Archive for May 2008
By FISNIK ABRASHI
Associated Press / May 30, 2008
KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghanistan will ask international donors next month for $4 billion to revive its agricultural sector, but it could be a hard sell with another massive crop of opium expected this year.
Despite the sharply rising price of grain, foreign-funded efforts to promote legal alternatives to the narcotic have largely failed.
Farmers still make much more from growing poppy, the raw material for heroin, which flourishes amid Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgency and rampant lawlessness. Half of the country’s production comes from Helmand province, a stronghold of insurgents.
Roughly one out of every seven farmers in this predominantly rural nation of 32 million people grow opium. Giving them alternatives is part of Afghanistan’s plan to invest $4 billion over the next five years in its outdated agricultural sector.
It will present the plan at a conference of international donors in Paris on June 12 — a key plank of its $50 billion appeal to fund development in the war-ravaged country.
“I think the food crisis we have been experiencing here and in many other countries illustrates clearly the need to devote more attention to that sector,” said Kai Eide, the top U.N. envoy in the country.
The rising cost of food worldwide would appear to be an attractive incentive for farmers to abandon drug production. Wheat prices rose by some 75 percent in Afghanistan between January and April because of shortages, after another spike in 2007.
Abdul Qadus, an opium farmer from Kandahar, said he would consider switching to wheat after about half of his poppy fields failed this year because of a harsh winter and lack of rain.
Also, the price of the best quality opium paste has dropped to $85 per kilogram compared to $110 last year.
“As the price of (opium) goes down day by day and that of flour goes up, we are thinking that maybe in the future we will decide to sow wheat,” said Qadus, who completed his harvest earlier this month. “At least we might be able to feed our children that way.”
But there is still a huge price difference. In 2007, the gross income from a hectare of opium was nearly 10 times what it was for wheat.
The challenges of weaning farmers off poppy and growing legal crops are most acute in Helmand, which remains too dangerous for most foreign aid groups to operate.
Matt Waldman, a policy adviser for the aid group Oxfam, said efforts so far have been “fragmented and seriously underfunded.”
Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at New York University, said too much focus has been put on military action and not enough on investing in job creation and rural development after the U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban nearly seven years ago.
“If (the Bush administration) had started in 2001, we would have gotten somewhere by now, but they started only in 2004 and with poorly designed and implemented programs that are still inadequate, despite some improvement,” he said.
The United States has spent $878 million in alternative livelihood and agriculture programs since 2001, and trained 1.5 million farmers in modern farming practices, the U.S. embassy says. Other Western nations, particularly Britain, have also contributed millions.
Loren Owen Stoddard, the director of USAID’s Alternative Development and Agriculture office, said it wants to establish supply chains to encourage Afghan farmers to grow fruit for export and to rear livestock and produce vegetable oil for the domestic market.
But many remain skeptical that the infusion of aid money will translate into benefits for farmers — overcoming chronic problems of poor infrastructure, insecurity and official corruption.
“If they (farmers) grow pomegranates, who will finance the cost of irrigation and labor before the harvest? Who will prevent them from getting robbed on the way to market? Who will export the pomegranates in proper packaging to a market where they can make money?” said Rubin. “The opium industry solves all these problems for the farmers. Giving them a bunch of seeds does not solve these problems.”
Authorities have fought the opium harvest by sending police eradication teams and even paying farmers to destroy their own poppy crops. Clerics have been urged to tell villagers that growing the narcotic is un-Islamic.
But even as anti-drug aid has soared, so has opium production.
In 2003, 197,680 acres of land was used to cultivate poppy. By 2007, that number had jumped to 476,900 acres. Opium production topped 9,000 tons, enough to make over 880 tons of heroin. The country now accounts for 93 percent of world production, the U.N. says.
Figures for 2008 are not yet available, but counter-narcotics officials expect only a slight drop in land being cultivated for opium compared with 2007. Poor weather, however, will mean a lower yield per hectare so the total quantity of opium produced should fall.
The Ministry of Counter Narcotics says that 20 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces will be poppy-free this year — compared with 13 provinces in 2007. But in the south where most of the opium is grown, cultivation remains rampant — particularly in Helmand.
There, opium traffickers and traders appear to be doing a better job of supporting farmers than development agencies. They provide the farmers with credit, seeds and fertilizer ahead of planting season, said Sarah Chayes, who runs a small private company in Kandahar that buys ingredients from farmers to make natural skin-care products.
After the harvest, the drug traders collect the opium paste directly so the farmer does not have to find a market for it, she said.
Aid groups need to “mimic what traffickers offer to farmers,” Chayes said.
Associated Press writer Noor Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.
HERAT, Afghanistan, May 28 (Reuters) – Afghan television journalist Niloufar Habibi never wore the all-enveloping burqa until she was stabbed on her doorstep. Now it is her disguise.
More than six years after the overthrow of the Taliban, Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative country where many still oppose women working in public, visible roles.
“If I go outside people will see where I’m going and see what I’m doing,” said Habibi, 20.
“I wear it (the burqa) to feel safe. I feel they are still after me.”
Just over 10 days ago Habibi opened her front door to a woman dressed in a burqa asking for a glass of water.
As she turned to go to the kitchen the woman tore off the burqa, wrapped it around Habibi’s head, and stabbed her in the abdomen.
“The next time I opened my eyes, I was in hospital,” Habibi told Reuters in the western city of Herat.
Two women journalists were killed in Afghanistan last year and rights groups are concerned about the increase in violence.
“We are very worried about the growing number of attacks and threats against women journalists,” said Reporters Without Borders, referring to Habibi’s case.
“Action must be taken to put a stop to this violence.”
For about a year Habibi worked as a journalist for Herat TV, a state-owned television station in her home town.
Reading the news, hosting cultural shows and interviewing high-profile Afghan figures made hers a recognisable face.
Days before Habibi was stabbed, she started receiving phone calls and text messages, asking her if she thought she was important now she was on TV.
The callers threatened to kill her if she did not stop working.
“At first I thought it was my friends joking around,” she said. “But then I started receiving five to six messages and two to three phone calls a day, sometimes 12 o’clock at night.
“That’s when I knew it was serious.”
The police told Habibi to write down the callers’ numbers and said they would visit her at work to investigate.
The next day, on her way to work, Habibi was stopped by two men on a motorbike and a woman and a man in a car. The group were carrying a gun, a knife and a razor blade.
“This one will finish you if you don’t stop working,” one of them said, showing her a bullet.
The woman in the group then slashed Habibi’s right forearm with the razor blade several times as one of the men held her arm. They later dropped her off at her workplace with a warning.
“If you don’t resign, we will kill you,” the woman said.
The next day Habibi was stabbed.
“I don’t know who they are,” said Habibi. “But I think these are a group of people that don’t want women to develop and go out and work, instead they want them to stay at home.”
Under the Taliban, women were not allowed to work and television was banned. Habibi is educated and ambitious, and represents a new face of Afghan women in a troubled country.
But for conservatives, change is happening too fast.
“My only wish was to become a good journalist and be at the service of my people, but if the people don’t understand that then what can I do?” she says.
Since being stabbed Habibi has not been going to work.
“What’s more important: TV or my life?” she said.
Asked if she has hope for her country and the future, Habibi sounded defeated.
“What future, what country, what people?”
(Editing by Robert Woodward)
May 26, 2008
KABUL (Reuters) – The prevalence of HIV is low in Afghanistan, but the potential risk factors for the spread of the disease remain high, the Public Health Ministry said on Monday.
So far 435 HIV positive cases have been reported in Afghanistan, the ministry said in a statement, but it is estimated there are 2,000-2,500 cases in a population of some 26 million, still a relatively low infection rate.
“But … war, poverty, illiteracy, massive international and external displacement, the high level of poppy cultivation, drug trafficking and usage, the existence of commercial and unsafe sex, unsafe injection practices and blood transfusion are potential risk factors for its spread,” the ministry said.
Afghanistan is a deeply Islamic country and many of those affected with HIV do not want to speak about it and some are not aware they have it.
The World Bank has granted $10 million (5 million pounds) to the ministry for identifying and creating public awareness among those groups most at risk of HIV and AIDS, the government said.
(Reporting by Sayed Salahuddin, editing by Sanjeev Miglani)
KABUL, 26 May 2008 (IRIN) – Flash floods have displaced about 200 families (roughly 1,200 individuals) in the Hazrat Sultan district of Samangan Province in northern Afghanistan. The families urgently need food and shelter, according to the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS).
“Heavy summer rainfall caused two separate floods in Hazrat Sultan district on Sunday afternoon, which completely destroyed 26 houses, partly damaged more than 100 houses and killed dozens of animals. No human casualties were reported,” Mohammad Zahir Hamidi, provincial head of ARCS, told IRIN from Samangan on 26 May.
“We will provide the displaced families with tents and kitchen kits. We asked the World Food Programme [WFP] to send food items,” added Hamidi.
WFP said it will send a team from Kabul to assess the needs of the displaced families on 27 May. “After we get the result of the assessment, we will send food items to the affected families,” Ebadullah Ebadi, a WFP spokesman, told IRIN in Kabul.
The Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA) in Kabul said that 190 families had fled their houses to a hill near their village where some stayed overnight. Others were accommodated by nearby villagers or went back to their partly damaged houses after the flood waters receded.
Meanwhile, the ARCS office in Samangan has warned of the possibility of more rain in the area. “We need urgent assistance because the displaced families are so vulnerable now and more floods would cause further damage [and suffering],” Hamidi said.
In February, a national emergency commission – made up of several government bodies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – warned that 21 out of the country’s 34 provinces, including Samangan, were “vulnerable” to spring floods, which usually start in March and last until May.
A spell of floods and landslides caused by heavy rains killed dozens of people and damaged thousands of homes across Afghanistan in 2007, according to Afghanistan’s National Disasters Management Authority (ANDMA).
By: Nick Paton Walsh
Channel 4 News (UK)
May 26, 2008
In Afghanistan the cost of flour trebles in the space of months.
Food prices have been soaring around the world, but this is one of the worst affected places.
Pakistan has cut off grain supplies to the country, and local bakers fear their businesses won’t survive.
But one curious side-effect of the crisis is that farmers can now make so much money from wheat, they’ve stopped growing opium. That’s angered the Taliban, who use the poppy’s crop as a major source of cash.
Source: European Union (EU) / May 26, 2008
The EU General Affairs and External Relations Council has decided the EU should double the number of participants in the EUPOL mission in Afghanistan. This measure will strengthen efforts towards police reform. The decision, adopted at today’s meeting chaired by the Slovenian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Dimitrij Rupel, underlined that security and the rule of law are essential for progress in Afghanistan. The consolidation of the rule of law, which is particularly weak in the areas where safety is not guaranteed, is of crucial importance for consolidating the democratic process in Afghanistan, also in terms of the presidential elections in 2009 and parliamentary elections in 2010. In the future, the operation of the EUPOL mission will also be closely coordinated with other international actors, mainly the United States, taking into consideration the Afghan regime.
In the conclusions of today’s meeting, the ministers also highlighted issues related to further strengthening the fight against corruption, introducing local self-government and implementing a strategy for the fight against drugs.
The President of the EU Council, Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, underlined that this is a continuation of the discussion by foreign ministers in the margins of the March European Council. At that time, the ministers agreed that the situation in Afghanistan needed more attention, which should be appropriately expressed in the EU’s positions to be represented at the Paris Conference on 12 June. “I believe that today’s conclusions properly reflect what we have to focus on: what we could do more and what we can do better for Afghanistan,” said Dr Rupel.
The decision that the EU should double the EUPOL mission will, according to the Slovenian Foreign Minister, be “an important contribution to facing the challenges ahead of us”; it conveys a clear message about EU commitments to the international community and the Afghan government. “Timely planning, meticulous preparations and evaluation of the needs in the field will guarantee an efficient use of our resources. EUPOL, however, is only as good as its forces; therefore, our Member States will have to provide for the secondment of highly qualified forces also in the future,” said the Slovenian Foreign Minister, additionally pointing out the presidential elections in 2009 and parliamentary elections in 2010 as future challenges. “Our success will be measured by the success of these elections, and it is on us to contribute to them. That’s why we should consider financial and other forms of assistance,” said Minister Rupel with regard to Afghanistan.
By Jon Boone in Kabul
The Financial Times (UK)
May 25, 2008
Afghanistan will ask the international community next month for a half a billion dollars to begin work on a “new Kabul” that will be more than one and a half times the size of the existing capital.
Under plans drawn up by President Hamid Karzai’s chief economic adviser, a vast area just north of Afghanistan’s chaotic capital will become a modern city for 3m people, complete with an electric tram system and a huge central park with a mountain and artificial lake.
A world-class international airport is also planned to encourage regional companies to have their headquarters in the capital, although Afghanistan’s dire security situation and rampant government corruption have been big deterrents for foreign investors so far.
The call for a new city has raised eyebrows from international donors who say the war-shattered country should not be spending scarce resources on “Kabul-centric” projects. They believe the focus should be on developing national security, agriculture and the country’s feeble economy.
Despite the cool international reaction to the Dehsabz project, large amounts of preliminary work have already been done – a detailed master plan is expected to be ready by the end of the year.
The development will fill a 500 square kilometre triangle of government-owned land flanked on all sides by mountains. The existing city covers an area of 350 sq km.
Rivers will be damned to provide water and electricity while solar and wind plants will help it fulfil its “eco-neutral” aspirations.
Mahmoud Saikal, the chief executive of the Dehsabz City Development Authority, says the project will create jobs and relieve chronic overcrowding in the capital.
Since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, Kabul has experienced explosive growth – in one estimate the city’s population has grown from 400,000 to 3.5m in the past six years.
Mr Saikal said steps should have been taken to develop a new urban area seven years ago.
“In every household we have three to four families. Sixty five per cent of all urban development in Kabul is illegal. We have a polluted city with traffic jams, overcrowding and very high unemployment.”
Mr Saikal said the overall cost could be as much as $50bn (€31.7bn, £25.2bn) over the 30-year lifetime of the project, but nearly all that money would be raised by selling plots of land to private developers.