June 22, 2006

Afghanistan: Fighting ‘NGOism’

Afghanistan: Fighting ‘NGOism’

January 2006

Women's Feature Service

First there was Communism, then there was Talibanism and now there is NGOism,” goes a joke that gained currency after the arrival of the international community in post-Taliban Afghanistan in 2001-02. Nearly four years later, with targeted attacks on a large number of aid workers by anti-government militants that joke is no longer funny.
According to a report brought out by the Afghan NGO Security Organisation and CARE International (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere), as many as 24 NGO workers were killed in 2004, compared to 12 in 2003. Slow progress in reconstruction, misplaced aid priorities and misperceptions that club the international community together as one monolithic entity, are increasingly squeezing the space for non-profit NGOs working in Afghanistan, making them easy target for politicians playing on populist sentiment.
One politician riding high on this sentiment is former Planning Minister, Basher Dost. One of the highest vote-grossing candidates contesting the elections to Afghanistan’s new Parliament, he has acquired a reputation for anti-NGO rhetoric — one of the main reasons for his popularity.
Afghanistan receives a fairly large amount of aid funding. From January 2002 to September 2004, donor assistance totalled $1.226 billion directly to the Afghan government, $1.957 billion to the UN, $705 million to private contractors and $413 million to NGOs (as per Financial Report, Fourth Quarter: Ministry of Finance, Government of Afghanistan). Although NGOs get very little of the direct funding, the misperception that they receive the bulk of donor money persists, fuelled by populist rhetoric.
Dost denies that his is a populist stand that cashes in on jingoistic sentiment, claiming he is only against corrupt NGOs. Out of the 2,350 NGOs registered with the Ministry of Planning, Dost cancelled the registration of 1,935 in 2004, saying, “They were not really NGOs”. He also feels that all international aid should be routed through the office of the President; he thinks at present the aid is being controlled by a “mafia that shares it for its own luxurious lifestyles”.
Dost is tapping into the core of the latent anti-foreigner sentiment in the country. Afghanistan’s history of foreign invasions and fighting occupying forces ensures a simmering anti-foreigner sentiment. The resentment is also fuelled by the perceived lifestyles of the international community. Security restrictions on large sections of the international aid workers — especially those under the UN mandate — make it mandatory for them to travel in secured vehicles and live in secured areas. Unable to interact normally, a large number of foreigners lead insulated lives, travelling from office to home, where many lead lifestyles that are perceived alien to Afghan culture with its strict social and moral codes.
Alcohol consumption, for example, is banned under the Afghan Constitution; but under an unwritten code, expatriates continue to drink and be served alcohol at restaurants, which have to ensure that no Afghans are served alcohol. This and any form of open mingling between men and women are often the target of criticism from conservatives.
While the entire aid community is not a monolithic entity, there is little perception of distinction amongst Afghans. In fact, the blurring of lines extends even to different sections of the international community. With the military forces now engaged in reconstruction, the distinction between the military and civilian aid workers has been lost. So has the distinction between UN workers, contractors and the NGO community.
Attempting to redress this, ACBAR (Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief), an umbrella organisation for NGOs, led the development of an Afghanistan NGO Code of Conduct, which was launched in May 2005. Barbara Stapleton, ACBAR’s Advocacy and Policy Coordinator, says, “The Code will help professionalise the national NGO community further and provide a mechanism for following up on alleged complaints against any signatory organisation. It will also provide a tool to communicate to the Afghan government, media and people what non-profit NGOs are and what they are not. The Code is also intended to increase the transparency and accountability of NGOs working in Afghanistan. International NGOs prioritise capacity building and, in line with this objective, tend to have a predominantly Afghan staff.”
This contrasts sharply with the profiles of contractors and for-profit organisations. With huge sums of money available for reconstruction, their work focuses primarily on execution of projects to meet deadlines and pre-ordained benchmarks. This often leads to the creation of unsustainable projects, and institutions with little or no capacity building. The idea is to move in, build, collect payment and move on to the next project.
Unfortunately for NGOs, critics do not make this distinction. Paul Barker of CARE International says, “Much of the hostility against NGOs in Afghanistan is not very well-informed. Populist politicians, the media and many in the public tend to lump all aid agencies (including private contractors, UN agencies, private security contractors, and even the NATO-led International Assistance Security Force) into one group and refer to them as ‘NGOs’. The frustration felt by critics of the aid community reflects a perceived frustration with the rate of reconstruction and development in the country.”
A year ago, security for this community had reached rock bottom with repeated attacks in different parts of the country, forcing NGOs to curb their activities. Even popular agitation against the central government took the form of pinpointed and organised attacks on the international community and aid offices. While few chose to pull out, almost all restricted their activities, curtailing the movement of non-Afghans in some areas.
The situation was a little better in 2005, but seems perched to worsen again. A senior analyst dealing with security issues points out that this is not because of any decrease in anti-foreigner sentiment but because of the changing tactics of anti-government forces. These include the Taliban and various other forces jockeying for power — former commanders of legal and illegal militias, drug smugglers and criminals.
The anti-government forces have chosen to concentrate their energies on low-level government officials, having failed in their attempt to make a difference by targeting NGOs, the analyst said. However, he pointed out that the situation was changing with some more targeted attacks on NGOs. Barker says, “CARE programmes suffered some short interruptions due to security concerns in some areas in 2004, but we did not pull out of any provinces due to this. In 2004, we expanded to include Daikundi and Bamiyan. In 2005, we added Panjshir and Kapisa. In 2006, we will start work in Balkh and Baghlan.”

Afghans go for Parliament

Afghans go for Parliament
September 2005


On 18 September, more than 12 million people are expected to participate in Afghanistan’s first experiment in parliamentary democracy, when they vote for the Wolesi Jirga (lower house of Parliament) and 34 provincial councils. The term ‘experiment’ is appropriate, as the complete decimation of structures of a modern nation state during the 25 years of unrelenting war makes the holding of elections challenging, difficult as well as novel. The polling process will also be an exercise in bringing together innumerable variables that have been changing the face of Afghanistan in the past four years.

The elections are being held under the framework of the Bonn Agreement, signed in the wake of the US military victory in Afghanistan in 2001. The Bonn process had laid down a timetable for the recovery and reconstruction of the country. The roadmap included convening of an emergency loya jirga (grand council) for establishment of the transitional government, holding a constitutional loya jirga to adopt a new constitution, to be followed by elections for a fully representational government. Scheduled for June 2004, the elections were to be held for the office of president, seats in the Wolesi Jirga, the provincial councils, and the district councils finally leading to the establishment of the Meshrano Jirga or upper house through indirect election and nominations. However, given the enormity of the task and the fragile security situation, only the Presidential elections were held in October 2004, and polls for other institutions postponed for later.

While the announcement of the present round of elections has been welcomed by the international community, many political leaders as well as aware citizens point to the lack of adequate preparation and controversial electoral procedures. This has made some cautious and others cynical about the ‘experiment’ of elections coming up in a few days’ time.

A society in transition
Afghanistan is in a period of transition, with remarkable change underway in society. For some Afghan women, the transformation has been enormous. Many are back in the workforce while quite a few are contesting elections, fighting for their rights, and working for the development of their society. Yet, the majority still faces the same restrictions and constraints of old. Over three million children are back in school and over three million refugees have returned to the country. Urban centers see new businesses and enterprises coming up every day and the country now has an independent and growing media. At the same time, there are people with destroyed homes facing relentless poverty, drought and floods. Clear signs of Afghanistan’s bitter history are visible everywhere. War widows beg on the streets; children without limbs drag themselves from car to car; young girls are sold to pay off debts incurred in a drug run; poppy growers, with their fields destroyed, have no means of employment; old men pull carts, piled high with lumber; young fighters, their guns taken away, are now at a loss never having known any other way of life. There is also rage and hatred, against other ethnic groups, against the foreign aid worker who earns more in a day than most will see in a month.
The socio-economic indicators present a dismal picture. The country ranks 173rd on the Human Development Index, far below neighbouring countries – Pakistan (142), Tajikistan (116), Uzbekistan (107), Iran (101) and Turkmenistan (86). The literacy rate is 28.7 percent and nearly one out of two Afghans will not survive to the age of 40. The infant mortality rate is 115 (per thousand) and that of children under five years, 172. The maternal mortality ratio per 100,000 live births is 1,600.
Yet, talk to ordinary Afghans and their spirit is indomitable. Unlike the victim syndrome in many post-conflict areas, Afghans blame themselves for their own fate, hoping that time will give them a chance to make a better life and country. It is these citizens who will exercise their right to franchise in less than a month wishing for a peaceful, democratic state at long last.

The security dilemma
For the international community charged with conducting the polls, the elections are a major step in the road to transfer of power and giving rights back to the people. However, there are critics who believe the process should have been delayed until the country was better prepared for it. They are apprehensive that the elections may end up legitimising the illegal centers of power that exist all over the provinces and enshrining the bad precedents, such as the absence of voter lists and adequate means of vetting candidates. But the biggest worry is the lack of a relatively secure atmosphere needed for free and fair polling. As an independent observer of the electoral process observes, “It is important to do it right the first time around.” Cutting corners and making compromises harm the credibility of elections, and it will be difficult to change the norm, he says. Skeptics argue that the rush to complete the polls is merely to arrive at a benchmark international powers have set for themselves, rather than based on an assessment of the needs arising from the changing situation on the ground.

Nearly four years after the fall of the Taliban, the installation of the transitional government of Hamid Karzai and the deployment of international presence in the country (troops, UN agencies and innumerable ngos), the institutions of the Afghan state are yet to take firm root. Rebuilding a country, especially one where violence continues to dominate, has been an arduous process. Unfortunately, the emphasis placed by the international community on numbers and deadlines has often been to the detriment of actual capacity-building and greater community participation. This gives the state apparatus an inordinate power despite its obvious weakness.

An example is the ongoing fight against militancy. The international military intervention, in the wake of 9/11, was led by the US Coalition forces in 2001 and the US remains in charge of the command and control of a multinational force operating against the “enemies of Afghanistan”. However this ambiguously defined target has resulted in neglect of the equally important tasks of peacekeeping in secured areas, of ensuring protection against existing warlords who were equally brutal even if not identified as ‘Taliban’, and of ensuring security that would provide the space for implementing laws and ensuring justice. As a result, even previously secure areas have faced a security vacuum which was taken advantage by a regrouped Taliban and other armed groups and criminal elements. While the figures are contested, the country has seen as many as 1000 deaths in the last six months alone. Even though the Coalition Forces and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) publicly claim that the security situation has improved, this is doubtful. More independent international observers have noted that the violence now is the worst they have seen since 2001.

Col Jim Yonts, spokesman of the Coalition Forces Command, says, “Security has improved as a result of cooperation and coordination between the Afghan security forces, Coalition forces, local leadership and the Afghan people.” Maintaining that 60 percent of the weapons’ cache and explosive discoveries are now taking place through Afghans, Yonts adds the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army forces have increased in number and capacity. There is no significant terrorist presence or threat in areas where ISAF is operating, claims its spokesperson Major Andy Elmes.

Others are not as sanguine as the spokespersons of the security forces. Spokesperson for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA), Adrian Edwards, says the security situation this year has been a matter of concern. The UN Security Council has expressed concern over the increased attacks by the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other groups. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s special representative on Afghanistan told the Council recently that extremists were targeting pro-government and international forces, raising concerns for the forthcoming elections. Even the new American ambassador to Afghanistan, who arrived here from a posting in Iraq, expressed the international community’s concerns on security at his maiden press conference in August. Ronald Neumann was quoted as saying “there is certainly more violence and there are violent elements trying to come back.” The ambassador also said, “I think this is a situation that will probably be difficult for some time. But there is a strong international presence and there is a strong American presence, which is quite adequate to deal with the violence.”

Survival in this country remains a tenuous negotiation for citizens, especially outside the urban areas. Though the UN mandated process of DDR (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of the standing armies of the provincial leaders) is nearly complete, there are questions about its efficacy. After a quarter century of war, there is no real way to measure the amount of weapons in Afghanistan and this means that officials have to rely on the declarations made by the commanders. Meanwhile, the process of disarming ‘illegal’ armed groups has just begun. At the time of nominations for the elections, the candidature of 255 candidates was challenged on the grounds that they still possessed arms. They were threatened with disqualification unless they turned in a specified amount of weapons. At the time of the final announcement however, only 17 were barred. According to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), “many who were provisionally excluded were let back on the candidate list with ‘undertakings’ of future compliance”.
The commanders of the disarmed groups have not been marginalized either. An example is Abdul Rasheed Dostum, the strongman of the North. Dostum was appointed chief of staff to the commander of the armed forces, i.e. President Hamid Karzai, earlier this year. Though his duties in that position remain unclear, the appointment came as a betrayal to many people who had believed in President Karzai’s promise to weed out warlords. Dostum, by all accounts, ran one of the most brutal regimes in the northern areas.

A June 2005 report on verification of political rights, carried out jointly by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the UNAMA, says “the widespread fears, feelings of mistrust and acts of self-censorship”, that the team found, were based on past patterns of behavior rather than current threats or violations. Nonetheless, these attitudes “could, however, have a significant impact in the coming months as the electoral competition intensifies.”
Responding to comments that elections ought to have been postponeddue to the fragile security situation, Adrian Edwards of UNAMA says that the debate between whether there should be rule of law first or elections first could go on and it would never have been possible to have a perfect election. He argues that that this is as right a time as any other to hold elections to take people out of an environment of conflict.

George wants the elections badly
Voting without voter lists
A report on the parliamentary polls prepared by a leading think tank, the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), states that the new Parliament will be “one important means for the people to have an active voice in government”. However, it cautions that while the elections are a golden opportunity, “they also pose a serious threat to the prospects for democracy if they fail”. A deeply flawed elections would betray the trust of the voting public, says the report. The AREU also points out that the parliamentary/provincial elections are far more susceptible to fraud, vote buying and intimidation than the presidential polls held in 2004. In these elections, AREU says, the margin of victory may be quite small, and a few votes stolen here and there may dramatically alter the delegation that each province sends to Parliament.

There are enough reasons why that is a real danger. Apart from direct intimidation and violence, the hurry to hold elections has also led to the adoption of short cuts which would not stand scrutiny elsewhere. For example, there has not been enough time to either carry out a census or register voters according to their area of residence. There are therefore no voter lists which polling staff could use to cross-check the eligibility of voters lining up to vote. This is the reason why the Joint Electoral Management Board (JEMB) says it is printing 40 million ballots, nearly double the estimated number of voters. The JEMB is the independent electoral authority comprising of nine Afghan election commissioners appointed by President Hamid Karzai and four international electoral experts designated by UNAMA. At an estimated electorate of 12 million voting twice (for provincial and presidential elections) the ballots needed should have been a little over 24 million. However since no one knows how many people will choose to turn up at which polling station, there have to be enough ballots in each one just in case.

The bulwark against fraud is supposed to be the ‘indelible’ ink which will be used to mark the fingers of the voters, a method in use (and misuse) all over Southasia. This assumes that security in each and every polling station cannot be breached and that there will be no stuffing of ballot boxes, a guarantee that is difficult to ensure even in the more developed democracies of the region.

The lack of census data, the ICG points out, has also meant that there is no accurate estimate in the allocation of seats to each province. Therefore, the numbers that have been arrived at remain highly disputed. The electoral laws formulated for the parliamentary polls are also controversial. Though a large number of parties as well as sections of the international community counseled for the proportional representation system, the government proceeded with adopting the single non transferable vote (SNTV) system. Though this might seem like a more simple system to adopt, given the nascent nature of Afghanistan’s democracy, it is actually far more complicated since each constituency is a multi-seat constituency. The system does not bode well for political parties either. Any party seeking to secure votes for its multiple candidates from that constituency will have to calculate exactly how many voters it should encourage to vote for each candidate, a difficult science in the best possible circumstances and impossibility here.

The parties
The reason for the adoption of such an awkward system is said to be the antipathy of President Hamid Karzai towards political parties. Nearly four years into power, Karzai himself has neither joined nor launched a political party. While supporters of the president like to claim that he is trying to remain above the fray, critics allege Karzai wants to keep the political parties weakened since he himself has no political base of his own. Under the current system, political parties have no right to use a common symbol for their party candidates thus preventing them from effectively building up a cross-country support base.

One person who certainly thinks the electoral system has been designed to Karzai’s advantage is the ‘leader of the opposition’ Younis Qanooni. Leader of the newly formed New Afghanistan party (Afghanistan e Nawin) and a former member of the Hezb e Jamiat Islami Afghanistan, Qanooni was a cabinet minister in the interim and transitional governments. He feels that “the government implemented the SNTV system forcibly because it does not have a base”. A leader of the former Northern Alliance who challenged Karzai in the presidential elections, Qanooni says the JEMB is not independent and that the current system provides ample opportunities for fraud and cheating during the polls.
On the other hand, Qanooni fully supports holding the elections, claiming that it is the only mechanism against a government that “is the biggest threat to the country today.” Stressing the importance of Parliament, he says the upcoming legislation must seek to introduce fundamental reforms for the benefit of people. “Policies will need to be updated, the Constitution changed, the cabinet reconstituted and foreign aid will have to become more transparent. The balance of power will have to shift from the presidency to the parliament.”

It is this relationship between the presidency and the legislature that has been a matter of concern in some quarters. Under the Constitution, both houses of parliament will have the authority to pass, amend and review all laws. If the president disagrees he can ask them to reconsider, but the final binding authority rests with the Wolesi Jirga or lower house. The Wolesi Jirga can also approve or reject government proposals to obtain or grant loans, make decisions on the annual budget and state funded development programmes, set up commissions to investigate actions of the government and approve or reject individuals appointed by the president to government positions.

In the absence of a cohesive system of political parties, usually the source of organized support and opposition to the government, the search for a balance of power vis-à-vis the Afghan presidency is likely to be fairly chaotic. In the absence of a political party from which he can derive his authority, Karzai will have to not just persuade every political grouping in Parliament, but also every individual member to see things his way. This would considerably erode the authority of the government and may force him to compromise on key political issues against his better judgement.

A key issue on which Qanooni disagrees with the Karzai government is what he says are the latter’s efforts to bring Taliban leaders into the fold. This, he believes, is leading to increasing instability and insecurity in the country. “How can we bring the ideology of the Taliban and the government together? The Taliban believe the country is under occupation, they believe the current government is un-Islamic, they don’t believe in women’s rights, education. How can they be in government?” Qanooni claims that the only reason for the overtures to the Taliban was Karzai’s attempt to marginalise the former mujahideen leaders, who he sees as competition.

Though Qanooni does not mention the Northern Alliance, claiming his constituency cuts across all ethnic communities and power groups, it is clear that in the last two years, Karzai has effectively marginalised most of the leaders of the Northern Alliance, even while making overtures to other warlords and some of the more radical mujahideen leaders. The Panjshiris, who take their name from their military stronghold, the Panjshir valley in the Shomali belt north of Kabul, were the major anti-Taliban force at the time of the US operations against the Taliban. Though this strength allowed them to occupy key ministries in the immediate aftermath of the US invasion, most of them were later removed, leaving only the well-known public face of Afghanistan, the suave Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

The head of the Republican Party of Afghanistan, Sebgatullah Sanjar, also emphasises the importance of holding the upcoming elections. He says, “The main challenge to Afghan politics today is the absence of political organizations.” Sanjar, who supported Karzai in the presidential elections last year, carries the advantage of being a relatively unknown figure. Unlike most factional leaders, he has no apparent history of being directly involved in violence. Sanjar argues that even with all its flaws, Parliament will still provide the only public forum for political debate and to build an alternative leadership. He too believes that the proportional representational electoral system would have been more beneficial even while acknowledging that in several parts of the country his party candidates are unable to openly acknowledge their affiliation, so great is the mistrust of people towards political parties of all shades.

Also in the fray are a number of other political parties, most of them registered recently under a new law on parties, which are led by former leaders, both communist and their arch enemy the mujahideen. Abu Sayyaf, one of the radical Islamist leaders, who at one point was in the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, heads the Ittehad e Islami. Afghan Millad, a Pashtun-dominated party considered close to Karzai is also contesting the elections. Former communist leader and defence minister Shahnawaz Tanai heads the Movement of Peace party. Gulbuddin Hekmatayar’s Hizb e Islami saw a split recently, and a faction headed by Humayun Aria has been recognized as a registered political party.

The electoral campaign, such as it is, is nothing like the frenzied political activity that defines parliamentary politics in Southasia. Travelling and holding meetings remains a difficult task in the absence of security. The JEMB, in an attempt to provide somewhat of a level playing field, has provided all candidates with the opportunity to broadcast and telecast their messages on electronic media free of charge. Parliamentary candidates are allowed either 10 minutes time on radio or 5 minutes on TV and provincial council candidates are allowed 4 minutes on radio or 2 minutes on TV. They are also allowed to buy a total of four pages of space in a newspaper or magazine. Though candidates are allowed to hold meetings with the prior permission of the local police, large-scale political rallies are considered too dangerous. While in urban areas, most candidates either campaign through small meetings or loudspeaker fitted vehicles, the preferred methods of canvassing in the villages are by holding meetings with community leaders, addressing the communities at prayer meetings or hosting meals.

An independent woman candidate from Paktia province, Sharifa Zurmati Wardak initially received death threats while campaigning and drew back. However after some community leaders pledged their support, she once again picked up the courage to go out into her electoral district. During her last visit to the constituency however, she was advised to flee the border area where she was staying as she had become a well-known face through her posters. That which in any other country during elections would have been an advantage, had turned into a source of threat for Sharifa.

For Sharifa as for most other candidates contesting in this nascent parliamentary process, the issues on the stump are very basic: bringing peace to the country and working for development. While she and candidates like Sanjar play up the need for new leaders who are not tainted by bloody wars, older political leaders like Qanooni are campaigning on the slogan that the government has failed to deliver either peace or development. The situation here does not allow for more complex political platforms or detailed manifestos.

However, the cynicism that greets elections in the rest of Southasia is already visible among some here. Jawed, an educated urban voter has scant interest in the polls, believing it is far too early for legitimate candidates to come to the fray. “Right now there is no one worth voting for. Why are they holding elections? It will restore the same greedy warlords and reinforce their grip on power,” Jawed asks.

But it is Safia, a housewife and mother, who is able to see through the clutter of history and identify the issue at the heart of the matter. Thinking back over all the years she has spent in Kabul, trying to make sure her children survived the war to live in an Afghanistan that had a present and future, she says that for her, it isn’t so much an issue of who wins or loses or who comes to power. It is about something else. “Democracy,” says Safia, “we should start getting used to it, shouldn’t we?”

Sgrena Rejects War Glory While Telling Its Story

Sgrena Rejects War Glory While Telling Its Story
November 2005

Women's Enews

Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena was kidnapped in Iraq only to be shot by U.S. soldiers upon her release. In September she went back to work in Afghanistan to continue her reporting on the impacts of war on everyday life, especially women.
KABUL, Afghanistan (WOMENSENEWS)--After Giuliana Sgrena flew into Kabul to report on Afghanistan’s first fully representational elections in September, she kept a very low profile.
Not impossible, perhaps, but difficult for the Italian reporter of the communist paper Il Manifesto who became a household name in February when she was abducted by Iraqi insurgents. She was eventually released after an intense public outcry in Italy, only to be wounded by American soldiers as she headed home via a Baghdad checkpoint.
But for Sgrena, the anonymity in Afghanistan was all about getting back to work after taking time off following her kidnapping. The 56-year-old Italian journalist has been reporting for Il Manifesto since 1988 and has traveled extensively to cover the world’s conflicts. But while she has been celebrated as a war correspondent, she herself defies that description, preferring obscurity to the limelight.
“I refuse to be a war correspondent,” she said. “I am not a reporter of war; I report on situations of war. I reject this because I hope in these countries there will one day be peace. These are countries which I am interested in and I hope to go back to them when there is peace.”
Female Prisoners at Abu Ghraib
While reporting from Iraq, Sgrena had shunned press briefings and embedded military posts. Instead she chose the streets of Baghdad. There she was able to contact a woman, Mithal al Hassan, who spoke about her incarceration in Abu Ghraib and the torture and abuse she had undergone and witnessed there.
That story, published in July 2004, captured the unreported side of abuse in the prison: that of women. Such women, Sgrena wrote, were victims twice over. Abused first in jail, they also had to face abuse when they returned home.
“In Iraq if you (a woman) have been in prison or have been abused, you must be killed or cut off from society,” Sgrena said. “It is not only the Americans that abused you but also (Iraqi) society. The woman who told me the story was very courageous.”
Until her abduction in Baghdad, Sgrena met al Hassan each time she returned there. “I go back to see her. There is ‘complichita,’” she says, using the Italian word for a deeper relationship.
Sgrena persuaded al Hassan to tell her story of how she was arrested by American soldiers in the middle of the night and accused of being an agent of Saddam Hussein. Al Hassan was held in Abu Graib for 80 days, where she was often denied food and water, beaten and threatened. American soldiers, she said, showed her pictures of her children and told her to say good-bye to them.
Women’s Special Angle
Sgrena believes that women often take a special angle on covering military conflicts. “Because the men were all engaged in telling about strategic weapons and bombing, the attention to civil societies and to the daily problems, this is special to women.”
Luisa Morgantini, a member of the European Parliament, said this was particularly true of Sgrena.
“She works deeply telling the daily horrors of the wars and the violence, but as well the hope and the actions of many women and men that every day resist and continue to work and to go to school,” Morgantini said at the time of Sgrena’s abduction.
Sgrena, an outspoken critic of the war, criticizes much of the current coverage of the war.
“There is now militarization of information because now in Iraq a lot of journalists are going only embedded,” she said, “which means that you follow their rules and exercise censorship. This is a new way they try to control information.”
Getting Truth Out
Sgrena says it is important to get the truth out.
“My kidnappers were people of the so-called resistance. They also don’t want people there to talk about the reality. In Iraq, information is a victim of the war,” she says.
Sgrena was captured on Feb. 4. After her release on March 4 she and her Italian rescuers came under fire from U.S. troops en route to the Baghdad airport. One intelligence agent was killed. She and another agent were wounded.
“You know when there is a person on your shoulder to protect you and he becomes heavy, heavy, heavy because he is dead, it’s terrible,” she says. “I am happy to be alive. I want to live my life but now I am less enthusiastic about life. Now it’s different. They took away this part of mine.”
For months after the ordeal Sgrena was unable to work.
“It is not easy because I am not the same person I was before,” she says. “I am changed because, for example, now sometimes I am afraid. I never used to be afraid. I didn’t know what fear was before. But now yes. When I was liberated I was trying to believe that I was really free because it was difficult to pass from the stage of prisoner to one of freedom and I was in the middle of that when they shot me.”
Sgrena was glad to be in Afghanistan covering the elections because she proved to herself that she could return to work in difficult circumstances.

Afghan Women Wind Up Tough Campaigns

Afghan Women Wind Up Tough Campaigns
September 2005

Women's Enews

Sharifa Zurmati Wardak is among hundreds of female candidates listed on the ballots cast Sunday in Afghanistan. The 38-year-old journalist wants to represent the volatile and religiously conservative border province of Paktia in lower Parliament.
KABUL, Afghanistan (WOMENSENEWS)--Women in Afghanistan are about to achieve political representation here as ballots are cast Sunday in the nation’s first parliamentary elections. Sharifa Zurmati Wardak is one of hundreds of women whose names will appear on the ballot.
She’s vying to represent the volatile and religiously conservative Pashtun-dominated border province of Paktia in the country’s lower house of Parliament.
Under new voting laws that set aside seats for women in Parliament, Wardak is one of nine women competing for two seats in her province. The elections are for the lower house of Parliament and provincial legislatures, with provisional results expected Oct. 10 and final results Oct. 22.
Wardak, a 38-year-old journalist, says Paktia is a difficult place for a woman to vote, much less run for public office.
“For 30 years. women in this area have not come out of their homes,” Wardak told Women’s eNews in an interview last month in her small apartment in Kabul University, where her husband manages the school’s Internet technology. “Every time they step out, they have to take the permission of their husbands.”
In urban centers such as Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, women enjoy relative freedom. In Kabul, for example, many women do not wear the head-to-toe-covering burka. They travel around the cities without male escorts and hold jobs outside their homes. Girls are attending school.
In more rural areas women face aggressive forms of discrimination that can include forced marriages and harsh domestic violence. A woman was stoned to death on the orders of a local cleric in April this year in the northern province of Badakshan. She was suspected of being unfaithful to her husband, who had deserted her several years earlier but had recently returned.
Boosted by May Law
Wardak is one of 582 women running for office. They have put up posters, canvassed and campaigned in remote regions, motivated by the May law reserving more than 25 percent of the seats in Parliament and the provincial councils—Afghanistan’s version of state legislatures—for women.
With the country’s security apparatus stretched thin many candidates have not had enough government security.
Wardak, a journalist who works for the state-run Radio Television Afghanistan and the independent national radio station Salaam Watandar, faced danger in her campaign.
“I was staying at a village in the border area of Paktia from where you could see the houses on the other side, in Pakistan,” Wardak said. “One night the leaders of the local community came to me and said I had to leave immediately. My face had become too well-known because of the posters plastered on taxis ferrying passengers across the border. The militants knew who I was and there were reports that they were going to come looking for me.”
Wardak said her own father and brothers also opposed her candidacy.
“They told me, ‘It is difficult enough that you are working as a journalist. There will be more pressure on us if you campaign.’”
Wardak’s husband, however, supported her and accompanied her on much of her campaign. With the help of his escort, she traveled to most of the remote villages in her province in the last two months, often staying at small hamlets or even camping with the nomadic community.
“This province has become infamous as a breeding ground for terrorists,” she said. “The representation of someone like me, a woman, can change that identity. I want to show my country what Paktia is capable of.”
New Balance of Power
The election will fill the new lower house of Parliament, which will assume much of the control now exercised by President Hamid Karzai, installed in office by an international process in December 2001.
The upper house has yet to be formed. Elections for representatives have been delayed by difficulties in setting political boundaries for the districts they will represent. Once those district representatives are elected they will nominate one-third of the candidates for the upper house, according to the new constitution.
While 328 women are competing for the 68 seats reserved for them in lower Parliament, only 247 are trying for the one-quarter of seats reserved for them in the provincial councils, with powers and responsibilities that still lack some official definition.
Women say that while they feel more vulnerable to social pressures and violence in the provinces, they feel more secure about running for the 249-member Parliament, which will convene in Kabul.
At least three provinces—Zabul, Nangarhar and Uruzgan—have fewer candidates than the number of seats set aside for women in their councils.
Uruzgan—where seven people carrying voter registration cards were killed in an attack on Sept. 14 and which has seen heavy fighting between insurgents and security forces—has no women running for provincial council.
In four other provinces—Kunar, Nuristan, Badghis, and Nimrooz—female provincial candidates are running unopposed, with the number of them on the ballot equivalent to the number of seats reserved for them.
A female candidate was injured in an assassination attempt on Wednesday, reported Agence France Presse, and at least six male candidates have been killed across the country since July. In an attempt to quell the violence that has marred the campaign period, the Afghan interior minister has ordered the deployment of 100,000 soldiers and police to secure the elections.
Despite the dangers and hurdles, no female candidate has withdrawn since the beginning of the campaign period, according to an official with the Joint Electoral Management Board Secretariat, the 14-member independent body in charge of conducting the elections.
Concerned that some women may wind up as mouthpieces for their male political backers, the Afghan Women’s Network, an umbrella group of women’s nongovernmental organizations in Kabul, held meetings for female candidates.
Candidates from different provinces met in the capital city to exchange views and share problems, said network coordinator Afifa Azim.
Women’s rights advocates hope that the process forged new bonds among the female candidates and will help those who are elected form a voting bloc in Parliament.
Facing Male Opposition
Despite the law enshrining women’s place in the national and local government, many men have opposed women’s candidacies.
In Wardak’s voting area, for instance, she says some religious leaders conducted a campaign against her, urging men not to vote for her.
Wardak has tried to counter the disapproval of religious conservatives by quoting from the Koran and drawing on narratives from the prophet Muhammad’s life to assert that women had a participatory role in Islamic society.
“Was the prophet’s wife not a merchant?” she says she has asked men, in arguing for her right to a seat in Parliament.
Other men have extended active support to female candidates, deciding that if women are to be in public office they’d rather have a candidate of their own choice.
Parliamentary candidate Shukria Barakzai is running for one of the nine Parliamentary seats in Kabul province and is in a pack of 50 female contenders. She says that many men who initially opposed women’s candidacies have wound up campaigning for female candidates.
Wardak notes that after facing initial resistance from men in her province, she was invited by male community leaders in Paktia to campaign with the assurance that they would ensure her security and provide their active support.

Will Afghanistan see free and fair elections?

Will Afghanistan see free and fair elections?
September 2005

The Hindu

In the absence of institutional safeguards, rule of law, and security of life, the election process in Afghanistan may be compromised beyond acceptable limits.
ELECTIONS TO Afghanistan’s Parliament and provincial councils on September 18 will meet yet another of the Bonn process benchmarks for the country’s reconstruction. The agreement hammered out in December 2001, between Afghan factions and UN representatives, stipulated that free and fair elections for a fully representative government would be held no later than two years from the date of convening of the emergency Loya Jirga. Though that deadline passed in June 2004, elections were delayed because of the enormous difficulties in conducting them. Subsequently the presidential elections were held separately in October 2004. Now elections will be held to Parliament and the provincial assemblies. The district council polls have been further postponed.
While elections, with the promise of consulting the will of the majority, are always viewed as a step forward, in Afghanistan several issues cause concern. In the absence of institutional safeguards, rule of law, and security of life, the process may be compromised beyond acceptable limits. In the haste to adhere to a preordained timetable of ‘reconstruction’ benchmarks, the minimal needs of a voting public have, in some instances, become secondary.
International experts, who move from country to country and conflict zone to conflict zone conducting elections, have been hired for Afghanistan. Most of them have had no experience of the country and are there on short-term contracts for the single task of carrying out the electoral exercise. Trained in war zones they are adept at dealing with difficult logistics and constraints of resources, exhibiting creative energy in their organisational role. However the ‘tech-team approach’ belies the raison d’etre of the endeavour, which is to introduce democracy to a population that has scarcely tasted it.
Twelve million Afghans are eligible to vote for the Wolesi Jirga, the upper house of Parliament, and the provincial councils. For the provincial council at least, the people will be voting for an institution they know nothing about. With the powers of the provincial councils still to be finalised, the elections were announced, nominations filed, candidates scrutinised, and the campaign started. So great was the urgency to conduct the elections that it did not matter that the electorate would be voting candidates to a job about which neither they nor the candidates nor the electoral commission knew anything. Given the slow and laborious process of dissemination and absorption of information it is unlikely that they will anytime soon.

Journeys: Pieces of a picture

Pieces of a picture

The Hindu

`The great game country has always exercised incredible fascination for the explorer, the adventurer, the military strategist and the more ordinary traveller.'

WILD tribesmen, primordial loyalties, tribal wars, the monarchy, ancient forts, inaccessible mountainous terrain and the Cold War. The great game country has always exercised incredible fascination for the explorer, the adventurer, the military strategist and the more ordinary traveller. After 9/11, that fascination has expanded exponentially, spawning a new breed of Afghan watchers and experts. From academic, political assessments about the strategic importance of the region to personalised accounts, almost every week brings a new book — feeding into the apparently insatiable literary hunger about the country.
Acting as a catalyst to the fascination exerted by the "wild east" is the inaccessibility of Afghanistan — geographically, socially and politically. It is not a country that lends itself to instant communication and that which filters out is far removed from its westernised audience. Conversely, the foreign is equally distant to Afghanistan and its citizens. It is this context of mutual unfamiliarity that provides the opportunity. Ordinary details become fascinating and those written about are less likely to sue for libel. That is, ordinarily.
In the instance of The Bookseller of Kabul however, news of the defamation case has preceded its readership, largely. Over a dinner table in Kabul city it spawns a debate on the ethics of the book.
A wonderful personalised account of an Afghan family seen from within, Asne Seierstad's book evoked some controversy when the protagonist of her story, barely disguised in the book, went to court against her. Seierstad, who was travelling with the Northern Alliance commandos in their final sweep against the Taliban, arrived in Kabul in November 2001. Meeting Sultan Khan, a bookseller, on several occasions, she is invited to his home for a meal. While Sultan jokes and shares anecdotes, the women of the family are silent. Seierstad thinks it would make a fascinating story and with the consent of Sultan, moves in to stay with them. The book is a result of what she heard, saw, was told and felt in those months.
The Bookseller of Kabul begins dramatically with the aging Sultan's desire for a second wife, the teenaged Sonya. Through the story of one family, Seierstad documents many lives. All of Sultan's books with "images" (illustrations, drawings and photographs) are either burnt or torn. He is forced to stock the books commended by the Taliban. He sells them, to survive. At home his sons battle against their father's authoritarianism, he brooks no opposition. His older wife keeps house in Peshawar waiting for a visit from her husband; Jamila the daughter of a neighbour is killed by her own brothers for having an affair. The lives of women in an ordinary middle class home in Kabul, the generational conflicts that could be happening anywhere in the world, the intricate social customs, the Northern Alliance and Rabbani, the Taliban and the battle for power, Karzai and Dostum, the smells, the heat, the dust of Afghanistan are evoked in the pages — a vivid account that takes you into the heart of the country. Recounted with the eye of an outsider who has borrowed the status of an insider. While not unsympathetic it is a book in which Sultan emerges warts and all, prompting him to sue Seierstad.

While there is little difference of opinion about its literary excellence, it is on the issue of ethics that opinions clash. Perhaps anticipating this Seierstad goes out of her way to mention in her introduction that she has remained true to facts and wrote the book with the consent of Sultan, has chosen a pseudonym for him and his family. In Kabul however there is no doubt who the man is: there are few such booksellers and this creates a number of questions.
If Sultan gave his consent why should she not have written it? But did Sultan, far removed from the cognizable parameters of a western journalist's curiosity, understand what he was giving his consent to, or that his practices may be seen as less than normal in the cold print of the western press? What about his family? Were their individual consents secured or did Seierstad assume the logic of the patriarchal value system she was writing about and not consider their consent relevant? For that matter, would it not have been more truthful to turn the account into fiction? What about the impact of the presence of this outsider, the westernised woman, on the dynamics of the family? She is nowhere to be seen in the book.
If the absence of the author leaves a sense of disquiet, it is the opposite in Richard Loseby's Blue is the colour of Heaven. The book places the author at the centre of the tale and in this case the narrative suffers from there being altogether too much of the man and too little of the place.
In 1989 Loseby travelled through Turkey, Iraq, Iran and finally entered Afghanistan with the mujahideen as Massoud Mohandaspur. The raison d'etre of the book 13 years later (first published in New Zealand in 2002), is apparent from the book's jacket, which states: "Afghanistan — remote, elusive, infamous since September 11, 2001." While the jacket goes on to talk about the rare glimpse of the Afghani (sic) people, it is not until one reaches page 140 of the 240-page book that Loseby actually enters Afghanistan.
The story begins with Loseby's childhood fascination with Afghanistan arising out of the small boy's curiosity about an Afghan who banked in the bank where his father worked in Australia. Loseby says that when his father died suddenly, of cancer, the unjustness of his death became inextricably linked to the injustice of the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet troops. It is in Afghanistan 10 years later that he finally finds release from the burden of sorrow of his father's death, he says.
While Loseby describes encounters with people, customs, landscapes, bureaucracies, it is the story of Loseby in a foreign land rather than the land itself. A certain overdone facetiousness mars the narrative. "Overcrowding had apparently forced the population to go around ignoring each other", or on being given a bottle of cola bottled in Iran: "This was clearly Islamic cola, without any additives".
However, for all that, it is yet another piece of a picture from a region that is fascinating and Loseby captures some of that. The perilous journeys through immigration controls across the borders, the visa given or rejected on whims or the availability of a black pen of a certain colour, the political discourse or the absence of it in Iraq and Iran, the difficulties of the foreign traveller. In Iran he joins the mujahideen, travelling with them into Afghanistan and it is here that the narrative becomes more interesting, Loseby the traveller finally losing some of the irritating sense of self-importance when forced to share the lives of the soldiers. Sleeping in the rough terrain, eating what they ate, dodging the mortar fire of the enemy, Loseby conveys some of the excitement of their lives.
Yet, post-9/11 this is not quite a new story and Loseby's recollections neither fresh nor revealing compared with other travellers in those regions. At least two contemporaneous accounts in the same region, that of Jason Elliot in An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan and Christopher Kremmer in The Carpet Wars: From Kabul to Baghdad: A Ten Year Journey Along Ancient Trade Routes provide much greater immediacy, vibrancy and urgency to those wishing to travel there through the pages of literature.
The Bookseller of Kabul, Asne Seierstad, translated by Ingrid Christophersen, Little, Brown, £8.50 (special Indian price).
Blue is the Colour of Heaven : A Journey into Afghanistan, Richard Loseby, Penguin, Rs. 250.
© Copyright 2000 - 2006 The Hindu

Indo-Pak. rivalry in Afghanistan

Indo-Pak. rivalry in Afghanistan
September 2003

The Hindu

Without the problems of a contiguous border, India has been able to reap the rewards of being a neighbourhood friend.
SEVERAL HUNDRED miles from New Delhi and Islamabad, India-Pakistan hostility is spilling over into another country — Afghanistan. Here the two countries are engaged in an unacknowledged bid for primacy in their bilateral relationship with Afghanistan. For the moment, India seems to be winning this new version of the great game effortlessly. The warmth for India is visible and palpable, both among the people and the Government, leaving Pakistan to cope with the bitter legacy of its long and tortuous involvement in Afghanistan.
India has had a long history of backing, both militarily and politically, the Northern Alliance, whose key members are now in positions of power in the Hamid Karzai Government. Without the problems of a contiguous border, India has been able to reap the rewards of being a neighbourhood friend. The goodwill that has seeped into public consciousness over the past several decades has been cemented with India’s no-strings-attached aid package to Afghanistan after the Karzai Government took over. Pakistan suffers from the constant comparison.
Though the contribution of India and Pakistan to the process of reconstruction in Afghanistan is only a fraction of the international aid being poured into the country, their presence and role is certainly attracting international attention. Central to it is the proximity of both countries to Afghanistan. The relationship between India and Pakistan and their ties with Kabul are an important component in the issues relating to Afghanistan’s security and stability.
The Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan, Vivek Katju, says Pakistan is “no factor” and that “we don’t view Afghanistan through the prism of any third country.” While Mr. Katju may be right in that India has never publicly raised any issue vis-à-vis Pakistan in Afghanistan, Islamabad’s sharp focus on New Delhi’s role has made it a factor nonetheless. The public interface during the Kabul visit of the Pakistan Foreign Minister, Khurshid Kasuri, last month was dominated by his comment on India’s role in Afghanistan. Mr. Kasuri claimed both were equal but added that “our [Pakistan’s] support is not as visible as buses going on the road nevertheless it has made a very basic and very immediate impact on the lives of the Afghans. Now the lesson therefore is that some things that you do should be visible.” Pakistan, Mr. Kasuri said, did not feel it needed to score a point. May be wheat from Pakistan, he suggested facetiously, could be put in “bags of a kilo with Pakistan stamped on it.”
India has opened consulates in Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kandahar and Jalalabad, in addition to its embassy in Kabul — the cause of consternation to Pakistan. Islamabad’s earlier private protests to the Americans over this gave way recently to public charges against New Delhi on the grounds that its consulates were being used for anti-Pakistani activities. In private, Pakistani officials have even stated that India is using its consulates and officials based there to instigate local armed forces against the Pakistanis. The issue is more serious than that of pure political rhetoric. With an unstable and volatile border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, charges that India is instigating trouble against Pakistan have serious security implications with the potential of destabilising the ongoing operations against the remnants of the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is a charge that has received short shrift from the Karzai Government.
”It is for India and Afghanistan, and not for any third country to decide the level and nature of Indian diplomatic presence,” says Mr. Katju. Describing the allegations in the Pakistan media as “utter rubbish,” he emphasises that Indian consulates are acting completely in accordance with international norms and will continue to do so.
The Afghanistan Foreign Minister, Abdullah Abdullah, echoes the sentiment, saying the activities of the Indian consulates “are in the limits of their duty as consulates in accordance with international norms and principles.” He adds that sometimes suspicions in relations between different countries are reflected on Afghanistan and it is something the country wishes to overcome.
Pakistan continues to block the transport of Indian goods through its territory even though it allows Afghanistan to send its goods to India. This has severely limited the trade opportunities between India and Afghanistan as all the goods have to be routed through Iran or airlifted by Ariana’s biweekly flights, an expensive proposition either way.
In fact, Pakistan’s unwillingness to allow Indian goods transit has also caused problems in the transit of material that India wishes to send as assistance to Afghanistan. Mr. Abdullah will not comment on this but says “it is in the interest of the region that relations between both countries grow in the line of cooperation.” It is Afghanistan’s wish, he says, that “grievances which exist between different countries will not be reflected towards us.” Right now however, the sentiment remains a fond hope.

Warm glow of empowerment

Warm glow of empowerment
September 2003

Women's feature service

Afghanistan’s women-run bakeries managed by the World Food Programme (WFP) have been one of the remarkable success stories in the country, reports AUNOHITA MOJUMDAR
Until a few years ago, the Demazang area of Kabul city was a frontline caught between Masood’s forces shell-ing from the TV hill and the resistance put up by the Hazara leader Sayyaf based in this locality.

Today, Demazang lies in the margins - a bombed out hollow shell with hardly any signs of the rebuilding happening in other parts of the city. Located here is Bakery number 5 in the backyard of a small house, one of the few signs of continuity between the past and the present.

Run by the World Food Programme (WFP), Afghanistan’s women-run bakeries have been one of the remarkable success stories that have endured the years of the Taliban, beginning in 1996. The concept of the WFP bakery is simple. WFP surveys the poorest neighbourhoods and identifies the neediest ‘zero-able bodied’ families. These are families that have no male earning member, either because they have expired or because they have been incapacitated. Most of the households identified are those headed by war widows.

To run each bakery, WFP identifies approximately 15 women, who bake the bread and sell it - their means of a livelihood - for approximately 2000 Afghani or $ 50 per month (for each woman). The support to the poorer households does not end there. The bakeries sell the bread at one-third of the market price to the poorest families in the area, also identified by WFP.

To enable the women bakers to meet the costs, WFP provides the wheat free of charge.
Currently, there are 80 such bakeries in Afghanistan at Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif. With 15 women in each unit, these bakeries support approximately 1200 families headed by women. The bakeries also provide bread to over 26,000 vulnerable households, each of which may have as many as six to nine members.

The success of the programme however, has created a huge demand both for the jobs and the subsidised bread. WFP has now set itself a target of expanding the number of beneficiary households to 60,000 by March 2005.

There is much more to the story of the bakeries than mere success. Four years after the bakeries were set up, the Taliban issued an edict (one of many) on July 21, 2000. The WFP bakeries which provided bread to 42,000 families at that time were included among the NGO projects the Taliban wanted to shut down. The Taliban decreed that men run the bakeries, or they bring the shutters down.
There was no question of having men run the bakeries since the rationale for the bakeries was to support women, who were not allowed to work in the normal professions, says Alejandro Chicheri, public information officer with WFP. So, WFP threatened to pull out and it looked as if the bakeries, which were shut down, would remain permanently closed.

It was then that WFP decided to use a small loophole in the Taliban’s edicts to their advantage. As women were still allowed to work in the health sector, WFP informed the Taliban that the women bakers would be trained as health workers, and knowledge of health services would be imparted to all the women who came to buy bread at the bakery. The Taliban agreed. WFP then taught simple health and hygiene tips to the women in the bakeries and they stayed open, says Chicheri.

Even today, running women’s bakeries in conservative Afghanistan is not easy and WFP treads cautiously. To buy bread, only women are allowed inside, a precaution taken to prevent the bakeries from becoming congregation points for men who might consider the widowed women easy prey and to let the bakeries carry on as structures of support and independent financial means for the women.

Take for instance, Parveen, who is employed in Bakery number 5. Being the owner of land and vineyards in the Shomali plains did not help when her husband died in a missile attack on his way to Kabul. Even though she had done most of the work in the fields (her husband was too old to do much work) before he died, she could not keep the fields without an adult male in the house.
With five children to feed, she made her way to Kabul, working in different households until she got a job in the bakery.

It is work that has protected her. Parveen recalls with pride the day she chased away the Taliban from the bakery. “I was being followed because they knew I worked in the bakery. They wanted to see the supervisor. I refused to allow them in. They could have shot me but I chased the Taliban away.”

Her co-worker, Zargona, had a comfortable life with her husband, a shopkeeper in Kabul. Six years ago, a missile tore through their house killing her husband and her 15-year-old son, and leaving her to bring up their four surviving children. She did laundry in houses, pulled her children out of school but the money was still not enough. They ate once a day and Zargona had to go secretly to the households where she worked (in a burkha) because women were not allowed to work in strangers’ households. A year and-a-half ago, Zargona found work in the bakery and it has changed her life. “Life is still hard”, she says, “but it is manageable.”

The bakery has given Zargona more than financial independence. It has also given her and all the women there, a sense of confidence. Bakery number 5 was host to Mohammed Ali last year when he visited Afghanistan as a goodwill ambassador. Today, the women there are sure enough of their standing to rib WFP’s Chicheri about his recent marriage. “Sweets!” they demand, unabashedly. He is an old friend and they have no compunctions in treating him like one.
Bakery number 5 has certainly come a long way since Parveen stood guard outside its door, against the Taliban.

Karzai has a tough task bringing warlords under control

Karzai has a tough task bringing warlords under control
June 2003

Times of India

Last week, Afghanistan’s Central finance minister Ashraf Ghani spent a week in Herat, the first cabinet minister to visit the province in two decades. Even more unusual was the task Ghani was attempting: to secure Governor Ismael Khan’s compliance with the directions of the National Security Council (NSC) to transfer Herat’s customs revenue collection to the Central government.
In the event, Ghani was able to secure a transfer of $20 million to the Central government’s coffers, though not before he had promised a hefty sum in funds to Herat for its “ongoing projects”. The provinces, under the control of the private armies of the independent warlords, have thus far stayed largely outside the ambit of the Karzai government’s authority.
Without the security apparatus to bring them under its ambit, the government has had an uneasy relationship with the virtually autonomous commanders who have to be persuaded, rather than ordered, to fall in with the Central government’s directives. Though Ghani asserted after his visit that the latest decision of the NSC on revenue collection was “not negotiable” and that the provinces had merely been “informed” rather than consulted about the decision, he admitted that the revenue collection was based on “recorded revenue”.
He said the Central government had no means as yet to determine the real revenue collection and that as yet, it had no assessments available for revenue generation in other parts of the country. While Ghani’s visit marks the slow and painful expansion of the Central government’s authority, the Karzai government cannot wait much longer. It has pledged to raise $200 million of its $550-million budget through internal revenue collection.
The Herat visit was indicative of the uphill task the government faces in spreading its authority throughout the country. Some analysts feel the slow process has eroded the gains of the momentum generated by the establishment of the Karzai government in Kabul. Others feel that the spread of control can only be gradual in a situation where the entire
state is being rebuilt from scratch.
Foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah described the Herat visit as a major step but agreed that the success of the government in extending its reach and authority was limited, terming it one of the “shortcomings” of the Karzai government.
Herat may have been a minor success but any optimism was dimmed by the much less successful attempt by the Afghan government this week to bring on board Rashid Dostum, the famously independent warlord of Mazar. Dostum’s forces continue to engage with other armed groups in the region, making the area perpetually unstable. Dostum reneged on an
earlier promise to relocate to Kabul as security adviser to the Karzai government.

Law prime concern for Afghans

Law prime concern for Afghans
June 2003

Times of India

Raminder Singh is the last person who should be complimenting the Taliban. The regime forced him to flee to India from Afghanistan and he finds himself homeless and jobless on his return.
Yet, he feels that there was greater security under the Taliban. “This government does not have full control. There are gunmen running around. They settle issues using the gun. President Hamid Karzai had promised he would disarm these people in six months. Nothing has happened. The forces of the international community stay at checkpoints on the main roads, they do not come inside our narrow lanes to enforce order,” he says.
In recent months, there has been a deterioration in the law and order situation in some parts of the country, especially in the south. Following the killing of a Red
Cross official in Kandahar province in March, several NGOs have stopped visiting the districts.
The mandate of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is limited to Kabul, the fledgling Afghan police force and the national army are still under training, and the coalition forces led by the US have shifted their focus
to civil and humanitarian affairs.UNHCR chief of mission in Afghanistan Filippo Grandi terms the “underfunding” of the security sector by the international community “a scandal”. He says that while large parts of the country have no security problems, factional fighting, like between the troops of Rashid
Dostum, the independent warlord in Mazar province, and other militias does affect the average Afghani. Also, the work of the NGOs is hampered by terrorist elements of the Taliban and Al-Qaida who have been regrouping in the south and are bent on destabilising the government by targeting aid workers. Afghan foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah says the Al-Qaida still has the capacity to carry out operations despite being on the run, but he dismisses as an exaggeration recent reports that there has been a reversal in the overall security situation.

Interview: Abdullah Abdullah

Interview: Abdullah Abdullah
June 2003

Times of India

As Afghanistan emerges from the shadow of Taliban rule, the Karzai government’s suave
foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, takes time out from his busy schedule to give his assessment of the situation.
In an exclusive interview, he tells Aunohita Mojumdar that it is time to hold another political conference that will reaffirm the international community’s commitment to Afghanistan:
Qs. What according to you are the most significant achievements of your government?
Ans. Afghanistan was a base for Al-Qaida to such an extent that even today when it is on the run, it has the capacity to carry out terrorist operations. After the assassination of Commander Masood, it hoped to gain ground beyond Afghanistan. But the country itself has been denied to it. This is the biggest achievement for the international community in Afghanistan. Sometimes we see the operations of Al-Qaida here and there this major
achievement gets downplayed but it shouldn’t.
Qs. Recent reports seem to indicate that parts of the country are slipping back under the control of...
Ans. No, they are not. There are terrorist activities and incidents in some parts of the
country which have to be dealt with and are a cause of concern for the people of Afghanistan and the international community but this does not mean Afghanistan is moving back
towards the old situation.

Qs.In which areas haven’t you made as much progress as you’d hoped?
Ans. I was only talking about the security situation. On reconstruction, a lot more needs to be done but there has been work done in different parts of the country and not just in Kabul. The fact that today many feel that Afghanistan is their home regardless of their political affiliation or ethnic background, which was not the case for the past 23 years, is our single biggest achievement.. There are areas where we could have done better, e.g.reforms in administration or the creation of national security institutions like the army and police force or
attracting foreign investment. The administration reach in different parts of the country
is getting better. The participation of governors in recent national security council meetings
is one example. Because of this, revenue will soon start flowing to the central government... But, remember, we are starting from scratch after 23 years of war.
Qs. You mentioned the increasing reach of the administration. But hasn’t that process been too slow?
Ans. I regard it a shortcoming that we have not moved quickly even though there is both popular demand and support for such a move...
Qs. Has the lack of assured continuous funding hampered your government, including in its efforts to assert its authority?
Ans. The lack of funds might have been one factor but the perception that the international
community didn’t honour the promises they have made to us is not right. The fact is that the problem is so huge that much more is needed before Afghanistan is able to stand on its own feet.
Qs. The donors seem to demand a degree of accountability from Afghanistan’s legitimate government that they themselves don’t practise. Is that fair?
Ans. These are bureaucratic processes which we have to accept but Afghanistan has, sometimes, been treated as a special case. I do think that Afghanistan needs a fresh
look. It is necessary to have another international political conference on Afghanistan to review the reconstruction - the result of one and a half years of effort - and to plan for the long-term future commitment of the international community... This shouldn’t be a technical assessment but one that concerns major principles and plans for the future. For example, the need assessment in the Tokyo conference was very primary. Now we know there are some assessments by the World Bank which suggest that Afghanistan needs some $15-20 billion over the next five to seven years. Afgha-nistan has the potential to stand on its own feet and be the bridge for the integration, stability and the prosperity of the region. Do you think the constitution that is being drafted will help ensure the rule of law? There have been reports of
some parts of the country reverting to Taliban-style practices. It will be very unfair to compare anything happening in Afghanistan today with what happened under Taliban, which was a brutal regime of terror and a dark period in our history and will be remembered for the brave resistance of our people... That period will never return. Of course, there are lots of areas which need improvement.
Qs. India is playing an active role in Afghanistan. Which area would you like the country to concentrate on?
Ans. India has been supportive of the Afghan government and the political process and has been an active partner in the country’s reconstruction. Lots of business and trade activities are going on...
Qs. But nothing passes through Pakistan...
Ans. Trade continues. There are certain areas in relations between India and Pakistan, in which Afghanistan hopes there will be improvement. Recently, there have been some positive developments, which are a source of hope for all of us. But otherwise India is playing a positive role.

Hope floats but fears linger in Kabul

Hope floats but fears linger in Kabul
June 2003

Times of India

Eleven-year-old Ajit Kaur wants to study English, prefers to wear trousers, play outside with her friends and roam her neighbourhood. Instead, she sits inside a dark, low-ceilinged room in
Kabul’s Karte Parvan area, clutching her pink dupatta so it doesn’t slide off her head.
Even after 18 months of practice covering her head, she still hasn’t got used to it. Besides, “people here comment if you play outside the house,” she says.
Ajit is the daughter of Tirloch Kaur and Tirlok Singh, who claim to be the first family of Afghans to have returned to Kabul from India. Tirloch and Tirlok, like others who returned from India, are among the 200 voluntary returnees. The remaining 12,000-odd refugees will return depending partly on whether New Delhi decides to extend their
residence permits. The permits come up for renewal in July.
Tirloch returned because her husband could not find work and developed psychosomatic disorders because of the heat. “I used to be the bread earner, sewing clothes from the house,” she says. Returning to Afghanistan was the cure Tirlok needed. He now works in a cloth shop and his wife Tirloch is happy, though the family lives out of a room in a building adjoining the gurdwara in Karte Parvan. Rents in Kabul have skyrocketed making proper housing unaffordable.
Ajit’s playmate, 13-year-old Gurmeet, returned after 10 years in India where they stayed in Karbala in Delhi. What she misses most is her school. “Studies here are no good,” she says of the school run by the gurdwara that she attends. During the Taliban rule, Hindu and Sikh families weren’t encouraged to send their children to schools run by the regime. Though there is no bar now, the two communities are loath to enroll their children in government-run schools, as the fear lingers. “Social acceptability of the minority communities which was lost during Taliban has to return first,” says Raminder Singh, spokesperson of the Hindu and Sikh communities who represented them in the Loya Jirga that elected Hamid Karzai as president.The Karzai government is taking steps to restore equal rights to minorities. While this correspondent was speaking to Raminder, he had two visitors - officials of the commission appointed by Karzai’s government to draft the new Constitution. The officials were meeting him to discuss
ways in which to ascertain the needs, rights and safeguards for the minority communities.
Raminder, who lived in Delhi’s Vikaspuri for five years, returned to Kabul last year to find his house occupied by a member of the dominant Panjshiri community, a fate of many refugees from the minority communities. As for Tirloch Kaur, her only worry is her daughter. “We
are used to the restrictions that living in Afghanistan imposes. But this girl grew up in India. What do I do with her? The only answer is to get her married in India,” she says of Ajit who has only fond memories of Delhi, including its harsh summer.

Uncle Sam’s Advocate

Uncle Sam’s Advocate
March 2003

Times of India


US ambassador Robert D Blackwill is a busy man these days, meeting senior political leaders and opinion makers in an effort to convince a reluctant Indian government and an anti-war public of the merits of the US case on Iraq. His country, he tells Aunohita Mojumdar, envisages a major role for India in post-war Iraq, while asserting repeatedly that Washington would still prefer a peaceful solution and that a final decision on the military option is yet to be taken:

Q. Anti-war sentiment seems to be increasing even as the US moves closer to an attack on Iraq.
A. I am not so sure that’s true. People have an impressionistic view of this. If you look at the percentage of people protesting against the war, it’s a tiny percentage. But of course it is quite true that there is opposition to disarming Saddam by force. That is natural. The issue of war and peace should be debated - especially in democracies - after which governments can decide on the merits of the case.Disarming Saddam peacefully is the first choice. It has been the first choice for 12 years and 17 Security Council resolutions. It remains the first choice. The problem is that he seems not to be willing to disarm and if that remains the case by the 17th, he will be disarmed by force by an international coalition of many countries. It would be regrettable if it has to be done by force. But that would be the last option.
Q. Some of the recent ‘proof’ put forward by the US and the UK has been questioned by
Mohammed Al-Baradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in his report.
A. There are a couple of instances where there has been disagreement about one episode or another. But I don’t believe there is any dispute about the overwhelming weight of evidence accumulated by the UN over these 12 years.

Q. Do you think it’s fair for Washington to force governments to take a position against their own domestic public opinion?
A. Democracies don’t operate through plebiscite or through editorials in news- papers, no matter how intelligent those editorials are. Democratic governments do act partly on
the basis of public opinion but the better ones act on the basis of their own judgment and wisdom and the flow of history and so forth. What we are trying to do is to persuade these governments and that’s called diplomacy.
Q. Is there a role for India in post-war Iraq?
If Saddam is disarmed by force there will be a regime change in Iraq, which will
require a great deal of reconstruction. At that point, India will have two fundamental roles. One is of course the physical rebuilding of Iraq. The other, which is less remarked
on, is the task of constructing a civil society in Iraq.
Q. But isn’t the US government itself going to play a very major role in the construction
of civil society?
A. We’ll see. We certainly want to do our part but we are not going to dominate it. Much of this construction and recons-truction will happen under the auspices of the UN.
You mentioned regime change. There is speculation that this may be the tip of the
iceberg and that the US would like to see regime changes in a number of countries in that region.Well, I would say we are not talking about a regime change in any other country. We would of course like - and we make no apologies for that - more democracy, more pluralism, more free press and so forth, in many other countries.
Q. Do you think a pre-emptive strike against Iraq would legitimise the principle in this part of the world. India might think it is legitimate to...
A. That’s a question for the Indian government. What I would say is that force is the last resort in Iraq, after 12 years, 17 SC resolutions. Patience, patience and more patience.
We have given the SC process every chance to realise its objectives, which is to disarm Iraq. The US does not want a weaker UN and weaker SC. But if the UN does not enforce its own resolutions, that will be a natural outcome.
Q. Would you comment on Indian concerns that the US has double standards when it comes to North Korea and Pakistan?
A. This week the world is rightfully trying one last time to persuade Saddam to disarm peacefully. The problem of North Korea is a separate one and we are working on that too. But the issue of Iraq and the danger it poses needs to be examined on its merits.On the relationship between India and Pakistan, we continue to hope that there will be a dialogue between the two. We continue to do everything we can to persuade the relevant people that cross-border infiltration and terrorism from territory controlled by Pakistan should end. But, as I said, this week the attention of the world is rightfully focused on Iraq.
We are now at the midnight hour - the last few days of the diplomatic phase.

US offering carrots to India on Iraq

US offering carrots to India on Iraq
March 2003

In an attempt to ensure the Vajpayee government holds its counsel when Iraq is attacked, the US is holding out to India the carrot of a “major role” in the post-war reconstruction of that country.

In an interview with The Times of India, US ambassador to India Robert Blackwill said, “We hope you have a major part to play and we have conveyed that at very high levels.”

At pains to address New Delhi’s fears that the planned invasion of Iraq would not disadvantage India economically and politically, President Bush has phoned Prime Minister Vajpayee, Secretary of State Powell has spoken to external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha and US National Security Adviser Condolezza Rice has called up her counterpart, Brajesh Mishra. Blackwill has also met Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani, Defence Minister George Fernandes and also Mishra in recent days.

Blackwill said India with its “very well developed successful norms in civil society” had a role to play in the “construction of civil society” in Iraq and “economic reconstruction”. India, he said, had a “comparative advantage” over many countries because of three factors: Its “vital civil society”, its “long term ties with Iraq” and the fact that “India would be welcomed in that situation” where “not every country would be welcomed.” “So for all those reasons, we hope you have a major part to play and we have conveyed that at very high levels,” he said.

The ambassador, however, added that detailed discussions on this aspect had not yet been held with the Indian government because the US did not want to give the impression that it was “planning in detail for a situation which has not yet happenned.”

The US now had “a very clear perception of India’s substantive and serious equities in the region” unlike during the 1991 Gulf war, Blackwill said, claiming that India itself had also been able to influence US policy to some degree.

”Before September, in the summer, India was urging the Bush administration to take the UN route and to try and deal with Saddam Hussein peacefully... and it was one of the nations in the world that the United States listened most closely to and we took the UN route. I would just note the confluence between the president’s speech at the UN on the 12th of September when he announced we would seek a UNSC resolution and the fact that he met the Indian PM on the same day. So India certainly had influence, no doubt, on our decision to go to the UNSC.”

Hostility with Pakistan cited as success

Hostility with Pakistan cited as success
October 2002

Times of India

Improving bilateral relations with other countries might be considered a tenet of any country’s foreign policy but when it comes to the Union government, it is hostility with Pakistan that is cited as a success.

Or at least that’s what the booklet, ‘Milestones of Success’, brought out by the information and broadcasting ministry on the occasion of the NDA government’s completion of three years suggests.

While the 15 points listed as successes in the area of external affairs focus mainly on agreements and meetings with various countries, in the case of Pakistan this is what it has to say: After mentioning the composite dialogue in 1998 and Vajpayee’s Lahore yatra of 1999 comes Musharraf’s visit to Agra. Even if one does not ask
whether Agra should be listed as a success or a failure, what follows is even more surprising.

”Pakistan, however, responded with hostility, confrontation and continued cross-border terrorism” the government states, apparently taking the entire credit for Pakistan’s inimical approach.

In case doubting Thomases credit Islamabad on the assumption that Pakistan’s hostile policy might be of its own making rather than an ‘achievement’ of Indian foreign policy, the next paragraph goes on to mention specific ‘milestones of success’: “India’s High Commissioner recalled from Islamabad, Samjhouta Express, Delhi-Lahore-Delhi bus service terminated, strength of High Commission in Pakistan reduced by 50 per cent, all over-flight facilities to Pakistan suspended from 1 January, 2002. Pakistan asked to recall High Commissioner in New Delhi.”

Given the government’s oft-repeated claim of its desire to have friendly relations with Pakistan, this list may well be considered a Freudian slip.

Against such major ‘successes’, the other points mentioned pale into insignificance, but, merely for the record, they include: high level political exchanges with China including talks on demarcation of the border, a hydel project for Bhutan, $ 100 million assistance for Afghanistan, lifting of sanctions by Japan and the US, agreements signed with Russia, increased cooperation with the US in the areas of counter-terrorism, defence, science and technology.

Also listed is the extension of the ban on the LTTE though the home ministry might quibble about the classification in the MEA’s kitty.

Another mention is that of the India-EU summits of 2000 and 2001, which is just as well since the summit would have to be left out of next year’s booklet after this year’s public relations disaster.

MEA’s talk has scribes reaching for dictionary

MEA’s talk has scribes reaching for dictionary
August 2002

Times of India

On August 5,journalists covering the external affairs ministry noticed a record of sorts: Pakistan did not figure in the briefing. Ever since tensions escalated in early June, they had perfected the art of finding new questions to ask on Pakistan, an ability that is perhaps only surpassed by MEA spokesperson Nirupama Rao’s flair for finding inventive language to describe Pakistan’s perfidy.
Ranging from the well-known “support, sustenance, nurture and nourishment” for terrorism to “pipelines of
terrorism” to literary allusions, her daily briefings have seen a wide and varied linguistic journey.
”Pakistan lives in a looking glass world. If you have read your Alice in Wonderland, you know what that means,” she said (July 29), a reference to Pakistan’s tenuous grasp of reality that she had spoken of earlier.
Pakistan is also accused of “verbal calisthenics”, “verbal jugglery” and playing the “game
of diplomatic
bluff” in its attempt to renege on its commitment to end terrorism. Though the US views Pakistan as an ally in its war against terrorism, for India it is “running with the hares and hunting with the hounds”.
This has revealed Pakistan’s “Janus-faced attitude as one might say, a kind of double-faced, a duplicitous attitude” in dealing with terrorism, a kind of “flip-flop”, an “ambivalent attitude”. The issue gets murkier and resembles a swampy breeding ground because of “the entire reservoir of terrorism that exists on Pakistan’s territory”. Only the dismantling of the terror apparatus could see a “a permanent drying up of
the terror tap”. Such an area lends itself to disease. It has led to “a serious, complex web of terrorism that operates in our region, cells are set up in various parts, these cells hibernate to other parts, they metastasize like cancer”. But the malignancy to a large extent is under Pakistan’s control. It might even be described as a corporate operation. “Pakistan presides over this giant holding company of terrorism...It is the epicentre of terrorism in our region”. Defining all this is “Pakistan’s ...almost Pavlovian hostility towards India”.
Just a fortnight ago, Rao chose to dub a statement from Pakistan as a “terminological inexactitude” (read ‘lie’ in non-diplomatic language) inviting a retort from her Pakistani counterpart, Maj-Gen Rashid Qureshi, to the effect that she was guilty of a “terminological ineptitude”.
Times News Network
New Delhi: On August 5, journalists covering the external affairs ministry noticed a record of sorts: Pakistan did not figure in the briefing. Ever since tensions escalated in early June, they had perfected the art of finding new questions to ask on Pakistan, an ability that is perhaps only surpassed by MEA spokesperson Nirupama Rao’s flair for finding inventive language to describe Pakistan’s perfidy.
Ranging from the well-known “support, sustenance, nurture and nourishment” for terrorism to “pipelines of
terrorism” to literary allusions, her daily briefings have seen a wide and varied linguistic journey.
”Pakistan lives in a looking glass world. If you have read your Alice in Wonderland, you know what that means,” she said (July 29), a reference to Pakistan’s tenuous grasp of reality that she had spoken of earlier.
Pakistan is also accused of “verbal calisthenics”, “verbal jugglery” and playing the “game
of diplomatic
bluff” in its attempt to renege on its commitment to end terrorism. Though the US views Pakistan as an ally in its war against terrorism, for India it is “running with the hares and hunting with the hounds”.
This has revealed Pakistan’s “Janus-faced attitude as one might say, a kind of double-faced, a duplicitous attitude” in dealing with terrorism, a kind of “flip-flop”, an “ambivalent attitude”. The issue gets murkier and resembles a swampy breeding ground because of “the entire reservoir of terrorism that exists on Pakistan’s territory”. Only the dismantling of the terror apparatus could see a “a permanent drying up of
the terror tap”. Such an area lends itself to disease. It has led to “a serious, complex web of terrorism that operates in our region, cells are set up in various parts, these cells hibernate to other parts, they metastasize like cancer”. But the malignancy to a large extent is under Pakistan’s control. It might even be described as a corporate operation. “Pakistan presides over this giant holding company of terrorism...It is the epicentre of terrorism in our region”. Defining all this is “Pakistan’s ...almost Pavlovian hostility towards India”.
Just a fortnight ago, Rao chose to dub a statement from Pakistan as a “terminological inexactitude” (read ‘lie’ in non-diplomatic language) inviting a retort from her Pakistani counterpart, Maj-Gen Rashid Qureshi, to the effect that she was guilty of a “terminological ineptitude”.

War on in Nepal but world can't see beyond Kabul

War on in Nepal but world can't see beyond Kabul
December 2001

Times of India

No media. No war. Even as Nepal reinforces troops fighting Maoist rebels, an absurd farce plays itself out in the capital. Major battles are taking place in the villages and on Sunday, the Maoists attacked government installations and a foreign aid agency. But a lack of information and media management skills have
combined to black out reality.

The blood and deaths remain unreal, casualties of being out of sync with the information age where seizing the microphone the camera is necessary to prove existence.

Only a handful of journalists are hovering around Kathmandu, as frustrated asthe local scribes by the scarcity of news. Not too many could be flown into Kathmandu. Afghanistan still continues to hold the baton in the attention span of a self-obsessed international audience.

Why is the media not here? Are people convinced this is a local skirmish? Are they convinced it will end this week? Do they know that the problem is manageable? Not really. The history of Maoist control over large areas and the inexperience of the army in battling them are factors that suggest an enormous event maybe unfolding in this region.

The reasons why this is not getting attention are crude: there is no instant information to whet the appetite. There are no spin doctors to tell their stories. Reaching the remote areas where the battles are being fought is dangerous, difficult and enormously expensive.

The few teams that have gone there have not brought back much and it was only on Saturday that one international agency chartered a helicopter to fly to one of the affected areas. In a cost-benefit analysis, this war just does not sell, remaining an unreal rumour floating down from the hills.

The citys infamous traffic jams are perhaps the best barometer of the continuing normalcy.

Yet just below the surface, there is a sense that all is not as it should be. Thamels bustling bazaar shuts early, as early as nine where they were kept open till nearly midnight.

Battle will continue, India should stay out: Maoist chief

Battle will continue, India should stay out: Maoist chief
December 2001

Times of India

In the first-ever communication from the Maoists after the ceasefire was broken with large-scale violence against the army, its supremo, Pushpan Kamal Dahal, alias Comrade Prachanda, told this paper they would continue their battle unless their demand for talks on a new constitution was met.
Prachanda, who along with other Maoist leaders is underground, hoped India would not interfere. He said he failed to understand why India, itself a republic, should oppose the people’s movement in Nepal against feudal monarchy. However, should it send troops in aid of Nepal, the Maoists would have no option but to wage a resistance struggle against it. He said the Maoists had been forced to resume armed action
because of the actions of the current Sher Bahadur Deuba government. But initially it was the Girija Koirala government which had unleashed terrorism against the party even while it was the third largest in Parliament. “The Deuba government under pressure from feudal royalists and the corrupt Girija clique not only made nationwide preparations for military offensive but even banned peaceful mass rallies,” he said.
Despite this, the Maoists had exercised restraint and asked for the convening of a constituent assembly, something that even King Tribhuvan had proclaimed in 1951, he said. But the government rejected this demand and “intensified preparations for a military offensive by procuring arms and ultra-modern military helicopters from the US. In this situation, we had no alternative but to continue with the people’s armed resistance.”
Prachanda argued that the “talks were reduced to meaningless drama” with the government attempting to force acceptance of the discredited feudal monarchy. Its demand for a virtual surrender by the revolutionary forces “had, in essence, closed the door for the fourth round of talks.” When asked whether the international coalition against terrorism would make it more difficult for the movement to survive, Prachanda said he saw no reason why it should. “We view the the September 11 events as terroristic, though we regard US imperialism as primarily responsible for that.” Prachanda said the Maoists were prepared to suspend their
armed activities and talk if the “right to determine their own political future is granted to the people.” Otherwise, their fight would continue.