Afghanistan


Family and friends said Anne Smedinghoff had chafed at the restrictions that American diplomats can face in Afghanistan, where the excitement and passion for foreign service are often dampened by lives circumscribed by blast walls and checkpoints and fortified compounds.

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(Anne Smedinghoff, 25, died in a bomb attack Saturday while delivering donated books to a new school in Zabul Province.)

 

Ms. Smedinghoff joined the Foreign Service three years ago, straight out of Johns Hopkins University, and moved to Kabul in July. Being locked in the embassy compound, though it kept her largely safe from suicide bombers and rocket attacks, was not for her, her family and friends said. She longed to be out among Afghans, helping to ease the tumult of their lives.

On Saturday, Ms. Smedinghoff, 25, got her chance. She joined a delegation accompanying the governor of Zabul Province to inaugurate a new school in Qalat, the provincial capital. She was to help deliver donated books.

At 11 a.m., a suicide car bomber detonated explosives that ripped into the convoy, killing Ms. Smedinghoff and four other Americans — a civilian and three soldiers — in the deadliest day for Americans in Afghanistan this year. The names of the other four victims had not been released Sunday night.

The attack reverberated from Afghanistan to Ms. Smedinghoff’s family home in the Chicago suburb of River Forest, Ill. In her honor, friends and relatives this weekend replaced their profile photos on Facebook with a picture of a black ribbon embossed with the State Department seal.

For Ms. Smedinghoff, the Foreign Service was a calling, her parents, Tom and Mary Beth Smedinghoff, said in a statement. Afghanistan was her second deployment, an assignment for which she had volunteered after a tour in Caracas, Venezuela. She died, her parents said, doing a job she thought must be done.

“She particularly enjoyed the opportunity to work directly with the Afghan people and was always looking for opportunities to reach out and help to make a difference in the lives of those living in a country ravaged by war,” they said. “We are consoled knowing that she was doing what she loved, and that she was serving her country by helping to make a positive difference in the world.”

Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois issued a statement on Sunday praising Ms. Smedinghoff for having lived a “purposeful life.”

“Only 25 years old, this brave young woman knew social justice was her calling, and selflessly lost her life while serving others in a war-torn country,” the governor said. “She was devoted to protecting America and improving the lives of others.”

Ms. Smedinghoff was the first American diplomat to be killed on the job since Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others were killed last Sept. 11 in an attack on a United States diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

Sam Hopkins, a lawyer and a friend of Ms. Smedinghoff’s from her college days, described her as a “very focused very disciplined and very calm” woman who had breezed through a panoply of examinations to enter the Foreign Service at an unusually young age. On her first posting to Caracas, he said, she expressed strong desire to leave the embassy compound and plunge into the city’s gritty, often dangerous streets.

“She said she wanted to get a car and drive around,” Mr. Hopkins said. “She had no fear.”

As a public diplomacy officer, Ms. Smedinghoff was on the front lines of an effort to move Afghanistan beyond its decades-long struggle with war and oppression to a place where women might walk openly in the streets and where children, including young girls, might go to school.

It is a job fraught with dangers and frustrations that have been compounded as the United States, along with its NATO allies, has shrunk its military footprint. Bases have been scaled back and ground and air transports reduced, meaning less security for development work.

With most American and NATO troops preparing to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the prospects for continued civilian aid of the kind Ms. Smedinghoff was helping to provide are now in doubt.

Yet in an emotional homage on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry held up Ms. Smedinghoff’s work as an example of the importance of the continued American effort in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the face of “cowardice” and “nihilism.”

“A brave American was determined to brighten the light of learning through books written in the native tongue of the students that she had never met, but whom she felt compelled to help,” Mr. Kerry said in Istanbul, where he is on a diplomatic trip. “And she was met by cowardly terrorists determined to bring darkness and death to total strangers.”

By , Published: April 7, 2013

Correction: April 9, 2013

An article on Monday about the death of Anne Smedinghoff, a young American diplomat in Afghanistan, misstated the number of diplomats killed along with Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens during the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on a United States diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. Three others died, not four.

 

 

KABUL, Afghanistan — As the shadows lengthened around her family’s hut here in one of Kabul’s sprawling refugee camps, a slight 6-year-old girl ran in to where her father huddled with a group of elders near a rusty wood stove. Her father, Taj Mohammad, looked away, his face glum.

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“She does not know what is going to happen,” he said softly.

If, as seems likely, Mr. Mohammad cannot repay his debt to a fellow camp resident a year from now, his daughter Naghma, a smiling, slender child with a tiny gold stud in her nose, will be forced to leave her family’s home forever to be married to the lender’s 17-year-old son.

The arrangement effectively values her life at $2,500. That is the amount Mr. Mohammad borrowed over the course of a year to pay for hospital treatment for his wife and medical care for some of his nine children — including Janan, 3, who later froze to death in bitter winter weather because the family could not afford enough firewood to stay warm.

“They said, ‘Pay back our money,’ and I didn’t have any money, so I had to give my girl,” Mr. Mohammad said. “I was thankful to them at the time, so it was my decision, but the elders also demanded that I do this.”

The story of how Mr. Mohammad, a refugee from the fighting in Helmand Province who in better days made a living as a singer and a musician, came to trade his daughter is in part a saga of terrible choices faced by some of the poorest Afghan families. But it is also a story of the way the war has eroded the social bonds and community safety nets that underpinned hundreds of thousands of rural Afghans’ lives.

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Women and girls have been among the chief victims — not least because the Afghan government makes little attempt in the camps to enforce laws protecting women and children, said advocates for the camp residents.

Aid groups have been able to provide a few programs for women and children in the ever-growing camps, including schooling that for many girls here is a first. But those programs are being cut as international aid has dwindled here ahead of the Western military withdrawal. And the Afghan government has not offered much support, in part because most officials hope the refugees will leave Kabul and return home.

Most of the refugees in this camp are from rural southern Afghanistan, and they remain bound by the tribal codes and elder councils, known as jirgas, that resolved disputes in their home villages.

Few, however, still have the support of a broader network of kinsmen to fall back on in hard times as they would have at home. Out of context, the already rigid Pashtun codes have become something even harsher.

“This kind of thing never happened at home in Helmand,” said Mr. Mohammad’s mother as she sat in the back of the smoky room. Watching her granddaughter, as she laughed and smiled with her teacher, Najibullah, who also acts as a camp social worker and was visiting the family, she added, “I never remember a girl being given away to pay for a loan.”

From the point of view of those who participated in the jirga, the resolution was a good one, said Tawous Khan, an elder who led it and is one of the two main camp representatives. “You see, Taj Mohammad had to give his daughter. There was no other way,” he said. “And, it solved the problem.”

Some Afghan women’s advocates who heard about the little girl’s plight from news media reports were outraged and said they had asked the Interior Ministry to intervene, since child marriage is a violation of Afghan law and it is also unlawful to sell a woman. But nothing happened, said Wazhma Frogh, the executive director of the Research Institute for Women, Peace and Security.

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“There has to be some sort of intervention,” Ms. Frogh said, “otherwise others will think this behavior is all right and it will increase.”

The Camps

The dark, cramped room where Mr. Mohammad lives with his wife and his eight children is typical of the shelters in the Charahi Qambar camp, which houses 900 refugee families from war-torn areas, mostly in southern Afghanistan.

The camp is the largest in the capital area, but just one of 52 such “informal settlements” in the province, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Abjectly poor, the people in the camps came with little more than a handful of household belongings. Seeking safety and aid, they instead found themselves unwelcome in a city already overcrowded with returning refugees from Pakistan and Iran.

For years Charahi Qambar did not even have wells for water because the government was reluctant to let aid groups dig them, said Mohammad Yousef, an engineer and the director of Aschiana, an Afghan aid group that works in nine camps around the country as well as with street children.

The refugees’ skills as farmers and small village workmen were of little use here since they had neither land nor houses. Penniless, they gravitated to others from the same area, and the camps grew up.

Mr. Mohammad, like most men in the camps, looks for work almost every morning as an unskilled laborer, which pays about $6 a day — not even enough to buy the staples that his family subsists on: green tea, bread and, when they can afford them, potatoes. Meat and sugar are the rarest of luxuries.

Many days, no one hires the camp men at all, put off by their tattered clothes, blanketlike wraps and full beards. “People know where we are from and think we are Taliban,” Mr. Mohammad said.

After four years in the camp, he is thinking now of going back to Helmand as a migrant laborer for the opium poppy harvest so that he can earn enough to feed his family and save a little for next winter’s firewood.

“It is too cold, and we wish we had more to eat,” said Rahmatullah, one of 18 deputy camp representatives and one of the few who spoke against the jirga’s decision to have Mr. Mohammad give his daughter to pay off the debt.

Rahmatullah, who uses just one name, did note a positive difference in camp life, however, adding, “We do have one thing here — we have education.”

Education was unheard-of for most camp residents at home in Helmand, and Rahmatullah, like many camp residents, said that at first he was suspicious of it. Shortly after arriving in the camp four years ago, he was shocked to see young girls walking on the street.

He was even more amazed when another camp resident explained that the girls were going to school.

“I did not know that girls could go to school, because in my village only a very few girls were taught anything and it was always at home,” he said. “I thought, ‘Maybe these are the daughters of a general,’ because where I come from women do not leave their homes, not even to bring water.”

“I talked to my wife, and we allowed our girls to go to the camp school, and now they are in the regular Kabul school,” he said.

His daughters were lucky. The schools in the camp were run by Aschiana, which gives a healthful lunch to every child enrolled — 800 in the Charahi Qambar camp alone. They try to bring the children up to a level where they can keep up in the regular Kabul schools.

However, that program has just ended because the European Union, amid financial woes, is not renewing its programs for social protection. Instead, it is focusing its aid spending on the Afghan government’s priorities, ratified at last year’s international aid meeting in Tokyo, which do not include child protection, Alfred Grannas, the European Union’s chargé d’affaires in Afghanistan, said in an e-mail.

The World of Women

Like most dwellings in the camp, Mr. Mohammad’s hut has a tarpaulin roof, lightly reinforced with wood, an unheated entry room, and an inner room with a stove. A small, grimy window lets in a faint patch of light, and piled around the room’s edges are the family’s few possessions: blankets, old clothes, a few battered pots and pans, and 10 bird cages for the quails he trains to sing in hopes of selling them for extra money.

For his wife, a beautiful young woman who sat huddled in the shadows, a black veil drawn across her face as her husband discussed their daughter’s fate, there is little to look forward to day to day. Back in their village in Helmand, even poor families have walled compounds and sometimes land where a woman can go outdoors.

In the camps, though, the huts are crammed together, with narrow mud pathways barely more than foot wide between them.

“There’s no privacy in the camps, and for women it is like they are in a prison,” said Mr. Yousef, the Aschiana director. “They are constantly under emotional stress.”

Like many Afghan women, Mr. Mohammad’s wife, Guldasta, let her husband speak for her — at first. He explained that she was too upset about what was happening to her daughter to talk about the situation.

But then in a quiet moment, she turned, lifting her veil to reveal part of her face and said clearly: “I am not happy with this decision; it was not what I wanted for her.”

“I would have been happy to let her grow up with us,” she said.

The family’s case is a kind of dark distortion of the Afghan tradition of the groom’s family paying a “bride price” to the family of the wife-to-be. The practice is common particularly in Pashtun areas, but it exists among other ethnic groups as well and can involve thousands of dollars. In this case, the boy who is receiving Naghma as a wife, instead of paying for her, will get her in exchange for the debt’s forgiveness.

Because Naghma, whose name means melody, was not chosen by the groom, she will most likely be treated more like a family servant than a spouse — and at worst as a captive slave. Her presence may help the groom attract a more desirable second wife because the family, although poor, will have someone working for it, insulating the chosen wife from some of the hardest tasks.

Anthropologists say this kind of use of women as property intensified after the fall of the Taliban, said Deniz Kandiyoti, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

The most recent anthropological studies of the phenomenon were of indebted drug traffickers who sold their daughters or sisters to settle debts, she said. These are essentially distress sales. And unlike the norm for marriage exchanges before the past three decades of war, the women in some cases have become salable property — stripped of the traditional forms of status and respect, she said.

Regrets

Almost from the moment he agreed to the deal, Mr. Mohammad began to regret it and think about all that could go wrong. “If, God forbid, they mistreat my daughter, then I would have to kill someone in their family,” he said as he stood at the edge of the camp in a muddy lot in the cold winter dusk.

“You know she is very little, we call her ‘Peshaka,’ ” he said, using the Pashto word for kitten. “She is a very lovely girl. Everybody in our family loves her, and even if she fights with her older brothers, we don’t say anything, we give her all possible happiness.”

He added: “I believe that when she goes to that house, she will die soon. She will not receive all the love she receives from us, and I am afraid she will lose her life. A 6-year-old girl doesn’t know about having a mother-in-law, a father-in-law, or having a husband or being a wife,” he said.

Adding to their fears, the mother of the boy that Naghma will marry came to Mr. Mohammad’s home to ask his wife to stop sending the girl to school, he said.

“You know, my daughter loves going to school, and she wants to study more and more. But the boy she is marrying, he sent his mother yesterday to tell my wife, ‘Look, this is dishonoring us to have my son’s future wife go to school,’ ” he said.

“I cannot tell them what to do,” he added, looking down at his boots. “This is their wife, their property.”

Editors’ Note: April 2, 2013

 A front-page article on Monday described the painful decision of an Afghan man, Taj Mohammad, to give his 6-year-old daughter in marriage to pay off his debt to another man. After the article was published, Mr. Mohammad called The New York Times on Monday and said the debt had been paid nearly a month ago, by an anonymous donor. In an interview on Friday, when asked if there had been any developments in the case — which The Times first learned about several months ago — Mr. Mohammad did not mention the payment. Asked on Monday why he had not said anything about it, he gave no direct answer.

By Allissa J. Rubin, NYT, March 31, 2013

The U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will cost taxpayers $4 trillion to $6 trillion, taking into account the medical care of wounded veterans and expensive repairs to a force depleted by more than a decade of fighting, according to a new study by a Harvard researcher.

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Washington increased military benefits in late 2001 as the nation went to war, seeking to quickly bolster its talent pool and expand its ranks. Those decisions and the protracted nation-building efforts launched in both countries will generate expenses for years to come, Linda J. Bilmes, a public policy professor, wrote in the report that was released Thursday.

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“As a consequence of these wartime spending choices, the United States will face constraints in funding investments in personnel and diplomacy, research and development and new military initiatives,”the report says. “The legacy of decisions taken during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will dominate future federal budgets for decades to come.”

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Bilmes said the United States has spent almost $2 trillion already for the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those costs, she said, are only a fraction of the ultimate price tag. The biggest ongoing expense will be providing medical care and disability benefits to veterans of the two conflicts.

“Historically, the bill for these costs has come due many decades later,” the report says, noting that the peak disbursement of disability payments for America’s warriors in the last century came decades after the conflicts ended. “Payments to Vietnam and first Gulf War veterans are still climbing.”

U.S. Marines carry injured colleague to a helicopter near Falluja.

Spending borrowed money to pay for the wars has also made them more expensive, the study noted. The conflicts have added $2 trillion to America’s debt, representing roughly 20 percent of the debt incurred between 2001 and 2012.

Bilmes’s estimate provides a higher range than another authoritative study on the same issue by Brown University’s Eisenhower Research Project. Brown researchers put the price tag at roughly $4 trillion.

Both figures are dramatically higher than what U.S. officials projected they would spend when they were planning to go to war in Iraq. Stephen Friedman, a senior White House official, left government in 2002 after irking his colleagues by publicly estimating that the Iraq war could end up costing up to $200 billion.

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It’s unclear how long Washington will keep paying bills for that conflict, which dragged on for nearly a decade and became deeply unpopular at home and in Iraq. Judging from history, it could take quite awhile. The Associated Press recently found that the federal government is still cutting checks each month to relatives of Civil War veterans nearly 150 years after the end of that war.

 

By Ernesto Londoño, March 28, 2013

Repressive Arab regimes and their ideologies fuelled bin Laden and his supporters, and his death should wake them up.


Osama bin Laden is a product of Wahhabi teachings [GALLO/GETTY]
Osama bin Laden’s death in his Pakistani hiding place is like the removal of a tumour from the Muslim world. But aggressive follow-up therapy will be required to prevent the remaining al-Qaeda cells from metastasising by acquiring more adherents who believe in violence to achieve the ‘purification’ and empowerment of Islam.

Fortunately, bin Laden’s death comes at the very moment when much of the Islamic world is being convulsed by the treatment that bin Laden’s brand of fanaticism requires: the Arab Spring, with its demands for democratic empowerment (and the absence of demands, at least so far, for the type of Islamic rule that al-Qaeda sought to impose).

But can the nascent democracies being built in Egypt and Tunisia, and sought in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, see off the threats posed by Islamic extremists? In particular, can it defeat the Salafi/Wahhabi thought that has long nurtured Osama bin Laden and his ilk, and which remains the professed and protected ideology of Saudi Arabia?

The fact is that before the US operation to kill bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s symbolic head, the emerging democratic Arab revolutions had already, in just a few short months, done as much to marginalise and weaken his terrorist movement in the Islamic world as the war on terror had achieved in a decade. Those revolutions, whatever their ultimate outcome, have exposed the philosophy and behaviour of bin Laden and his followers as not only illegitimate and inhumane, but actually inept at achieving better conditions for ordinary Muslims.

What millions of Arabs were saying as they stood united in peaceful protest was that their way of achieving Arab and Islamic dignity is far less costly in human terms. More importantly, their way will ultimately achieve the type of dignity that people really want, as opposed to the unending wars of terror to rebuild the caliphate that Bin Laden promised.

After all, the protesters of the Arab Spring did not need to use – and abuse – Islam to achieve their ends. They did not wait for God to change their condition, but took the initiative by peacefully confronting their oppressors. The Arab revolutions mark the emergence of a pluralist, post-Islamist banner for the faithful. Indeed, the only people to introduce religion into the protests have been rulers, such as those in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and Syria, who have tried to use fear of the Shia or Sunni “other” to continue to divide and misrule their societies.

Bin Laden’s era

Now that the US has eradicated bin Laden’s physical presence, it needs to stop delaying the rest of the therapeutic process. For the US has been selectively – and short-sightedly – irradiating only parts of the cancer that al-Qaeda represents, while leaving the malignant growth of Saudi Wahabism and Salafism untouched. Indeed, despite the decade of the West’s war on terror, and Saudi Arabia’s longer-term alliance with the US, the Kingdom’s Wahhabi religious establishment has continued to bankroll Islamic extremist ideologies around the world.

Bin Laden, born, raised, and educated in Saudi Arabia, is a product of this pervasive ideology. He was no religious innovator; he was a product of Wahhabism, and later was exported by the Wahhabi regime as a jihadist.

During the 1980’s, Saudi Arabia spent $75 bn for the propagation of Wahhabism, funding schools, mosques, and charities throughout the Islamic world, from Pakistan to Afghanistan, Yemen, Algeria, and beyond. The Saudis continued such programs after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and even after they discovered that “the Call” is uncontrollable, owing to the technologies of globalisation. Not surprisingly, the creation of a transnational Islamic political movement, boosted by thousands of underground jihadi websites, has blown back into the Kingdom.

Like the hijackers of 9/11, who were also Saudi/Wahhabi ideological exports (15 of the 19 men who carried out those terror attacks were chosen by bin Laden because they shared the same Saudi descent and education as he), Saudi Arabia’s reserve army of potential terrorists remains, because the Wahhabi factory of fanatical ideas remains intact.

So the real battle has not been with bin Laden, but with that Saudi state-supported ideology factory. Bin Laden merely reflected the entrenched violence of the Kingdom’s official ideology.

Bin Laden’s eradication may strip some dictators, from Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi to Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, of the main justification they have used for their decades of repression. But the US knows perfectly well that al-Qaeda is an enemy of convenience for Saleh and other American allies in the region, and that in many cases, terrorism has been used as a pretext to repress reform. Indeed, now the US is encouraging repression of the Arab Spring in Yemen and Bahrain, where official security forces routinely kill peaceful protesters calling for democracy and human rights.

Al-Qaeda and democracy cannot coexist. Indeed, bin Laden’s death should open the international community’s eyes to the source of his movement: repressive Arab regimes and their extremist ideologies. Otherwise, his example will continue to haunt the world.

Mai Yamani’s most recent book is Cradle of Islam.

A version of this article first appeared on Project Syndicate.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera /05 May 2011