August 16, 2008

Afghanistan's refugee challenge

Al Jazeera: August 12

With five million refugees repatriated since 2001 and three million still harboured mainly in Pakistan and Iran, Afghanistan continues to face formidable challenges in addressing the needs of its refugee population.

Increasing tensions between Afghanistan and its neighbours, especially Pakistan, and deteriorating security conditions within the country have dampened initial enthusiasms of the refugees' homecoming.

Salvatore Lombardo, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) country representative in Afghanistan, says a more challenging period lies ahead for the Kabul government and international agencies seeking the reintegration of refugee populations both within and outside Afghanistan.

In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, Lombardo said there is not enough recognition that a population that has been in exile for 30 years does not necessarily want to be repatriated.

"The aspirations they have, the wishes they have certainly do not find an answer in the Afghanistan of today and because of the insecurity many of them cannot go back to the places where they came from," he said.

Injection of pragmatism

Lombardo says national and international repatriation efforts must be more pragmatic.

"What is required is a moment of truth to see what can be done and what cannot be done," he said.

Ingrid Macdonald, the regional protection and advocacy advisor of the Norwegian Refugee Council, agrees, saying that refugees with ties to Afghanistan – such as property, assets, and family - have already come back.

She said: "[But] those who remain, many of whom have lived in Pakistan for over 25 years or were born there, have no access to land or property, are under 25 years of age or are elderly. Is it really legitimate for them to come back to Afghanistan now with all the challenges we face here?"

One of the integral challenges is that refugees considering repatriation may no longer identify with the Afghanistan they left.

For many, living in neighbouring countries has changed the way they dress and speak, and affected their status of education, their status as working women and their standard of living.

"Whereas their families may have come from a rural environment originally – that does not mean after 25 [years] of living in a camp or urban area that they have the ability or desire to return to that rural area," Macdonald said.

Voluntary return principle

The new Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) presented by the Afghan government to donors in Paris in June stressed the principle of voluntary return and indicated that "the desire of neighbouring countries to engineer large scale return is a challenge to the principle of voluntary repatriation".

But the strategy avoided making political statements on the possible integration of long-term exiles into their host countries.

Robbie Thomson, the interim country head of the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), says it is up to both the Iranian and Pakistani governments to decide whether to return Afghan refugees.

"Decisions on the fate of refugees are political decisions. The international community can have an input on the issue but may not necessarily be able to change the outcome."

"Militant sanctuaries"

But Lombardo says the status of diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and its neighbours plays a critical factor in any repatriation effort.

Many refugees who returned are still living in tents in the desert [GALLO/GETTY]

"The quality of that relationship will always influence the destiny of this population. When relations between states on issues like these are not very ideal there is no great will to discuss solutions," he said.

"There needs to be trust. When that is not there it delays solutions, it complicates matters. This has always been the case for the Afghan presence in Pakistan. If the relationship does not go well the population hosted over there will suffer."

Political constraints have often translated into increased hardships for many Afghan refugees and have often undercut the principle of voluntary return.

The Iranian government, for example, has said it has a "sovereign right" to deport refugees who have not registered with the UNHCR, branding them "illegals".

Pakistan, under pressure from the international community to take action against cross border militancy, has claimed that the refugee camps in the border areas need to be dismantled since they have become sanctuaries for militants and that Afghans staying in those camps have carried out terror attacks.

Community pressure

But sometimes local communities who play host to refugee populations also apply pressure to convince Afghans to leave the area.

In Baluchistan, the largest province in Southwest Pakistan, the residents of the Zher Kareez camp found their water supply turned off, apparently at the behest of the locals.

In the North West Frontier province, the local jirga (council) accused the residents of being involved in illegal activities and asked them to leave.

Nevertheless, Lombardo feels that in general the generosity of the host populace has been extraordinary, saying "whatever the politics the human element has been quite exemplary".

Pressure from UNHCR has slowed down the closure of camps and the rate of refugee return - just 200,000 have returned so far this year, which is far viewer than the mass returns of earlier years.

But the number of returnees continues to outpace the reintegration capacity in Afghanistan.

The initial euphoria expressed by refugees returning home has long since tapered off as they begin to struggle with the lack of land, homes, shelter, services and employment.

While the enduring poverty impacts all Afghans, refugees often find themselves more vulnerable without the links to subsistence structures that others have developed over time.

Promised land

Part of the problem, repatriation analysts say, is that the Afghan government promised land for every returnee.

"The dream that you are going to give a piece of land to everyone who comes back was false and certainly should never have been done and should not have been shared because that dream does not exist," Lombardo said.

Many returning refugees may not be able to return to the place they left [GALLO/GETTY]

The scarcity of land has meant that refugees are often allotted land 50km away from urban centres and usually in areas where refugees have no means of livelihood or family connections.

Macdonald also says that the land ownership claims are drawn out and have added further complications to repatriation.

"Of the two million refugees remaining in Pakistan – almost 90 per cent claim to have no claim to land or property in Afghanistan – along with insecurity, this will be one of the greatest challenges facing their return and reintegration in Afghanistan," Macdonald said.

Thomson says: "When refugees or migrants are returned from Pakistan or Iran and come back to Afghanistan they may or may not be able to return to the point of origin. Local settlement is a second option but is not as easy as it sounds. There are land issues both qualitative and quantitative."


International relief organisations and various UN agencies dealing with refugees and their reintegration have said that much emphasis is placed on the initial stage of refugees' return and not enough on issues which may later arise.

Repatriated refugees could end up in urban areas without adequate basic services such as shelter, water, food, healthcare and education facilities.

Many appear to end up living with extended families which can place enormous levels of pressure and stress on those communities.

"Tens of thousands of people who most recently returned from the Jalozai camp this year are still living in the desert, with makeshift tents made out of plastic and reliant on water tankers, months after they crossed the border into Afghanistan," Macdonald said.

Some of the repatriated refugees find that they no longer fit into the social fabric they left behind long ago and choose to return to Pakistan or Iran in search of safety, work and basic services.

But Macdonald warns that refugees leaving Afghanistan once again do so illegally, which can make them vulnerable to extortion and exploitation.

To prevent such difficulties following repatriation, the attitude from international agencies and local governments must change.

"The difficulty is that they [the returning refugees] are looked at as a problem and not as a solution," Thomson said.

"If we can demonstrate they bring something with them - skills or other benefits - it would make their return more welcome."

An Indian In Kabul

Man's World/ August 2008

Aunohita Mojumdar

ON 8 AND 9 JULY, SANDEEP KUMAR, the Deputy Chief of Mission in the Indian embassy in Kabul, participated in the Mr Afghanistan body building contest. By now this was not an unusual event. Sandeep, as this magazine had reported earlier, is an unusual diplomat. But even for Sandeep this was an extraordinary moment. A day earlier, the Indian embassy had been bombed and two of his colleagues and his own driver as well as two ITBP jawans had been killed along with 42 other Afghans in the deadliest blast that Kabul had ever seen.
Sandeep went to the body building competition the next day urged by the ambassador and other colleagues in the embassy for one simple reason: to send a clear and unequivocal message to Afghans that the Indian community stood with them and was here to stay and help. “I told them that we stood in solidarity with Afghanistan and the Afghans in the reconstruction of their country,” says Sandeep, recalling how difficult it was to perform as a participant following the emotional shock. Both the message and the gesture were extremely unusual. The international community was on red alert following the blast and many embassies had sent out security alerts that minimised the movement of their staff. The Indian embassy’s approach was different, a fact that was recognised by the Afghans — Sandeep was presented with a ‘Chapaan’, the decorative long coat bestowed by Afghans as the highest accolade of respect.
Being an Indian in Afghanistan has always been a different cup of tea. Though the roles of ‘internationals’ and ‘nationals’ are almost always mutually exclusive, many Indians manage to go beyond the limitations of a single identity.
In my five years in Afghanistan, I have always found myself straddling two characters. Falling between two stools can be maddening as one belongs nowhere, but it is also liberating. Though I miss the anchor of a group identity, I also enjoy the freedom of not belonging, finding it much easier to move between the two groups with greater ease. Much of it has to do with being an Indian, since Afghans, especially in Kabul and the North, see India as a good friend. “I am not a foreigner. I am an Indian,” I will often say, and what’s more, it often works, whether it is about bargaining for trinkets on Chicken Street or discussing politics and human rights.
In a strange way though, living in Afghanistan has anchored me more deeply in what I see as my regional identity. Of course, every country in the region is distinctly different, none more so perhaps than Afghanistan, which lies at the cusp of Central Asia, but there are also immense similarities in the region in the nature of the complexities we live with.
The multitude of identities, languages, ethnicities, the challenges of economic development, the aspirations of people, the tensions between modernity and tradition, between culture and individual rights: it is all played out in Afghanistan, only at a much more acute and intense level. It is this intensity that, perhaps, draws people to this country against all odds and those who are captured by the intensity return again and again.
I had just walked out of my job with an English daily in New Delhi and still had to find gainful employment when I came here in 2003. As a journalist, going to a conflict zone is part of the job and Afghanistan seemed interesting. I was curious to see a country in the process of transition, to observe the building of a nation state with all its complexities.
An international NGO asked me to bring out reports on the working conditions of the Afghan media - something that seemed right up my street. I thought it was for a short time. But a UN official more prescient than me, brushed off my final goodbyes at the end of two months, insisting I would be back. I laughed it off then.
The more I saw of this country the more fascinated I became and the fascination has not dwindled. As a journalist I’m always interested in observing a society in transition. While all societies everywhere are in some form of transition, the transition is usually so slow that documenting it is typically the job of an anthropologist or a historian or at best, a scholar. But imagine this process of decades and centuries compressed into days and weeks. It is like watching a series of film rushes whizzing past leaving you gasping for breath, sometimes horrified at the scenes, sometimes amazed and sometimes awed.
Living here, I watch a country being built brick by brick, both literally and figuratively and I know of no other privilege as this for a journalist. Each day I wake up with half a dozen story ideas, wishing I had the resources to follow them and the outlets to publish them. I have reported from Punjab and Kashmir, covered Parliament and ministries at the Centre, state governments and foreign affairs. But what happens here in Afghanistan in a week doesn’t happen in most places in a year and I am not even including the military conflict. The building of institutions like democracy, the making of policy, and the changing social structures and relationships provide a sharp and fascinating view into humanity or the lack of it.
It is not merely a compressed form of reconstruction. It is also a bringing together of several different eras in time and of several different peoples. There are those who stayed at home because they couldn’t leave. They have their own story. There are those who left the country as refugees. They have theirs. There are those who were displaced internally, forced to move homes within Afghanistan. Those who left the country voluntarily. Those who grew up in the refugee camps of Iran or Pakistan and those who grew up in exile in Switzerland or France. There are those who are now part of a distinct Afghan diaspora in the country where they settled, like my friend Fariba from the Bay Area in California. Now the circumstance of history has brought all these people together in one melting pot as they try and make sense of what it means to be an Afghan and I am a privileged observer of this process.
My work with the NGO ended years ago but what began as a series of short encounters with this country has now turned into full-time journalism and a long-term stay. This year, we planted trees in the garden. I now have three bookshelves groaning with books, which, for me, is always a sign of settling in. I feel a sense of pride in the airport renovation and the first cheese factory of Afghanistan. My stay here does not have an end date in sight. Yet, the end, in some ways, is always a hair trigger away. As a journalist I rationalise that the violence is sporadic and unpredictable and that I will escape it unless I am unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the same logic I used while reporting on Kashmir.
But the tension under the surface is always there, felt viscerally in the gun-toting guards outside the houses, the high fences and barbed wire, the cement blocks to absorb the shock of bombs and the blocked roads. The army vehicles that scream down the roads and the Humvees and armoured personnel carriers of the international forces with the soldiers sitting atop them, machine guns pointing out, their dark goggles and their body armour making them look alien, almost Martian. I know that at any point the tenuous peace could unravel. I do not fear a Taliban invasion, but as I see the seething anger of the people I feel there could be violent uprisings in which the alien, the other, the foreigner would be the first target.
On a day-to-day basis, however, it is the economic costs of living here that may drive me away sooner rather than insecurity.
A nation destroyed by 30 years of war has very little left in the way of goods and services or human resources. Almost everything is available here, but at a price. For most internationals, working for international organisations ensures that these costs are absorbed by their offices which provide housing, transport, electricity and, of course, fat salaries to compensate the war zone. Take, for example, this particular moment in time. I am writing on a laptop I power with a solar panel which might run out any time. When I send the story I will have to go out anyway since my rather basic Internet service provider has not been working for the last few days. To get faster speeds I would have to make a start-up payment of $1,500 to $2,000 and $400 to $500 every month. And remember, this is just one cost.
Of course, when it comes to paying for stories, media outlets, especially in India (with honourable exceptions), feel they ought to get the stories cheap from what looks like a run-down Third World country, not realising that the lack of goods and services does not make for cheap living but the contrary.

APART FROM THE EXTERNAL costs there are other costs to living. Take for example, electricity. It is only when you don’t have power for days that you realise how dependent modern life is on power, turning your fridge into a cupboard, rendering your mobile phone and laptop useless and running taps dry because the water pump won’t work. It is worse in winter. Winters of -20ÂșC with only two hours of power every fourth day and frozen water pipes are difficult, and it is only now, after five winters, that I actually know how to light a wood fire somewhat successfully.
But above all the difficulties I experience here the worst are those of being a woman in Afghanistan. There is very little understanding of a woman’s role or participation in public space and little respect. The dominant culture of this country at its most conservative form expects that a woman will not step out of her home for ANY reason whatsoever – not even for medical emergencies. Liberalism denotes leaving home either with a male escort of the family or at least with the permission of the head of the household. Afghan women who work in jobs now are hemmed in by many caveats. Therefore women like me – even though we have enormous freedoms comparatively – are still looked at askance – whether at the work space, in public offices or on the streets. Indian women readers will perhaps remark that this is no different from many places in India. But it is, even if by degree.
Imagine walking scantily clad down a crowded bazaar in a middle-class area of a small town and dealing with the repercussions of that act. This is what it is like every day, day after day, year after year, something that can steadily corrode your sense of wellbeing and happiness. It is not that all women in India have all their freedoms. But even in small towns and villages, there are multiple roles that women have, some more or some less. Here, there is only one role that is socially sanctioned and there are no peer groups, no spaces that allow other identities. For me this translates into a sense of a loss of control over my own life. The right to go out, walk, to enter public offices, demand my rights and confront bad behaviour is extremely circumscribed. Without the cocoon of the international organisations that most foreigners here live within, I feel disenfranchised as a citizen just like all the other Afghan women who may have known an alternative and no longer have a choice. Many don’t.

So apart from the thrills of reporting the ‘sexy’ story is invariably one that deals with conflict — the military operations, the intricacies of the Taliban network, the daily diet of violence — I believe this is being done well enough by enough people and see no need to add to this reportage. It is the transformation of people and society that fascinates and I feel a regional perspective on this is almost entirely missing even in our own media. Apart from two other journalists working for state-owned broadcasters there are no other regional journalists in Afghanistan.
Most of our media report on this country using Western news agencies. While theirs is a valuable perspective, it is not the only one. Living and reporting from here has only strengthened my conviction that there’s need for more regional voices from here – bringing with it the multiplicity of pluralistic voices rather than the polarities that the Western experience often brings.
Take, for example, the simple issue of the headscarf. Wearing the burkha is mandatory for many and some families are so strict that they will insist on women covering their heads even inside the household.
There are no laws that govern clothing, but custom demands women cover their heads in public spaces, and since I chose to live outside the car-to-car, door-to-door lives of many expats, I do wear a dupatta or chunni on my head, just the way I did while reporting from the villages of Punjab or Kashmir. Coming from India I neither equate it with Islam, nor do I see rejection of the scarf as an automatic means of emancipation as many of my Western or Westernised colleagues do.
Or take the issue of traditional and liberal values. In the struggle between contending forces with contending values, those opposing empowerment of women or rejecting development of a jurisprudence based on human rights will often cite the fact that Afghanistan is not a Western nation. Very often, Western diplomats will accept this argument, condoning or tolerating the most heinous abuses in the name of cultural relativism. This is not something that we in the region need to accept. We in India strive to accommodate tradition and freedom at the same time, respect for other cultures and religions with respect for fundamental rights and respect for the rule of law while seeking to transform a more conservative society.
It is this feeling of shared complexities and questions rather than a superior culture with all its answers that enables me to both accept and challenge Afghan society on equal terms and on the same terms that I would challenge my own culture and society.
It is, perhaps, this simple empathy that gets across in ways that no amount of politeness and nice words can. It was an empathy that was brought home to me suddenly and fiercely earlier this month. Used to taking the much-touted fondness for Bollywood and Indians with a pinch of salt, it came as somewhat of a jolt for me to realise just how deep the empathy for Indians runs when the embassy was targeted in the blast.
It was a day that staggered me more than I could have imagined. Though as a journalist I have always kept my distance from government, here in Kabul the relationship with the embassy and its officials was much stronger. There were a handful of diplomats here in Kabul and as one of the two Indian journalists here I know them and count some amongst them as friends. Venkat Rao, Brigadier Mehta and the driver of their car Niamat were amongst those I knew and who lost their lives that day. As I battled to reconcile the personal emotions with the professional needs of a journalist, the words of the Afghans I met and spoke to proved to be a soothing balm.
They were shocked about the bombing. The sadness was genuine. The condolence carried with it a sense of apology and responsibility, as if a loved guest had been harmed in their home. I had not expected this. I see Afghans dying everyday in the violence and I know that almost every Afghan family has been touched deeply by personal tragedy. One of the Afghans who expressed condolence has been interring the bones of his entire family from a mass grave unearthed recently. It was the ability of these peoples to go beyond their own devastating tragedies and console me that touched and humbled me enormously. “It happens to Afghans everyday,” I told one young Afghan who expressed sorrow that I had lost a friend. “Yes, but when it happens to you when you are in a foreign land, in a different country it is hard,” he said. It was at that minute that I knew that in some strange way I was home, if not in my country, in my ‘southasianness’.

Between South and Central Asia

Himal/ August 2008

By: Aunohita Mojumdar

SAARC aside, Afghans themselves are wrestling with what it means to be Southasian.

In a warm summer day in New Delhi in April 2007, Afghanistan was inducted as the eighth member of SAARC, the first such expansion in the organisation’s 22-year history. But did 3 April really mark a change in how Afghans viewed themselves? Did it identify a latent identity that was overdue its recognition, or was it more of a marker of future possibilities? Was this identity the construct of the governments and political classes, or was there affirmation from the citizenry? More than a year later, the answers from the ground in Afghanistan remain wide and varied.

Despite an overwhelming interest in the movies and music emanating from Southasia, especially India (something that is often equated with a consonance of identities), the wider region has limited influence on the social, political and cultural context of Afghanistan. Whether it is the aid money, mainly from Western donors, which currently accounts for 90 percent of all public expenditure; the fact that Westerners are determining the country’s political institutions and economic policies; or that every aspect of gender rights, human rights or other political and civil matters are evaluated against a Western benchmark, both by people promoting or decrying it – in all of this, there is currently very little that is drawn from Afghanistan’s links to the two regions of South and Central Asia.

So what does it mean for Afghanistan to have become a member of SAARC? Some are emphatic. Haroun Mir, a keen observer of politics who has set up an Afghan think tank that looks at economics, feels that his country’s inclusion in the regional grouping is to be welcomed wholeheartedly. Afghans have always considered themselves a part of Southasia due to the influence of Indian culture, he says – something that is still growing, with Afghans keenly watching Bollywood movies and television soap operas.

Does this mean it is the soporific impact of Indian serials that constitute the narcotic binding Afghanistan to Southasia? Sardar, a young journalist working for an international wire agency, disagrees. “I watch Indian movies. I see the Indian culture. I look at the Taj Mahal,” he says. “But I watch it from a distance, like something strange and wonderful but alien. I am a Tajik-speaking Afghan, and I feel more Central Asian because the roots of my identity lie in Central Asia and in Persia.” Sardar emphasises that his Pashtun countrymen might feel very different, however, due to their closer connection with the Southasian region across the southern border with Pakistan.

Though Sardar and Mir are at odds about how they feel, they do agree on one aspect. The future of Afghanistan, they say, will lie not in joining one or the other region, but by being the bridge between South and Central Asia. Mir feels it is as a transit route that Afghanistan will define its future identity. He says, “Without this, we will be divided along ethnic lines, and that will damage us.” For his part, Sardar speaks of the need to revive Afghanistan’s role on the old Silk Road. Nilabh, a young professional also talks about the country being a bridge between the two regions – politically, geographically and economically. But all agree that Afghanistan’s evolution as a bridge between cultures can only become a reality when the political problems are solved.

Politics first
Aziz Hakimi, an independent consultant with a keen interest in and strong views on issues of identity and nation-building, questions the very concept of Southasia, asking what the countries of the region actually have in common. “India itself is so diverse. So is Afghanistan,” he notes. “I have trouble finding my Afghan identity, let alone Southasian or Central Asian.” Hakimi believes that a significant sense of identity can emerge, but that it cannot be created through political mechanisms such as SAARC. “It has to be a bottom-up approach,” he says. “Politicians are not dealing with the most critical issues, the day-to-day problems. Today, the countries of Southasia cannot even trade with each other, due to barriers. If the critical issues are dealt with, the larger identity will emerge.”

Nilabh believes in the idea of multiple identities. The differences in language, culture, dress and even facial characteristics make Afghans a part of many cultures, but there is nothing distinct that defines Afghans as Afghans. He says, “On the metros in Europe, I have often been asked where I am from, with people guessing many countries. But not once have I been asked whether I am Afghan.”

Without doubt, the current decision-makers in Kabul are looking towards the West rather than towards Southasia. This can be put down to the overwhelming dominance of the Western donors, and to the fact that the majority of influential decision-makers have returned from exile in the West. Nilabh sees this as a form of self-protection: “During the war, there was trouble from some of the neighbouring countries; Afghanistan needs protection.” For his part, Mir feels this orientation towards the West will not last. “This will change soon,” he says confidently. “More than 40 percent of Afghanistan’s population is under the age of 18 years. They are our next leaders; they will turn towards Southasia.”

Aunohita Mojumdar is a Kabul-based contributing editor for Himal Southasian.

Taliban's war of words undermines Afghanistan's nation building

A successful propaganda campaign has weakened public support for the Afghan government and its international backers, according to a new report from the International Crisis Group.
By Aunohita Mojumdar | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
from the July 29, 2008 edition

Kabul, Afghanistan - Arbitrary detentions by United States forces in Afghanistan and the aerial bombardment by the international forces has not only increased public discontent, it has also given the Taliban opportunities to cash in on a sophisticated media strategy, observers say.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) has pointed to the dangers of the Taliban's successful propaganda in a July 24 report and argues that the result is "weakening public support for nation building, even though few actively support the Taliban."

While Taliban propaganda is often rudimentary and crude, the ICG report says, the Taliban is adept at exploiting local disenfranchisement. Its use of local languages and traditional cultural medium like songs and poems give it greater outreach than that of international organizations and the government. The ICG report also points out that the Taliban has also begun using DVDs and photographs, which it had earlier prohibited.

International forces also face questions about the accuracy of their reports – such as a US bombing in Nangarhar on July 6 that described civilians attending a wedding party as enemy deaths. The questionable credibility is not just confined to the military forces but impacts the image of the entire international community.

And the lack of credible and effective communication could mean much more than a war of words – especially in a situation where, according to the ICG report, the Afghan population is increasingly "sitting on the fence or weighing options amidst a sense of insurgent momentum."

The Taliban are not winning the propaganda war but are putting a lot of effort into it, says NATO's civilian spokesman in Afghanistan, Mark Laity.

"If you want disinformation, yes, you can get it," Mr. Laity says. "They can make something up. One has to define reliable and accurate information."

But reporter Zubair Babakarkhail of Pajhwok, an independent Afghan news service, says Taliban reports enable him to put out stories on time. "It is difficult to reach the spokesperson of the president's office and the Ministry of Interior and often when they do return a call it is too late."

Mr. Babakarkhail says he does not feel that the information from the military is any more credible. "The Taliban makes claims, and the other side also makes claims,"he says. "We don't believe in either."

UN spokesman Aleem Siddique admits the Taliban are better than the international forces are in reaching the media, but points to UN efforts to reach out to the local press in their own language.

Zamarai Bashary, a spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior, says the media also latches onto bad news, which helps the Taliban propaganda. Mr. Bashary insists that the delay is due to the problem of collecting accurate, verifiable information.

Unfortunately, the lack of speed is also not always compensated by absolute accuracy. Mr. Laity says NATO has "reviewed how we are dealing with civilian casualties and the speed of our response," a task which is made difficult by "the remoteness of the area, the speed of the burial of bodies, and the lack of birth registration."

And while US-led forces cause most of the civilian casualties, a distinction between the Coalition Forces and the NATO-led ISAF forces is not always evident. "People won't make that distinction," Laity says. "We have to live with that."

The Afghan conundrum

New Indian Express

Friday July 25 2008

Aunohita Mojumdar

“Who is left in the Indian embassy?” Khalid wanted to know three days after the brutal suicide attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul that killed 46 persons on the spot, five of them inside the embassy. Khalid works with a fledgling independent Afghan news agency, Pajhwok. It is located a block away from the embassy and had also suffered from the blast with torn limbs landing in the garden flung by the impact of the ferocious explosion. When I told him I had just walked from the embassy that was fully staffed and almost returning to full functionality, Khalid was shocked. He had expected most of the embassy staff to have been relocated to safe hideouts.

Khalid’s astonishment was not surprising. The Indian embassy’s decision to dig in its feet and withstand the shock waves runs counter to the rules the expatriate community in Afghanistan lives by. Be they diplomatic missions, international institutions, NGOs or private companies, spiralling insecurity has led most of them to barricade themselves behind barbed wires, high walls and gun toting security personnel. Enormous resources are often spent on ensuring that the international community that is rebuilding the country has minimal contact with the Afghans it is here to help. Conflict scarred Kabul is a tale of two cities. Those who live and work behind the barbed wire fences (including a small section of the Afghan elite) and those who are kept out.

As an Indian freelancing in Kabul I fall somewhere between two stools. I have no guards or barricades but my international identity allows me access to the houses of those who use them. My taxi is stopped on the road at check points, more often perhaps because I am brown-skinned and have no armed escorts, while large SUVs, especially those carrying westerners are often driven through with no checks. I don’t earn the dollar salaries that other foreigners do, but I am better off than most Afghans. Yet, my earnings are clearly insufficient in a country which still has no manufacturing capacity and where the bulk of goods and services for middle class existence are imported, putting them beyond the reach of the middle class. For example house rents are between $1500 and $3000 a month and several international institutions do not baulk at paying $20,000 or more a month. The salaries they pay for translators ($50 to $100 per day) and drivers ($50 per day) ensures that I cannot afford either.

Costs apart the most difficult thing about living here is being a woman because of the scant acceptance of women in public space and an extreme form of patriarchy. For example, half the women in Afghanistan’s largest prison outside Kabul are there for moral crimes, many of them in jail for leaving home without permission even when they have clearly been victims of horrific abuse, for instance girls as young as seven and nine who run away from forced ‘marriages’. Even for foreigners such as myself, there is little understanding amongst many Afghans of women who are working away from their homes and families and an assumption of immorality and ‘availability’is the norm rather than the exception.

There are other local conditions which make it difficult here. We get electric power for a couple of hours a day at the best of times,while in peak winter this drops to two hours every fourth day. While in summer this limits the use of electronic gadgets like lights, fans, laptops, TV and fridge, in winter it can be very depressing with limited daylight hours and temperatures which can drop to between minus 15 to minus 20 with only primitive heating systems.

Personally the dogged persistence in staying here has to do with the fascination of watching a country being built from scratch — literally and figuratively and a certain insistence on getting an Indian or even regional voice to report on a country that is usually covered only by the western media and to report on the substantive changes rather than the day to day.

As a reporter I record a very mixed picture. Since 2001 the living conditions of many have improved. Six million children are back in school, the government claims to have provided access to healthcare to 86 per cent of its citizens, 12,200 km of roads have been renovated, five million Afghan refugees have returned to the country and the private sector has established telecom connectivity widely. A parliament has been established, presidential elections held and a new Constitution voted on.

Yet, food insecurity is increasing (the UN estimates nearly half the population to be food insecure or borderline), the returning refugees are being forced back from Pakistan and Iran without access to homes or employment. Children, especially girls, are dropping out of school in the secondary stage, the quality of education is being diluted in the race for numbers and Afghanistan’s maternal mortality ratio of 1,600 deaths per 1,00,000 live births, one of the highest in the world, has shown no significant change. The disarmament of illegal armed groups has not been successful and the rebuilding of the national army and police has been slow and tortured.

Quick implementation cycles of the international donors has meant high dependency on external expertise and an estimated 40 per cent of the aid money has returned to donor countries. Not so with Indian aid. While many of the western nations come with the solutions, India knows the similarity of complexities, of living within contradictions and multiplicities, something that Afghanistan contains in abundance, helping the aid go much further.

Though not a traditional donor, India is the sixth largest bilateral donor in Afghanistan. Its funding is not linked to the annual Indian budget, thus allowing time and space for the execution of projects.A small fraction of the aid is spent on salaries, making it extremely cost-effective.

The bulk of India’s aid, $750 million pledged till now, is being spent on building infrastructure: power projects including transmission and hydel power plants and roads in some of the most difficult areas of the country. The most important asset however is the rebuilding of human resources. Contrary to the normal trend which sees successive generations becoming more educated, in Afghanistan today many parents are better educated than their children with 30 years of conflict having decimated the educational opportunities. thirty Indian civil servants are now deputed to Afghan ministries for capacity building and two vocational training centres have been set up. Most of these projects require much greater hands on interaction of Indians with the Afghans, a risk that the Indian government has estimated is worth taking.

Certainly the violent incident certainly did emphasise the insecurities of Afghanistan, but it also reinforced visibly, just how much Indians are needed and loved here in this country, strengthening the will to stay on

Taliban winning the war of words

Asia Times Jul 26, 2008

By Aunohita Mojumdar

KABUL - In the first week of July, several people were killed in a village in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar by international forces. The US-led coalition forces described the operation as a precision air strike which had killed militants. Locals said they were civilians. Claims. Counter-claims. It seemed business as usual until investigations revealed that the air strike had in fact bombed a wedding party, killing 50, including the bride.

Though the incident was reported widely with concern for the civilian casualties, there was less attention on the other "collateral damage" it caused - the casualty of credibility.

The war of words between anti-government militants and pro-government forces has become so routine that little attention is

paid to the contradictions in the claims. In the process, the anti-government insurgents are gaining, a dangerous situation when the government's legitimacy is already under question.

The power of the militants' propaganda is evident from a new report published by the Brussels-based independent International Crisis Group (ICG) this week. The report, "Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words", argues that the Taliban are "successfully tapping into the strains of Afghan nationalism and exploiting policy failures by the Kabul government and its international backers". The result, it says, "is weakening public support for nation-building, even though few actively support the Taliban".

A boom in independent media, with the help of generous donor support, began in 2001 following the ouster of the Taliban. As media houses mushroomed, however, little attention was paid to the efficacy of the communication strategies of the government and the international community.

Despite considerable funding of the offices of the communications departments of various ministries and high-level offices, little in the way of accountability has been sought from them. While media houses have had to "perform or perish", the communication wings of most government institutions bumbled along.

Take for example access to the media. The presidential spokesman (of Hamid Karzai) and the spokesman of the Ministry of Interior are arguably the two most important offices which give the government's viewpoint on major events. Yet among the media based in Kabul, these two are reliably known as the least accessible and their spokesmen are always "in meetings". Their offices, by relying on single individuals to impart information, are largely mute in their absence.

While spokesmen for Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led International Security Assistance Force are available and provide regular updates to the media, the office of the OEF is outside Kabul at the Bagram military base while the NATO media office is based in its headquarters in the capital.

Both bases are heavily fortified, making them difficult to access. The international forces also fail to provide transcripts of their press conferences, even though entering the military compounds is a tedious process which forces many journalists to opt out of attending the regular meetings.

Though the Taliban are understandably not easy to access, they provide ready updates on information and operations and their own claims. According to the ICG, the Taliban's rudimentary website is updated several times a day and the Taliban are able to put out their story rapidly, though its messages are sometimes contradictory.

The speed of the Taliban in communicating with the media is "much easier when spokesmen do not need to establish facts", the ICG states. However, the credibility that could compensate for the pro-government forces' lack of speed is also missing. Attuned to a military culture in which information is just part of propaganda in a situation of conflict, the international forces feel justified in presenting their version of the truth in the ongoing war. Unfortunately, this impacts not just on the military forces, but on the entire international community and the government.

Rather than step up their efforts to communicate, the pro-government forces are relying more on efforts to contain and control the media. Local journalists are from time to time issued "guidelines" on their content. A new media bill that is still on hold has invited fierce opposition from local journalists as it seeks to impose greater curbs on media content.

Journalists are also detained both by the government's national security apparatus and the international forces. While journalists cannot expect automatic exemption from the processes adopted by security agencies, the failure to charge the detainees or to produce any evidence leads to the assumption that the journalists were detained in connection with their professional work - an issue raised by the International Justice Network in Kabul last week.

When tasked with their lack of credibility or media savvy, pro-government spokesmen are prone to compare their efforts with those of the Taliban. However, this comparison is usually counter-productive since it invites the media to view the two "sides" as equal contending parties who need to be evaluated by the same yardstick, rather than automatically distancing the pro-government forces from the Taliban on the basis of a higher moral ground.

"The Taliban are adept at exploiting local disenfranchisement and disillusionment," the ICG report points out, emphasizing that "the Kabul administration needs to ensure it is seen as one worth fighting for, not least by ending the culture of impunity and demanding accountability of its members".

The ICG argues that the Taliban's propaganda is weakening public support for nation-building, even though few actively support the Taliban. The Karzai government and its allies must make greater efforts, through word and deed, it says, to address sources of alienation exploited in Taliban propaganda, particularly by ending arbitrary detentions and curtailing civilian casualties from aerial bombing.

"Whatever the military benefits of arbitrary detentions, they are far outweighed by the alienation they cause. The effectiveness of aerial bombardment, even if strictly exercised within the bounds of international law, must be considered against the damage to popular support," it says.

Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian journalist who is currently based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for 16 years and has covered the Kashmir conflict and post-conflict situation in Punjab extensively.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Obama's tour of Afghanistan renews debate about US role

The presidential candidate met officials and soldiers here this weekend at the start of a global tour.
By Aunohita Mojumdar | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
from the July 21, 2008 edition

Kabul, Afghanistan - – Hopes and fears among Afghans clashed during the weekend visit of presumptive US Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama, who has vowed to send more US troops to Afghanistan if elected.

Among those familiar here with Senator Obama, his trip revived debate about America's military presence in their country. The US has the most soldiers in Afghanistan and donates the most money. Obama has proposed adding two more brigades, or about 7,000 troops.

"We have to understand that the situation is precarious and urgent ... and I believe this has to be the central focus, the central front, in the battle against terrorism," Obama told the CBS television program "Face the Nation" Sunday. "I think the situation is getting urgent enough that we have to start doing something now."

Mustafa Rawan, a young professional who says he was aware Obama had been in town, showed enthusiasm for the candidate and the presidential election. "I hope and feel he will be the winner in the presidential elections," he said.

Mr. Rawan said he supported the presence of the US troops in Afghanistan but that US help should go beyond rhetoric. "If they really want to help, they can make a difference. If they just want to say it rather than doing anything, it will be difficult."

Another young man, Latif, was less optimistic. A change in the White House would not have any impact on the US policy in Afghanistan, he said. "I think the US has a double face. They say they want to defeat the Taliban, but they are not."

Obama's trip to Afghanistan was part of a congressional delegation including senators Chuck Hagel (R, Neb.) and Jack Reed (D, R.I.) that will continue on to the Middle East and Europe.

Saturday began with visits to the Bagram Air Field north of Kabul to meet military leaders and soldiers, then to Jalalabad Air Field, where Obama was briefed by Nangarhar provincial governor Gul Aga Sherzai. "Obama promised us that if he becomes a president in the future, he will support and help Afghanistan not only in its security sector but also in reconstruction, development, and economic sector," Mr. Sherzai told The Associated Press.

After breakfast with troops on Sunday, Obama met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whom the senator criticized this month for having "not gotten out of the bunker" to help organize the country.

Presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada said that during their lunch, where they discussed issues "at the broad level," Obama "conveyed his commitment to ... supporting Afghanistan and to continue the war against terrorism with vigor."

The senator's visit coincided with civilian casualties caused by foreign forces, a recurring problem that hurts popular support for them and for the government. NATO said Sunday that its troops accidentally killed at least four civilians in the eastern Paktika province. In the western Farah Province, coalition forces killed up to nine Afghan police.

(Wire material was used for this report).