Serendipituous Quotes

March 13, 2007

At the same time as I was reading Afghanistanica’s latest post where the blogger suggests “if you are a journalist, maybe you should quit writing that Afghans are being angered over a ‘forced imposition’ of women’s rights,” I was listening to a report on PRI’s The World on National Public Radio about women in Afghanistan and how some are “concerned what progress might do to Afghanistan’s culture.”

Perfect.

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REPORT: “Breaking Point: Measuring Progress in Afghanistan”

March 12, 2007

PCR Project commented:

Dear Safrang, Given your interest in Afghanistan, we thought you might be interested in our latest report, Breaking Point: Measuring Progress in Afghanistan. The PCR Project is a part of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank located in Washington, DC. Much more on Afghanistan and Pakistan can be found at www.pcrproject.com.
Best,
PCR Project.

Thanks PCR Project for bringing the omission to my attention. I am remiss not to have posted a link here, especially that I contributed to the report. (Safrang is a pseudonym and no reference to it can be found in the acknowledgements.)

َA summary of the report is available on the PCR Blog, and you can also download the full report there. According to the summary, the report’s key findings are:

  • Afghans are losing trust in their government because of an escalation in violence;
  • Public expectations are neither being met nor managed;
  • Conditions in Afghanistan have deteriorated in all key areas targeted for development, except for the economy and women’s rights.

Of course I am not biased in saying that the report (a follow-up to a baseline report published a year earlier) is one of the most insightful qualitative measures of progress in Afghanistan in recent times, both for its extensive data collection and the unique methodology.

It should be said, however, that the period covered in the report (July 2005 through Oct 2006) leaves out a number of key developments that have happened in the past few months and that could bear heavily on some of the trends captured in the report. The anticipation of these emerging developments makes the report all the more poignant.

Also of note is the telltale title of the report. Last year’s baseline report was titled “In the Balance” – this, at a time when most people had already billed Afghanistan as a success story. That fragile balance was tipped in 2006. This year, the ominous title reads: “Breaking Point”. Judging from the positive reception of the report, it seems that a lot of people are listening.


BOOK: “The Hazara People and Greater Khurasan”

March 12, 2007

Basir Ahmad Hussainzada reviews M. Taqi Khawari’s new book about the Hazara people for BBC Persian here.

The book, titled The Hazara People and Greater Khurasan seems to be the most comprehensive and serious scholarly study into the origins and the history of the Hazara people since the publication of Dr. Said Askar Mousavi’s The Hazara of Afghanistan a decade ago.

According to the review, in the section dealing with the origins of the Hazara people the author authoritatively rejects the widely held theory that Hazaras are primarily remnants of the marauding hordes (organized into “hazars” or thousands) of Genghis’s Mongol armies. According to the author, a glance into the intra-ethnic diversity within the Hazara people (divided into more than 700 different clans) reveals that not all the Hazaras descend from any single ancestral gene pool.

The books also deals extensively with the waves of Hazara migration out of Afghanistan. According to the sources cited by the author, the westward Hazara mass-migrations into Iran took place in three stages: “during the reign of Nadir Shah Afshar and that of Nasiruddin Shah Qajar, and after the massacres of Hazaras by Abdur Rahman Khan.”

Furthermore, the author gives a detailed account of the prevalence of Shi’a Islam among the Hazara people, who constitute the bulk of Shi’a Muslims in the otherwise Sunni-majority Afghanistan.

As far as one can tell from the review, the author’s research into the Hazara migrations specifically into Iran and their subsequent settlement and acculturation there is groundbreaking. Most of the other topics dealing with the origins and the history of the Hazara people in Afghanistan have been previousely written about.

All the same, the book is a welcome addition to the still sparse scholarship about the Hazara people. In the preface to his own book about the Hazaras of Afghanistan, Dr. Askar Mousavi claims that the Hazara people are the “least well-known ethnic group in Afghanistan.” Although the events of 9/11 and the subsequent US toppling of the Taliban focused the world’s attention on Afghanistan, and more importantly, despite the publication of the bestselling novel The Kiterunner, the Hazara people of Afghanistan remain one of the least known and studied ethnic groups (not that reading The Kiterunner in itself would be of any help in this regard, but the novel was the closest thing to a first encounter for many with the Hazara people.) Serious anthropological and ethnographic studies are particularly rare as most of new research and writing deal with such contemporary interests as their history and politics.

The Hazara People and Greater Khurasan will hopefully be translated into English and read by a wider audience. If in five years it is still not translated, this writer -hopefully out of school by then- will make a serious effort at obtaining the translation rights.


Freedom of the Press in Afghanistan: A Little Bit Pregnant

March 10, 2007

Says Mr. Saad Mohseni, head of a large media holding company in Afghanistan, in a recent opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal:

Despite the many challenges facing Afghanistan , the country can boast some major successes and perhaps none is more amazing than the success of its media. In name, at least, we now have a free press.

It certainly is refreshing to learn about “major successes” in Afghanistan. Except… well, what does it exactly mean to have a free press “in name”? That qualifier is a bit puzzling to us. Just to help put things in perspective, would it also be fair to boast of women’s rights in Afghanistan (see previous post), and then add “at least in name”? Ditto a functioning democracy “at least in name”? How does “at least in name” protect journalists from intimidation or women from violence?

Truth is -and somebody else may have already delivered this truth in these colorful terms- that having freedom of press is a bit like pregnancy. You are either pregnant, or you are not -you cannot be a little pregnant; just like you cannot have freedom of the press only in name. The sad reality about freedom of press in Afghanistan is that there just isn’t any, well, except in name.

Nobody knows this more earnestly than Mr. Mohseni whose Tolo TV, among other outlets, has run afoul of the intolerant conservative temperaments many times over its youth-oriented programming. And this is what makes Mr. Mohseni’s praise for freedom of press in Afghanistan a bit disorienting – because he basically uses the rest of the op-ed to chronicle, in such detail as only someone of his level of involvement in the matter can, the many ways in which the gestapoesque Media Monitoring Commission of the Ministry of Information and Culture (which he describes in the op-ed as “the main center of anti-press activity”) attempts to curb and curtail freedom of press and intimidate journalists. The ministry is also the main driving force behind a disturbing piece of legislation (Mr. Mohseni describes it as “draconian”) which is expected to clear both houses of parliament -much like the notorious “amnesty bill” did recently. The legislation is aimed at curbing press freedom under the banner of such disturbingly undefined and vacuous notions as “Islamic values” and “national interests.”

Elsewhere, the ministry has exerted its power through sweeping purges at the government broadcaster RTA (Radio Television Afghanistan) leading to the resignation of its chief Najib Roshan in protest; attempting to limit women’s appearance on television; and summoning a television station owned by Mr. Mohseni’s group specifically for its insufficient censoring of “skin” in its music entertainment programming. Separately, for a couple of weeks the journalist community in Afghanistan was rattled by the surfacing of a certain stern, official-looking document that basically told them not to print any headlines about insurgent attacks on their front pages, and not to undermine national security. And just today, BBC Persian reported that the ministry has ordered the cancellation of an Iranian music band’s performance because the group allegedly insulted Afghanistan’s national anthem and the poet Rumi (Moulana-i Balkh in Afghanistan.)

In a recent Statement Afghanistan’s National Journalists Union (ANJU) accused the Ministry of Information & Culture of attempting to transform the national media “into a propaganda tool in the hands of the executive branch,” and argued that the ministry is over-stepping its limits and acting in direct violation of the Afghan Mass Media Law of 2006. The statement also points out the ministry’s suspension of the Comission for Media Complaints and Violations, forcing journalists to directly refer to the General Attorney for redress of their concerns. The statement concludes by saying that the union is “deeply worried” about the recent measures taken by the ministry, and about the new challenges facing freedom of speech in Afghanistan.

On a related note, the recent news about American soldiers confiscating cameras and threatening photographers in the aftermath of civilian deaths near Jalalabad further undermines the already dismal state of affairs for freedom of press in Afghanistan.

It used to be that on his American trips, whenever asked, Mr. Karzai would affectionately joke about the toughness of the newspapers in Afghanistan on his administration. It turns out he might have just appointed the right person as his Minister of Information & Culture to whip them into line.

PS. Word to Freedom House: I cannot, in good conscience, cite your figures for freedom of press in Afghanistan when I know too well that your figures for Afghanistan’s ethnic composition are grossly misleading.


8th March and the State of Afghan Women

March 9, 2007

On the eve of another International Women’s Day the lot of Afghan women has not improved considerably since the fall of the Taliban. That is the unanimous verdict from the UN, AIHRC (Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission) and a number of other organizations and reports in the media. Domestic violence, forced marriages, lack of access to health services (and of lesser immediate concern, to education) remain alarmingly high.

According to AIHRC, only in the south-western province of Farah (home to Malalai Joya – vocal woman parliamentarian) self-burning has increased by a whopping 80% over the course of the past year. Other provinces in the same zone have also seen significant rise in self-burning by women victims of domestic violence and forced marriages.

The extreme phenomenon of “burning brides” -as once reported in the West, with flagrant romantic and orientalist overtones- is immensely tragic and existentially fascinating in equal measures; and while we hope the practice itself and the circumstances that lead to it come to an end, it calls for a serious cross-cutting psychological-anthropological-philosophical treatment in the future.

Even with the stigma that is associated with breaching family confidence and reporting abuse, AIHRC documented 1650 cases of violence against women in 2006. The commission also reported 120 cases of death by suicide (self-burning and OD’ing on painkillers) for 2006. No less shocking, IRIN reports that every 30 minutes an Afghan woman dies during childbirth, and the average life expectancy for Afghan women is 44 years. According to UNIFEM (UN Dev. Fund for Women), about 90% of Afghan women are illiterate. (more)

All of this however does not mean that revolutions of a cosmetic nature are not taking place. Afghan women are among the most talked-about women in the world today (right up there with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears), and the focus of a global circle of bleeding-heart sympathy that translates to photo-ops, quick-fix projects, conferences, and start-up non-profits. Yesterday, two Kabul newspapers’ editorials duly blasted these as mere talk and repetitious stage shows that do very little to tangibly change the status of women of Afghanistan. (The dailies are Wisa and Anis – at least once of which primarily targets a women readership)

To mark the occassion the US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice awarded “International Women of Courage” awards to a group of women from around the world that included two women from Afghanistan; the Canadian Governor-General made a surprise visit to Afghanistan; UNDP announced a $10 million grant to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs over the next two years; and Afghanistan’s Supreme Court and the aid group Medica Mondiale announced a joint initiative to register marriages in an effort to cut down on forced marriages. Pojhwak news also reported the opening of a small hospital in Kabul for women narcotics addicts.

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[See related post on Safrang: The Abominable Everywomen]


“Silent Death in Central Afghanistan”

March 7, 2007

The daily Iqtidar-e-Milli in Kabul carried the above headline today, writing about areas in central Afghanistan that are virtually cut off from the outside world due to heavy snowfall. The newspaper laments the fact that more than five years after the process of reconstruction has began in Afghanistan, in certain parts of the country things have not changed at all. According to the report, lack of access to such basic needs as “health facilities, roads, and safe drinking water” has frustrated the local population and is eroding their faith in the new government.

Time to think seriously about the Kabul-Bamiyan-Cheghcharan-Herat highway? If and when completed by a confluence of miracles, unlikely political will, and generous international aid, the project is bound to lift the standard of living in much of central Afghanistan including Hazarajat from stone age levels, and cut down on precious east-west transit time that otherwise has to skirt around the country.

Separately, BBC reports casualties due to heavy snowfall in Western province of Herat. Even prayers are answered with a twist here.


Opium Production Through the Roof – Again

March 7, 2007

One wonders whether the recent changes in US drug policy towards Afghanistan were in anticipation of this: the fact that for the second year in a row, opium production levels have reached new heights.

In the months leading up to this announcement by the US Department of State, the said agency announced the appointment of William B. Wood, formerly ambassador to the drug-ridden Colombia, as its new ambassador in Kabul. Separately, US government pressure increased on the GoA to allow invasive eradication procedures, which formerly took a backseat to interdiction efforts. At least one other senior US government official spoke of Colombia’s success in the fight against drugs as a model for Afghanistan.

Whether those changes were anticipating the new revelations or not, the fact remains that the fight against drugs in Afghanistan has been a dismal failure ever since day one of post-Taliban Afghanistan. In fact, Taliban had greater success in curbing poppy cultivation (albeit for other motives.)

The new announcement, however, comes with a bit of a good news caveat from the UN:

The UN says although production of poppies, used to make heroin, has fallen in the north and centre, a sharp rise is likely in the lawless south. (more from BBC)

I do know of Badakhshan having become a drug-infested province lately, but did not know of any provinces in the center with notable poppy cultivation. If the UN means Uruzgan, for all but geographical reasons that province is a southern one.

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Unrelated, ُSafrang is delighted by the newcomer on the block: Afghanistanica – an exploration of Afghanistan from a safe distance. Afghanistanica features some of the best written and best-backed-up blogging on Afghanistan you will see anywhere -and not only online backlinks. We only wish the blogger had activated commenting.