Taleban threaten to blow up girls’ schools if they refuse to close

December 27, 2008

From the Times:

girlsThe Taleban have ordered the closure of all girls’ schools in the war-ravaged Swat district and warned parents and teachers of dire consequences if the ban is flouted.

In an announcement made in mosques and broadcast on radio, the militant group set a deadline of January 15 for its order to be obeyed or it would blow up school buildings and attack schoolgirls. It also told women not to set foot outside their homes without being fully covered.

“Female education is against Islamic teachings and spreads vulgarity in society,” Shah Dauran, leader of a group that has established control over a large part of Swat district in the North West Frontier Province, declared this week.

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A foreign face beloved by Afghans from all sides

December 25, 2008

John F. Burns in International Herald Tribune:

Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Alberto Cairo, right, heads the orthopedic rehabilitation program of the International Committee of the Red Cross, a job dedicated to helping disabled Afghans live normally again by equipping them with artificial legs and arms. Photo: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Kabul: History has fostered a notion here that all foreign occupations of Afghanistan are ultimately doomed.

There was the catastrophic retreat of a British expeditionary force in 1842. Nearly 150 years later came the Soviet troop withdrawal of 1989. Now, with the Taliban pressing in on this city and dominating the countryside, there are fears that this occupation, too, will eventually fail.

But whatever the outcome, Afghans of all ethnic and political stripes, even the Taliban, seem likely to count Alberto Cairo as one foreigner who left the country better than he found it.

Cairo, once a debonair lawyer in his native Turin, Italy, is almost certainly the most celebrated Western relief official in Afghanistan, at least among Afghans. To the generation who have been beneficiaries of his relief work for the International Committee of the Red Cross, he is known simply as “Mr. Alberto,” a man apart among the 15,000 foreigners who live and work in this city.

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In the lair of the Taliban

December 8, 2008

They were ousted in 2001, yet across Afghanistan the Taliban are steadily regaining control. The writer Nir Rosen ventured into their heartland – and lived to tell the tale. From the Sunday Times:

talibanOn the outskirts of the capital we are stopped at a checkpoint manned by the Afghan National Army. The soldiers are suspicious of my foreign accent. My Afghan companions, Shafiq and Ibrahim, convince them that I am only a journalist. As we drive away, Ibrahim laughs. The soldiers thought I was a suicide bomber. Ibrahim did not tell them that he and Shafiq are mid-level Taliban commanders escorting me deep into Ghazni.

Until recently, Ghazni, like much of central Afghanistan, was considered reasonably safe. But now the province, 100 miles south of Kabul, has fallen to the Taliban. Foreigners who venture there often wind up kidnapped or killed. In defiance of the central government, the Taliban governor in the province issues separate ID cards and passports for the Taliban regime, or the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

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A life in the day: ‘Rebecca’, UN worker in Kabul

November 24, 2008

A 29-year-old UN adviser describes her daily life in Afghanistan. Sharon Brennan in the Times:

I set my alarm for 6.50 every morning and light a wood fire in a metal heater in my room as soon as I get out of bed. During winter it was often minus 25 outside. I’ll have a shower and dry my hair. It’s a 15-minute battle trying to dress as covered up as possible while feeling professional and feminine. I must have my head covered at all times when I’m outside my house or workplace. You’re not meant to see the female shape, and the three scarves I own go down to my knees. They are all black, so they match everything and don’t get dirty: there’s so much dust in this city.

I get picked up at 7.45am by a driver in a UN Land Cruiser with blast-proof windows. I could walk to work, as it’s only five minutes away, but for our safety we’re never allowed to walk far on the streets.

I head for the Portakabin canteen in our UN compound. Breakfast this morning was a British-style egg sandwich with lots of ketchup.

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Making movies the Afghan way

Cinema was banned under the Taliban, but film-makers are once again at work inside Afghanistan. Robert Fisk visits a set near Bagram. From the Independent:

Actors on the set of The White Rock, about the murder of 680 Afghan refugees by Iranians

Actors on the set of The White Rock, about the murder of 680 Afghan refugees by Iranians

Drive north of Kabul for an hour, turn left into a grey desert and head east for fifteen minutes, the sand shawling up the side of the windows until an armed man in the uniform of the Iranian police stops you before a forbidding compound of watchtowers, mud walls and razor wire. For a brief moment, that willing suspension of disbelief – I can see the inmates sitting on the sand beyond the iron gate – I forget that this is an Afghan movie set, and that Daoud Wahab, the producer of ‘The White Rock’ is sitting in front of me. “Looks real, huh?” he asks over his shoulder. It does.

For incredibly, as Afghanistan sinks back into the anarchy which became its natural state these past 29 years, Afghan film-makers are producing movies of international quality, turning out pictures which prove – even amid war – that a country’s tragedy can be imaginatively recreated for its people. Safaid Sang – Dari (Persian) for White Rock – was an Afghan refugee detention camp inside Iran whose Iranian guards helped to massacre more than 630 of their prisoners in 1998 after inmates protested at their treatment. The atrocity – largely unknown in the West – ended after two Iranian helicopters strafed the Afghans with machine guns. Quite a story. Quite a movie.

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Obama and the (bleep) K word

November 4, 2008

Hours before the American people decide on their next President, Democrat presidential candidate (and front-runner) Barack Obama hit a raw nerve in India with his comments on Kashmir. “We should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants,” Obama told Rachel Maddow of MSNBC in response to a question on why he believed more American troops were needed in Afghanistan.

India, always prickly about third party intervention (its stand is that Kashmir is an ‘internal problem’ that is nobody’s business but its own) was quick to respond. Defence and security analyst C Raja Mohan warned in The Indian Express: “If Obama’s Kashmir thesis becomes the policy, many negative consequences might ensue.”

Officially, India has downplayed Obama’s Kashmir comments. But BJP party spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad said they were “an unwarranted interference in India’s internal affairs”.

Obama’s statement has been welcomed by Kashmiri separatists, including the Kashmiri American Council

Obama’s stand on Kashmir — and his view that the solution to Afghanistan lies in Pakistan both because al Qaeda and the Taliban are based there and also because it suits Pakistan to back Islamic militants against India — are not particularly new. Obama visited Afghanistan in July and had at the time also voiced his opinion on the need for the US to work towards improving relationships between India and Pakistan.

Read the transcript of Barack Obama’s interview here.


Kabul notebook

November 2, 2008

In The Spectator, David Tang writes from Kabul:

The grandson of the King told my wife and me at dinner that we were ‘the only two tourists in Kabul’! In fact, we nearly did not arrive because on the eve of our flight, the aid-worker Gayle Williams was shot dead by the Taleban in broad daylight. The incident made world headlines and the Afghan capital suddenly more dangerous. I was at a shoot and all my fellow guns thought I would be mad to go. But I also knew that I would go mad if I did not. For assurance, I telephoned the inimitable Rory Stewart on the ground. He was too polite to insist on our visit, but sounded calm – not exactly unexpected from someone who had walked across the entire breadth of Afghanistan and was a deputy governor of an Iraqi province. So my wife and I packed – she with a large scarf and I with my oldest clothes (that fitted).

There was no one in the arrivals hall at Kabul airport, because no one was allowed in the arrivals hall at Kabul. Everyone had to walk a gauntlet of 500 yards of barricades from the airport building. But Rory Stewart was not anyone. He had arranged, impressively, a diplomatic car right in front of the entrance of the airport, except there was no one around to be impressed.

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A warning, a blast, a fight to save an Afghan life

November 1, 2008

In an isolated Afghan outpost, it was up to an American Army doctor and trauma medics to keep a wounded Afghan alive. From the New York Times:

 Members of a team trying to save the life of Jamaludin, an Afghan cook wounded in a Taliban mortar attack. Tyler Hicks / NYTimes

Members of a team trying to save the life of Jamaludin, an Afghan cook wounded in a Taliban mortar attack. Tyler Hicks / NYTimes

COMBAT OUTPOST LOWELL, Afghanistan – Jamaludin, an aging Afghan cook, twisted and writhed on the green stretcher. Blood ran from his mouth and nose. Medics had cut away his clothes, revealing puncture holes where shrapnel from a Taliban mortar round had struck him minutes before.

Capt. Norberto A. Rodriguez, an American Army doctor, listened through a stethoscope as two Army medics and a Navy corpsman inventoried Jamaludin’s wounds. There were holes on his back, neck, buttocks, left leg and beside his right eye.

Jamaludin, who like many Afghans has only one name, had been made wild by fear and pain. But for some reason he could not speak. He shook his head, sputtered and vomited blood. “Oh no, no, no,” Captain Rodriguez said, and quickly rolled him to his side.

The patient had heavy internal bleeding and was choking on his own seepage. The captain needed information. Was it shrapnel, a shock wave or both that had ruptured him inside? Jamaludin was near death. They were racing against time.

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Murdered by Taleban

October 19, 2008

Lieutenant-Colonel Malalai Kakar, Afghanistan’s highest-ranking woman police officer, was praised for her toughness but was murdered by the Taleban. Her obituary in The Times:

Kakar, just over 5ft tall, became a revered figure in Kandahar after dispatching three assassins in a shoot-out

Kakar became a revered figure in Kandahar after killing three assassins in a shoot-out

Kakar was the first woman to become a police detective in the ultraconservative Kandahar – a dangerous place for any police officer let alone a woman. Kandahar, the birthplace of Taleban extremism, is the largest city in southern Afghanistan and its surrounding province of the same name has a population of about 900,000.

Kakar rose through the ranks to become the country’s most prominent policewoman as the head of the crimes against women department of the Kandahar police, leading a team of nearly a dozen policewomen. Her main roles were to sort out family disputes, protect women from domestic violence and run the women’s prison.

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Afghanistan: A country locked in a spiral of doom

October 14, 2008

Christina Lamb has been reporting from Afghanistan for 20 years. Here she offers a chilling frontline analysis of why we cannot beat the Taliban. In The Sunday Times:

There is something sinister about the Chinook helicopter, like a giant, dark insect bearing down from the skies to disgorge battle-weary soldiers amid clouds of hot dust. When I think about war, whether it be ones I have reported in Iraq or Afghanistan or seen in Vietnam movies such as Apocalypse Now, the soundtrack in my head is always that of the throbbing blades coming closer and closer.

Last week I sat perched inside a Chinook flying over Helmand, trussed up in flak jacket and helmet, squashed between some Royal Marines arriving for a six-month tour. Unable to talk over the loud rotors, some had earphones attached to iPods. Others, like me, had to make do with yellow military-issue earplugs and spent the journey watching the gunner scour the parched land below through the open back.

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In poverty and strife, Afghan women test limits

October 6, 2008

In the Afghan province of Bamian, women are uprooting traditional gender roles by taking up leadership positions. Carlotta Gall in the New York Times:

Moises Saman for The New York Times

Zeinab Husseini, 19, sits in the drivers seat of her vehicle accompanied by her husband. Photo: Moises Saman for The New York Times

Far away from the Taliban insurgency, in this most peaceful corner of Afghanistan, a quiet revolution is gaining pace. Women are driving cars – a rarity in Afghanistan – working in public offices and police stations, and sitting on local councils. There is even a female governor, the first and only one in Afghanistan.

In many ways this province, Bamian, is unique. A half-dozen years of relative peace in this part of the country since the fall of the Taliban and a lessening of lawlessness and disorder have allowed women to push the boundaries here.

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Reports link Karzai’s brother to Afghanistan heroin trade

James Risen in the New York Times:

Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s brother, in 2001. NYTimes

Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s brother, in 2001. NYTimes

When Afghan security forces found an enormous cache of heroin hidden beneath concrete blocks in a tractor-trailer outside Kandahar in 2004, the local Afghan commander quickly impounded the truck and notified his boss.

Before long, the commander, Habibullah Jan, received a telephone call from Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of President Hamid Karzai, asking him to release the vehicle and the drugs, Mr. Jan later told American investigators, according to notes from the debriefing obtained by The New York Times. He said he complied after getting a phone call from an aide to President Karzai directing him to release the truck.

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Women who took on the Taliban – and lost

October 3, 2008

Three years ago, Kim Sengupta of The Independent interviewed five women who wanted to build a new Afghanistan. Today, three are dead and a fourth has fled.

Safia Amajan, who fought for education for women. Murdered in Kandahar. AFP / The Independent

Safia Amajan, who fought for education for women. Murdered in Kandahar. AFP / The Independent

In the case of Malalai Kakar, the most prominent policewoman in Afghanistan, an additional “crime” which sealed her fate was that she was a determined and effective campaigner for women’s rights. Commander Kakar, 40, knew her work made her a Taliban target. She led a unit of 10 policewomen specialising in domestic violence cases. She was uncompromising with suspected abusers, men who in the past had relied on male police officers to turn a blind eye.

“I’ve been accused of being rough with husbands who beat up their wives” she said. “But I’m angry, we try to apply the law in the right way and the constitution is supposed to protect women’s rights.”

Kakar liked to cook breakfast for her husband and six children before going to work, she told me. She would spend a long time saying her farewell because, she said, she could never be sure what would happen. Her 15-year-old son was with her when she was killed last weekend. She carried a pistol under the burqa she wore to work, so as not to be recognised, before changing into uniform. But she had no chance to defend herself, or him, against the two motorcycle assassins.

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Young love blooms again in Baghdad

September 21, 2008

In The Times, Tim Albone reports from Baghdad:

The Gota restaurant was packed. Cars lined the streets, you had to wait for a table and laughter filled the air as families gathered to break their Ramadan fasts in the upmarket Baghdad neighbourhood.

Even the crackle of gunfire in the background could not spoil the mood – for once, it was not caused by insurgents but a wedding party, firing off some rounds in celebration. “It’s like a dream, but it’s become truth,” said Sarmad, 29, a trendy, confident young professional. This is the first Ramadan since violence spiralled out of control in 2005 that Iraqis have felt safe enough to break their fasts in restaurants. In recent months people have even had the confidence to visit parks and spend the afternoons shopping; an unimaginable scenario as recently as six months ago.

For young, single men such as Sarmad it is a godsend. “We can meet girls now,” he said.

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A female Afghan MP on challenges of her work

September 11, 2008

Dr Roshanak Wardak is an unmarried female MP in the Afghan parliament. She tells Jason Burke about the challenges and compromises she faces in her work. In The Guardian:

The Afghan MP Dr Roshanak Wardak.

The Afghan MP Dr Roshanak Wardak.

No one could say that Dr Roshanak Wardak has an easy life. The 46-year-old MP commutes for two hours a day from her home in Sayyatabad, 55 miles south of Kabul, to the new parliament buildings to the west of the Afghan capital.

Sometimes the road is too risky even for her to drive. Given its proximity to Kabul that is a fairly good indication of how far security has deteriorated in the east of Afghanistan in recent months. To the south of Sayyatabad the road continues on another 200 miles to Kandahar. Under the Taliban, I regularly drove down it – all 18 hours of bone-jarring discomfort – in local taxis.

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Right at the Edge

September 6, 2008

The Taliban and Al Qaeda have established a haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan border. This is where the war on terror wil be fought – and possibly lost. Dexter Filkins in the New York Times Magazine:

Late in the afternoon of June 10, during a firefight with Taliban militants along the Afghan-Pakistani border, American soldiers called in airstrikes to beat back the attack. The firefight was taking place right on the border itself, known in military jargon as the “zero line.” Afghanistan was on one side, and the remote Pakistani region known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, was on the other. The stretch of border was guarded by three Pakistani military posts.

The American bombers did the job, and then some. By the time the fighting ended, the Taliban militants had slipped away, the American unit was safe and 11 Pakistani border guards lay dead. The airstrikes on the Pakistani positions sparked a diplomatic row between the two allies: Pakistan called the incident “unprovoked and cowardly”; American officials regretted what they called a tragic mistake. But even after a joint inquiry by the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan, it remained unclear why American soldiers had reached the point of calling in airstrikes on soldiers from Pakistan, a critical ally in the war in Afghanistan and the campaign against terrorism.

The mystery, at least part of it, was solved in July by four residents of Suran Dara, a Pakistani village a few hundred yards from the site of the fight. According to two of these villagers, whom I interviewed together with a local reporter, the Americans started calling in airstrikes on the Pakistanis after the latter started shooting at the Americans.

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Behind the veil

August 26, 2008

Photographer Leslie Knott travelled to Afghanistan with Oxfam and handed out cameras to women who had never taken pictures before. The results offer an unique insight into their lives. From The Independent:

“My friend does not attend school. Instead she works with her mother collecting water and cleaning the house. I think that if she went to school she would have a better chance of learning to read and write.”
– Parwin, Jalalabad

Click here for more pictures:


The Taleban besiege Kabul

August 26, 2008

Jeremy Page from Kabul in The Times:

The lorry drivers who bring the Pepsi and petrol for Nato troops in Kabul have their own way of calculating the Taleban’s progress towards the Afghan capital: they simply count the lorries destroyed on the main roads.

By that measure, and many others, this looks increasingly like a city under siege as the Taleban start to disrupt supply routes, mimicking tactics used against the British in 1841 and the Soviets two decades ago.

Abdul Hamid, 35, was ferrying Nato supplies from the Pakistani border last month when Taleban fighters appeared on the rocks above and aimed their rocket-launchers at him, 40miles (65km) east of Kabul. “They just missed me but hit the two trucks behind,” he said. “This road used to be safe, but in the last month they’ve been attacking more and more.”

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For Afghanistan, a first ever Olympic medal

August 22, 2008

By Associated Press:

Beijing: In Rohullah Nikpai’s war-torn country, fighting is a part of life. Living in tough conditions is a given. Training for the Olympics is a luxury few can afford, or even imagine.

But Nikpai has proven it can be done: On Wednesday he won Afghanistan’s first Olympic medal ever. “I hope this will send a message of peace to my country after 30 years of war,” Nikpai said after winning the bronze in the men’s under 58-kilogram taekwondo event.

The victory brought immediate congratulations from President Hamid Karzai. “The president personally called Rohullah Nikpai and congratulated him for this achievement,” presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada said.

For his accomplishment, Nikpai will be given a house at the government’s expense, Hamidzada said. Nikpai, he said, serves as a “role model for many other Afghans.”

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Afghans speak out against sexual violence

August 20, 2008

Nushin Arbabzadah in The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free':

“The moment I saw the blood-stained sandal, I knew that my child was dead,” said Abdul Khalid. Khalid, from Takhar province in northern Afghanistan, was talking about the day he discovered his eight-year-old daughter’s body. The girl had been kidnapped, raped and then killed. It turned out later that she was only one of the many child rape victims in the northern provinces of Afghanistan. There were others, children like the 12-year-old daughter of a man called Nurollah. Nurollah is from Sar-e Pul, also in the north. He says he knows the rapist, the son of an MP, and he wants justice for his child. He went all the way to Kabul in search of justice but they told him at the police station: “No one is going to listen to your story. Go home.”

In the past, this would have been the end of the story. Nurollah would have gone home and his story would have remained a private tale of injustice, a family secret disconnected from the wider Afghan society. Bad luck, basically. But we’re talking about Afghanistan in 2008.

[Nushin Arbabzadah was brought up in Kabul during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. She has degrees in German and Spanish literature from the University of Hamburg and in Middle Eastern studies from Cambridge University, where she was a William Gates scholar.]

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Flower power

August 19, 2008

The more the US and Britain spend on combating drugs in Afghanistan, the more the heroin flows out. What hope have they of winning the war while poppy profits fund the Taliban and taint every level of government? Declan Walsh in The Guardian:

Haji Juma Khan leads something of a charmed existence. A towering tribesman from Afghanistan’s border badlands, Khan uses the title “Haji” because he has completed the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam’s holiest shrine. But piety is not his sole concern: he is also one of about 20 men who run Afghanistan’s £2bn heroin trade. Business is good. Last year the country’s fields of pretty pink poppies produced a record harvest, sending drug production soaring to new heights, funding the Taliban and thrusting Afghanistan into ever greater chaos. And despite the best efforts of western counter-narcotics specialists – who have spent six years and more than £1.7bn in fighting the heroin trade – Khan is free as a bird.

His empire is centred on Baramcha, a scruffy town in the Chagai Hills on the Pakistani border. Khan, an ethnic Baluch, seized control of this parched area in the dying days of Taliban rule in late 2001 and turned it into a bustling hub of smuggling and gun running. It is dotted with heroin labs: rough shacks where turbaned men, tutored by imported chemists from Iran and elsewhere, use chemicals and vats of boiling water to refine bars of sticky brown opium into bags of powdery white or brown heroin. The drug departs on convoys of high-speed jeeps, bristling with weaponry, that dash across the desert towards the Iranian border. It is then sold to criminal gangs who push the heroin to its end customers: addicts in Europe and Russia.

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Insurgency’s scars line Afghanistan’s main road

August 14, 2008

A highway that was once the showpiece of the United States reconstruction effort is now a dangerous gantlet of mines and attacks. From The New York Times:

Saydebad, Afghanistan: Not far from here, just off the highway that was once the showpiece of the United States reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, three American soldiers and their Afghan interpreter were ambushed and killed seven weeks ago.

The soldiers – two of them members of the National Guard from New York – died as their vehicles were hit by mines and rocket-propelled grenades. At least one was dragged off and chopped to pieces, according to Afghan and Western officials. The body was so badly mutilated that at first the military announced that it had found the remains of two men, not one, in a nearby field.

The attack, on June 26, was notable not only for its brutality, but also because it came amid a series of spectacular insurgent attacks along the road that have highlighted the precariousness of the international effort to secure Afghanistan six years after the United States intervened to drive off the Taliban government.

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Restoring past glory in Old Kabul

July 6, 2008

Candace Rondeaux from Kabul in The Washington Post:

The road that rings the old city district of Murad Khane is thick with smoke from the hearths of a row of blacksmiths. Until recently, few people in the Afghan capital had much reason to venture beyond the plumes of black smoke into the district.

For decades, Murad Khane has been crushed beneath tons of garbage, a monumental wasteland to the conflict that has gripped Afghanistan for 30 years. The trash heaps made the homes there so inaccessible in places that residents had to burrow through the refuse to enter their front doors.

These days, however, many of those who walk the warren of residences and tumbledown Silk Road inns that make up Murad Khane are there to rebuild the district in what some have billed one the most ambitious efforts yet to pump new life into the long-ailing city.

[Photo: Work to restore the Peacock House, a once-grand building in a rundown, trash-strewn district of Kabul, was begun in 2006 by the Turquoise Foundation, a development organization born of a meeting of minds between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Britain's Prince Charles. / The Washington Post]

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Back in Kabul, never at peace

July 6, 2008

Photographer Tyler Hicks navigates the Afghan capital with his camera. From the New York Times:

My first trip to Kabul was in 2001. I arrived as Northern Alliance soldiers were fighting Taliban gunmen in and around the Afghan capital. Those who resisted were killed, and those captured were more likely to be executed than taken prisoner. There was a power vacuum in Kabul, a brief moment when one set of rulers fled and the next had not yet taken over. This can be a liberating time for a photographer. There were no clear rules, no central authority that might restrict you from taking pictures. I’ve returned to Afghanistan nearly every year since then.

[Photo: Refugees have streamed into Kabul, and many become beggars, like this woman caring for her sick son.Tyler Hicks / NYTimes]

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So where is Bin Laden, anyway?

July 2, 2008


Bin Laden family biographer Steve Coll ponders several questions about Osama Bin Laden’s location.


Old-line Taliban commander is face of rising Afghan threat

June 17, 2008

An attack has revealed the way former mujahedeen leaders, like Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani, combine forces with foreign terrorist groups. From International Herald Tribune:

Kabul: The attack was little reported at the time. A suicide bombing on March 3 killed two NATO soldiers and two Afghan civilians and wounded 19 others in an American military base.

It was only weeks later, when Taliban militants put out a propaganda DVD, that the implications of the attack became clear. The DVD shows a huge explosion, with shock waves rippling out far beyond the base. As a thick cloud of dust rises, the face of Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani, a Taliban commander who presents one of the biggest threats to NATO and United States forces, appears. He taunts his opponents and derides rumors of his demise.

“Now as you see I am still alive,” he says.

The deadly attack was also devastating for what it showed about the persistence of the Afghan insurgency and the way former mujahedeen leaders, like Maulavi Haqqani, combined tactics and forces with Al Qaeda and other foreign terrorist groups.

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The 14-year-old Afghan suicide bomber

June 10, 2008

A teenager caught on a lethal mission reveals how he was groomed to kill British troops. In The Independent, Kim Sengupta reports from Kabul:

The surroundings were grim and forbidding, a notorious jail run by Afghanistan’s feared security service for those taken prisoner in the bloody war with the Taliban.

Among the inmates: Shakirullah Yasin Ali; a small, frail boy, just 14 years old, arrested as he prepared to carry out a suicide bombing against British and American targets. “If I had succeeded, I would be dead now, I realise that,” he said in a soft, nervous voice.

“But those who were instructing me said that if I believed in serving God it was my duty to fight against the foreigners. They said God would protect me when the time came.”

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‘Touch wood,’ Karzai said to me. You hear it all the time

June 3, 2008

From The Spectator:

There is something oddly soothing about going to sleep to the sound of gunfire in Kandahar airbase. The shots are fired by British troops, honing the night combat skills which achieved such success over the Taleban last winter. The fighting season was due to start four weeks ago, when the poppy harvest ended – but so far, nothing. British commanders are quietly optimistic that the Taleban has counted its 6,000 dead, learned it cannot win firefights and switched to guerrilla tactics instead.

Only in Afghanistan could the rockets being fired into the Kandahar airbase be seen as a sign of progress. Much as the prospect may terrify visitors, the soldiers themselves are sanguine. For those who were in the Iraqi bases being shelled 60 times a night, using body armour for pyjamas, the four-a-week rate of Kandahar is nothing. The main complaint of the servicemen and women is that the Taleban may well have gone underground and sporadic missile alerts could be all the action they see.

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The boy who took Karzai’s bullet

May 4, 2008

A child of 10 was one of three civilians who died during a botched Taliban attack on the Afghan President. Peter Beaumont reports from Kabul in The Observor, UK:

Syed Ali was playing on the roof of his mud-brick house when the killers came for Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai last week. Karzai survived the attack on Kabul’s broad parade ground. Ten-year-old Syed Ali, a kilometre away watching his mother cleaning almond shells to supplement the family’s winter fuel, died, with two others, when he was hit by a stray bullet.

Amid the furore of how a plot – apparently known of in advance – could have come so close to killing Karzai, the death of Syed Ali has all but been forgotten. An official from the President’s office came to see the family and said he would come again. When I met the family, they were still waiting for his return.

His mother can barely speak; two days of crying has reduced her voice to a croak.

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Drugs for guns

April 30, 2008

How the Afghan heroin trade is fuelling the Taliban insurgency. In The Independent, UK, Jerome Starkey reports from Kunduz:

The heroin flooding Britain’s streets is threatening the lives of UK troops in Afghanistan, an Independent investigation can reveal.

Russian gangsters who smuggle drugs into Britain are buying cheap heroin from Afghanistan and paying for it with guns. Smugglers told The Independent how Russian arms dealers meet Taliban drug lords at a bazaar near the old Afghan-Soviet border, deep in Tajikistan’s desert. The bazaar exists solely to trade Afghan drugs for Russian guns – and sometimes a bit of sex on the side.

The drugs are destined for Britain’s streets. The guns go straight to the Taliban front line.

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A changing war

April 30, 2008

The conflict in Afghanistan may become more like the one in Iraq, says The Economist

THE Mujahideen Day parade in Kabul, at the weekend, was supposed to show Afghanistan’s new, Western-trained, armed forces coming of age. President Hamid Karzai, other Afghan politicians and a jumble of diplomats packed a podium to review the troops. Then, just as a 21-gun salute began, what sounded like celebratory firecrackers crackled from a shabby hotel some 400m away. As six lightly armed Taliban fighters took pot shots the dignitaries and military men panicked, shedding bits of ceremonial uniform as they scrambled for safety.

Casualties were not as serious as they might have been: the gunmen managed to kill three and wound 11 but failed to touch their main target, Mr Karzai. Even so, they scored a significant propaganda victory. Television pictures of the furore broadcast at home and abroad confirmed that Afghanistan’s capital is within reach of the Islamist fighters. “We can attack anywhere we want to”, boasted a Taliban spokesman after the attacks. This was the second big strike in Kabul this year. In January a three-man Taliban suicide squad blasted its way into the lobby and spa of a luxury hotel in the city, killing eight staff and guests.

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American envoy to UN may run against Karzai after quitting post

April 12, 2008

Kim Sengupta in The Independent, UK:

Zalmay Khalilzad, the American envoy to the United Nations and an influential figure in the Bush administration, may run against Hamid Karzai for the Afghan presidency after resigning from his post.

Mr Khalilzad, who is Afghan-born, fuelled recurring reports of his political ambitions by appearing on television in Kabul to announce that he is to leave his job and wants to be “at the service of the Afghan people”.

Although Mr Khalilzad, who holds US citizenship, added: “I have said earlier that I am not a candidate for any position in Afghanistan,” his decision to step down from the prestigious UN job has been widely regarded as clearing the way for a run at the Afghan leadership, with President Karzai facing serious and mounting internal and international criticism.

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Rising leader for next phase of Al Qaeda’s war

April 4, 2008

The growing prominence of Abu Yahya al-Libi tracks Al Qaeda’s emphasis on information in its war with the West. In The New York Times:

On the night of July 10, 2005, an obscure militant preacher named Abu Yahya al-Libi escaped from an American prison in Afghanistan and rocketed to fame in the world of jihadists.

The breakout from the Bagram Air Base by Mr. Libi and three cellmates – they picked a lock, dodged their guards and traversed the base’s vast acreage to freedom – embarrassed American officials as deeply as it delighted the jihadist movement. In the nearly three years since then, Mr. Libi’s meteoric ascent within the leadership of Al Qaeda has proved to be even more troublesome for the authorities.

Mr. Libi, a Libyan believed to be in his late 30s, is now considered to be a top strategist for Al Qaeda.

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A look inside Al Qaeda

April 2, 2008

From Los Angeles Times:

If Al Qaeda strikes the West in the coming months, it’s likely the mastermind will be a stocky Egyptian explosives expert with two missing fingers.

His alias is Abu Ubaida al Masri. Hardly anyone has heard of him outside a select circle of anti-terrorism officials and Islamic militants. But as chief of external operations for Al Qaeda, investigators say, he has one of the most dangerous — and endangered — jobs in international terrorism.

He has overseen the major plots that the network needs to stay viable, investigators say: the London transportation bombings in 2005, a foiled transatlantic “spectacular” aimed at U.S.-bound planes in 2006, and an aborted plot in this serene Scandinavian capital last fall.

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De-mining Afghanistan

April 2, 2008

From The Globe And Mail:

Kandahar, Afghanistan: Noor Ahmad has one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. For 18 years, he’s prodded the earth centimetre by centimetre to rid his country of land mines, a scourge that has become more numerous in the time he’s been working. He’s seen an anti-personnel mine blow up in front of him and still bears the scars where his body wasn’t shielded by protective gear.

He presses on in spite of the dangers, working in the hot sun on the weekend to help clear the perimeter of a bombed-out weapons factory east of Kandahar, because he considers it “a kind of jihad.”

“If you protect the life of one person, then you will be rewarded as if you have protected all the world,” Mr. Ahmed said, citing a verse from the Koran.

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The opium brides of Afghanistan

April 1, 2008

In the country’s poppy-growing provinces, farmers are being forced to sell their daughters to pay loans. From Newsweek:

Khalida’s father says she’s 9-or maybe 10. As much as Sayed Shah loves his 10 children, the functionally illiterate Afghan farmer can’t keep track of all their birth dates. Khalida huddles at his side, trying to hide beneath her chador and headscarf. They both know the family can’t keep her much longer. Khalida’s father has spent much of his life raising opium, as men like him have been doing for decades in the stony hillsides of eastern Afghanistan and on the dusty southern plains. It’s the only reliable cash crop most of those farmers ever had. Even so, Shah and his family barely got by: traffickers may prosper, but poor farmers like him only subsist. Now he’s losing far more than money. “I never imagined I’d have to pay for growing opium by giving up my daughter,” says Shah.

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Who’s left in Afghanistan?

March 26, 2008

Foreign Policy looks at whose militaries are doing what in Afghanistan.

The Top Five:

United States
Troops currently in Afghanistan: 29,000
Fatalities: 419 (includes deaths in Pakistan and Uzbekistan)

Britain
Troops currently in Afghanistan: 7,800
Fatalities: 89 (includes civilians from the Ministry of Defense)

Germany
Troops currently in Afghanistan: 3,210
Fatalities: 26

Italy
Troops currently in Afghanistan: 2,880
Fatalities: 12

Canada
Troops currently in Afghanistan: 2,500
Fatalities: 81

The Bottom Five:

Singapore
Troops currently in Afghanistan: 2
Fatalities: 0

Austria
Troops currently in Afghanistan: 2, sometimes 3
Fatalities: 0

Ireland
Troops currently in Afghanistan: 7
Fatalities: 0

Luxembourg
Troops currently in Afghanistan: 9
Fatalities: 0

Iceland
Troops currently in Afghanistan: 13 (Iceland has no military, so these are actually civilians that report to the Icelandic Crisis Response Unit)
Fatalities: 0

For details on what each country’s troops are doing in Afghanistan, click here:


In Afghanistan, a young girl braves abuse to follow Olympic dream

March 22, 2008

Nick Meo from Kabul in The Times, UK:

Many of the athletes at Beijing will have had to overcome obstacles to get there but only one Olympian is likely to have had her training schedule dogged by a sexist hate campaign.

As if the Olympic team of Afghanistan does not have enough trouble with run-down facilities and a woeful shortage of funds, its sole woman competitor has had to prepare herself mentally for the biggest challenge of her life while dealing with sinister midnight telephone calls, the open derision of her neighbours and even police harassment.

The attitude of the officers who tried to arrest her this week was nothing new for Mehboba Andyar, 19, who lives in a slum in Kabul.

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In Afghanistan, a woman ‘pop idol’ angers traditionalists

March 14, 2008

Jason Straziuso from Kabul in The Independent, UK:

In a first for post-Taliban Afghanistan, a woman from the conservative Pashtun belt is one of the top three contenders in the country’s version of Pop Idol. Conservatives decry the fact that an Afghan woman has found success singing on television, but Lima Sahar brushes off her critics, saying there can be no progress without upsetting the status quo. “No pain, no gain,” she said yesterday.

Afghanistan’s cleric’s council has protested to President Hamid Karzai over Afghan Star and Indian dramas shown on Tolo TV, the country’s most popular station. Ali Ahmad Jebra-ali, a council member, said: “In the situation we have in Afghanistan right now, we don’t need a woman singer. We don’t need Afghan Star. We are in need of a good economy, good education. If Lima Sahar wins Afghan Star, how can she help the poor? This is not the way to help the Afghan people.”

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Hillary Clinton on Afghanistan: As President I will…

March 8, 2008

The Council on Foreign Relations website has the full statement of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Afghanistan:

Hillary Clinton announced her plans to address the forgotten front line in Afghanistan as she met with a group of respected retired admirals, generals, and other senior officials to discuss current foreign policy and national security challenges.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban have largely recovered from the blows inflicted after 9/11. Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan have now merged into one of the most dangerous regions of the world, and one of the most strategically important to the United States. Today, Hillary pledged to make Afghanistan her highest security priority after Iraq, and outlined her agenda for winning the war in Afghanistan.

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Inside Islam, a woman’s roar

March 5, 2008

Wazhma Frogh, an Afghan, uses her religion to press for women’s rights – and development agencies take note. Jill Carroll in The Christian Science Monitor:

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Just hours after Wazhma Frogh arrived in an isolated, conservative district in northeastern Afghanistan in 2002, the local mullah was preaching to his congregation to kill her. Ms. Frogh was meddling with their women with her plan to start a literacy program, he told the assembly.

As she walked past the mosque during noon prayers, his words caught her ear. Shocked, she marched straight into the mosque. In a flowing black chador that left her face uncovered, she strode past the male worshipers and faced the mullah. Trembling inside, she challenged him.

“Mullah, give me five minutes,” she recalls saying. “I will tell you something, and after that if you want to say I am an infidel and I am a threat to you, just kill me.”

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The Princes in Afghanistan

March 3, 2008

Now that his younger brother, Prince Harry is safely back home, is it Prince Williams’ turn to do his bit for God, granny and country and head off to Afghanistan? The Sun claims that the second in line to the British throne is, in fact, off to serve, at his own request, in a frontline position aboard a Royal Navy warship. The paper claims to know the exact details of where and when Prince William will be sent, but is withholding this information in the interest ‘to protect him and his fellow comrades’.

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Read The Sun story here

Meanwhile, Sami Yousafzai and Stryker McGuire in Newsweek report that the Taliban in Afghanistan knew all along that they had English royalty in their midst.

Despite the british government’s concerted effort to preserve the secret, a veteran Taliban field officer claims he was scarcely surprised by the disclosure that Prince Harry was serving with Britain’s troops in southern Afghanistan. Fearing that insurgents would specifically target Cornet Wales (the prince’s military title) and his fellow soldiers if his presence in the battle zone were publicly revealed, the top British brass did everything possible to prevent leaks about his deployment on Dec. 14 to Helmand province. But talking to newsweek via satellite phone from that region last week, deputy commander Mullah Abdul Karim recalled getting an urgent message from Taliban intelligence in late December or early January that “an important chicken” had joined British troops in his area of operations. Karim promptly sent his men hunting for the prince. “He is our special enemy,” says Karim. “Our first option was to capture him as a prisoner, and the second, to kill him.”

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And, finally, not everybody’s impressed with Prince Harry’s ‘stunt’ to serve in Afghanistan which proves that royal lives are worth more than ordinary ones, writes Marina Hyde in The Guardian

On the one hand, it was nice to see Prince Harry in a British army uniform, as opposed to one of Hitler’s. It’s a little bit like Pokemon, really. I’m hoping he’ll give us a highly collectible Hutu warrior snap soon. Gotta catch ‘em all! On the other, is there anyone over Pokemon-playing age who believes it was really worth it? The sheer number of man-hours and money lavished on allowing one young man to experience job satisfaction is mind-boggling. It has to be the most fatuous use of Ministry of Defence resources since Geoff Hoon.

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Let’s play some Buzkashi

March 1, 2008

From Passport, a blog by the editors of Foreign Policy

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Afghans play Buzkashi during a weekly game February 29, 2008 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Buzkashi, or ‘goat dragging’, is played with two teams of horsemen competing to throw a beheaded 30 kg calf, goat or sheep into a scoring circle. The Afghan national sport which was outlawed during the Taliban regime is played from late October to March every year. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)


The girl who grew up as a boy

February 27, 2008

Arti Pandey in International Herald Tribune:

I was greeted by a high school graduate dressed in men’s salwar-kameez and vest when I arrived at the school in Afghanistan’s Northern province of Faryab last July.

“You thought I was boy, didn’t you? Because I dress like boy and walk like boy – yes?” The short hair and men’s clothing contradicted a girlish voice. “I always dress like boy. People think I am boy, but I am girl. But I don’t like to be girl.”

This was my introduction to Azaada Khan, the girl who grew up as a boy under the omniscient eye of the Taliban.

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How he was sentenced to die

February 26, 2008

Kim Sengupta of The Independent, UK, interviews Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the student journalist sentenced to death, in a prison in Mazar-I-Sharif, Afghanistan:

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‘What they call my trial lasted just four minutes in a closed court. I was told that I was guilty and the decision was that I was going to die’ 

Clutching the bars at his prison, Sayed Pervez Kambaksh recalls how his life unravelled. “There was no question of me getting a lawyer to represent me in the case; in fact I was not even able to speak on my own defence.”

The 23-year-old student, whose death sentence for downloading a report on women’s rights from the internet has become an international cause célèbre, was speaking to The Independent at his jail in Mazar-i-Sharif – the first time the outside world has heard his own account of his shattering experience. In a voice soft, somewhat hesitant, he said: “The judges had made up their mind about the case without me. The way they talked to me, looked at me, was the way they look at a condemned man. I wanted to say ‘this is wrong, please listen to me’, but I was given no chance to explain.”

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A bloody stalemate in Afghanistan

February 26, 2008

Elizabeth Rubin in The New York Times Magazine.

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We tumbled out of two Black Hawks onto a shrub-dusted mountainside. It was a windy, cold October evening. A half-moon illuminated the tall pines and peaks. Through night-vision goggles the soldiers and landscape glowed in a blurry green-and-white static. Just across the valley, lights flickered from a few homes nestled in the terraced farmlands of Yaka China, a notorious village in the Korengal River valley in Afghanistan’s northeastern province of Kunar. Yaka China was just a few villages south and around a bend in the river from the Americans’ small mountain outposts, but the area’s reputation among the soldiers was mythic. It was a known safe haven for insurgents. American troops have tended to avoid the place since a nasty fight a year or so earlier. And as Halloween approached, the soldiers I was with, under the command of 26-year-old Capt. Dan Kearney, were predicting their own Yaka China doom. [Photo: Specialist Carl Vandenberge, right, and Staff Sgt. Kevin Rice, left, are assisted as they walk to a medevac helicopter after being shot by insurgents in the ambush.]

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Chronicle of a kidnapping

February 16, 2008

For the Taliban in Afghanistan, ransom is easy money writes Carol Grisanti in NBC’s World Blog 

Ishaqzai was anxious to tell her story.

“The Taliban kidnapped my 21-year-old son Mustafa,” she said. “They demanded a ransom of $200,000 or else they said they would kill him,” she told NBC News. “Then they ordered me to give up my job.”

Ishaqzai, 36, is the mother of seven and, as a member of the Afghan parliament, one of the few female politicians in this male-dominated society. She is a prominent figure and well-known in the Afghan capital.

News of the kidnapping recently surfaced and had become a hot conversation topic in Kabul. 

NBC News went to visit Ishaqzai at her home in an upscale Kabul neighborhood. The family lives well, at least by Afghan standards. An antique red Bokhara carpet covered the entire length of the living room in their fourth-floor apartment.  It was bitter cold outside, but it had finally stopped snowing, and it was warm inside thanks to a gas heater.

A houseboy brought tea and Ishaqzai began to tell her story.

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Love is tough in Afghanistan

February 16, 2008

KABUL: Five young Afghan women slipped out to lunch in an upmarket Kabul eatery on Valentine’s Day, each wearing a red scarf in a wink to the day of love — a difficult pursuit in Afghanistan.

“It was fun. We also bought a cake,” said one of them, a 26-year-old employee of an international nongovernment organisation who asked to be called Jamila to hide her identity. The red scarves were a sign known only to this group of friends whose brush with foreigners introduced them to Valentine’s Day — an event largely unknown in Afghanistan, where love outside of marriage is taboo.

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Afghan woman is all about business

February 5, 2008

In The Christian Science Monitor, Gayle Tzemach reports from Kabul on woman entrepreneur Kamela Sediqi who teaches Afghans around the country the skills they need to start ventures.

In a small office hidden behind a gate in Kabul, Kamela Sediqi sits at her laptop and builds her business. The unlikely entrepreneur is the architect of Kaweyan Business Development Services, a consulting firm she started in 2004 with only her computer and her determination.

Barely 30 and on her third startup, Ms. Sediqi employs 25 men and women, more than half of them full time. She started her first venture, a tailoring business, to support her mother and brother during Taliban rule. In the end, it provided work for more than 100 women. And it gave Sediqi the entrepreneurial bug that eventually led her to Kaweyan – a service firm that had few capital needs at the outset.

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Let Sayed Kambakhsh live

February 1, 2008

Indrajit Hazra in Hindustan Times.

Afghanistan will be judged by the way it treats one man this time there’s no Taliban to blame. The death sentence handed out to 23-year-old Afghan journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh on January 22 in a primary court in the province of Balkh has the support of Himachal Pradesh University alumnus, champion of liberalism and enemy of the Taliban, President Hamid Karzai himself. On October 22, 2007, Kambakhsh was arrested for downloading and keeping an article from the internet that spoke about what the Koran has to say about women. Picked up by the authorities in Mazar-e-Sharif, the student of journalism and contributor to Jahan-e-Naw was tried behind closed doors, without a lawyer to defend him and was found guilty of blasphemy and “disseminating defamatory comments about Islam”.

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Taliban revival in Peshawar

January 20, 2008

Jane Perlez in The New York Times

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PESHAWAR, Pakistan – For centuries, fighting and lawlessness have been part of the fabric of this frontier city. But in the past year, Pakistan’s war with Islamic militants has spilled right into its alleys and bazaars, its forts and armories, killing policemen and soldiers and scaring its famously tough citizens.
There is a sense of siege here, as the Islamic insurgency pours out of the adjacent tribal region into this city, one of Pakistan’s largest, and its surrounding districts.
The Taliban and their militant sympathizers now hold strategic pockets on the city’s outskirts, the police say, from where they strike at the military and the police, order schoolgirls to wear the burqa and blow up stores selling DVDs, among other acts of violence.

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Big weddings and reverse dowry in Afghanistan

January 16, 2008

Kirk Semple in the New York Times

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Kabul — On the afternoon before his wedding day this fall, Hamid was sitting in an empty teahouse worrying a glass of green tea between his fingers, his brow furrowed in concern.

He confessed to feeling a certain anxiety at seeing his bachelor’s independence slipping away. But something else was troubling him, as well: the cost of his wedding.

In Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, bridegrooms are expected to pay not only for their weddings, but also all the related expenses, including several huge prewedding parties and money for the bride’s family, a kind of reverse dowry.

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