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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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Afghanistan Opium Harvest Hits Record High

KABUL — Afghanistan's cultivation of opium poppies has hit a record high in 2014, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Its Afghan Opium Survey 2014 reports that the area under poppy cultivation has expanded by 7%, now covering 553,000 acres (224,000 hectares). Such a rise is likely to embarrass aid donors who have invested millions of dollars in counter-narcotics efforts, as the report reveals that the eradication of opium in the country has decreased by 63%. Read more from Reuters here. Photo: davric/Worldcrunch...

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Afghanistan Is Falling In Love With Cricket

The morning practice session is underway in the Kabul cricket stadium. Mohibullah Orya Khail joined the national squad just couple of months ago. "I am happy and proud to have made it to the national squad at the age of 19," he says. Dreaming of playing for his country, he travels hundreds of miles to come and train in the capital city. As Cricket Board spokesman Farid Hotak points out, the stadium's facilities have dramatically improved. "A decade ago there were just tents in the open ground here, now we have an indoor academy, a nice hostel for the players with all sorts of facilities, and an international standard cricket ground which has the capacity to entertain thousands of people." In neighboring Pakistan and India the game is almost like a religion but here in Afghanistan it's only a decade old. It was brought to the country by Afghan refugees when they returned home from Pakistan. Chief Executive of Afghanistan Cricket Noor Muhamamd Murrad says that cricket fits with the conservative culture here. "Afghanistan is an Islamic country and the dress-code of this game allows parents to let their sons and daughters to go out and play it." But like most sectors of Afghan life, the development of cricket has been possible thanks to foreign aid.   The politics of the sport The Indian government recently gave one million dollars to build a stadium in the war-torn province of Kandahar near the Pakistani border. Indian aid in Afghanistan is a highly sensitive, and Pakistan is concerned about growing Indian influence near the western border it shares with Afghanistan. Ahmad Mehboob, head of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, notes that "India is playing a very important role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. This reconstruction means having more influence, more contacts with the government and people and this is something that makes the Pakistani government, establishment and their spy agencies all very nervous." Presidential advisor to the Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Shahzada Raees downplays these concerns, saying the country welcomes financial support from all of its neighbors. "India has given us aid to build a cricket stadium, we hope that Pakistan and Iran will also give similar aid to us," he says. "We hope that they can put aside their hostilities and create positive competition through sport." For young cricket hopefuls like Orya Khail it’s not important where the money comes from. "Obviously there is a need for more cricket grounds and academies so that we can hunt more talent for the national squad." The national team is focusing on preparing a tough squad to take part in the Cricket World Cup that will be held in Australia next year.  An impressive performance there would really make the locals fans cheer. ...

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The Cost Of Aghanistan's Electoral Fiasco

KABUL — Afghanistan's finance minister Omar Zakhilwal says the country's ongoing deadlock over the presidential election has already cost the economy an estimated $5 billion. The vote took place in April and the final result was expected on July 22 — but because of widespread accusations of fraud, neither Abdullah Abdullah nor Ashraf Ghani, the two candidates that made it to the second round, was declared the winner. The two contenders have each claimed victory but have so far failed to reach a deal on a government of national unity. In an interview with the BBC, Zakhilval said he would have to cut salaries and lay off government workers if the crisis was not resolved by the end of the month. Meanwhile, foreign investment is at a standstill and government revenues have fallen sharply. Read more from the BBC here. Photo: Ahmad Massoud/Xinhua/ZUMA...

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