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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....


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...


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. ...


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...


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."...


Women Boxers Fight Prejudices In Afghanistan

KABUL — Boxing is Shigofa Haidari’s passion. But in Afghanistan, that means practicing three days a week in Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium, where the Taliban used to organize public executions. Haidari is wearing a light headscarf today. An injury prevents her from training, but she is happy to watch her friends go through all the basic boxing moves. The women are skipping, trotting slowly in single file between the punching bags, and sparring in the ring. Yes, women’s boxing has officially gained recognition in Afghanistan a decade after the fundamentalist Taliban militia reigned over Kabul, where they forbade sport altogether as a threat that could turn humans away from God. Of course, they also banned women from leaving home unless they were covered from head to toe. Even their eyes had to be hidden behind a full burqa. The symbolism of women boxing in Ghazi Stadium, where the ultimate punishment was meted out for those who disobeyed the Taliban’s fundamentalist edicts, is highly significant.Boxing training in a club in Kabul — Photo: Ahmad Massoud/Zuma Breaking taboos Since Western countries arrived in Afghanistan, the promotion of sports has won some battles, but not yet the war against certain traditions. A fierce opposition still exists against certain disciplines, among which most certainly is women’s boxing, which aims to break the most deeply anchored taboo of Afghan society. “We agree women can become doctors, economists or mathematicians, but not athletes,” says a former Taliban leader. He insists that when a woman practices a sport such as boxing, she commits numerous sins, including the wearing of inappropriate dress, making a spectacle of herself in front of men, and traveling without a male family member as an escort. Mir Zarif Jallal, head of international relations at the Afghan Olympic National Comittee, explains that many still believe that physical activities linked to sport can damage a woman’s hymen. “The woman’s virginity and the signs used to prove it have a crucial significance in this country,” he says. “It constitutes one of the main reasons for the opposition to women’s boxing and other disciplines like it.”...


On Eve Of Afghan Election, Prisoners And Families In Crossfire

KANDAHAR — The young man’s voice comes crackling through, sounding as if it’s so far away that it’s another era entirely. Bent over an old telephone fitted in a box, an old woman wrapped all in black listens hard and asks questions, in between her sobs. The whole family is gathered around the woman: her two sons, her brother, a nephew and a cousin. They are all crammed in the tiny wooden booth installed by the International Committee of the Red Cross at its headquarters in Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan and the Taliban’s spiritual home.  The young man whose echo was scrambled across the telephone line is named Zakaria. He is being detained more than 500 kilometers away, in the infamous prison of Bagram, the location of a U.S. military base north of Kabul. He was arrested during the summer of 2013 in his home village of Qala Shamir, in one of the most violent districts near Kandahar. “He was sleeping peacefully at home when they arrived and arrested him in the middle of the night,” recalls Abdul Malik, a cousin who accompanied the rest of his family for the phone call organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Amid daily violence, Afghanistan prepares to vote for a new president Saturday, and the issue of prisoners like Zakaria continues to be a thorn in the side of the relationship between outgoing President Hamid Karzai and the United States. The longstanding Afghan leader has been making a point of denouncing night raids by American troops, part of his strategy to win back support from a public that has never accepted the arbitrary aspect of many arrests or the number of civilians killed and injured during those operations. A terrible mistake Since the U.S. ceded control of the Bagram detention center to the Afghan authorities in March 2013, Karzai has ordered the release of 120 prisoners over the objections of Washington. The Americans believe that among those freed are fighters responsible for attacks against NATO troops. U.S. soldiers at Bagram military base — Photo: United States Navy But for the Kandahar families gathered at the Red Cross headquarters, the wait continues. In the small courtyard facing the telephone booths, the organization erected a tent of light blue canvas. Some 40 people have been waiting inside since the break of dawn, just to be able to talk for a bit with their loved ones who are imprisoned on the other end of the country. This is the fourth time in eight months that Zakaria’s family has traveled from Qala Shamir to Kandahar to call him. Abdul Malik is very talkative. His face covered in a white beard and his hair covered by a black turban, the owner of the village grocery is convinced his cousin is innocent. “Zakaria is not a Taliban. He was arrested by mistake,” he says. On the night of the raid, it was so warm that Malik was sleeping outside in his courtyard, and is sure there were no fights during the lightning-fast operation. Out of the five arrested that night, Zakaria is the only one who remains in custody. Whenever they call, Zakaria asks his family to send him books, and says he is not ill-treated. But whether that’s the truth or simply an act of discretion in the event he is being monitored is unclear. The conversations usually avoid sensitive topics. Many families choose not to give their sons bad news, such as the death of a relative, so as not to disturb them further. The old woman in black is now weeping, after having just hung up the phone. Already, another family is slipping into the small wooden booth, and the Zakarias will be on their way back to Qala Shamir, where war still looms. There, between the Afghan soldiers posted at the entry of the village and the Taliban hidden nearby, the population is in the proverbial crossfire. “When fights break out, we’re stuck between the two sides,” Malik says. Thirteen years after they were installed, the telephone booths at the International Committee of the Red Cross still represent a precious chord of humanity in the horror of the Afghanistan war. ...

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