Monday, May 25, 2009

Riding a Dead Horse - The wisdom of Buzkashi Riders

A Buzkashi match at Parwan, 21 March 1996. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The wisdom of Buzkashi riders, passed on from generation to generation in Afghanistan, says that 'when you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount'. However, in the UN and NGO community a range of far more advanced strategies are often employed,such as:

Changing riders;

Appointing a committee to study the horse;

Arranging to visit other countries to see how others ride dead horses;

Lowering the standards so that dead horses can be included;

Reclassifying the dead horse as 'living impaired';

Hiring outside contractors to ride the dead horse;

Harnessing several dead horses together to increase the speed;

Providing additional funding and/or training to increase the dead horse's performance;

Doing a productivity study to see if lighter riders would improve the dead horse's performance;

Declaring that as the dead horse does not have to be fed, it is less costly, carries
lower overhead, and therefore contributes substantially more to the mission of the organization than do some other horses;

Rewriting the expected performance requirements for all horses;

Preparing a workshop with paid attendants on the subject of Experience gaining in riding dead horses in post war setting;

Preparing a second workshop on environmental hazards caused by horse s…, and the advantage on using dead horses since they do not s… therefore are of no hazard to the environment.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The moon-faced lady. Bibi Maru

Kabul April 2003

I about 4.00 pm I left Wazir Akbar Khan, Kabul, with Liisa (a Finn) and Briita ( Danish) heading for Bibi Maru, the mountain made famous by Babur on his return from Herat in 1503.

From the run-down streets, blocked drains and drab houses I remember in 1996 and in March 2003, the area is now flourishing with newly paved streets, footpaths repaired, and renovated houses painted in bright colours and alongside some, new houses are being built. The poky little street corner shops that used to be stocked with a maximum of 20 items, have been enlarged five-fold and overflowing with goods from every corner of the world, to cater for the needs of foreigners. Shoe shine boys that once looked like skinny waifs, show a plumpness in the face from the foreign largess.

The walk up Bibi Maru was a climb up memory lane. As we arrived near the top the sun was setting to the right of the hill where Babur was buried. The reflection of the last rays of the sun was just visible in a murky trickle that is still the Kabul River. Ford O Ford of Kabul River wrote Kipling about this once mighty river where thousands of British soldiers lost their lives in crossing one dark winter's night long ago.

Bibi Maru, the moon-faced lady, hasn't changed, but the occupiers have. They are no longer Parthian, Persian, Greek, Mongol, Turkish, Moghul, British, Soviet or Taliban but Romans. Ironically, almost 2400 years after Alexander and his Greek Army stood astride this very hill, the new Romans, ISAF troops in 3 APC's from Italy, settled in for the night to protect Kabul. Does Kabul need Romans to protect its beauty ? In my garden and all around Kabul, the thorns are protecting Kabul's roses as they have done for centuries. Roses, Romans, conquerors come and go, but the new and old thorns mingle, and protect Koh Daman and its settlements.

From the summit I drew in a view I had seen at least 50 times before, but each is different. Gazing over the plains to Istalif and then up to the awe inspiring Hindu Kush, freshly coated in snow, two thousand years of history flashed in a blink.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

New Zealand to invest 41.7 million in Eco Tourism in Afghanistan

Bandi-e Amir Lakes

Only the hardiest, or foolhardiest, of tourists make it to Afghanistan these days -- but New Zealand is investing $NZ1.7 million in ecotourism there.

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark announced the investment a year ago after discussions during the Wellington visit by Dr Habiba Sarabi, Governor of Bamyan province. NZAID's investment in Bamyan increased by $1m in the past next financial year, with total funding of $1.7m over three years to support the eco-tourism project.

Miss Clark said at the time that tourism - based around the ancient Bamyan Buddhas and the renowned Bandi-e Amir Lakes and the Bamyan Valley world heritage site - was an important avenue for development which complemented health, education, and other work in which New Zealand was already actively involved.

By starting work on eco-tourism before international tourists returned, it could be made both environmentally and economically sustainable.

Amir Foladi, head of the new Bamiyan Ecotourism Programme, has now told Reuters that though the unique historical sites can attract many tourists, the weak element is services and information.

Bamiyan city opened a rudimentary tourist centre in October, last year, backed by the New Zealand Government. New Zealand has been sending troops to Afghanistan for nearly seven years - a longer involvement than New Zealand's World War 2 campaign - where they are part of a provincial reconstruction team, which includes conducting mobile medical clinics.

The ambitious tourism venture is helping fund small guesthouses around the province, training staff, setting up a tour guide service, developing pamphlets and trying to lure in tourists with events such as a festival for the Persian new year.

Work has started on an asphalt road and in Bamiyan the widespread hope is that middle-class Afghans seeking an escape from the capital's dusty, over-crowded streets will provide the initial impetus for a fledgling industry.

"When we have the paved road it will bring lots of national tourists, it will be enough for Bamiyan until the security situation gets better," Foladi said.

The area was getting over 60,000 tourists a year before the war, and around half that as recently as 2005, when the security situation was better, he said.

But news of suicide attacks, kidnappings and the resurgent Taliban have eclipsed the desire among any but the most intrepid travellers to see the stunning vistas and archaeological treasures that once drew visitors here each year.

Bamiyan's poor land and harsh climate make it a farmer's nightmare, but in most other countries its natural and historical attractions would allow locals to earn a living from travellers.

The area boasts spectacular scenery, a sprawling collection of world heritage sites, including the remains of giant Buddhas blown up by the Taliban in 2001, and a unique cascade of lakes that last month became Afghanistan's first national park.

"Bamiyan is a very famous place," said Najibullah Ahrai, head of information and culture for the province.

"These are vital assets for the local people."

Bandi-e Amir Lakes Afghanistan

Decades of war and the devastation caused by the Taliban when they conquered the area after strong resistance mean parts of the town still lie in ruins and tourist amenities are basic.

At the moment there are just two decent hotels in the area, one run by a Japanese journalist who first came to Afghanistan in the 1990s.

A dirt road makes the less than 200km drive from Kabul a bone-jarring nine hour odyssey, and the dirt airstrip cannot handle commercial planes.

Some historic sites still welcome visitors with signs warning of landmines, and paths marked out by the tell-tale white and red stones of demining teams, although the major ones should be free of explosives by the end of the decade.

Even now some adventurous foreign tourists are still making it to Afghanistan, and enjoying themselves there.

"I am quite interested in going to places that are a little bit different," said British teacher Toby Waterson, who came to visit a friend who works at the United Nations and ended up travelling to the relatively safe north of the country.

He loved the country so much that he pushed back his departure by several days to see more of it, but concedes that holidaying at the edge of a warzone is not for everyone.

"You would be a fool to go there without knowing anyone, because you get that entry into the Kabul bubble, and also I had a smattering of the language," he added.

In a country where diplomats drive around in armoured cars, attracting more than the odd adventure tourist means betting on peace. With the Taliban insurgency gathering strength, that is a risky gamble.

But the cultural and development experts trying to patch up Bamiyan say it is vital to offer an alternative to the poverty that has always been a recruiting tool for militant groups, and to show that peace can bring economic benefits too.

"We are not losing our hope, many other projects are happening at this time, and you cannot do nothing just because you are afraid," Foladi said.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Anyone for a shave?

Taliban 'shave beards' to avoid capture

Taliban fighters are shaving off their beards and trying to flee from a Pakistani army offensive in their Swat bastion, the military said as it relaxed a curfew to allow civilians to get out.

The army launched an offensive in the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad, last week to stop the spread of Taliban influence which had alarmed the United States and other Western allies of nuclear-armed Pakistan.

More than 900,000 civilians have fled and the United Nations has warned of a humanitarian tragedy unless Pakistan gets massive assistance.

Clashes had erupted in various parts of the region, the military said on Friday, adding it was achieving successes.

It also appealed to civilians to identify Taliban fighters trying to flee.

"We have confirmed reports that these Taliban terrorists, after shaving off their beards and cutting their hair, are fleeing from the area," the military said in a statement.

"We request the people of Swat to identify them," it said, while providing a telephone number for informants to call or send text messages.

Taliban members and supporters usually have long beards and many of them also have long hair. There was no immediate comment from the Taliban about the military's statement.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, who is in Pakistan, has called for massive international help to avert a tragedy. His agency said more than 907,000 people have registered as displaced since May 2.

Residents began fleeing late last month when the army attacked the Taliban in two districts near Swat they had occupied in violation of a February peace pact aimed at ending violence in the former tourist valley.

The United States had criticized the pact as tantamount to "abdicating" to the militants. Pakistan is vital for U.S. efforts to defeat al Qaeda and stabilise neighboring Afghanistan.

Most political parties and members of the public support the offensive, despite skepticism about an alliance with the United States in its campaign against militancy. But opposition will grow if many civilians are killed or if the displaced are seen to be enduring undue hardship.

Investors in Pakistani stocks have been unnerved by the fighting in recent days but the Karachi Stock Exchange's benchmark 100-share index ended 0.49 percent up at 7,177.64.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Student army fills Kabul with hope and dread

We are reading so much, viewing so much, about the Taliban (Taleban) today in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I lived in Kabul from 1993 -98 and remember in 1995 they were advancing on Kabul as a fledgling student army.

Here is a flashback to that time in 1995 when Tim McGirk from the Independent Newspaper described the situation..

Wednesday, 22 February 1995

"Garoom! Garoom! Rocket!" shouted the old Afghan, pretending to fall to the earth as if he'd been killed. It was a perfect act, for the Afghan had plenty of experience of seeing how bodies flew when a rocket landed. Many relatives had perished in the hail of rockets that obliterated parts of Kabul during a two-year siege by renegade mujahedin.

The rocket attacks on Kabul stopped nearly two weeks ago, when a force of Islamic students known as the Taliban ambushed the rebels of Hezbi Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and sent them running down Kabul's icy ridges. The old Afghan said: "We hate rockets and guns. If these new people, the Taliban, give us peace, then we are with them."

With 2,000 Taliban fighters poised 8 miles outside the city and another 8,000 further south with more tanks and a dozen MiG fighters, many of Kabul's inhabitants look on the students with gratitude and dread. Because of Taliban, the Hezbi Islami rebels are in retreat. Because of the students, peace has descended on the city. The roads from the south are open, bringing badly needed food, medicine and blankets.

However, the Taliban might be next in the queue to pummel Kabul. Their leader, a one-eyed cleric, Mohammed Omar, claims his students have a divine mission to bring peace to Afghanistan by disarming warlords whose feuds have left over 20,000 Afghans dead in Kabul alone. President Rabbani refuses to give up his guns to the students. A confrontation looms.

In Kabul there are entire neighbourhoods where no buildings stand. The rubble has collapsed into the streets and only brick walls remain. If peace is not reached in Kabul between the warring mujahedin factions, it will not be long before the capital is too ravaged for Afghans to bother fighting over.

Like the houses, with their roofs, doors and windows blown away, the people of Kabul have been disfigured by war. Many lack limbs. They hobble through the debris, picking for anything that might be of use; a picture frame to burn for a few minutes of warmth, or a sheet of tin to shield them from the wind during the bitter nights.

Many of Kabul's 700,000 inhabitants have moved house several times in the siege, whenever the attackers switched the direction of their assault. The eastern and southern neighbourhoods are so badly shelled that many fled to the west, where they are crammed into metal shipping containers. Some live 16 to a classroom in an abandoned school. Bob McKerrow, a New Zealander who heads the Kabul delegation of the International ederation of the Red Cross, which is bringing in medicine and supplies, said: "Malnutrition is getting worse in Kabul. I've had mothers come up to me and tell me their milk has run dry. These mothers are having to feed their babies on bread and tea. There's nothing else." Relief agencies fear Afghanistan may become a forgotten war, neglected by the donor countries.

At the same time, new Mercedes speed through apocalyptic scenes that resemble Dresden after the bombing. These limousines were given to militia commanders by President Rabbani to buy their loyalty, but people in Kabul see the cars as symbols of the warlords' corruption.

Yesterday, relief workers arrived in old Kabul, a human anthill of mud houses hanging from a steep mountainside. They brought two lorries of blankets and plastic mats. The scramble for these items was so frenzied that one militiamen clubbed people with the end of a rocket-propelled grenade.

One woman, clutching a new plastic mat, was Qandi Ghul, 40, a widow with six children. A month ago, her husband thought it was safe to return to old Kabul. He was wheeling their few belongings on a cart when a rocket killed him.

"We have no money. No roof. Two of my children work in a bakery, earning 7,000 Afghans a day (£1.50). rom that, we must all live." The woman, lifting her veil to speak, added: "If the Taliban make it cheaper to buy a piece of nan bread, then let them come."

The Islamic traditionalism of the Taliban worries some Kabul women, many of whom had Western the Communists and the mujahedin came to power. The Taliban is against women working or leaving their homes without a hejab, a long veil that covers the whole body except for the face.

irozan, 20, a graduate who supports 10 people in her family on the £60 a month she earns cleaning cups in an office, said: "I don't mind wearing a hejab. It goes with Islam and I feel relaxed wearing it with so many mujahedin roaming around. But if the Taliban won't let me work to feed my family, I don't know how we'll survive."

If you want to read further, check out the story below.