to Afghanistan to witness the inauguration of President Hamid Karzai, quotes from the speech by the country's first democratically elected leader:

Whatever we have achieved in Afghanistan--the peace, the election, the reconstruction, the life that the Afghans are living today in peace, the children going to school, the businesses, the fact that Afghanistan is again a respected member of the international community--is from the help that the United States of America gave us. Without that help Afghanistan would be in the hands of terrorists--destroyed, poverty-stricken, and without its children going to school or getting an education. We are very, very grateful, to put it in the simple words that we know, to the people of the United States of America for bringing us this day.

Sounds familiar? It shouldn't. As Hayes writes, "Sadly, most Americans never heard these words. Gratitude, it seems, is not terribly newsworthy. Neither is democracy. The Washington Post played Karzai's inauguration on page A-13, a placement that suggested it was relatively less important than Eliot Spitzer's decision to run for governor of New York or the decision of the U.S. government to import flu vaccine from Germany." As columnist Charles Krauthammer commented on the mainstream media's reaction to the inauguration, "Miracle begets yawn."

Ironically, one of the most comprehensive and most optimistic overviews of the tremendous progress achieved in Afghanistan over the past three years comes, of all places, from the official communist Chinese press agency Xinhua. If you want to read the "good news from Afghanistan" in one short, sharp piece, go to Xinhua; if you are after more detail about all the positive--and underreported, "yawn"-inducing--developments in Afghanistan over the past month, read on.

Society. As surprising as the apparent enthusiasm of the official Chinese media is this upbeat assessment by a spokesman for Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund. Bearing in mind that U.N. officials are not usually prone to hyperbole and optimism, the words make for interesting reading:

Looking back over nearly three years here in Afghanistan, I have been thinking of some of the amazing changes I have witnessed for myself. As a spokesperson for UNICEF, I have the unrivalled luxury of dipping my nose into a whole range of activities, and reporting on them to the outside world.

I have given briefings on reductions of polio and measles amongst children, a fall in landmine injuries, and massive increases in the number of children going to school. I still can't think of that day in 2002--when my Afghan colleagues and I watched the first girls walk back into their schools--without my heart jumping.

I have interviewed former child soldiers now learning to be carpenters; I have walked through the foothills of the Hindu Kush to monitor distribution of school supplies; I have visited projects where widows and other women have been able to earn an income in their own right for the first time in a decade; and I have drafted statements applauding Government commitments to key child rights legislation and international conventions, which in some cases set examples for other countries.

So much progress, so many steps forward have been taken. As another year comes to an end, it seemed an appropriate moment to reflect on how rapidly life has changed for the better for so many Afghan children. Given the history of Afghanistan, a history steeped in conflict and chaos, those changes take on even greater significance.

As they say, read the whole thing. Meanwhile, in the political sphere, after weeks of careful postelection deliberation, President Karzai has announced the lineup of his new cabinet; the first in a democratic Afghanistan--one that "pushes out warlords and installs technocrats capable of fighting drugs and driving reform":

Karzai picked out highly educated ministers likely to curry favour with western donors anxious to see Afghanistan push forward with reform, and also cut the number of ministries to 27 from 30. "Nine of the ministers have PhDs," a governmental source told AFP, adding Karzai had chosen an ethically-balanced cabinet.

Karzai retained former warlord Ismael Khan who was ousted as governor of Herat in September. He steps in as minister of energy in charge of rebuilding the country's fractured power sector. Karzai also kept Abdullah Abdullah as foreign minister but dropped Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai as finance minister. Appointed in his place is Anwar Ul-Haq Ahady, who was praised by the west for his work in setting up Afghanistan's central bank.

The only female candidate in Afghanistan's first democratic presidential election, Masooda Jalal, won a place at the head of the Ministry of Women's Affairs.

Another appointment likely to win plaudits from the west is Abdul Rahim Wardak, as the new defence minister. The anti-Soviet fighter rose to prominence in the 1980s and later fled to the United States. Wardak has been seen as a key figure behind a United Nations-backed program which has so far disarmed almost 30,000 former militia fighters--about half of those estimated to remain in the war-torn country.

Karzai kept Ali Ahmed Jalali as interior minister in another apparent boost for reformists who are pushing for a stronger central government to restore law and order and curb the burgeoning opium industry. A US citizen, Jalali will need to renounce his dual nationality to remain as head of the Interior Ministry, where he was seen foreigners and Afghans alike as having a reputation for efficiency...

He also picked out engineer and former deputy minister of refugees Habibullah Qaderi as key anti-narcotics minister. Qaderi, an ethnic Pashtun like Karzai, is tasked with cutting opium production in Afghanistan, which now produces 87 percent of the world's supply.

As the report notes, "the Afghan constitution written early this year says cabinet members must have higher education degrees--ruling out many former mujahideen fighters--and any with dual nationality should be vetted by a parliament that has still to be elected." The first cabinet meeting was held in the last week on December:

[Karzai] told ministers to avoid party politics and commit themselves to helping the war-torn country rebuild. He said the Cabinet should direct its loyalty to the Afghan people, not to tribal and regional interests. Mr Karzai said the ministers must focus on the economy, education and security. He emphasised that the fight against drug-trafficking would be a measure of the success of his new government.

You can also see this profile of the new cabinet, which the report notes "has been generally well received by most people in Afghanistan, as well as by international observers."

In addition to tackling the economy, education and security, Karzai is also serious about fighting government corruption:

[Karzai] says he wants all his officials to disclose their financial holdings. He has also issued strict guidelines about accepting expensive gifts and expenses on overseas visits. Karzai is insisting that all officials in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government hand over full details of all their properties and business dealings, along with those of their wives and children, within two weeks. In addition, he has said that if ministers and their advisers on overseas trips received official gifts valued at more than 200 US dollars they should register them with the president's office. The decree also lays down the rules on ministerial visits overseas and even the gifts that should be presented to officials of host countries.

Half of the cabinet has filled out all the relevant forms already, with the remainder expected shortly. The first lady of Afghanistan also plans to stay busy:

Dr Zeenat Karzai, the wife of President Hamid Karzai . . . [said] that she plans to come more into society, working for Afghan women. Dr Karzai, who has rarely been seen in public since her husband became president of the interim government in 2001, was speaking after a meeting for prominent Afghan women at her residence in the Presidential Palace in Kabul.

When . . . [a] reporter suggested that all the people in society wanted to see her activity, she responded: "In the near future, I want to come in the society. The work I want to start should be useful for Afghan women." Asked about how she felt over bringing together the group of some 50 women, in such fields as politics, culture, health and media, she . . . [said]: "I feel very happy. I want that all the women should be united and promoted."

And still on the matters of state, Afghanistan finally has its new national anthem:

The Afghan poet and writer, Habibullah Rafi's words which include a verse written for the national anthem from the former republican President Daud Khan's Era, has been selected as the new Afghan National Anthem.

The competition which was announced late summer by the interior ministry in Kabul called for all Afghan poets and writers to submit their entries. Habibullah Rafi's, anthem which was chosen from one-hundred entries, includes the first verse of the national anthem sung during the Daud Khan's time between 1973 and 1979 when he ended the rule of the monarchy of the former King Mohammad Zahir.

As the report notes, "the anthem is also a required to include all the names of the 12 Afghan tribes and the words of Allah-o-Akbar or God is Great . . . Rasaul Zamarai, an official for the music production department at the ministry of culture and information said the composition of the new national anthem will be a culmination of western and eastern music."

The education system continues to grow:

Across Afghanistan, schools are seeing record enrollments, with more than 4 million students in school, according to UNICEF statistics. At least one-third of those students are girls. [But] the government has estimated that roughly 2,000 schools must be built every year for the next five years if demand is to be met.

To help meet that demand, groups such as Solace International (also profiled in last month's installment) are bringing in much-needed assistance:

Solace International . . . last year raised nearly $70,000 in Seattle. The money helped repair facilities and build six new community schools in the rural, isolated northern provinces, where a lengthy drought has increased poverty. Solace International organizers plan another auction in Seattle tonight to raise money to build six more schools and an Internet-equipped learning center.

While it's too soon to see the impact the new schools have had on literacy rates, there are positive signs. For example, the six new schools have a total enrollment of about 1,200 students, two-thirds of whom are girls.

Solace is also planning some more ambitious projects, "such as repairing the regional university in the northern city of Sheberghan":

The university, the only one in the region, was virtually destroyed by the Taliban, who shot out windows, left the roof to rot and burned chairs and desks, which they deemed "too Western.' . . . University students now gather in an adjacent building, learning lessons from a small set of outdated primers. . . . Repairing the facility will cost an estimated $20,000 . . . but could more than pay for itself by turning out highly educated graduates, some of whom could be tapped to help teach in the new schools."

Meanwhile, Afghan textbooks are being rewritten with considerable foreign assistance:

A team from Teachers College of Columbia University is writing schoolbooks for Afghanistan as it emerges from years of turmoil and ideological repression. The project is an unexpected consequence of the Iranian hostage crisis that began in 1979.

One of the hostages held in the American Embassy in Tehran was Barry Rosen, then a young Peace Corps worker, who used his forced detention to learn Persian. Years later, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Rosen persuaded Teachers College in New York, where he headed the press office, to resume its work of the 1970s in Afghanistan compiling school textbooks for the Ministry of Education.

One of the main languages of Afghanistan, Dari, is closely related to Persian, so Rosen, who often dresses like an Afghan here [in Kabul], blends in easily. "I felt we should return and pick up the work," he said during a recent conversation here in Kabul, the Afghan capital. "Our motives are our history here, and that education is the way to change lives."

As the report notes, "the Teachers College group is rewriting the curriculum and all primary school textbooks, including language textbooks in four local languages, while introducing a style of teaching new to Afghan teachers and students that encourages student participation. . . . 'This curriculum is free of ideology,' Abdul Nabi Wahidi, of the Ministry of Education, said of the new books. 'We just have two ideas, peace and stability, and human rights.' "

And after years of isolation from the outside world, it's not just children who need to catch up on education. In Jalalabad, some 250 government workers have recently completed a basic computer-literacy course.

In the area of health, some innovative ways to provide better medical care are being tested:

In one of his last duties before leaving the administration, Health and Human Services Department Secretary Tommy Thompson announced the delivery of 2,000 interactive health education books for women in Afghanistan.

The "talking books," designed by LeapFrog Enterprises, use the same LeapPad learning technology as the company's storybooks for children. Thompson announced the program in August. It is aimed primarily at the 80% of Afghani women who cannot read or write, and the books cover more than 19 subjects, including diet, childhood immunization, pregnancy, breastfeeding, sanitation and water boiling, treating injuries and burns, and preventing disease.

The books are available in both of Afghanistan's major languages, Dari and Pashto. They are the first product that LeapFrog developed for adults, according to the company.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan's cash-strapped health sector is embarking on an experimental program to raise funds:

For the first time, patients are being asked to pay for treatment at public hospitals in Afghanistan. Although the constitution stipulates that all Afghans are entitled to free healthcare, a pilot programme being tested in the northern province of Balkh could change all that. . . . The prices do not reflect the actual cost of the procedures but are simply a way for the hospital to raise badly needed money. Those too poor to pay can appeal to a local commission.

Sima Samar, head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, notes the progress of human rights: Although there are still some "very serious violations" taking place and general security remains a problem, "the human rights situation in Afghanistan is better than in previous years":

The main achievements is justification of the commission by the people. We have offices in Kabul and some of the provinces. At least the people of Afghanistan have seen AIHRC as somewhere to share their concerns and complaints. It is a significant development. In this country, three years ago no one could even mention the phrase "human rights."

In the beginning, there was some propaganda against the commission among the public. Some elements who did not want public awareness on human rights spread allegations that the commission was against Afghan culture, and was spreading western culture and so on. But now we have proved that we are here to defend the rights of our suffering people and pursue the perpetrators of human rights violations.

Habibullah Qadiri, the Afghan government's chief adviser on refugees and returnees, summarizes the state of affairs on in his area:

Almost three million people have returned to Afghanistan from Iran, Pakistan and neighbouring countries. The returnees always bring skills with them from the countries they lived in and that has contributed to the economic development and reconstruction of the country.

We can see many examples like we had in the past, carpentry by hand which has now been mechanised by the skills the returnees brought. In most fields, the returnees have brought up-to-date arts and trades. In some cases these people bring money to Afghanistan for investment. Also, Afghans who were getting remittances from their families oversees used to spend money in exile but now they spend it in Afghanistan.

And as Afghan refugees continue pouring back to their homeland, the number of Internally Displaced Persons also continues to fall: "Officials at [the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation] said that the number of IDPs in Afghanistan fell sharply from 724,000 in December 2002 to 184,000 a year later." The problem hasn't been completely solved; "in 2004, only 17,000 IDPs have been assisted to return, leaving 167,000 people displaced in camps," but the improvement over the previous three years is still considerable.

In media news, a recent survey shows that Radio Free Afghanistan is one of the most popular stations in the country:

Nearly two thirds of Afghan radio listeners are tuning in to Radio Free Afghanistan, according to the results of a new survey conducted for RFE/RL by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).

The survey showed a nationwide weekly listening rate of 61.6 percent to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan broadcasts in Dari and Pashto, a rate that rises to 70 percent in the capital city of Kabul. . . .

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan and the Voice of America (VOA) broadcast on a 24-hour single stream in Afghanistan. RFA provides local news and VOA supplies news about events around the world. The U.S. Congress appropriated funding to create Radio Free Afghanistan in December 2001, as part of an effort to build a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan following the successful U.S.-lead strike against the Taliban.

When asked about the reliability of the news and information broadcast, strong majorities in the survey considered RFA and VOA to be trustworthy. Asked about general issues, 54 percent said they are favorable inclined toward the USA, 64 percent say things in Afghanistan are headed in the right direction, and, when asked to name the first thing that comes to mind when speaking of the USA, 40 percent said U.S. support for reconstruction of Afghanistan.

As RFE/RL president Thomas Dine says, "We are proud of what Radio Free Afghanistan has achieved in the past three years. Our emphasis on helping the entire country rise from the chaos of a quarter century of war is clearly appreciated by our listeners."

Meanwhile, efforts continue to build independent and professional media in Afghanistan:

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is supporting plans to hold a national conference aimed at promoting the protection of journalists and freedom of expression. The IFEX member led a meeting of the Committee to Establish the Afghanistan Independent Journalists Association (AIJA). The committee passed several resolutions at the meeting, including plans to hold a national conference in Kabul in April 2005 "with the aim of furthering the protection of journalists in Afghanistan and campaigning for freedom of expression."

The Reuters Foundation "recently conducted photojournalism workshops in Afghanistan. . . . In Kabul, 15 students participated in the training from December 8 to 12. The group included seven participants who traveled to the capital from various parts of the country."

In Afghanistan's cultural life, art stages a post-Taliban comeback:

The newly repaired National Museum of Afghanistan has opened its first exhibition in 13 years, a display of life-size, pre-Islamic idols smashed by the Taliban three years ago and now painstakingly restored by museum and international experts.

The wooden statues from Nuristan, one of Afghanistan's mountainous northeastern provinces, are an apt subject for an inaugural exhibition. Museum staff had worked hard to hide the collection from looters and Islamic fundamentalists intent on destroying all idols and artistic depictions of the human form. The figures, from what was formerly known as Kafiristan, or Land of the Heathens, are ancestor effigies and animistic and polytheistic gods, representing beliefs and traditions that were practiced there little more than 100 years ago.

"This is part of our culture and we should preserve it," said Fauzia Hamraz, director of the ethnographic collection, who helped piece the statues back together. "Our country is an Islamic country, but displaying these things will not destroy our religion."

As Hamraz says, this sort of exhibition would have been unheard of before the liberation.

Meanwhile, "an international mission has successfully secured and catalogued what remains of the site of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, blown up in 2001 by the Taliban. . . . Teams from Japan and Italy had made some progress over the last two years in collecting and cataloguing the fragments of the destroyed statues and frescoes, as well as controlling visitor and other access to the site, and in the training of Afghan personnel." While there is no official word yet about the possible reconstruction of the famous statues, "Swiss scientists in 2003 developed three-dimensional computer models they said could function as blueprints for the Buddhas' reconstruction."

To demonstrate that you're never too poor or too troubled to show human spirit and compassion for others, Afghanistan is sending a planeload of medicine and equipment and a dozen "war-hardened" medics to help with tsunami relief in India and Sri Lanka.

Reconstruction. Having submitted a bid, strongly supported by the U.S., to join the World Trade Organization, Afghanistan has now received approval to begin the process: "Afghanistan, which [is] struggling to emerge from conflict, now faces several years of negotiations with other trading nations to adapt [its] laws and trade flows to global trade rules before [it] can hope to join the WTO." Says Ambassador Assad Omer, "The peaceful completion of our first direct presidential elections . . . has heralded a new era of political stability. . . . We believe that participation in the international trading system will lead to more trade, investment, technology transfer, employment and income growth throughout the economy."

Back home, Afghanistan's booming economy is starting to attract workers from neighboring Pakistan:

Thousands of Pakistanis, mostly from the [North-West Frontier Province], are working in Afghanistan and many more are exploring opportunities to find work in the country. Estimates of Pakistanis working in Afghanistan vary from 30,000 to 50,000. The total could be even higher considering the fact that many Pakistanis have also found work in remote provinces such as Ghazni, Wardak, Helmand, etc where the Afghan government is apparently unable to keep a record of foreign workers.

President Hamid Karzai was quoted as saying early this year that more than 30,000 Pakistanis are working in Afghanistan. Since then more Pakistanis have found work in Afghanistan, mostly in the construction sector. Skilled Pakistani workers are in big demand, considering the fact that there aren't many Afghans, who have acquired the skills of electricians, plumbers, carpenters, masons, steel-fixers, etc. Another sector where Pakistanis are welcome to work is information technology.

On the streets of Kabul, scarred by decades of bloody conflict, a peaceful battle unfolds:

In order to entice more customers to use their mobile phones, the Afghan wireless communication company (AWCC) is reported to be handing out free AWCC sim cards with credit in exchange for their main mobile competitor Roshan in the capital Kabul.

Speaking to Pajhwok Afghan News, an employee at the AWCC offices in Kabul said AWCC sim cards with credit were being exchanged for Roshan cards. A man living in Kart-e-Sakhi, Sayed Ali Shah said he exchanged his Roshan for an AWCC. "The Roshan mobile coverage was not good enough in the area where he lived."

A spokesman for AWCC, Mohammad Nayem Haqmal told Pajhwok that the network coverage was patchy in some areas: "People have complained about the mobile coverage of Roshan and are keen to use Afghan Wireless instead, so we exchange the Roshan in return for an AWCC sim card." The Roshan Telephone Company that has more network coverage in Afghanistan including some of the rural provinces like Bamyan says it's helpless to this latest ploy. "We have no option, because it's a commercial competitor," said the head of the company Khwaja Karim.

That sure beats skirmishes between warlords. Meanwhile, a once-famous industry is making a comeback:

Afghanistan, long famed for its dried fruits and nuts, is gearing up to enter the lucrative international market for dehydrated vegetables. The first Afghan factory to process vegetable dehydrates for export will begin operation in January 2005, with soup pots in Europe the initial target.

The Parwan Dehydrates Factory, an hour's drive north from Kabul, has already contracted its 2005 production of dried vegetables, valued at $1.2 million, to buyers in the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands.

The strong demand from Europe could lead to five to seven additional factories, according to Erica Oppegard of Development Works, Canada. She said when more factories are up and running, Afghanistan might be able to extend its exports to the United States and Canada.

Development Works Canada is a subcontractor for a wide-ranging agricultural rehabilitation program in Afghanistan that is financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and managed by the U.S.-based Chemonics International. The budget for the project is $3.1 million with $2.3 million provided by USAID/Chemonics and $800,000 by Development Works Canada.

Some 1,400 farmers are subcontracted to provide vegetables for the factory, and additional 400 female farmers, all war widows, will be supplying sun-dried tomatoes. Eventually, between 6,000 and 7,000 farmers will be involved in the project.

German authorities, in cooperation with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, are planning to rebuild Afghanistan's only sugar factory. "Located in Baghlan Province 250 km [155 miles] north of Kabul and built by Germany in 1930s, [it] was badly damaged and ceased operation due to over a quarter century of war and civil strife. At present, Afghanistan imports 300,000 tons of sugar annually mostly from the neighboring countries, Pakistan in particular." So far, Germany has funded some $22.4 million worth of aid projects through FAO, "of which $17.1 million have been earmarked for 14 projects on agriculture, food security and nut ration in Afghanistan."

Locked out of the economy by the Taliban, Afghan women are now leading the small-business revival throughout the country, thanks to financial microassistance:

At an awards ceremony last month honouring entrepreneurs who have successfully started up small businesses with the assistance of various microfinance programmes, 18 of the 23 recipients were women. Mustafa Kazemi, the minister of commerce, congratulated the female winners and noted that they are part of a long tradition of women being active in the business world. Noting that the wife of the Prophet Muhammad ran her own business, Kazemi said, "We should have female businesses in our country, too."

The awards ceremony was part of a worldwide effort by the United Nations to call attention to microcredit and microfinance programmes. Such programmes provide small loans, sometimes amounting to only 100 US dollars, to individuals who would otherwise not be able to borrow the money necessary to start their own businesses. . . .

Five non-governmental organisations, NGOs, that operate microcredit programmes in the country--CARE International, Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, BRAC, Parwaz, an Afghan NGO, the Paris-based Mission d'Aide au Développement des Economies Rurales en Afghanistan, Madera, and the Washington-based Foundation for International Community Assistance, FINCA, nominated businesspeople for the awards, with 300 dollar and 100 dollar prizes. . . .

Shaqila, the programme's chief loan supervisor in Herat, said her organisation has given loans to 250 women there since 2003. She said that most of the women have taken out loans out to start carpet-weaving or clothes-making businesses. Each is loaned 6,000 afghanis [$120] to start with and after three months, if they've paid it back, they can borrow up to 10,000 afghanis [$200] more. If they pay back that amount after four months, they then can borrow up to 15,000 afghanis [$300]. FINCA requires that borrowers put up collateral for the first loan.

Katrin Fakiri, the Afghan-American director of Parwaz, said her organisation, has given loans to 600 women living in Kabul province since 2003 and has plans to expand to the central province of Wardak and southern province of Ghazni.

Read some of the inspirational stories:

  • Mah Gul, a 40- year-old tailor from Herat: "Three months ago I was given 6,000 afghanis [$120] by FINCA to start making curtains and clothes. . . . If there was nobody to lend the money to me, I would have to go to the houses of rich people to work there and wash their clothes.

  • Faree Gul, a 48-year-old widow from Kabul, who received a loan of 5,000 afghanis ($100) three months ago: "I started a female-run bakery, and business is getting better day by day." According to the report, "she now employs all six members of her family and plans to apply for another loan so she can build an additional bakery."

  • Zia Jan, an illiterate 36-year-old seamstress from Kabul: "I was given 5,000 afghanis [$100] by Parwaz and I bought three sewing machines. Now I earn 6,000 afghanis [$120] a month."

On a smaller scale, one woman is trying to achieve similar results:

An American Christian woman in Kabul is helping Afghan widows begin new lives. She does it by teaching them marketable skills and, by comforting them in their grief.

Donna Islami is the founder of Helping Hands. She told us, "When I arrived in Afghanistan, I really had a burden for the women, especially the widows. Many of them were so destitute. There are no jobs that women can take. Most of them are illiterate."

Deeply moved by the miserable plight of the Afghan widows, Donna Islami established Helping Hands to give these women a chance to a better future. This organization gives free education and domestic service training to Afghan widows, to prepare them for employment in the western community living in Afghanistan.

Donna Islami added, "We teach them how to cook western meals, how to clean a house and how to do laundry. And then we find jobs for the ladies and put them to work. We're just starting a bakery program and we're going to teach them to bake western style cakes, and help them through micro-financing to start a cooperative business."

Islami continued, "The third program we have is the beauty academy. We will train women to become beauticians in both Western and Afghan styles. Beauty is a huge part of the Afghan woman culture. They wear the chuddar and the burkah but underneath they are very beautiful women. They are very concerned with fashion, style, make-up and hair." On top of all the training, since the widows are mostly illiterate, they are taught how to read and write.

The Afghan authorities and the U.N. are also trying to do more to generate employment for Afghan women:

Afghanistan's Ministry of Women's Affairs (MOWA) is seeking employment opportunities for tens of thousands of unqualified women in the country. The initiative is part of newly created UN backed employment services centres which are expected to operate in nine provinces of the country, according to MOWA. The centres will be established to tackle unemployment and provide training opportunities for unqualified job seekers, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Another major infrastructure project gets under way in western Afghanistan (scroll down):

Reconstruction work of the Salma dam, in eastern Herat was officially opened by the Indian Ambassador to Kabul, Week Katchoo on Thursday with the help of US$79 million aid from the Indian government. The Indian ambassador to Kabul, Week Katchoo, said two Indian engineers will be overseeing the project. It is estimated that the project will take four years to complete and the dam itself will be rebuilt first and then the irrigation systems and then its power-producing turbines and machines.

The Salma dam was originally constructed in 1976 on the Hari Rud river Basin in Northwest Afghanistan. The reconstruction will provide the water requirements of Herat province and support a 42 MW of hydropower for the province when completed. It would also increase irrigation capacity of nearly 25,000 hectares of agricultural land, according to a spokesman for the Herat governor spokesman, Mohammadullah Afzali. Ambassador Week said they will also use the money to rebuild the 170km-long [105 miles] road leading to the site in Chesht district.

Speaking of irrigation, the Asian Development Bank has approved a $10 million grant from its Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction to improve irrigation networks and water resource management in the Balkh river basin:

Water management in the area covering thousands of hectares has traditionally been organized under mirabs, or locally elected leaders responsible for the irrigation system.

A system for water allocation also existed, the ADB noted. "However, 25 years of civil unrest has weakened these traditional institutions for water management," the bank said, adding that most irrigation systems are also in poor condition and lack modern designs. The grant will go to rehabilitate and upgrade traditional irrigation systems, the ADB said.

The World Bank, meanwhile, will be facilitating the signing of a water treaty between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Read also this story of the cooperative effort between the Nippon International Cooperation for Community Development and Herat University's School of Agriculture to help improve agriculture in the province. In other infrastructure news, the Afghan government has signed an agreement with various NGOs for the construction of government buildings throughout the country.

In transport news, the Asian Development Bank is providing an $80 million loan for the construction of roads through some of the least developed areas of Afghanistan: "The project will reconstruct the last unpaved section of the national primary ring road, spanning 210 kilometers [130 miles] from Andkhoy to Qaisar":

The road improvements will dramatically decrease travel times and vehicle operating costs, providing better access to health, education and other services, and improved agricultural prices, to at least 800,000 in the project area, half of whom live below the poverty line.

The project is part of a coordinated international assistance to improve the road connecting Herat to Andkhoy, which will become a major north-south link across the central mountains, and significantly improve the stability and reliability of Afghanistan's transport system.

The road will also form a major road transport corridor from Central Asia to the warm water ports in the south, contributing to economic growth and poverty reduction in the subregion.

Beside bringing the project road to asphalt-paved standard, to allow the smooth passage of heavy vehicles, the project will finance installation of road toll facilities, including toll plazas, computer and communications equipment for national primary roads supported by international assistance.

In other transport network developments:

The Kabul-Kandahar road is open and the final surfacing [was] expected to be completed by the end of 2004. . . . On Kandahar-Herat road, the Japanese government is tasked with construction of the first 71 miles. . . . Saudi Arabia is funding the next 71 miles, with the United States completing the final 200 miles. The United States has built camps for workers, established construction control systems, and begun work on concrete and asphalt plants while preparing the existing concrete road for new surfacing. Construction has also begun on six of the ten secondary roads projects.

India and Pakistan are discussing the possibility of opening a transport route between Afghanistan and India through Pakistan, taking advantage of improving India-Pakistan relations. The economic boost to landlocked Afghanistan would of course be considerable. Also, a new railway link will connect Afghanistan and Pakistan:

The first phase . . . that would take more than a year would link Chaman [Pakistan] with Spin Boldak in Afghanistan. Later, the link would be further expanded to Kandhar and later on Khushka, the border point of Turkmenistan which would take nearly five years involving international funding.

The governments of Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan have signed an agreement to build trans-Afghan land corridor, a 1,500-mile road linking both landlocked countries with Pakistan's Indian Ocean coast.

In financial news, Iran's Aryan Bank has officially opened its first branch in Kabul, with two more, in Herat and Kandahar, expected to open as soon as the security situation allows. There are now 11 foreign banks operating in Afghanistan.

Speaking of Iran, "based on a 5-year commitment, Iran is due to donate 50 million dollars annually to the war-torn country. . . . The total donation will reach 250 million dollars by 2006. . . . [Iran is] implementing 16 development projects in Afghanistan including the construction of Herat-Dogharoun road, implementation of a project to provide Herat's water and electricity and construction of a technical and vocational center in Herat."

Humanitarian aid. The Afghan government is streamlining and cleaning up assistance efforts throughout the country:

International aid agencies in Afghanistan have welcomed a government audit of the humanitarian aid sector aimed at weeding out corruption and the misuse of international aid money.

Afghanistan's government launched a probe last week of humanitarian organisations working in the country in a move long sought by the frustrated aid community.

With new four-wheel-drive vehicles and comfortable offices and residences, the humanitarian community is seen as living in incomprehensible luxury by ordinary Afghans who believe reconstruction is proceeding too slowly.

The investigation was announced the day after the resignation of planning minister Ramazan Bachardoust, who was heavily criticised over his proposal to dissolve more than 2,000 non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

President Hamid Karzai's spokesman Jawed Ludin told a news conference on Tuesday that "hundreds, probably thousands" of aid groups were misusing aid money due to the absence of a legal framework to oversee their activities. "The money granted to NGOs is sacred and is for the pursuance of the well-being of the Afghan people. This money has to be spent transparently and where it is supposed to be spent," he said.

On the ground, one Western organization is both improving security and helping local livelihoods:

Turning mines to vines has been the mission of Roots of Peace (RoP) founder and director Heidi Kuhn since she began her efforts to rid the world of landmines in September of 1997, after the death of Princess Diana. . . .

The rich agricultural area of the Shomali Plains, about 30 miles north of Kabul . . . has a 7,000-year tradition of growing grapes, and at one time boasted 70 different varieties. . . . Through a myriad of donors, the San Rafael-based organization raised the largest private demining donation in the history of Afghanistan. . . .

Last summer, 300 Afghan deminers removed more than 100,000 landmines from this region, which this month will yield 80 tons of grapes to be exported to India. "It gives me great pride and great hope to know there will be a harvest of hope in the next week," Kuhn enthused."

You can find out more about the organization's work here. A teacher from Virginia, meanwhile, is trying to make a difference for the schoolkids of Afghanistan:

Doug Dillon, Loudoun's Teacher of the Year, is busy building schools in Afghanistan. One is up and running, two are nearing completion. . . . Dillon appealed to some of his old teaching colleagues back in Loudoun for help rounding up school supplies. Just the basics. The pencils and crayons and rulers and tablets that most American children take for granted on the first day of school. The response has been overwhelming.

So far, 160 pounds of supplies have been donated from Cedar Lane Elementary School, 30 cartons from Harper Park Middle School, and more from Fairfax Elementary School. Massachusetts students are contributing, too: "

Students at Mount Greylock Regional Middle School have a goal of raising $500 for the Peter M. Goodrich Memorial Foundation to build a school in Afghanistan. The students have begun their efforts, according to Ginny Abuisi, a special education teacher at the school, by selling house-shaped cutouts from construction paper. During their lunch hour, students pay $1 for each cutout. "They represent the idea of building a school in Afghanistan," said Abuisi, who is coordinator of the Student Activities Organization, the group that organized the fund-raiser.

Even preschoolers are helping:

In her light-blue plush pajamas, Ruthie Learned didn't exactly look ready for a day of commerce. But the 5-year-old was all business as she walked through the halls of Seattle's Coe Elementary with her mother on a recent Friday, delivering bags of homemade cookies. At least, she was until 9 a.m., when it was time to join her fellow kindergartners on Pajama Day, also the last day of classes before the winter break.

The cookies brought in a decent haul: about $2,500, including donations. It might be difficult for a kindergartner to understand the value of a few thousand dollars, but Ruthie has an idea what it might pay for. She's seen the photos of the girls' school in Afghanistan that every class at Coe helped raised money for, and last year, she saw Oprah Winfrey on television helping poor children in South Africa.

A doctor from Massachusetts also wants to make a difference:

Many might think that at 65 it's time for Dr. Elliott Larson--a longtime MetroWest internist and infectious disease specialist--to hang up his stethoscope, invest in some golf clubs and relax.

Larson's some 2,000 plus patients throughout Massachusetts are adjusting to the fact that he is closing his practice for good at the end of this month. But, by no means is this father of five and grandfather of 10 retiring.

Instead, Larson, who has practiced at Marlborough Hospital since 1991, and his wife Martha, are moving to Afghanistan. There, he will serve as a clinician specializing in infectious disease and teach post-graduate medical students. For the Larsons, married for 37 years, this is their second excursion to Afghanistan.

"It's logical to go back to Afghanistan because there's a need there," Larson said. "The political situation is favorable now to people going there to try to help. Now, the second time around, it's a little easier to say that it's a good place to go because we know a little bit of the language from our time before and we have friends there and we continue to have contacts within the country."

Sometimes the help from overseas takes the form of food for the mind and soul rather than the body:

In early January, when most Americans will be resting from the holidays, Teressa Rerras will leave her Granby Park [a Norfolk, Va., neighborhood] home and board a plane to Afghanistan. Rerras will begin her ninth journey to that war-wasted land. She'll be heading back to see her students, young women she came to adore last spring as she taught them photography.

Coalition troops. The reconstruction reach of the coalition keeps expanding:

The provisional reconstruction team in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan--the 19th in the country--held a grand-opening ceremony. . . . "This PRT has been operational for some time, but it still represents a significant commitment to enabling, enhancing and improving the capacity of the Afghan nation and extending the outreach of the government of Afghanistan," a spokesman for Combined Forces Command Afghanistan said. . . .

The support provided by the PRT in Tarin Kowt, and the other 18 coalition and International Security and Assistance Force PRTs, enables the government to bring a tangible benefit to the people throughout all provinces.

The U.S. Army conducts reconstruction through civil affairs teams:

After building countless schools, roads and wells here, coalition forces are routinely met with a thumbs up and a "How are you?" nearly everywhere around here and the surrounding province of Paktia. The positive response wouldn't be possible if it weren't for the civil affairs teams working throughout the country to bring much-needed utilities and supplies to the war-ravaged area. The road to reconstruction hasn't always been easy, but dedicated members of the Army Civil Affairs branch, working on Civil Affairs Teams Alpha--called CAT-A teams, have brought everything they can to help the people and the government of Afghanistan.

Soldiers from the South Dakota National Guard's 129th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment and the National Guard's 109th Engineer Group stationed in and around Bagram are involved in a whole range of local projects, such as rebuilding the airport with local subcontractors, building a road between Kandahar to Tarin Kowt in the north ("the start of a major north-to-south road system through the middle of the country"), and planning for construction of three schools.

Other soldiers just help spread the news:

Two soldiers go to the Ghazni radio and television studio each week to produce a broadcast address to the local community as part of an effort to reach out and inform area Afghans. "Once a week we come to the station and talk to the people via television and radio," said Lt. Col. Gerald Timoney, Ghazni [Provincial Reconstruction Team] commander. "It's a chance for us to let the community know what the coalition is doing in the area."

The address is taped and broadcast throughout the week. "We talk about a lot of different things during the show," said Lt. Col. Blake Ortner, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment. "We talk about the messages we have for the community." Reconstruction and security are two of the major components of the weekly message.

"We are always asking for the community's help," Ortner said. "We ask them to turn in any weapons they have and report any suspicious people to the police." And the Afghan people are heeding the call. "The response to the weapons turn-in program has been overwhelming," Ortner said. "We've had so many weapons and munitions turned in that we had to set up a turn-in point off the base to accommodate all of it."

In addition to official security and reconstruction duties, the troops find time and inspiration to help the Afghan people of their own initiative. For example, this Iowa soldier's Operation Shoes for Kids has proved a huge success:

When Army Staff Sgt. Mark Matteson rode through an Afghan village for the first time, he saw barefoot children everywhere--not because they didn't want to wear shoes, but because they had none. "You see the children--it hits you right in the heart. Or at least that's how it is for me," said Matteson of the shoeless children who can be seen in nearly every city, town and village throughout Afghanistan. . . .

"I saw the kids with no shoes, and I wrote back home to tell them what's going on here," he said about how he started his "Shoes for Kids" program. Volunteers stateside gather shoes and mail them to him in Afghanistan to donate to the children. To date, Matteson estimates he's received more than 7,000 pairs of shoes from those in his native Iowa. "It kicked off so big, there will still be shoes coming in after I leave next June," he said.

A similar action from Missouri has had part-military, part-divine inspiration:

When the U.S. Army asked for a chaplain to serve alongside soldiers in battle zones in Afghanistan, they got much more than a spiritual leader. The 325th Army Field Hospital and the people of Afghanistan got Capt. Richard Krenning and the support of two central Missouri towns.

When Krenning arrived in Bagran, Afghanistan, he saw the need to make life better not only for the soldiers, but also for local residents. Since last August, Krenning and Rolla native Sgt. Kevin Schallion have spearheaded a drive with the people and businesses of Rolla and St. James to supply shoes and school supplies to children and women in Afghanistan. The collection process will end this month.

Master Sgt. Jerry Eisenbraun, a member of the 109th Engineering Group in Rapid City, S.D., is collecting toys and schools supplies for 400 Afghan children as part of Adopt a School program. And a group of Utah aviators have brought the spirit of Christmas to Central Asia through "Angels for Afghanistan" program:

Forget the sleigh, this year Santa and his helpers arrived in the village of Jegdalek, Afghanistan in Schnuck helicopters. A village, where people live in mud huts. For two Utah pilots, it was one of the most memorable Christmas's [sic] they've had. With the help of their wives and community back in Utah, about 70 pallettes full of blankets, combs, shoes, candy and other necessities were shipped overseas.

Layne Pace: "We went through the packages and made 300 individual gift packages for the kids, some marked boys, some marked girls."

But before Santa handed out gifts, elders in the village wanted to share their culture. "They danced and played drums for us, for about 25-30 minutes."

Then the pilots shared a part of theirs. "We sang them Christmas carols, and Christmas songs. We had one of our pilots play Santa Claus." Each child received a package from Santa, filled with toys, blankets and hygiene kits. "I believe this is the first time a lot of them have had something of their own, especially the girls."

Here's more from New York state:

Afghan children crowded around Marine Corps Major Rush Filson with their requests--not candy, not toys, not money. "They wanted notebooks and pencils, crayons, books," Filson told a roomful of Pine Cobble School students Monday.

Filson has just returned from a tour of duty as an advisor in Afghanistan, where his visit to a rural school sparked a fund-raising drive that has raised more than $45,000 and drawn in church congregations, schools, including Pine Cobble and in Adams, St. Stanislaus Kostka, as well as organizations such as the Dalton WeBeLows and a 4-H horse group in Stephentown, N.Y.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, "Marines from 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, manning a base along the Pakistan border recently began a campaign to distribute much-needed school supplies to the children of Nagalam, near one of the battalion's forward operating bases."

And a League City, Texas, soldier is bringing a gift of better sight to Afghanistan's young and old:

Army Sergeant Caleb Wines has been responsible for the eye care of American and coalition soldiers and American civilians in Afghanistan for the past seven months.

He also has been helping Afghans get proper eye care and eyewear. Yet the 23-year-old had few options for young patients. The only frames available were large, military-issued ones.

The problem was featured in a military publication that Wines distributed to his family and friends, including colleagues at the Eye Clinic of Texas in League City. The clinic has donated 100 pairs of frames and it persuaded one of its main vendors to donate 50 more.

Security. There are increasing signs that the Taliban are becoming less of a security problem and that the proposed amnesty might further weaken the movement:

Abdul Rahman Akhund has been battling US and Afghan government troops for three long, hard years. He misses raising his kids among the quiet pomegranate orchards he used to tend at home. With another frigid winter setting in, and a new US offensive being launched this week, this weary Taliban fighter says he's ready to come in from the cold.

"If the government will let us peacefully return to our villages and our children, we will come," he says. "We are tired living on the run in these snowy mountains."

His fellow tribesman, Sarwar Akhund, goes one step further: Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and terror kingpin Osama bin Laden, he charges, tricked followers like him into believing they were fighting a holy war against infidels, "when really they just wanted to consolidate their own seats of power." If allowed back into society, he pledges to "do whatever I can" to help kill or capture the fugitive leaders.

The two soldiers expressed views that intelligence circles across southern Afghanistan have been hearing for months. Many officials, military strategists, and diplomats here are increasingly optimistic that the Taliban are largely a spent force, made up in great parts by disillusioned, worn out foot soldiers like the Akhund tribesmen.

The demobilization program, too, is progressing well. Around Mazar-i-Sharif a landmark in the program has been reached, as "all of the militia fighters in an Afghan region have been disarmed as fighters loyal to two northern commanders gave up their guns." Some 3,000 fighters loyal to ethnic Uzbek commander General Rashid Dostum were disarmed as was a similar number loyal to his rival Mohammad Atta (not to be confused with the Sept. 11 hijacker). Child soldiers are also finding their way back into the civilian life, with their demobilization program hitting the halfway mark:

Nearly 4,000 child soldiers have been demobilised in 15 provinces of Afghanistan under a UN-backed programme. . . . The Child Soldiers Demoblisation and Reintegration Programme is designed to target an estimated 8,000 such children in the country mostly forcibly conscripted to fighting forces in the last years of more than two decades of armed conflict and civil war. . . .

Each of the demobilised children then receives a package of support, starting with their registration in the programme's database, receipt of photo identity cards, medical and psychosocial assessments and briefing sessions on mine risk education and reintegration options. UNICEF said all demobilised children had also been offered voluntary testing for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). After demobilisation, each demobilised child has the opportunity to participate in a number of reintegration options, including returning to education or enrolling in vocational training programmes to learn a practical skill.

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