In rare victory for Afghanistan, cricket team qualifies for ICC World Twenty20

Christian Science Monitor

Afghanistan’s cricket team, the ultimate underdog, is competing with the world’s best at the ICC World Twenty20 opening today in Guyana. Afghanistan faces heavyweight India on Saturday.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

Two years ago, Tim Albone began shooting a documentary about what seemed like a charmingly hopeless cause: the Afghan cricket team’s attempt to qualify for the cricket World Cup.

No matter that the best cricket facilities in war-torn Afghanistan were barely on a par with the baked earth strips where most of the players had learned the sport in Pakistani refugee camps.

They still haven’t made it to the World Cup, but the underdog team is lining up with the world’s best at another major international championship: the ICC World Twenty20 in Guyana. The 12-nation tournament opens today, with Afghanistan facing off against heavyweight India on Saturday. The story represents a stark contrast from much of the grim news out of Afghanistan. Read the rest of this entry »


Afghanistan war: Taliban escalates violence with Kandahar blasts

Christian Science Monitor

The Taliban appear to be making good on a promise to escalate violence in Kandahar, where NATO is planning to launch what it sees as the next major offensive of the Afghanistan war.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

Three explosions rocked Kandahar on Monday morning as the city slid deeper into violence. The southern Afghan city is where NATO is planning to launch what it sees as the next major offensive of the Afghanistan war.

The blasts, two of which apparently targeted Kandahar’s deputy police chief, killed two civilians and prompted the United Nations to say it was scaling back operations there. The aid community already has a far lighter footprint there than in other parts of Afghanistan.

Residents sound increasingly fatalistic about their prospects this summer, with the Taliban apparently making good on a promise to escalate violence in the city in response to NATO’s plans to restore central government authority to a city that, in as much as it is controlled by anyone, is in the hands of a murky nexus of local powerbrokers and gangsters. Read the rest of this entry »


Julius Cavendish: Taliban and the mafia: a terrifying combination

The Independent

The faded prettiness of its old town used to belie the fact that Kandahar was a city gripped by fear. Unlike Kabul, the rising tide of violence was less frequently used as an excuse to smother the colonnades and tree-lined boulevards in reinforced concrete. That has changed now. Suicide bombers targeted the jail and police headquarters in February, leaving 35 dead and over 50 wounded. A Canadian photographer in the city on the night of that attack said that people were “genuinely scared. These men hear explosions every third or fourth day and they were shaken. The fear was really palpable that all hell was breaking loose and nothing was going to stop it.”

As a result, roads are now shut and the drab march of blast barriers has begun. It is just one sign that things are getting worse. Foreigners cannot walk down the street or stop in the bazaar to gauge the local climate. Meetings invariably take place in private rooms deep inside fortified compounds. Yet for some reason, Kandaharis continue to risk talking to journalists in the knowledge that what they say might get them killed.

“Yes, I’m scared,” Haji Mohammad Zahir, a villager who moved to Kandahar to work in construction, told The Independent. “When I was coming in I was scared because the insurgents are watching. Maybe some of them looked at me, and will call tonight asking why I am meeting with foreigners.” Read the rest of this entry »


Afghanistan war: US leaves remote outpost of Korengal

Christian Science Monitor

The remote Korengal Valley has been the scene of some the most intense fighting in the Afghanistan war. US troops have pulled out as part General McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

It became known as “Enemy Central,” a small, isolated slice of eastern Afghanistan synonymous with violence, a dogged adversary and, increasingly, futility. More than 40 US soldiers have died there after being drawn into battles of attrition for questionable return. In the worst such incident, 16 American troops on a special forces mission were killed when their helicopter crashed under enemy fire.

Now the last US troops have pulled out of the Korengal valley on the grounds that they can be better used somewhere else. “This repositioning, in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces, responds to the requirements of the new population-centric counterinsurgency strategy,” Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, joint commander of international forces in Afghanistan, said in a statement on NATO’s website. “The move does not prevent forces from rapidly responding, as necessary, to crises there in Korengal and in other parts of the region, as well.”

Part of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy is to pull troops back from remote mountain outposts and concentrate them in the towns and villages where more of the Afghan population lives. By putting the emphasis on protecting civilians instead of killing Taliban fighters, he hopes to drive a wedge between the two, isolating and alienating the insurgents. Read the rest of this entry »


In Afghanistan war, government corruption bigger threat than Taliban

Christian Science Monitor

Warlords and government corruption may destabilize the country even more than the Taliban, say Afghan and NATO officials. The city of Kandahar reflects this central problem of the Afghanistan war.

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN

Over the past month in Kandahar CityTaliban death squads have killed dozens of people in drive-by shootings. Yet many living in this southern Afghan city say the insurgents are the least of their worries. Far more pernicious is the murky nexus of warlords and corrupt government officials whose rule some compare to mob bosses.

Indeed, the fear and corruption they perpetuate undermine efforts to build a stable government and help the Taliban win support among locals, say Afghan and NATO officials, private citizens, analysts, and local journalists. The trend echoes a pattern from the 1990s, when violence among competing warlords gave rise to the Taliban and their brutal ways of imposing law and order.

The concern was repeated in more than a dozen recent interviews: The biggest problem is not the Taliban; it is the gangster oligarchs looming over the city. Read the rest of this entry »


Anyone for headless goat rugby…?

The Independent

Genghis Khan’s favourite sport is huge in Afghanistan, and if its fans have their way could soon be coming to Britain

A sport best described as “mounted goat rugby from hell” could soon be transported from northern Afghanistan’s dusty plains to the green turf of Twickenham, or even New York’s Yankee Stadium, if enthusiasts have their way. Buzkashi, a game supposedly devised by Genghis Khan, pits men and horses against each other in a ferocious struggle for possession of a headless goat. Now the director of buzkashi at Afghanistan’s Olympic committee thinks it is time to unleash this spectacle on the world.

Haji Abdul Rashid is looking for a Western partner to promote the sport overseas. “We want the people of Europe and America to see our game and learn to play it,” he said. “So we are looking for a company to help us show our game.”

Any impresario willing to underwrite a match would make a handsome return, Mr Rashid says. Ticket sales, corporate sponsorship and TV rights could generate enormous sums of money. Read the rest of this entry »


US military offers sheep in apology for Afghanistan deaths

Christian Science Monitor

Vice Adm. William McRaven traveled to the village of Khataba to offer personal apologies for the five Afghanistan deaths in a botched special forces raid there in February. The US military acknowledged its involvement in the killings earlier this month.

KHATABA, AFGHANISTAN

A top US Special Forces commander visited the village of Khataba in eastern Afghanistan today to apologize for a night raid that went terribly wrong. It was here on Feb. 11 that a Special Forces team gunned down an Afghan police chief, a prosecutor, and three unarmed women, infuriating locals and drawing a sharp rebuke from politicians in Kabul.

Flanked by dozens of Afghan soldiers, Vice Adm. William McRaven, head of Joint Special Operations Command, spent an hour at the scene of the killings. “I am the commander of the men who accidentally killed your loved ones,” Admiral McRaven told Haji Sharabuddin, the family patriarch. “I came here today to send my condolences to you and to your family and to your friends. I also came today to ask your forgiveness for these terrible tragedies.”

It was a remarkable turnabout for the US military, which for two months after the killings declined to say what units had been involved or otherwise take responsibility for the deaths. Afghan investigators have claimed that Special Forces tried to cover up their involvement in the Afghanistan deaths, though that’s a charge the US has denied. Read the rest of this entry »


Kandahar attacks are a warning to NATO, says Afghanistan Taliban

Christian Science Monitor

An Afghanistan Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for a series of coordinated Kandahar attacks Saturday, saying they were a warning to NATO, which will soon focus on securing Kandahar City and its approaches.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

The sudden explosive violence its inhabitants have learned to live with gripped Kandahar City in southern Afghanistan again Saturday as militants launched a series of coordinated attacks in an attempted jailbreak.

More than 35 people were killed and more than 50 wounded in five blasts as Afghanistan Taliban suicide bombers targeted the jail and police headquarters in the Kandahar attacks. Most of the casualties were civilians, including members of a wedding party celebrating near the police headquarters.

A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying they were intended as a warning toNATO, which has promised to focus on securing Kandahar City and its approaches this summer.

Following on the heels of Operation Moshtarak, which saw coalition and Afghan forces seize control of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in neighboring Helmand Province, NATO commanders say the focus of their counterinsurgency campaign will switch to Kandahar City and its approaches. Kandahar is the political, spiritual, and religious capital of the south.

Blast barriers prevent jailbreak

Had the Taliban’s attack gone to plan it would likely have boosted the insurgents’ ranks by freeing captive fighters. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s younger brother and chairman of Kandahar’s provincial council, says that blast barriers prevented the attackers from breaching the prison.

These were introduced following a similar attack in 2008 that saw around 1,000 prisoners escape. More than 400 militants were among them.

Taliban to focus on Kandahar City now?

Mr. Karzai predicted that the arrival of thousands of US troops in Kandahar Province would herald a shift in tactics by the insurgents, who would seek to undermine the government by launching more wholesale attacks within the city limits. “They organize this kind of attack in the city to show they are still around,” he told the Monitor. “They will definitely be focusing more on Kandahar City, that’s for sure.”

It’s for this reason that the provincial governor is calling on Kabul to bolster the police and Army presence inside the city, and to liaise better with NATO forces stationed in the districts.

Security in Kandahar has steadily deteriorated over the past few years as a murky nexus of warlords, criminal syndicates, and insurgents has vied for control. The number of bombings and assassinations has spiked in the past two weeks.


News of Simon Cowell Afghan fiancée: How does it play in Kabul?

Christian Science Monitor

Simon Cowell Afghan fiancée Mezghan Hussainy was a top talking point when the American Idol judge appeared on Jay Leno this week. Afghans are less enthralled.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

The middle-aged man with a face like Yoda’s can’t say he remembers Mezghan Hussainy, the Afghan refugee engaged to American Idol’s Simon Cowell.

Although their romance has filled gossip columns in the West, with Mr. Cowell talking about their relationship on Jay Leno‘s ‘The Tonight Show‘ this week and buzz about a possible wedding in September, there has been rather less of a stir in Afghanistan.

“There are many families called Hussainy,” Barat Ali says. “I don’t know which one she’s from.”

All his life, Mr. Ali has lived in a Shiite neighborhood in west Kabul, where men chip gravestones in the mountain sunlight, children hawk knick-knacks, and slums defy gravity on the ridges and pinnacles interrupting the city.

It’s here that Ms. Hussainy’s unlikely journey to showbiz stardom began, when she was born to a wealthy family in Kabul before fleeing Soviet invaders in 1981, first to Pakistan and then later to the United States.

Those who stayed behind saw the city of walled gardens and lofty poplars destroyed by a succession of foreign armies and appallingly brutal warlords.

When seven different factions vied for control of Kabul in the 1990s, the frontlines ran through here.

In Afghanistan, women ‘can’t get anywhere’

Mursal Yusufi, an 18-year-old woman who works in a beauty parlor, stops applying foundation to a bride to talk.

“If she was in Afghanistan, she would never have been able to make the progress,” she says. “I’m very surprised. Anyone in Afghanistan who does well, the people think she is the enemy of Afghanistan. We have got very intelligent, talented women in Afghanistan but they can’t get anywhere. No one allows them to.”

Further down the road, where the oranges of his fruit stall glare against the tattered jacket he is wearing, Kaka Hussain claims to remember the family Hussainy.

“There were many people who left,” he says. “I remember the sons – they were the same age as me. Maybe she was from the same family.”

Life was good back then,” he continues. “Their life was better than ours and ours was very good,” Mr. Hussain says. “Back then people cared about the country. In the time of the King [Zahir Shah, who reigned for 40 years], people thought to build their country. Not like now.”

Some interviewees sounded a sour note about Hussainy’s engagement. But most congratulated her on her newfound fame. “I am proud of her as long as she helps Afghanistan,” he says. “It doesn’t matter man or woman, they should do something for their country.”


Afghanistan war: NATO unfolds blueprint to rebuild Marjah

Christian Science Monitor

Western and Afghan officials have outlined ambitious plans for a new Marjah that include erecting new schools, reforming the police force, and upending the drug trade. Rebuilding Marjah and other towns is now seen as critical to NATO’s Afghanistan war strategy.

LASHKAR GAH, AFGHANISTAN

Long before Marjah was dragged from sleepy anonymity into one of NATO’s biggest offensives in its nine-year war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Western governance experts had begun drawing up the town’s future.

Down white-tiled corridors and behind code-locked doors on their base in Helmand Province, a handful of American and British officials planned for months how to turn this swath of irrigation ditches and mud compounds, ruled for two years by Taliban militants and crime syndicates, into a beacon of peace and prosperity.

This is the “build” part of the “clear, hold, build” strategy set out last year by the top NATO commander here, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

It could become a blueprint for winning the war – if it works.

It is here that the insurgency has raged most fiercely, costing NATO 408 lives and the local population many times more.

Kabul takes interest

Governance experiments in Afghanistan have failed before, but this one is different, the planners say, because more resources and thought are being put into it.

The apparent emergence of political will at the highest levels of the Afghan government, after years of neglecting to support their provincial and district counterparts in Helmand, is also a factor.

Last Tuesday a delegation from the capital arrived to discuss agriculture with provincial officials.

Kabul’s interest in Helmand grew last September. That month, Agriculture Minister Mohammad Asef Rahimi visited the town of Nawa, which US Marines had recently cleared of militants, and promised to follow up with development.

“They were horrified. There was nothing there, absolutely nothing,” recalls Peter Hawkins, a British official who accompanied Rahimi’s delegation. “There was a good governor, but he was sitting there on his own in a little building built by us. They went back to Kabul with the message, ‘We’ve got to do something, we can’t not do something with this void down there.’ ”

Mapping out a new Marjah

In Marjah a similar void would allow the crime bosses and Taliban commanders just driven out to return. They “exercised far too much control over the population” in the past, says Marlin Hardinger, a US State Department official in Helmand. The “most important and difficult [thing now is to] build better governance.”

Although the insurgency is still flickering in Marjah, it is mainly in the form of roadside bombs strikes, about five a day. Officials, who have access to $500 million for stabilizing Helmand, don’t expect to know if they have won over the population for at least three months.

A map drawn up by the provincial governor and dotted with colored blocks shows what the restoration of sovereignty means in tangible terms: there are bright red schools, yellow agriculture directorates, and courts festooned with the scales of justice.

Green blocks, or police stations, are a point of concern. Thousands of elite officers have been drafted from outside Helmand and charged with maintaining security in the crucial next few months. The force must also shed its predatory and corrupt reputation for the rebuilding of Marjah to succeed, experts say.

“Probably the most challenging and sensitive thing” is improving the police, says Mr. Hardinger, the State Department official.

Rooting out opium

Another challenge will be how to deal with Helmand’s thriving opium economy. Powerful players in the drug trade in the province, such as former governor Mohammad Akhundzada and his police chief Abdurrahman Jan, have much to lose by acceding to a new political economy. Mr. Jandemonstrated his intent to reestablish his influence over Marjah last month when he took control of a local council.

Posed against these strongmen is current Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal, a technocrat who burnished his reputation by busting kidnapping rings and crooked police since taking office two years ago. He has won praise from Western advisers for using the media to spread a message of inclusive government and for traveling around the province to hear complaints from his constituents.

He’s also earned plaudits for his handling of men like Mr. Akhundzada and Jan. “Mangal’s played the technocratic card brilliantly,” says Hawkins, who has worked closely with the governor. “He has managed the situation rather than (1) allowing the situation to manage him or (2) confronting the situation. If you confront the situation in Afghanistan, you’ve lost.”

Mangal will also have to wean farmers away their opium crop without alienating them. Counternarcotics experts have praised his “food zone” program, which combines the stick of poppy eradication with the carrot of improved wheat seed handouts. Although Helmand still produces more poppy than the rest of the world combined, they say there are tentative signs of success.

The new mayor of Marjah, Haji Zahir, is tasked with replicating Mangal’s tactics, for example, reaching out to local leaders in a flurry of meetings.


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