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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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In Afghanistan, The Bravery To Be A Waitress

KABUL — It took me eight days to convince 37-year-old Gul Rukh to let me conduct this interview. The Afghanistan woman living in Kabul feared talking openly about her waitress job at the Mumtaz Mahal Wedding Hall. "I earn $200 a month at the hotel," she says. "I am very happy doing my job, but I am treated very badly by society, my relatives and neighbors for doing it. They scoff at me and believe working as a hotel waitress is not a good job for a woman. But when my husband became disabled, I had to find work to pay for my children's education. This job is the best option." She says taking orders and serving people their food is much easier than working on a farm or in a factory. The Mumtaz Mahal Wedding Hall is one of the most popular entertainment and hotel venues among the rich and even some middle-class families in Kabul. Rukhshana, a mother of five children, also works here. "I have washed clothes before and worked with livestock, but this is the best job. I came to Kabul so that my children can get a good education, and working at this hotel is a good job.” Mumtaz Mahal manager Obaid Allah Nayab says that having female waitresses — there are 11 at the banquet hall and hotel — is good for business because the venue also hosts women-only parties in addition to weddings in which the clients don't want male staff. "I am very happy having waitresses working in our hotel," he says. "The only problem is conservative groups in our society. Otherwise, there is no problem with women working.” Laila Haidery, manager of the restaurant and party site Taj Begum, also employs women as waitresses. In fact, she has been attacked twice by unknown men. "There are people who are against women working, especially when they see successful women like me," she says. "I have nearly been killed twice. The first time was when I was getting into a taxi and two men tried to choke me. I fought back, but they beat me a lot. The second time, some men came to my home and tried to kill me, but I fired at them and they escaped." Despite the dangers, she is commited to her work and is making good money. Akram Yawari, who recently returned to Kabul after studying in India, says he is happy to see Afghan women working in what are traditionally male jobs in this country. "I think these women working in hotels can inspire others," Yawari says. "This is my first time in this hotel, but I think it's good for families and for women who want to eat outside the house."...

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