At Long Last

April 23, 2007

Via Xinhua/People’s Daily Online:

UNFPA to help Afghan gov’t launch national census

The UN Agency for Population Fund ( UNFPA) would support the government of Afghanistan to launch a national census, Executive Director of the agency Thoraya Ahmed Obaid said Monday.

“UNFPA is supporting the government to conduct its first full national census. The result will help determine the approaches needed to address Afghanistan’s most pressing social and economic development needs,” she told newsmen at a press conference after arriving in Kabul.

The project would be launched in 2008 while a pilot census will begin by July this year.

No complete census has taken place in Afghanistan over the past 30 years.

The project for national census would cost around 60 million U. S. dollars, Obaid’s colleague and Regional Director to Asia- Pacific Sultan Aziz said.

Source: Xinhua

All we can say is: about time.

It is striking that more than five years after the collapse of Taliban, and about 30 years after the last national census was held in Afghanistan, finally some attention being paid to this important, baseline national indicator that figures prominently in discussions about national identity and political representation as well as in reconstruction and macro-economic policymaking (workforce data, unemployment rate, social security and retirement benefits, etc.)

There are those who have questioned the accuracy of the last national census (1981?) in debates about, you got it right, ethnic composition of Afghanistan. Hopefully the upcoming survey in 2008 will put these speculations to rest once and for good. Also, a few days ago here on Safrang we had our own little discussion related to this topic. The episode revealed to me the inherent difficulty of not having reliable statistical data to fall back on (and no, CIA Factbook does not meet those standards.)


Afghanistan Congressional Forum Highlights

April 19, 2007

Here is a shot at summarizing what went down at the Afghanistan forum yesterday. I am relying on hastily written notes and residual and highly selective memory, and therefore have no claims to providing a comprehensive summary. Further, I am a shameless name-dropper and am as liable to talk about people as about ideas- so consider yourself warned.
That said, here are a few things I found interesting.

First off, the group Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce (with whom this writer worked all too briefly last year – honestly where in Washington’s Afghanistan-related groups has this writer not worked at for at least some time?) should be credited for organization and level of access. Gathering people like a senior Afghan cabinet minister, two top-level US State Department officials, and two prominent American scholars of Afghanistan all under one roof (the US Senate’s at that) needs heck of a lot of reliable networking, good coordination, and legwork.

My only disappointment as far as those present at the event is that only one member of US Congress showed up, and though there was word that Senator Boxer of California might join in, it seems she changed her mind at the last minute or found better things to attend to. That left the Republican Congressman from California Dana Rohrabacher the only representative of US legislature – a body that makes a lot of big decisions on Afghanistan and that therefore ought to take a keener interest in the subject (especially that the event was right at their own doorsteps.)

Though one of very few people in the US House of Representatives who has taken a keen interest in Afghanistan over a long period of time (in itself a frightening fact, and indicative of the American legislature’s lack of interest in the country) I have never been impressed by Congressman Rohrabacher’s record, or his public pronouncements, on the Afghanistan. I think for him, like for many other people, the wellbeing of Afghanistan’s people is not so much an end in itself as it is a piece of a bigger puzzle. In the case of Congressman Rohrabacher, who is famously big on defense, his interest in Afghanistan dates back to the anti-Soviet fight there. Had the interest stemmed from genuine concern for the Afghan people, I am sure he would have found the time and ample reasons to raise the issue throughout the 1990s, during which time the Republicans were in fact controlling the congress. Now that we all live in post-9/11 world, Afghanistan has again resurfaced as a subject of interest for some of the same people only as part of a bigger picture of war on terror, and equally frighteningly, of war on drugs.

This was all too clear from the brief statement given by the congressman -which, if you could get beneath its veneer of humanitarianism and heartfelt sympathy for the sick children of Afghanistan, and the general air of a stump-speech normally given on the campaign trail at the backwoods of Iowa and not to an audience in Washington that is relatively well-informed about Afghanistan- you could see his real lack of interest beyond the two topics of Taliban/Al-Qaeda and Narcotics. The highlight of the congressman’s talk was what he called a “Grand Deal” in which he in effect offered the people of Afghanistan to eradicate narcotics from their country in return for US-provided health-care for the children of Afghanistan. Go figure. To my dismay, Minister Ahadi not only chose to comment on the congressman’s speech, he even found the deal acceptable to the people of Afghanistan.
But then again I know far too little, am famously reactive to paternalism and condescension, and have never really owed anything, at least directly, to Washington’s power politics.

Though I have never been able to hold Professor Barnett Rubin’s attention (in high demand in Afghanistan circles) for more than a couple of minutes on three different occasions -two of which he has cordially terminated by giving me his business card- or to make any substantial conversation with him on Afghanistan, I admire his knowledge of Afghanistan, his relative familiarity with the many nuances of this nuance-riddled topic, and more importantly, his ability to successfully straddle the policy-academia chasm.
Afghanistan in the 1990s was a boring topic for many Americans – and yet Professor Rubin wrote two of his books (that I know of) on Afghanistan during this period, both of which, I should admit, I relied on heavily to learn and write about Afghanistan in my undergrad years, and to use as bibliographies for further research. Lastly, while he has continually talked to both policy and academic worlds about Afghanistan, he has consistently refused to get in bed with the government -or at least with the US government (but then again that could be more due to Professor Rubin’s personal politics: he regularly laments the current administration’s policies over at DailyKos, and both phases of US government’s intensive involvement in Afghanistan happened during Republican administrations.)

I know I am digressing (and yes part of the reason for all this praise is the hope that Professor Rubin will read it and be more willing to talk next time we meet) but the point is that his comments yesterday followed a similar trend and he held fast on many topics that he differed with the US government. He was highly critical of the US government’s food aid policy in Afghanistan and said that it constituted a “pro-narcotics” policy, in that much of the food aid was purchased outside Afghanistan and then distributed there. This is in effect like “dumping” in foreign trade, and upsets supply and demand chains for locally grown staple crops (wheat) and favors drug-cultivation by the farmers who get a better deal out of growing poppies than wheat. I can hardly see how a reasonable person can disagree with this.

About Washington’s narcotics policy in Afghanistan Professor Rubin favored greater emphasis on alternative livelihood development, but criticized the way this was currently done: almost 100 million dollars earmarked for alternative livelihood development in Southern Afghanistan has been channeled to one consulting firm in Washington (I think I know which one) and in turn, they have nothing to show for it on the ground. Asked about the level of aid to Afghanistan, he said that Afghanistan was shortchanged compared to other “post-devastation” countries – a term he borrowed from Ajmal Ghani, the AACC head and panel moderator. On Taliban he was predictably critical of Pakistan’s role, but also said that the US government should not fear democratization in Pakistan as a destabilizing force -in effect disagreeing with Washington’s post-9/11 mentality of either Musharraf or Islamist chaos. He also an impressive pitch in the beginning about the incident at Tolo TV offices in Afghanistan and hoped that the government will address the matter properly.

For Finance Minister Ahadi’s views I recommend you glance at Joshua Faust’s summary of a recent event at Brookings Institution here. Though given at a different event and on a different topic, some of the same sentiments came up in his remarks yesterday: the debilitating complexity of the “Afghanistan project”, the difficulty in prioritizing needs, the need to channel more aid through the Afghan government, and a marked reluctance to mention Pakistan by name as a sanctuary for the Taliban. I have a generally low opinion of people in politics (particularly those in Afghan politics,) so when I see somebody who is relatively well-spoken, and who quotes from Hannah Arendt, I am all the more enamored by them. This is what happened yesterday. Dr. Ahadi has been a lifelong academic, and though I have disagreed with some of his earlier writings -in particular an early paper in a peer-reviewed academic journal in the US on the place of ethnicities in the history of state-building in Afghanistan- nonetheless I hold him in high esteem.

Still I have to say I was rather discouraged by his answer to an impassioned question by a Moby Media representative about the arrest of Tolo TV staff in Kabul he expressed his hope that “civil society and the international community would raise their concern” and that “Afghanistan is a young democracy…and incidents like this should not discourage us.” Needless to say, the burden of investigation and prosecution in this matter rests squarely on the government of Afghanistan and not on civil society or the international community; and that the excuse of young democracy is no way to sidestep tough decision-making, and it could still be used ten years from now. In answer to the moderator’s question whether the aid to Afghan government was enough, Dr. Ahadi thought that compared with the monumental task of “return to normalcy” it was far from it.

While busily wording a question about joint war funding for Iraq and Afghanistan and the feasibility of “decoupling” the two (which I am glad to report I got to ask from Undersecretary of State Nick Burns, with a built-in condolence regarding Monday’s shootings at Virginia Tech no less) I missed an interesting exchange between John Gastright of State Department vs. Dr. Marvin Weinbaum and Professor Barnett Rubin as representatives of what Mr. Gastright termed “Washington thinking.” I caught the end tail of the exchange when Professor Rubin extracted a rare laugh from the audience saying: “I am not sure what Mr. Gastright is referring to by ‘Washington thinking’ – I come from New York.”

That difference could have resulted from any number of issues: from the US government’s emphasis on eradication while many in the policy analysis community emphasize alternative livelihood to the US government’s consistent use of subcontractors for project implementation while one study after another finds them wasteful and lacking effectiveness, there remain a wide range of areas where the gulf between policymaking and policy analysis remains wide open, and conversations such as yesterday’s are bound to contribute a great deal to bridging it.

Congressional Forum on Afghanistan

April 17, 2007

Tomorrow morning I will be attending this event on Afghanistan on Capitol Hill. Organized by AACC (Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce), the stated goal of the congressional forum is to “reassess priorities for US funding in Afghanistan.” The event features an impressive list of panelists including US Undersecretary of State Nick Burns (whom I admire for his eloquence and the suave way he handles media,) Prof. Barney Rubin, Afghan Minister of Finance Ahadi and others. Also in attendance will be people from non-profit, think-tank, and corporate sectors as well as government officials (US and Afghan), US House and Senate members, and academic types. Who knows maybe I will even run into some fellow bloggers who write on Afghanistan (yes Registan and AfghanistanWatch, that means you!)

I will try to do a post on Safrang afterwards with a summary and highlights from the event.

Besides the obvious (that is, I don’t have a life and attend these events for the sheer fun of it) the other reason I am attending is because I would like to get some “face time” with people that may prove helpful in my frantic search for a job in Afghanistan over the coming months.
Yes, readers, I will be leaving for Watan soon, and I know you can’t wait to read my posts straight from the belly of the beast.

Fresh for the Plucking?

March 27, 2007

If the Taliban were to launch an ambitious recruiting campaign across Afghanistan in the next few weeks, odds are they will find hundreds if not thousands of despairing young men who have been turned down by the handful institutions of higher learning in the country and face grim and unknown futures. These are members of the post-Taliban generation of high school graduates who have long dreamed of gaining a university education -as evidenced by their widespread participation in the university entry exams- and are suddenly finding out that those dreams are shattered -and all for no fault of theirs.

Afghanistan’s few universities are already operating above capacity, and now for another consecutive year university officials have had to turn down some 38,000 candidates who participated in the matriculation exams -a figure nearly double that of last year’s, and representing nearly two thirds of this year’s university hopefuls.

According to a BBC Persian report by journalist Dawood Naji from Kabul, as more and more students graduate from high schools across the country and a greater number of these decide to take part in the university entry exams, authorities will have to refuse entry to an ever increasing number of students. The report cites an estimate by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Higher Learning that in 10 years the number of university candidates will reach a million students per year while the capacity of Afghanistan’s universities will peak at merely 100,000 – only one in ten students will have the opporturnity to attend university. Already the issue is spoken of as “Afghanistan’s crisis of higher education.”

It is easy to foresee where all of this is headed for: The end of the Taliban era was marked by an explosion in primary school enrollments (approximately 4 million for each of the past two years.) As this boom generation reaches high school and later graduates, competition will worsen and universities will be overwhelmed. Just as investment in higher education will ensure a future generation of educated citizens and skilled workers for the country’s reconstruction, neglecting to address this mounting crisis will spawn hundreds of thousands of young people who are too educated and ambitious to settle for the traditional farming and labor employments, and too unprepared and unskilled to fill jobs in the public and private sectors that demand specific skills and a university degree – such a generation of ambitious discontents is sure to provide extremist and irredentist causes with fresh recruits thirsty for a certain future and a sense of meaning and belonging.

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
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.

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.


[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.