Archive for May 2006
KABUL, 26 May (IRIN) – Food assistance to some 2.7 million vulnerable Afghans this winter, along with many other food programmes for the country, are now under threat, unless more than US $30 million in funds are found soon, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) warned on Thursday.
WFP aims to pre-position 25,000 mt of food in remote areas of the country between August and October before thousands of isolated and food-insecure communities are cut off by winter snows.
“If we have to cut our operations this year, thousands of families will go hungry. Such a negative development would undermine the broader stabilisation objectives of the Afghan government and donors,” Anthony Banbury, WFP regional director for Asia, said in the Afghan capital, Kabul.
“Unless donors come forward quickly, we will soon be forced to take this tough decision because we have so little wheat in our warehouses and almost none in the pipeline,” Banbury elaborated.
But it is not just the agency’s winter programme that is under threat – WFP faces an overall shortfall of 49,000 mt of food aid until the end of 2006 out of a total requirement of 106,000 mt for Afghanistan. The UN food agency needs an additional $31 million to fund its activities for the rest of the year, the agency claims.
According to WFP, over 50 percent of children are malnourished in Afghanistan, while one in three people living in rural areas are unable to meet basic nutritional requirements each day. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, where more than half of the country’s nearly 25 million inhabitants live below the poverty line.
A 2003 national vulnerability assessment revealed that that some 3.5 million Afghans were extremely poor and chronically food insecure, while an additional 3 million were seasonally food insecure.
From January to March 2006, WFP has assisted over 1.25 million Afghans with some 16,000 mt of food aid. However, in the worst case scenario, the agency would have to suspend or severely reduce rations for many of its other operations, such as feeding illiterate men and women while they are being taught how to read and write, along with additional programmes targeting widows, war-affected children and tuberculosis patients.
“Major reductions in our operations will not only endanger the health of millions of Afghans, but also the country’s fragile recovery and many of the gains made over recent years,” Banbury stressed.
The funding crisis has already forced WFP to cut wheat rations to schoolchildren, who bring the grain home to provide food for their families.
“We have cut 200,000 children from that programme and for an additional 250,000 – we have cut the ration in half,” Banbury said.
Human rights group says 34 civilians killed in attack
May 26, 2006
(CNN) — A human rights group said Friday that about 34 civilians were killed in a U.S. air attack Monday on the village of Azizi in southern Afghanistan, more than double the number previously cited by President Hamid Karzai.
“According to a witness who was wounded and is now in the Mirwais hospital in Kandahar, there were two separate groups of civilians killed in the village,” said Engineer Abdul Qader Noorzai, director of the Kandahar office of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission said.
He said one group of about 25 people was the extended family of a man named Atta Mohammad.
“They were living in a walled mud compound that was destroyed. The family included many women and children.”
He said the second group, which included the witness, was composed of day laborers who had been constructing a second floor to the village madrassah when the attack occurred.
“There were nine people killed in this second group,” he said.
The witness said “many more Taliban fighters were also killed, but that the 34 village people killed were civilians and were not involved in the fighting.”
The governor of Kandahar had told reporters Monday that 50 Taliban fighters and 15 civilians were killed in U.S. airstrikes on a rebel stronghold in Azizi.
Another 16 civilians or more were wounded in the airstrikes, the governor said.
A U.S. military spokeswoman said she had not seen the human rights group’s report, but would be in contact with the regional governor.
A U.S. military statement on Monday said coalition forces conducted the operation near the village of Azizi, the third in a week, which “resulted in the unconfirmed deaths of possibly up to 80 Taliban members.”
“Initial assessments have confirmed 20 Taliban killed with an unconfirmed 60 additional Taliban casualties.”
Spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Fitzpatrick said coalition forces were aware of reports of civilian casualties “and are continuing to review assessments from ground elements in the region.”
He said those people killed Monday “were active members of the Taliban network who conducted attacks against coalition and Afghan forces as well as civilians.”
The network members had attacked Afghan government officials and collected explosives to be used in improvised explosive devices, he said.
By Robert Birsel / Thursday, May 25, 2006
KABUL (Reuters) – Hunger could haunt millions of Afghans in coming months, with serious implications for security, unless donor countries provide help, the World Food Programme (WFP) said on Thursday.
The UN agency has already cut some food-for-work programs and rations for hundreds of thousands of school children. Without more funds, the millions could soon be going hungry.
“Hunger, real hunger, could become a serious issue in coming months,” the WFP’s Asia director, Anthony Banbury, told a news conference.
“On a humanitarian level, the need for this assistance is very compelling, but there’s also a vital strategic consideration … Real hunger for millions of people could become a source of insecurity.”
International forces and the Afghan government are struggling against resurgent Taliban guerillas nearly five years after the hard-line Islamists were forced from power.
The WFP was concerned that hungry people might be much more susceptible to the message of those fighting the government and its international backers, Banbury said.
“This is a real risk to the Afghan people, the Afghan government and those trying to assist the Afghan people,” he said.
The WFP, which is helping 3.5 million Afghans, needed $31 million for all Afghan operations for the rest of the year and it was making an urgent appeal to donors to come up with the help, he said.
About half of that amount is needed for a plan to pre-position 25,000 tons of food near remote mountain communities that get cut off in the winter.
Some 2.5 million of the war-torn country’s most needy people benefit from the so-called winterisation program but this year the WFP has no money to fund it, and time is running out.
The food must be put in place between August and October, before a harsh winter sets in and cuts off transport.
Afghanistan and those trying to help it were partly victims of their own success, he said.
Programs to help had worked well over recent years and hunger had not become a crisis, so donors had turned to emergencies elsewhere, such as in Africa.
“There is a real risk that if they walk away from the sector that is going well, it all of a sudden won’t be going well, with very serious implications,” Banbury said.
The amount of money the WFP was seeking was modest compared with what Afghanistan’s allies were already spending to help the country, Banbury said.
“It’s very clear, without the resources we won’t be able to provide assistance,” he said.
Afghanistan is expecting a good harvest this year, with wheat production seen at 4.4 million tons compared with 4.27 million tons last year, but it will still face a shortfall of 500,000 tons of cereals.
By Paul Wiseman, USA TODAY / May 25, 2006
Norwali, 20, seeking sanctuary from the merciless Afghan sun, sits cross-legged in the shade supplied by a “jingle truck.”
He and two colleagues have been stuck for almost a week outside the government customs house on the outskirts of Kabul. They spend the time resting in their garishly painted truck, named for the jingling chains that hang from the front fender. The three are waiting for official clearance to unload an electrical generator they trucked across the border from Peshawar, Pakistan, pay the customs duty and be gone.
“We are very frustrated,” says Norwali, who like many Afghans uses one name. “It is five days we are waiting. The government wastes our time.”
To all Afghanistan’s troubles – grinding poverty, widespread illiteracy, repression of women, squalor, disease and an intensifying insurgency – add one more: No country in the world is worse at collecting taxes. According to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, government revenue in Afghanistan is equal to barely 5% of gross domestic product (GDP), lower than the impoverished governments of sub-Saharan Africa.
The embattled government of President Hamid Karzai, knowing that the ability to raise money is a stamp of legitimacy, has pledged to boost government revenue to 8% of GDP by 2011. That would reassure foreign donors who finance 92% of the Afghan government’s total expenditures.
“Donors want to see a light at the end of the tunnel,” says William Byrd, the World Bank’s senior economic adviser in Afghanistan.
The goal is modest: for the Afghan government to use its own money to meet recurring expenses such as paying salaries, patching potholes and keeping the lights on in government offices. Foreign donors would continue to pay the far bigger tab for big projects, such as building schools and hospitals, which Afghanistan won’t be able to afford for the foreseeable future.
“We should be able to stand on our two feet and be a normal country – a poor, underdeveloped, normal country,” Afghan Finance Minister Anwar ul-Haq Ahady says in an interview.
It can be done: Even Uganda and Rwanda, which also have struggled with the legacy of anarchy and violence, have managed to double government revenue to more than 10% of GDP within the past 15 years, according to the World Bank.
Obstacles to change
But the Afghan government faces mighty obstacles on the way to financial self-sufficiency:
• It has no experience paying its own way. Historically, the government has coaxed aid from a shifting cast of foreign patrons: Great Britain, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, India, the United States. Even in the halcyon days of the 1970s, before the Soviet invasion began a quarter-century of political violence, the Afghan government’s domestic revenue remained well below 10% of GDP.
• Afghan’s customs inspectors are ill-equipped to move quickly: The customs service’s yellow cranes, designed to lift crates and containers, date back at least to the era of the Soviet occupation during the 1980s; they are dented and sag on flat tires. In the warehouses where goods are unloaded and inspected, birds chase each other through the rafters, chirping loudly.
• Official corruption is epidemic. The rugged mountainous borders are a smuggler’s dream. The Taliban insurgency has made much of eastern and southern Afghanistan a no-go zone for any government official, let alone a tax collector.
Most of all, Afghanistan’s economy is dominated by goat herders, opium growers, street hawkers, shopkeepers and day laborers, few of whom have much experience with or enthusiasm for the paperwork required by a modern tax system. “You don’t have cash registers. You don’t pay by check. In an informal economy, we’re bound to lose revenue,” Finance Minister Ahady says.
Building a tax system
From Finance Ministry offices in downtown Kabul, Ahady and a team of mostly imported financial experts are laboring to build a tax system that will put the Afghan government on a sounder financial footing while encouraging businesses to invest in the country. Among the things they are doing:
• Setting reasonable, business-friendly tax rates and customs duties. The top personal income tax rate is 20%. Ahady estimates that 95% of Afghans earn less than $3,000 a year and therefore pay no income tax at all.
Customs duties average 4%, the lowest in the region. The corporate tax rate is 20% of profit, compared with 35% to 50% in Pakistan, 30% in China and nearly 37% in India. Ahady says businesses still gripe that 20% is too high, but “they have not given me an example of where in the world (a lower rate) has worked” without off-setting taxes.
• Putting some teeth into tax law. Afghanistan last November enacted legislation empowering government tax collectors to seize the assets of tax dodgers. That already has had an impact. In late December, the Finance Ministry for the first time froze the bank accounts of a big company that hadn’t paid its taxes.
“Within two days, word got around,” says adviser John McDonald, on loan to the Finance Ministry from Chicago-based law firm Baker & McKenzie. Two large taxpayers, who’d been negotiating their tax bills with the ministry, promptly capitulated and accepted government proposals that had been on the table for weeks.
• Killing dozens of “nuisance taxes” that annoy ordinary people and undermine the central government’s legitimate tax-collecting efforts. The World Bank says Afghanistan has about 90 taxes, half of which raise less than $21,000 a year. Sometimes these “taxes” are little more than shakedowns by avaricious local officials, who stop trucks on the road and demand, say, “reconstruction” taxes.
Some, McDonald says, are a weird holdover from the days when state-owned companies were authorized to collect specialized taxes and fees. McDonald’s favorite example: Afghanistan once had a state monopoly on neon signs. The firm now is essentially defunct but has continued to exercise its obsolete right to collect taxes on magazine advertising.
The ministry wants to winnow Afghanistan’s taxes down to five or six and “get rid of all the rubbish,” says Graham Burnett, a New Zealander who is advising the Finance Ministry after helping set up tax systems in war-torn Kosovo and East Timor.
• Casting a wider net in search of revenue. The ministry is working on a shopkeeper tax, a set fee that won’t require financially unsophisticated merchants to calculate tax bills. Next month, the government will start collecting tolls on some roads.
The World Bank’s Byrd says the new policies are smart but may not be enough. “The tax policy side is in pretty good shape,” he says. “The implementation is a problem. There’s corruption in tax administration and sometimes a lack of clarity in tax regulation.”
The Finance Ministry is trying to fix one experiment that went awry: mobile customs teams that patrolled the highways, stopping trucks to check for illicit cargo. Unfortunately, the teams “abused their authority,” Finance Minister Ahady says. In some cases, they demanded roadside payments.
Some progress being made
The government has made some progress. Four years ago, regional warlords such as Ismail Khan in Herat and Abdul Rashid Dostum in Mazar-i-Sharif collected customs and refused to hand the money over to the central government. President Karzai has sidelined Khan and Dostum and the customs revenue that once went to their fiefdoms now goes into government coffers in Kabul.
In fact, the government’s domestic revenue has risen from $129 million in the fiscal year that ended in March 2003 (after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001) to more than $400 million in the fiscal year that ended this March. About half comes from customs revenue, taxes on imported goods.
Customs collection is improving. Customs offices are getting computerized. And although corruption is still believed to be widespread, customs officials seem to be more honest and professional these days, according to the truckers who have to deal with them.
“Paying bribes was common last year,” says trucker Awal Khan, 45, who is waiting with Norwali for the electric generator to be released. “This year it is not so common.”
Thu May 25, 7:22 AM ET
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Militants killed three truck drivers hauling food for the U.S. military, and 3,000 people have fled their homes because of heavy fighting, officials in Afghanistan said Thursday.
Meanwhile, the United Nations said a funding shortfall may force it to cut food aid to some 2.7 million Afghans, warning that such reductions could further destabilize the country.
The killings occurred Wednesday as three Afghan drivers were taking containers of food from Bagram, the U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan, to a base in Paktika province, said Interior Ministry spokesman Yousuf Stanezai.
Attacks on trucks contracted to haul fuel, equipment and other gear for the military are common, but the militants usually free the drivers.
Some 3,000 villagers were fleeing their homes in southern Kandahar province after a week of violence left scores dead across Afghanistan, said Nasim Karim, a press officer with the U.N. International Organization for Migration. Most of those who fled lived in Kandahar’s Panjwayi district, the site of the fiercest fighting, and were fleeing to Kandahar city, where thousands of foreign troops are based, Karim said. Many sought shelter with relatives.
As many as 336 people have been killed in violence since May 17, according to coalition and Afghan figures. Those numbers are difficult to confirm independently because many of the villages are closed off by authorities or are in remote areas.
The fighting is some of the worst since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001.
Abdul Qabar Noorzai, the director of the Kandahar office of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said his office is receiving distressing news from all over southern Afghanistan about the effects of the increased fighting on civilian populations.
“They have lost their homes, orchards, agriculture land and assets, and now they are in a very bad position,” he said.
The United Nations said it will lack 49,000 tons of food aid out of a total 106,000 required tons unless donor countries make up a $31 million funding shortfall before winter, and it cautioned that aid cutbacks may lead to greater insecurity in a country already struggling with a reinvigorated insurgency.
“Major reductions in our operations will not only endanger the health of millions of Afghans but also the country’s fragile recovery and many of the gains made over recent years,” Anthony Banbury, the U.N. World Food Program’s regional director for Asia, told reporters in Kabul.
“By undermining development, severe cuts could foster greater insecurity — something that many donors are spending vast amounts trying to prevent.”
Women drivers face continual insults on the road, especially outside Kabul.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting
By Sadeq Behnam and Sudabah Afzali in Herat (ARR No. 217, 23-May-06)
When Suraya returned to Afghanistan from Iran a few months ago, one of the first things she did was acquire a driving license. She dreamed of being independent and of being able to drive around her home city, Herat in the west of the country.
But the 23-year-old soon found out that going out alone in her car was impossible.
“I thought getting a license would be the problem,” she said, draped in a black Iranian-style chador and sitting behind the wheel of her car in the Takht-e-Safar park, two kilometres north of Herat. “But the real problem is harassment.”
On the very few occasions when she ventured out in the city, Suraya found herself the target of young men on motorcycles who followed her, calling her names and taunting her.
“I am a human being but I am denied my basic human rights,” she complained.
Under the Taleban, women were not allowed to drive, or even to leave the house without a male family member in attendance.
After the Taleban regime was toppled, in 2001, Herat was headed by former mujahedin commander Ismail Khan, who ruled the region with an iron hand. He too decreed that no woman could get a license or drive a car. The few who tried were stopped on the road, and their male relatives were summoned by the police and warned not to let it happen again.
When Ismail Khan was removed as governor in 2004, the atmosphere in Herat eased somewhat, and women flocked to driving classes.
According to Assadullah Afzali, head of the licence issuing office at Herat’s traffic department, there are currently 25 women waiting to get licences. Like their male counterparts, they have to sign up for lessons – two weeks of theory and one of practice – from the department’s driving instructors.
“So far 165 women have done driving courses with Herat traffic department, of whom only 75 have succeeded in getting licenses,” he said.
But this year, said Afzali, the number of women applying for driver’s licenses has been cut in half.
“The reason for this decline is harassment of women drivers,” he said.
“When women are legally issued with driving licences by the government, no one has a right to harass them or prevent them from driving,” said Abdul Rauf, a press officer at Herat police headquarters. “The police will take legal action against those who create problems for women drivers.”
Police in Herat said that there have been 30 cases of harassment of female drivers by motorcyclists over the past six months. The offenders were all jailed for short periods – in some cases just a few hours – and then released after promising not to do it again.
In Kabul, Assadullah, the head of licensing at Afghanistan’s Central Traffic Department, confirmed that most of the problems occur outside the capital.
To date, his office has issued 350 driving licences to women across Afghanistan.
“Women drivers in Kabul don’t have any problems, but the situation is different in the regions,” he said.
Herat is a very conservative province, where few women work, female singers are rarely shown on television, and many girls and women cannot even leave their houses without their family’s permission.
“Women should do housework. They shouldn’t drive as men do. That is the man’s job,” said Noor Ahmad, a male resident of Herat city, sitting in his white Toyota Corolla.
“We fought the jihad to protect our women. If a man lets his wife drive in the city, he betrays the jihad.”
Gulsom, 19, who is taking driving lessons in Herat, has little patience with such attitudes.
“Most of the people who don’t want women to drive freely are former mujahedin,” she said. “They get young men to harass us. But I am determined to drive once I get my license.”
Some women continue to drive despite the problems. Najia, 28, carries on despite having been harassed and threatened several times.
“At the beginning, it was very difficult for me because they [motorcyclists] followed me and harassed me in every street, but now I don’t care about them,” she said. “I ask the police to take tough measures against these people.”
Maulawi Bashir Ahmad Munib, a lecturer at the Sharia law faculty of Herat University, told IWPR that according to the precepts of Islam, women have a right to drive.
“There is no problem with women driving, according to Islam, as long as they cover themselves and the security situation allows it,” he said.
But that is not much comfort to Lailuma, 21, a literature student at the university who can only dream of driving a car.
“My husband gives me a hard time about coming to university, so how is he going to let me get a driving licence?” she asked.
“Whenever I see people driving, I wish I were a man so that I could be free.”
Sadeq Behnam and Sudabah Afzali are IWPR contributors in Herat
Women are sorely underrepresented in the new cabinet – and they want to know why.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting
By Salima Ghafari in Kabul (ARR No. 217, 23-May-06)
Women have made great strides since the fall of the Taleban: they are back in schools and the workplace, and they have more than a quarter of the seats in the new legislature.
But in at least one area women seem to have taken a step backwards – the new cabinet, which at present is entirely male.
There was only one female candidate on the list of 25 ministers that President Hamed Karzai submitted for parliamentary approval in March – Suraya Rahim Sobhrang, nominated for the women’s affairs ministry – and she failed to win confirmation. No new candidate has yet been proposed.
In the previous government, the ministries in charge of women’s affairs, youth affairs, and martyrs and disabled were all headed by women.
That is not to say there are no women in the executive: there are two female deputy ministers of women’s affairs, one deputy health minister, one in the higher education ministry and one in the ministry of labour and social affairs. There is also a female governor in Bamian province.
But the fact that there are none with full ministerial rank has got some Afghan women fighting mad. President Karzai, they say, is being pressured by radical Islamic groups and former leaders of the anti-communist jihad to keep women out of power.
“I am extremely dissatisfied,” said Shukria Barakzai, a female parliamentarian in Kabul. “Without a doubt, the new cabinet has been formed based on consultation with various jihadi factions.”
Mazari Safa, the deputy minister of women’s affairs, also expressed concern.
“Our ministry is worried about the lack of women in the new cabinet,” she said. “We have told the president many times, via letters and the media, that the women’s ministry wants a real presence for women in all matters.”
Presidential spokesman Mohammad Karim Rahimi acknowledged that Karzai had consulted with religious and tribal elders in forming the cabinet. He would continue this practice since it helped build national solidarity, said Rahimi, adding that this did not mean the president made his decisions under pressure from any specific group or faction.
“The presence of three women in the previous cabinet and only one [nominated] in the new one does not mean that their value or position is reduced,” said Rahimi. “Now there is one woman in the cabinet, but there may be five in the future. It is not important to us.”
Rahimi’s comment on one cabinet post being held by a woman referred to the post of women’s affairs minister, for which another female candidate is likely to be nominated following the rejection of Sobhrang.
According to Sabrina Saqib, one of the youngest deputies in parliament, previous female ministers are to blame for the current absence of women.
“The three women who were in the cabinet before were unable to win the government’s trust,” she said. “Therefore, men believe that women don’t have the necessary skills.”
Saqib said that when female members of parliament spoke to Karzai about his failure to propose women for cabinet posts, “The president said that they were unable to find any skilled and experienced women to head ministries, and that most of the competent women are in parliament.”
Nonsense, said Malalai Joya, the outspoken deputy from Farah province who regularly tackles the jihadi leaders in her speeches.
“There are many experienced and skilled women in Afghanistan, but they are prevented by powerful groups from assuming their rightful place in government and politics,” she said. These groups included warlords and various jihadi factions, she added.
“Karzai’s glorious celebration of mujahedin victory day shows he will do anything to please these groups,” said Joya, referring to the parades and festivities held to mark the Eighth of Sauer, in late April, the day the mujahedin captured Kabul in 1992 and ousted the communist regime. Many Afghans believe that this date marked the beginning of the worst conflict and destruction the country has experienced, and see no reason to celebrate it.
According to political analyst Mohammad Hassan Wolesmal, the former mujahedin leaders have gained the upper hand in parliament, and this has made them bolder in their demands.
“The jihadi leaders did not have a free hand during the interim and transitional governments,” he said, referring to the administrations which existed from 2002 to 2006. “But now that these people have secured a majority in parliament, they can impose any conditions they want on the government.”
Getting rid of women in the cabinet was one of their first gains, he said.
But Abdul Shakur Waqif Hakimi, spokesman for Jamiat-e-Islami, the party to which many jihadi leaders including former president Burnahuddin Rabbani belong, said his party had not been consulted on the formation of the cabinet.
And he denied that – if it had been asked – Jamiat would have intervened to keep women out of government.
“Jamiat-e-Islami does not disagree with women being present in the cabinet,” he said.
Political analyst Qasim Akhgar said he was worried that government by an all-male cabinet would have a negative effect of women’s morale.
“I consider it a step backwards,” he said.
Many Kabul women agree. Rabia, 33, a housewife, said that she believed the jihadi leaders did have a hand in cutting the number of women in the cabinet.
“It isn’t true that women are free,” she said. “Women’s freedom only exists in words. They have always humiliated women, and they are doing it again. They don’t want women to be involved in politics.”