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Blog of the week, a grim view of Afghanistan’s progress

Tuesday, November 7, 2006 by Marianne Elliott

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I've added a new feature to my growing sidebar (see the various lists on the right). At the top I'm going to feature a weblog every week. I'm starting with something topical to my work and life here in Afghanistan, the blog of British journalist and writer Christina Lamb. But look out for upcoming featured blogs focusing on crafts, creative writing or American politics, I am imposing no boundaries on my blogospere forays.

Christina is a foreign correspondent for The Times, and she has been traveling to and writing about Afghanistan since the times of the Mujahadeen. She is also the author of 'The Sewing Circles of Herat', a book I plan to pick up next time I am near and English language bookstore.

As well as her blog, which is an interesting mix of intelligent and informed posts about the war in Afghanistan and personal snippets about her life as a wife and mother in London, I'm recommending this article she wrote for The Times recently.

It is not very rosy reading, in fact after reading it I had to take a few minutes to decide how I felt about our mission here in the face of the grim picture she paints. But I admire her for writing this story because when you scan the world headlines about Afghanistan every morning and evening (as I do) you notice that the 'story' about Afghanistan today is the story of the 'insurgency' and the people who get interviewed, quoted and featured most often art the men who command the troops fighting that insurgency.

The story of Afghan women, such a key element in the publicity campaign that accompanied the 'liberation' of Afghanistan from the Taleban, has ceased to be front page news. So, I'm thankful to Christina Lamb for her continued interest, and the fact that she pulls enough weight as a journalist that her interest can translate into feature articles like this.

She reminds us of the high level emphasis on women back in 2001 –

"In 2001 the West’s most-cited criticism of the Taliban regime was its oppression of women. Not only did the Taliban forbid women from working and girls from being educated, they also beat them for wearing lipstick or shoes that clicked on the ground. The all-encompassing burqa, with its ugly shape and cage-like grille over the eyes, became a symbol for a heartless regime.

Laura Bush, America’s first lady, took over her husband’s weekly radio address to highlight the plight of Afghan women. Cherie Blair made an impassioned speech at 10 Downing Street, saying: “Women could have their nails torn out for wearing nail polish.”

“The recovery of Afghanistan must entail the restoration of rights of Afghan women,” insisted Colin Powell, then the US secretary of state."

She acknowledges the significant changes that have been achieved in the past five years, but she also reports on the areas in which little progress has been made, or where the situation has recently deteriorated.

"But there is a huge gap between the reality on the ground and the “remarkable progress” claimed by western diplomats who sit in fortified compounds behind guards and concrete blocks and who never leave Kabul. The only area in which the country could really be said to have made remarkable progress is in growing the poppy. Under British supervision, Afghanistan has become the world’s biggest opium producer. Last year it produced 6,100 tons — 92% of world supply.
Afghanistan is engulfed in its bloodiest violence for 10 years. At least 3,000 people have been killed this year — more than twice last year’s total.

For all the talk of girls’ education, only 5% of those of secondary school age are enrolled. More than 300 schools have been burnt down this year or shut after threats from militants, leaving 200,000 pupils with nowhere to go.

There have been no significant water or power projects and two highways built with western aid have become almost no-go areas. The Kabul to Kandahar road is plagued by Taliban militants setting up fake checkpoints, killing Afghans accused of collaborating. "

Well, I warned you that it was not a rosy picture. How does it make me feel? Perhaps that depends on the day. There are days when I feel as though things are sliding irrecoverably into a pit of conflict and despair, but there are other days when I find those people here who continue to believe in the possibility of a better future for themselves and their children and with them I find small ways to move towards that future.

Today I spent most of the afternoon at the regional PRT Commanders Conference, and I have to say that it seems to me to be a reason for hope to see how openly the military commanders debate and engage with their civilians counterparts and, more importantly, with what respect and seriousness they welcomed their Afghan counterparts from the Afghan National Army.

There are so many opportunities to learn here and to have my preconceptions challenged, and working with the military is proving to be one opportunity from which I am learning an awful lot.

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