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Afghan Woman Fights Taliban, One Radio Program At A Time

KANDAHAR — The main bazaar in Kunduz looks deserted. It's because many have left the city or are staying indoors after the Taliban took control in October. A local journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, says it's simply too dangerous to stay in Kunduz right now. "The Taliban has taken several people from their homes and killed them for no reason," he says. The Islamic terrorist group has also recently attacked three radio stations in Northern Kunduz, and militants have also threatened several prominent reporters. But in the conservative area of southern Kandahar — also the birthplace of Taliban leader Mullah Omar — Maryam Durani has founded a radio station for women called Mairman Radio. In the Pashto language, "Mairman" means "woman," and most of the station's programs focus on women's issues. In the four years that it has been on the air, the station has become very popular, says 28-year-old Durani. "Women call the station to share their problems, to seek guidance and ask our experts," she says. "The parents, especially the fathers, also ask us for guidance about how to create a better future for their daughters. So these are great achievements in a province where women can't go outside without wearing a burqa, an area where families don't allow women to work." Mairman Radio broadcasts cover topics for women such as education, women's rights and agriculture. It airs 13 hours of programs daily, and more than 800,000 listeners tune in every month, mostly women in Kandahar. But Durani admits that promoting women's rights in the second-largest city in Afghanistan isn't easy and that it has made her particularly unpopular with the Taliban. Being the voice of the voiceless is always dangerous. Undaunted "It's very difficult to be a station owner," she says. "I have survived different attacks. My family has received threats, and even my employees have received threats several times for the work we do." But the death threats sent via text message leave Durani undaunted. In fact, they have made her even more determined to keep running her independent radio station, which is partly funded by the United Nations. Durani receiving the 2012 International Women of Courage Award from Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton — Photo: U.S. Department of State "I have never been afraid of threats and never bothered about them," she says. "Instead, I have tried to convince my opponents of my work, and have been more than ever focused on my work, to enhance it instead of stopping or slowing down." And Durani’s hard work is being recognized. In 2012, she received the International Women of Courage Award, which is chosen by the U.S. Secretary of State. The same year she was included in Time magazine's list of the world's 100 most influential people. Last month, Durani also took home the N-Peace Award for her work in building peace and transforming communities. Jina Popal, a 17-year-old student in Kandahar, has been a regular listener of Mairman Radio for several years. "I have realized the important and valuable role of women in the world," she says, adding that the station is "like a school for women in Kandahar." Hamida Muhammadi, a producer and anchor at the station for more than two years, says one of the biggest issues women here face is family resistance regarding the role of women. "Our parents and relatives have different opinions about women who have jobs, especially about those who work in media," she says. "Their attitudes have prevented many women from getting out of the house for a job in the media or any other place. People look down on working women in our area." Maryam Durani is also a provincial council member, a role that she uses to promote women's empowerment. She hopes one day to extend her radio shows to other provinces, but for now, the medium is an effective way to reach a mass audience. "It's very difficult to gather men and women in the same place at the same time for any activity or discussion in Kandahar," she says. "That's why I started the station, to convey a message to the maximum number of people at the same time." ...

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Facebook Smarts To Fight Afghanistan Brain Drain

KABUL — Does everyone really want to leave Afghanistan? Not quite. A few young Afghans want to stop the exodus. Among them is Sharam Gulzad, who grew up in Germany, but left behind professional opportunities there to return to his home country in 2006. Gulzad's Facebook campaign "Afghanistan Needs You," which he founded with five friends, encourages others to follow his example. And it seems to have hit a nerve. "If your mother were sick, you wouldn't just leave her behind," Gulzad says, explaining his motivation. He feels the same way about Afghanistan. He believes that those who want the country to recover should stay and try to change things for the better. Gulzad and his friends have done exactly that. Young Afghans use the Facebook campaign to post photos of themselves with signs depicting the slogan, "Afghanistan Needs You!" Beneath their pictures they post their reasons for staying home and offer thoughts about why their peers should do the same. They often say that Afghanistan really does need them, that by leaving they make a gift of their own resources to other countries. They also say that the youth of a country is the gateway to the future. But sometimes the message is much simpler than that. "If you want Afghanistan to exist as a country in the future, you will have to stay," they argue. Asking people to stay is no small request. The recent deadly battles over Kunduz, a city in Afghanistan's northern region, show that the Taliban is still powerful and the country as a whole is dangerous. Foreign troops haven't completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan, and it already seems to be engulfed by a wave of chaos. Even Kabul is unsafe, and the attacks cause uncertainty, which in turn influences the economy. Unemployment rates are high and, together with American forces, foreign investors are leaving the country. Relief funds are providing less and less support too, Gulzad says. Digital skills are marketable anywhere. Photo: Facebook These are the reasons why many young Afghans just want to leave the country. They are looking for security, education and a future that allows them to improve their lot, and they are doing so increasingly within Europe. Gulzad could have had all of these things. His family fled the Taliban when he was three and managed to escape to Germany. He grew up in his aunt's house in Hamburg, finished his A-levels and found work. All he had to do was stay. Working for the family business But the young entrepreneur decided to return to Afghanistan in 2006 and then followed in his father's footsteps. "He is a true patriot," says Gulzad, "who wanted to fight for his country." His father returned to Afghanistan early on and founded an import-export company that deals in building materials. Gulzad joined his father's business upon his return. "It was quite difficult in the beginning," says Gulzad. Difficult because everything was new to him — the rampant corruption, the work ethic, the culture. Employees often stole goods. Some of those fired as a consequence even threatened his family with retribution. "The people can't seem to think beyond the here and now," he says. But the biggest problem, he says, is corruption. Some of his friends once tried to complain to an anti-corruption department about crooked civil servants. But the response was sobering: "We can take note of your complaint, but how much can you pay us to see it through?" Young Afghans in particular want to leave the country, Gulzad says. "It's not exactly cool to be pro-Afghanistan," he notes. The public has become apathetic and hopeless. And it is this particular feeling that the Facebook campaign tries to eradicate. "We want people to once more shoulder responsibility, we want them to not just simply sit on their hands and wait for the government to fix the problem," Gulzad says. They are supposed to become active citizens, to develop new ideas, to found new businesses. But are 5,000 likes and a few photos enough to achieve all of this? "Maybe that's naive," he says, "but even Ghandi started with only an idea." The first step, he insists, is to change the way people think. The six activists seem to have found some traction. It took only a week to achieve 5,000 likes. Several press agencies wanted an interview, and the Afghan Ministry for Refugees offered to cooperate with them. In the end, even a large Afghan banking institution offered to provide jobs to 20 young Afghans. Gulzad and his friends most certainly are not among those Afghans who are badly off. Gulzad himself is from an old merchant family that has good connections to the government. The others are all well-educated, he says. But what about those who lack good qualifications? What is to become of those in a country that doesn't even have anything to offer to the well-educated? "You don't have to have a lot of money to make a change," Gulzad says. He speaks of micro credits given to poor Afghan women. "Many of them have done wonderful things with them." Besides, this movement isn't about the poor who can't afford to flee the country. "We are aiming at the well-educated, like us, who want to leave, those people the country needs most." You could counter that there are still many people who fear for their lives, people whose mothers, fathers or brothers were executed by the Taliban. Gulzad says that he doesn't harbour any illusions regarding people's safety, and he himself has only narrowly escaped attacks. His own office has even come under fire. "But it cannot get any better if all of us leave," he says. Those who cannot stand to be in the countryside should come to the cities "and we will rebuild the country from there in." ...

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In The Name Of Peace, Kabul Artists Beautify War-Torn Walls

KABUL — Eyes are always described as a symbol of beauty in art and eastern literature, but the two eyes painted on a wall in Kabul's Share New neighborhood have literally beautified an ugly security wall. And in this case, eyes are used as a symbol of monitoring corruption. These "we are watching" eyes were created by the ArtLords, a group of young creatives who paint war-torn walls across the city of Kabul. "We have been facing cultural and social problems in Afghanistan, and art has never been used to solve disputes," says the group's leader Kabir Mokamel. "Instead force is used to solve the disputes and issues in Afghanistan. Art is soft power and a tool to use for peace in the country." Photo: ArtLords Facebook page Mokamel graduated with a fine arts degree in Australia and retuned to Afghanistan four years ago only to realize that the city had lost its beauty. He gathered some friends, and together they have painting walls since June. He says their message is clear: peace and clean government. "We want to show that violence is not a solution," Mokamel says. "Bloodshed should be quelled on earth and corruption should be stopped too in our country since it breeds other evils." The latest report from Transparency International ranks Afghanistan among the top three most corrupt countries in the world. Another ArtLords member, Omar Shafiri, believes that art speaks a thousand words. "I prefer to use arts, music and dance since these attract young people," Shafiri says. "We use what they're most interested in to convey our message. And a lot of young people want to join us now." High school student Nasir Kakar passes the walls every day. "The ArtLords group has taken away the ugliness of the walls with the strokes of their brushes," he says, adding that bought cold drinks for them once. Photo: ArtLords Facebook page As a self-funded group, ArtLords hopes to highlight social issues with its public graffiti. Its latest project is called "the heroes of my city: the street sweepers." "Heroes in Afghanistan are always considered those who have weapons and arms," Mokamel says. "We want to change the concept of a hero in our country and want to portray sweepers as heroes who clean the city daily." Mokamel also wants to invite Pakistani artists to paint the walls here. After a recent bombing in Kabul, in which Pakistanis were blamed for the incident, things have been tense between the two countries. Mokamel believes his project could be the perfect antidote. "We want to bridge the Afghan and Pakistani communities and bring them close to each other," he says. "Art doesn't have boundaries, while politics divides us. People should exchange ideas, and art has the power to do it." ...

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U.S. Accuses Russia, Palestinian Flag At UN, Bad Beijing Buzz

U.S. SAYS RUSSIA TARGETING REBELS, NOT ISIS Russia’s intervention in Syria has elicited anger from U.S. officials who are accusing Moscow of aiming at the region’s Western-backed rebels — not ISIS fighters, as the country claims. The New York Times reports that Russia’s participation in the civil war is an effort to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to support. Moscow launched a series of airstrikes yesterday against what it said were Islamist positions inside Syria. According to Lebanon's al-Mayadeen TV, quoted by BBC News, there was a series of new strikes today, targeting rebel positions in the northwest held by an alliance known as the Army of Conquest. Read more about it in our Le Blog. AFGHAN CITY STILL CONTESTED [Photo: Sardar/Xinhua/ZUMA] The situation in Afghanistan’s city of Kunduz, which the Taliban captured three days ago from the government’s military, is still unclear this morning, with both sides claiming to control key areas. Afghan troops claimed today that they had regained control of the city center after fierce clashes with Taliban militants, Reuters reports. According to Al Jazeera, Taliban fighters retook some areas they lost overnight, leading to heavy fighting this morning. “They [Taliban] said they had left the center of the city because of heavy bombardment by NATO forces, and now they are trying to get it back,” Al Jazeera reporter Qais Azimy said. The operation launched overnight saw government forces inflict heavy casualties on Taliban fighters, the BBC reports. An army victory would be significant for the government 10 months after the NATO coalition withdrew from the country. PALESTINIAN FLAG RAISED AT UN FOR FIRST TIME Though the Israel-Palestine conflict was overshadowed by the Syrian war during this year’s UN General Assembly, it was on the agenda yesterday in New York. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said during an address that Palestinians would “no longer continue to be bound” by the Oslo Accords, the peace process signed by Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993 and 1995, unless they receive “international protection” from Israel, The Guardian reports. “The status quo cannot continue,” Abbas told the Israeli delegation, led by ambassador Ron Prosor. “It is no longer useful to waste time in negotiations for the sake of negotiations. What is required is to mobilize international efforts to oversee an end to the occupation in line with the resolutions of international legitimacy.”. The Israeli delegation has yet to react, according to Le Monde. Following the address, the Palestinian flag was hoisted for the first time at the UN headquarters, Al Jazeera reports. This decision had been approved Sept. 10 by 119 UN members. The U.S. and Israel, which were among the eight votes against the motion, strongly criticized the move. VERBATIM “I am putting the people on notice that are coming here from Syria as part of this mass migration, that if I win, if I win, they are going back,” Donald Trump said during a rally in New Hampshire yesterday, the latest lunacy from the Republican presidential candidate. LIMITING THE UN VETO IN GENOCIDE CASES During the UN General Assembly in New York yesterday, dozens of countries signed a French proposal for the UN Security Council’s five permanent members to renounce using their veto in cases of mass atrocities and genocide, daily Ouest-France reports. At least 75 of the 193 UN members have so far approved the motion, but more nations are expected to join. But the four other permanent members — the U.S., China, Great Britain and Russia — did not sign it. The aim is to prevent the Security Council from being paralyzed during massacres such as Syria’s. WORLDCRUNCH-TO-GO The pharmaceutical industry looks to identify new diseases so it can push new drugs on the market, and patients play along. The approval of reduced female libido as a pathology is a case in point, Wiebke Hollersen writes for Die Welt. “These days, not wanting to have sex can be cured. There’s a pill for that, and it has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But this certainly is no proof that a woman not having anymore sexual desire towards her partner has anything to do with a pathological disturbance. Critics say a woman’s lagging libido is the latest in a number of ‘made-up diseases.’ The pharmaceutical industry, eager to open up new markets, is fond of declaring new official illnesses for typical life difficulties.” Read the full article, Big Pharma, Low Libido And The Rise Of Disease Mongering. PAKISTAN KILLS 25 TALIBAN MILITANTS Pakistani forces killed 25 suspected Taliban militants in airstrikes today near the border with Afghanistan, Reuters quoted the Pakistani army as saying. This is part of an offensive launched last year by the country’s authorities against Pakistani Taliban militants in lawless border regions, particularly in North Waziristan. ON THIS DAY Dame Julie Andrews of Mary Poppins and Sound of Music fame turns a youthful, dewy-skinned 80 years old today. That and more in today’s shot of history. DID THE CASTROS HELP ESCOBAR? The top gunman for the late drug kingpin Pablo Escobar claims in a new interview that Fidel and Raul Castro, as well as Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, were involved in the cocaine trafficking business. Read details from Worldcrunch following a report in Argentine daily Clarin. MY GRAND-PÈRE’S WORLD CLIMATE CHANGE MAY THREATEN ENERGY SYSTEMS The effects of global warming, such as severe floods, strong storms and rising sea levels, could constitute a serious threat to the world’s energy systems, including fossil fuel power stations and distribution grids, a report from the World Energy Council (WEC) suggests. This means our water, transport and health infrastructures, which are all interconnected in developed and developing cities, could collapse in extreme weather, leading to catastrophic humanitarian situations. “We are on a path where today’s unlikely events will be tomorrow’s reality,” WEC Secretary General Christoph Frei warned. “We need to imagine the unlikely. Traditional systems, based on predicted events, no longer operate in isolation.” BAD BUZZ FOR BEIJING A communist party theme park honoring the foundation of the People’s Republic of China opened this week in Wuhan. Visitors can learn about “the glorious history of the CCP and the values that all good communists seek to uphold.” The park is full of “cartoon statues commemorating important figures” from the party’s history, but also athletes and astronauts. Predictably, Chinese Internet users took to ridiculing the place, calling it “brainwashing” and a “waste of taxpayer money.” ...

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Why Afghans Don’t Go To The Movies

KABUL — Here at Cinema Pamer in the Afghan capital, an Indian movie is showing on the big screen. There are 600 seats inside, but the cinema is mostly empty, with only some 150 people watching the film. One of them is Said Agha, a soldier from the Afghanistan army who spoke before taking his seat. "I'm on leave," he says. "I came here to watch an interesting movie. But I wish they played more Afghan movies because we also have good films." Pamer is one of the five remaining cinemas in Kabul, a city of six million people. Cinema Pamer manager Said Khalid says it's a challenging time for movie theaters to survive in Kabul. "Not many people are interested in going to cinemas anymore," he says. It's a far cry from the cinematic glory days of the 1960s, after then-King Zahir started a state-run production house that also led to many other film studios mushrooming across the country. By most estimates, Afghanistan once had some 45 cinema companies, showing 60 films three times a day. Atiq Allah, 57, fondly remembers those days. "Cinemas were open until midnight. Families went to cinemas and people of all ages loved watching movies," he says. "When I went to the cinema, I would have to rush to buy tickets. Some [scalpers] would be able to sell tickets at up to 13 times the original price." But civil war changed everything, and ultimately under the Taliban regime, films were deemed un-Islamic. Film studios were demolished and movie theatres were turned into rubble. But even after the fall of Taliban, the film industry is still struggling to regain popularity. Said Khalid says movie producers are now facing new challenges. "We now have cable broadcasters, mobile phones, DVD players and more and more TV channels," he says. "People can watch movies anywhere they want. This is why we have less of an audience. We only have 200 people in the audience each day." Farar Is Marg (Escape From Death) And many younger Afghans, such as university student Muhammad Bashir, prefer to watch movies elsewhere. "Many people misuse the cinema and disturb others," he says. He notes that people often smoke, talk on their phones, and even clap and whistle at songs and action scenes. Afghan author and historian Habib Allah Rafi explains why he thinks the audience responds in this way. "The war has made people more familiar with violent actions," he says. "Movie theaters are also showing violent movies without proper attention from the government. People are becoming more impolite while watching movies inside the theater." Khalid hopes the Afghan movie industry can return to its past glory. "It's not even about us getting income from the movies," he says. "We just want cinemas to become popular again so that people can enjoy movie theaters and it can be a learning place for the public. Going to the cinema should be seen as a positive experience for people." ...

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The Ordeal Of Afghans Deported By Iran

ISLAM QALA — It’s almost midday when, under a blazing sun, the first bus transporting Afghans expelled from Iran arrives. At the border crossing of Islam Qala, in western Afghanistan and 460 miles from the capital Kabul, two metal sentry boxes are built opposite one another. Over one flaps the Iranian flag, on the other the Afghan one. A few dozen yards from there, the portrait of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and that of its founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, are drawn next to each other on a large billboard. The two Shia dignitaries welcome travelers who leave Afghanistan for Iran. ​Ghadir, 14, is the oldest of eight children in his Afghan family. His face is tanned by the sun. His hands are already calloused from the hundreds of hours he spent on construction sites. Four days ago, he was arrested while working in Qamsar, in central Iran, as police officers sought to check his residence permit. “I’m an illegal immigrant,” he says. “A month earlier, I’d paid $400 to a smuggler who got me into Iran. Where I lived in Afghanistan, in Ghor, I couldn’t find any work.” The Iranian officers sent Ghadir back home as soon as they caught him. “Look at me! I’ve still got my working shoes and clothes on,” he says, pointing to his mud-covered sneakers and his shalwar kameez — the traditional Afghan tunic — with holes. By the busload Since early 2015, Iranian authorities have arrested some 20,000 Afghans every month, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In Islam Qala, between 30 and 45 buses arrive every day, except on Fridays, the weekly holy day in Iran as well as in Afghanistan. As an underage worker, Ghadir falls in the so-called “vulnerable” category. As such he was taken care of by the IOM as soon as he reached Islam Qala. He will be sent to the IOM transit camp in Herat where he will stay for the night, along with other unaccompanied minors, before departing for his hometown. Humanitarian aid for these categories of people has been extremely reduced at the Iranian border and in Herat’s transit camp. But it hasn't vanished. Instead it's been displaced — to deal with deportees from Pakistan. Since the school massacre in Peshawar, Pakistan, in December 2014, Pakistani authorities have multiplied the deportations of Afghans. “In the first quarter of 2015, deportations from Pakistan were up 250% compared to the previous year,” says Matthew Graydon, public information officer at the IOM. “This new situation made us turn our focus away from the Iranian border and we’ve been forced to cut the budget for Islam Qala.” No exceptions IOM workers used to locate the minors’ families and always had a social worker accompanying the children home. Now, the organization pays just for the transport, not knowing where these young Afghans will end up. Things are even more complicated now that it's summer, when Iran tends to step up its deportation efforts. Pakistan only deports adult men. But Iranian authorities make no exceptions. Ghadir, for example, is by no means the only minor to have expelled from the country. Iran even deports underage girls, whether they’re alone or not, or whether their parents have been located or not. “In 2010, we took in a 10-year-old girl who was deported from Iran on her own,” says Maryam Soltani, an assistant in the IOM’s Herat transit camp. “She didn’t know her parents’ address in Iran, nor that of her family back in Afghanistan. She’s been staying at a shelter for women here in Herat ever since.” Revolving door Even though some of those deported say they won’t go back to Iran, many believe they’ll try their luck again in the future. “Unemployed people in Afghanistan know they’ll find a job there, despite the mistreatments they must endure,” an IOM worker explains. There are an estimated 3 to 4 million Afghans living in Iran, the vast majority of them undocumented. The few jobs available to them tend to be both difficult, such as garbage collection. Abidullah, 28, was arrested while he was taking his family from the central Iranian city of Isfahan, where he was working as an undocumented farmer, to Shiraz, more to the south. He doesn’t rule out going back to Iran. The prospect of having to pay a hefty amount of money to a smuggler doesn’t scare him. “From here, I’ll go home to Kunduz,” he says. “But if I don’t find a job there, I’ll certainly go back to Iran.” ...

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In Afghanistan, A Rush To Recruit Before NATO Withdraws

KUNDUZ — The Taliban's annual spring offensive is underway and focused right now around the besieged city of Kunduz. Some German units are on their way to join the fight in support of Afghan forces. "The order was given last night," says Colonel Wolfgang Köhler, a leader with the NATO Northern Command Mission in Afghanistan. Köhler and other officers here at Camp Shaheen, where the Afghan National Army operates, are trying to make sense of the offensive. The Taliban's focus on Kunduz is an unpredictable choice, implying perhaps a change of strategy since northern Afghanistan has always been among the districts least affected by Mullah Omar’s guerrillas. All this is happening just a few months after NATO began "Resolute Support Mission" (RSM), whereby it will swap its "offensive" role for a "train-advise-assist" one. The alliance also plans to drastically cut back its forces, from more than 100,000 to about 12,000. NATO's goal, in a nutshell, is to train Afghanistan's security forces to defend themselves against the Taliban, which has been battling against the state for 13 years — basically since the U.S.-led invasion of the country following the 9/11 terror attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. Camp Shaheen, near the borders with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, is one of the training centers for the Afghan army, national police and local police. The plan, as its stands now, is for those forces to go it alone starting at the end of 2016. We are hosted here by NATO troops, who take us on helicopter and airplane sojourns over the Afghan highlands and the snowy peaks that separate the area from the rest of the country. Camp Shaheen is situated near an old Soviet base and not far from a location used until recently by the CIA. Training takes place in different facilities, including the Regional Corps Battle School, a kind of military institution where participants learn the "art of war." The program consists of three weeks of lectures and six weeks of physical work in a training camp located behind a Soviet Panzer graveyard.  Colonel Ahmad Ullah Miakhil, the school commander, says recruitment is up. "The number of people joining the camps hasn't decreased," he says. "On the contrary, the recent actions of the Taliban have triggered patriotism. If the Department of Defense gives us the green light, we are ready to recruit women too."  Rising casualty numbers But the NATO mission's unofficial 2016 deadline does create some uncertainty. "We hope to receive assistance for as long as possible," the colonel says. Recruitment may be up, but so too are the number Afghan security forces being killed and wounded — by 70% compared to last year. Local police are particularly vulnerable. "The national police are well equipped and improving in terms of skills," says Interior Minister Noorulhaq Ulumi. "But the local policemen are not trained and there are also problems concerning tactical expertise and discipline. We need to improve this." In Herat, meanwhile, Italy's NATO contingent remains engaged while it awaits orders to reduce and eventually withdraw. "The Italian soldiers have gained familiarity and experience. They have been carrying out training activities and given assistance to the Afghan people since the beginning of the operations," says Gen. Paolo Ruggiero, chief of staff of RSM. "How long will the Italian contingent be engaged?" asks General John Francis Campbell, supreme head of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, adding that he has asked Italy to maintain the current commitment for the whole season of the fighting, which means at least until October. "After that we'll begin a reduction of both the contingent size and the number of activities," he says. "In case there are not any significant changes, we will finalize the withdrawal of the troops by the beginning of next year." ...

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No More Big Fat Afghan Weddings

KABUL — Big weddings, music and dancing were banned in Afghanistan under the Taliban. So after the U.S.-led invasion toppled the regime in 2001, Afghans who could afford it began throwing large, loud and expensive weddings. But the government says the tradition has become a burden for grooms' families, who are obliged to underwrite wedding costs, and the parliament has passed a law to makes lavish and expensive weddings illegal. The new law limits the number of wedding guests to 500 and caps the per-head cost at around $7. "This law will solve huge problems facing young people that make up the majority of our people," explains Muhammad Abdu, a member of the Afghanistan Congress who supported the law. "We will need to work in partnership with the public and the media to make sure this law is implemented." Owners of big hotels and wedding halls had been intensely lobbying lawmakers not to pass the legislation before parliament ultimately supported it. It doesn't officially become law until President Muhammad Ashraf Ghani signs it. Its passage comes as a disappointment to 23-year-old university student Zahra Nijati, who has been engaged for a year and was looking forward to a big wedding. "No one will respect this new law," she says. "It should be a personal decision how much you spend on your wedding. If you have the money, then you should be free to spend it on your wedding. If you don’t have money, then have a simple party."  Her future husband, 28-year-old Muhammad Nazar, might need some convincing. He has been saving up by working in Toronto, Canada, and has returned to Kabul to prepare for the wedding. For him, the law capping wedding costs comes as a relief. "I want to have a simple wedding party in line with Islamic teachings," he says. Instead of spending money on the wedding, he wants to take a trip. "And that's my final decision," he tells his future wife. Hotel hardship In Afghanistan, grooms or their families pay for weddings in addition to giving the father of the bride a walwar, or a reverse dowry. Ahmad Naweed, a 37-year-old who works as designer in a printing center, says he can't afford to get married. "I tried to get married once," he says. "My family and I approached a girl, but her family gave me a long list of things I had to pay for. And they wanted a very expensive wedding, which we rejected." Under the new law, hotel owners could face punishment if they host events that exceed the new limits. Under article 4 of the legislation, weddings are allowed to be held in hotels and rented halls but not other festivities. Events such as engagement parties, birthdays, the naming of a newborn children and graduations are to be held at home.  Hotel Mumtaz Mahal is one of the most popular places for wealthier Afghans to get married. Hundreds of guests are normally invited to events here with women and men separated by high wooden walls. The men dance while the women talk. The groom and his family typically cover all the bills, including the food, band, dresses for the bride and decorations for the couple's throne-like chairs. Muhammad Afzal Akbari, who runs two popular wedding halls in Kabul, says the law is a disaster. "If this law is implemented, then it will be like closing the doors on all the wedding halls," he says. "We can't control how much a families want to spend on their wedding. Every person and family has their own culture and way of celebrating, and they should be able to do that in a flamboyant way if they want to." ...

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When Afghan Police Start Using Taliban-Style Harassment

HERAT — A few days ago, Soodabah, 25, was shopping with her fiancé in Herat when she was suddenly stopped by a group of police officers.They asked them who they were and how they were related. "We told them that we're engaged. They asked to see proof. They demanded that we show our ID cards and they called our family to check we were engaged," she recalls. "Eventually they let us go. But this kind of situation and behavior is against our social rights. Now relatives can't even take a walk together!"Other couples haven't been let go. Last year, hundreds of couples were stopped on the streets, arrested and charged with adultery. Abdul Qadir Rahimi, from the local branch of Afghanistan's independent human rights commission, says they are getting many complaints. Walking in Herat — Photo: Marius Arnesen "We have reports about police arresting adults while they were shopping or walking with family members of the opposite sex," Rahimi says. "We believe this is against human rights and Afghanistan law. We are concerned about police authorities abusing their power."  Media conspiracy? Accordig to local media, officers sometimes demand bribes from couples who don't want their parents to find out they were together. Abdul Raouf Ahmadi, spokesman for the Herat Police Chief, says that those who break the law will be punished. "Maybe in the past some of our police officers have misused their authority for their own benefit. I admit that — but now we are closely watching it," Ahmadi says. "This is more a conspiracy by some media groups against the police."But many young people I spoke with on the streets of Herat say they are worried they may become potential targets for arbitrary police actions. They say the situation reminds them of when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan and women were forbidden to leave home unless accompanied by a male family member.Bi Bi Somaya, a 22-year-old university student, was stopped on the street as she was walking with her brother. "We told the police officer we were siblings, but he told us: 'How can I know you're telling the truth?' This is the kind of behavior that makes people turn against the police," she says. ...

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As NATO Leaves Afghanistan, Will China Be New 'Godfather'?

KABUL — A new geopolitical map is insidiously emerging around Afghanistan. With the withdrawal of most of the NATO troops in late December, marking the end of the 13-year-long post 9/11 war, the new chessboard of influence is taking shape. And new players are stepping forward. China, above all, is inexorably making its way into the picture. Officials and experts in Kabul have begun to ask whether Beijing is bound to replace Washington as foreign godfather of a still dependent Afghanistan. Although it has recovered — in theory at least — its military sovereignty, Afghanistan still clearly does not have the financial means to sustain itself. The withdrawal of NATO and of the Americans comes after a presidential election that brought a new man to power in Kabul in September: Ashraf Ghani, who has a clear vision of the ongoing transformation. He sees in China a potential to cement peace in Afghanistan, partly because Beijing has the means to put pressure on Pakistan, where the refuges of the insurgent Taliban are centered. As an example of this new era, two Taliban leaders exiled in Qatar are said to have visited China in November, the Pakistani daily The News reported on Jan. 2. According to Aimal Faizi, the spokesperson of former President Hamid Karzai, quoted by the Afghan press agency Pajhwok, this visit was reportedly “arranged by the Pakistani secret services.” Until now, the Beijing regime played a fairly low-profile role in Afghanistan. It approved the post 9/11 Western intervention that aimed to overthrow the Taliban, with which anti-Chinese militants had found refuge alongside the other branches of the international jihadi network of that time. Exposed to threats of some Muslim Uyghur separatists, in the Xinjiang province, China has always displayed an extreme nervousness regarding any agitation along its central Asian borders. Nothing that troubles Kabul leaves Beijing indifferent, as the two countries share a 200 kilometer-long border. Chinese companies make their move Still, China has carefully refrained from any military presence in Afghanistan, leaving the burden to the Americans and their NATO allies. In this way, it spared itself the resentment of Afghan opinion towards the foreign occupation over the years. Instead, China's entry into Afghanistan has taken a more economic road, with many of its public companies moving in. In 2007, Beijing won the Mes Aynak copper mine exploitation contract in the Logar province, south of Kabul, the first sign of its strategic intention to control a part of Afghanistan's mineral wealth. Archaeologists at the Mes Aynak copper mine — Photo: Jerome Starkey With the withdrawal of NATO, has the time come to move onto a much more political stage? Through two diplomatic forums — the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Heart of Asia group — the Chinese seemed these past two years more interested in helping to promote stability in Afghanistan. “As long as the Americans were fighting in Afghanistan, the insecurity in the country did not necessarily displease China,” a NATO diplomat points out. “Beijing does not want large and permanent American bases in Afghanistan, anywhere near its border. But now that the Americans are disengaging, the Chinese are discovering the virtues of stability.” Unfortunate signals The Chinese economic establishment also goes in this direction. “With its acquisition of shares in copper and hydrocarbons, China is now forced to be concerned about the stability of Afghanistan,” notes Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a former member of the Taliban who joined the High Peace Council (HPC) in Kabul. Those close to President Ghani hope Beijing will use its historic influence over Pakistan in order to drive it towards a more positive attitude regarding Afghanistan. Karzai had vainly attempted to convince Islamabad to put pressure on the Taliban leaders — in Pakistan — to engage in peace talks with Kabul. But his successor is taking the offensive again by playing the Chinese card more openly, expressly asking Beijing to use its weight to force the cooperation of a reluctant Pakistan. There is in Kabul a sort of "Chinese hope" floating in these times of transition. Yet some wonder if the Afghans are not overestimating the concern Beijing has towards their future? At the Mes Aynak copper mine, work has still not begun, seven years after the contract was signed. Worse still, the Chinese company is looking to renegotiate this same contract in order to free itself from a whole set of commitments to which it initially agreed. Some worry that the Chinese will be satisfied to have frozen the mine over which they have the rights for 30 years. “They are doing here what they are doing in Africa,” says Javed Noorani, an independent researcher. As for China's leverage and intentions over the peace process, it is still far too early to assess Beijing’s role. China has, of course, reasons to sympathize with Kabul’s cause, itself victim of the jihadist sanctuaries in the Pakistani North Waziristan region that, for a long time, received Uyghur fighters It is also in China's interest to get more involved in the stabilization of Afghanistan, but it will not do so at the expense of its good strategic relations with Pakistan. The historical alliance between China and Pakistan, based on their common interest to weaken India, is too important to be sacrificed for the sole sake of Afghanistan....

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