Monday, March 9, 2009

Afghanistan's nomadic Kuchis-CULTURE CLASH

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Masto Khan and his family live in a tent made of canvas, mud and bits of foraged wood on a patch of land they don't own on the outskirts of Kandahar City. The emaciated goats grazing nearby are their only possessions.

"Right now, our lifestyle has completely failed," Khan says, glancing at the cluster of similar tents dotting the dirt field. "There are hundreds of families here. It used to be that they all owned livestock and could feed their families. Now, if you ask them, they don't have a single herd of sheep."

It wasn't always this way. Khan, 60, is a member of Afghanistan's Kuchi minority, a nomadic people who have roamed the central Asian plains for centuries. But a pair of droughts and 30 years of war have reduced a proud people to this hardscrabble and largely sedentary life.

In a country rife with poverty and political instability, the Kuchis may the poorest and least stable.

For years, they formed the spine of the Afghan economy. Their trading caravans bridged South Asia and the Middle East. According to the UN High Commission on Refugees, at one time they owned 30 per cent of the country's goats and sheep and most of the camels. They traded things such as dairy products, tea, sugar and wool with the sedentary people for food staples such as wheat and vegetables.

Many of them spent their summers in mountain pastures and their winters on the lowland plains.

"That life was so beautiful. We are starving for that life," says Kabul, a man who lives in a nearby camp.

But droughts — one in the early 1970s and another from 1998 to 2002 — killed as much as three quarters of the Kuchi's livestock. Landmines and bombings killed many others.

With few economic prospects, many Kuchis made their way to the cities.

Drought and war forced Khan Mohammed, 32, to Kandahar from nearby Helmand Province. What money he and his family have, comes from day labour in the city. A month ago, the owner of the land they live on told them they must leave.

"For God's sake, where will we go?" he asked the owner, who plans to sell the land.

The owner hasn't relented, but Kuchis have long dealt with such problems, Mohammed says.

"We'll find another place, another way."

Kuchis currently make up about 70 per cent of Afghanistan's 200,000 internally displaced people. Many live in camps like the ones outside Kandahar, others in UN camps in the city.

Because they are largely nomadic, Kuchis historically abstained from the country's politics, but under Afghanistan's constitution, they were given 10 seats in parliament. But despite supporting President Hamid Karzai in the 2004 presidential elections, Haji Wakil Abdullah, one of the Kuchi MPs, says they have seen little benefit.

Their best-known leader, Haji Niam Kuchi, even spent more than a year in U.S. custody, including a stint in Guantanamo Bay.

Recently, Abdullah and the other Kuchi leaders met with Karzai, who is currently trying to shore up support for the upcoming presidential election. He promised them parcels of land, but although Abdullah plans to support Karzai, he has little faith the president will follow through.

"So far, nothing has been done for the Kuchi people," says Abdullah, who sports a neatly trimmed died black beard and a striking mustard yellow turban.

There is no reliable information on how many Kuchi's are in the country. Their greatest concentration is in the Registan Desert in the southernmost part of the country, where their camel trains still snake across the burnt red sand. Abdullah wants a census of the Kuchis done so they can get more representation and resources.

Their list of needs is long: basic health services, land and livestock, but Abdullah believes their number one priority is education. It's this lack of education he blames for the Kuchi's ties to the Taliban in some parts of the county.

In Wardak Province, southwest of Kabul, Kuchis have engaged in armed clashes with ethnic Hazara's over grazing land. The Hazara's are another historically oppressed group, Shia Muslims who are thought to have descended from Mongols who ruled the area in the 13th century.

The Hazaras say the Kuchis are targeting them with the help of the Taliban — fellow Pashtuns and Sunni Muslims — who want to stoke ethnic and sectarian tensions.

For their part, the Kuchis allege the Hazaras are propped up by Iran and are driving them from grazing land they have always used for centuries.

Abdullah believes the Kuchis have a role to play in the future of the country, if the government would only help them.

"The Kuchis are able to deal with every other tribe," he says. "The Kuchis can even play a role in bringing the Taliban onside."

The families living in camps outside Kandahar don't know who their political leaders are. In the short term, they want one of two things: livestock or land. If they get livestock, they will resume a partially nomadic lifestyle, if they get land, they will farm it.

Until then, it's hard for Khan Mohammed not to look backward.

"We used to have everything. Our hearts were full, our stomachs were full and our children were healthy."

North Korea threatens full scale war if rocket is intercepted

The North has put its army on full alert in the face of the annual spring military joint exercises.It has also cut off its border and telephone links with the South in protest at military exercises by American and South Korean troops which began on Monday.Plans for a launch were first picked up by satellite imagery, with foreign intelligence agencies saying it was a test of a long-range Taepodong-2 missile with the capacity to hit parts of the United States.
The United States said it would shoot down the missile if it headed towards its territory. Japan has suggested it might try to intercept any launch, even if the payload is a communications satellite as claimed by Pyongyang.
"If the enemies recklessly opt for intercepting our satellite, our revolutionary armed forces will launch without hesitation a just retaliatory strike operation," the general staff of the North Korean army said in a statement on state media. It singled out the United States, Japan and South Korea as targets.
"Shooting our satellite for peaceful purposes will precisely mean a war," it said.
The North has put its army on full alert in the face of the annual spring military joint exercises begun today by the South Koreans and Americans.
It shut the border point which allows South Koreans to visit a special industrial zone in the city of Kaesong which is funded and run by South Korean companies. The South said 726 people had been turned back.
"It is nonsensical to maintain a normal communications channel at a time when the South Korean puppets are getting frantic with the above-said war exercises, levelling guns at fellow countrymen in league with foreign forces," the North said.
Last week it also said it could not guarantee the safety of civilian aircraft which approached North Korean airspace during the exercises, causing airlines to adjust their routes.
This threat in particular is beyond the standard fare of North Korean rhetoric. It comes after six months of political uncertainty in relations between North Korea and the West, which had been improving slightly in the wake of a deal supposed to bring an end to its nuclear weapons programme.
Most western analysts linked the uncertainty to the stroke believed to have been suffered by the North's leader, Kim Jong-il, last August.
This weekend he emerged to cast his ballot in elections for the country's official parliament, in which he was a candidate.
Turn-out was 99.98 per cent, with every candidate achieving 100 per cent of the vote, according to state media. Only one candidate's name appeared on each constituency ballot, and while it was theoretically possible to cross that candidate's name off, electors had to do so in a special booth, making clear they were dissenters.
The main focus of interest during these elections was rumours that Kim's youngest son, Kim Jong-woon, would stand.
There is as yet no clear sign of a succession to the leadership. If the rumours had been confirmed, Jong-woon would be the only one of the three sons to have been appointed to any official position, a clear sign that he was being marked out.
But the full list of names published last night contained no mention of him, consigning at least for the time being yet another of many stories about the secretive Kim and his family to the dust.

President Hu stresses stability in Tibet

Chinese President Hu Jintao stressed the necessity to promote development and stability in Tibet when joining a panel discussion with deputies of the National People's Congress (NPC) from the Tibet Autonomous Region on Monday.

"We must reinforce the solid Great Wall for combating separatism and safeguarding national unity, so as to promote a long-term stability in the region," said Hu.

The Chinese president said Tibet authorities must implement the central government's policies on Tibet, focus on development and stability, attain an economic great-leap-forward, safeguard "national security" and "social stability" and keep improving people's living standard.

"Tibet should stick to the development road with Chinese and Tibetan features so as to strengthen the material foundation of the building of socialistic new Tibet, improve people's life and let people of all ethnics share the fruit of development," he said.

Iran says U.S. failing in Afghanistan

TEHRAN - Iran said on Monday the United States was failing in Afghanistan and should recognize a new approach is needed, four days after Washington said it would invite Tehran to a conference to discuss its neighbor.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki did not say whether Iran would accept the U.S. invitation to this month's planned meeting on Afghanistan, a swift overture toward Tehran by the new administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.

Iran's government spokesman said on Saturday the Islamic Republic would consider such a request and that it was ready to help Afghanistan as it battles a growing Taliban insurgency.

An Iranian analyst said he believed Iran would attend as it "wants to be recognized as a key player in Afghanistan."

Iran and the United States have not had diplomatic ties for three decades and are now embroiled in a dispute over Tehran's nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at making bombs. Iran says it is for peaceful power purposes.

But the two foes share an interest in ensuring a stable Afghanistan, analysts say.

Mottaki said the United States came to Afghanistan aiming to root out extremism, restore security and fight the drugs trade.

"All indicators in regard to these three areas show that the conditions have deteriorated sharply," he told state television.

Mottaki said this indicated U.S. policies in Afghanistan were "incorrect." U.S. officials should "suggest that they want to apply a new orientation," he added.

The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, told the British Broadcasting Corporation on Monday that despite successes in some areas of Afghanistan NATO was not winning in parts of the south.

"There are other areas -- large areas in the southern part of Afghanistan especially, but in parts of the east -- where we are not winning," he said in an interview.

Iran has often called for U.S. forces to leave the region, saying they are making the situation worse.

Obama, in a major shift in U.S. policy, has said the United States wants to engage Iran. The Afghanistan invitation would be the start of a diplomatic approach to the Islamic state.


While Iran and the United States sat at the same table to discuss Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the Bush administration made sure the new pro-Western Afghan government kept Tehran at arm's length.

Analysts have predicted the Obama team was likely to begin a dialogue with Iran on issues such as Afghanistan, where the United States is trying to turn around a war it risks losing and where it plans to send an additional 17,000 troops.

"Iran does have substantial influence in Afghanistan," said the Iranian analyst, who declined to be named.

Afghanistan's foreign minister made clear he wanted Iran to attend the conference, possibly on March 31, which would also bring in neighbors including Pakistan as well as other players.

"We warmly welcome any precious role that Iran wants to play to strengthen peace in Afghanistan," Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta told reporters during a visit to Tehran.

Mohammad Hassan Khani, an assistant professor of international relations at Tehran's Imam Sadiq University, said it was in the interests of both Islamic nations and the West that Tehran and Washington tried to resolve their disputes.

"Efforts that include goodwill, engagement and negotiation certainly should be more successful than continued hostility," he wrote in the Washington Post. "The United States has made a start by including Iran in discussions regarding Afghanistan."

Obama will use spring summit to bring Cuba in from the cold

US companies are queuing up as the president moves to ease restrictions on travel and trade, raising hopes of warmer relations and an end to the embargo
Rory Carroll, Latin America correspondent

President Barack Obama is poised to offer an olive branch to Cuba in an effort to repair the US's tattered reputation in Latin America.

The White House has moved to ease some travel and trade restrictions as a cautious first step towards better ties with Havana, raising hopes of an eventual lifting of the four-decade-old economic embargo. Several Bush-era controls are expected to be relaxed in the run-up to next month's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago to gild the president's regional debut and signal a new era of "Yankee" cooperation.

The administration has moved to ease draconian travel controls and lift limits on cash remittances that Cuban-Americans can send to the island, a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of families.

"The effect on ordinary Cubans will be fairly significant. It will improve things and be very welcome," said a western diplomat in Havana. The changes would reverse hardline Bush policies but not fundamentally alter relations between the superpower and the island, he added. "It just takes us back to the 1990s."

The provisions are contained in a $410bn (£290bn) spending bill due to be voted on this week. The legislation would allow Americans with immediate family in Cuba to visit annually, instead of once every three years, and broaden the definition of immediate family. It would also drop a requirement that Havana pay cash in advance for US food imports.

"There is a strong likelihood that Obama will announce policy changes prior to the summit," said Daniel Erikson, director of Caribbean programmes at the Inter-American Dialogue and author of The Cuba Wars. "Loosening travel restrictions would be the easy thing to do and defuse tensions at the summit."

Latin America, once considered Washington's "backyard", has become newly assertive and ended the Castro government's pariah status. The presidents of Brazil, Chile, Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Guatemala have recently visited Havana to deepen economic and political ties. Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is expected to tell Obama on a White House visit this week that the region views the US embargo as anachronistic and vindictive. Easing it would help mend Washington's strained relations with the "pink tide" of leftist governments.

Obama's proposed Cuba measures would only partly thaw a policy frozen since John F Kennedy tried to isolate the communist state across the Florida Straits. "It would signal new pragmatism, but you would still have the embargo, which is the centrepiece of US policy," said Erikson.

Wayne Smith at the Centre for International Policy, Washington DC, said: "I think that the Obama administration will go ahead and lift restrictions on travel of Cuban Americans and remittance to their families. He may also lift restrictions on academic travel.

"There are some things that could be done very easily - for example it's about time we took Cuba off the terrorist list. It's the beginning of the end of the policies we have had towards Cuba for 50 years. It's achieved nothing, it's an embarrassment."

Wayne Smith, a former head of the US Interest Section in Havana, famously said Cuba had the same effect on American administrations as the full moon had on werewolves.

Cuban exiles in Florida, a crucial voting bloc in a swing state, sustained a hardline US policy towards Havana even as the cold war ended and the US traded with other undemocratic nations with much worse human rights records.

To Washington's chagrin, the economic stranglehold did not topple Fidel Castro. When Soviet Union subsidies evaporated, the "maximum leader" implemented savage austerity, opened the island to tourism and found a new sponsor in Venezuela's petrol-rich president, Hugo Chávez.

When Fidel fell ill in 2006, power transferred seamlessly to his brother Raúl. He cemented his authority last week with a cabinet reshuffle that replaced "Fidelistas" with "Raúlistas" from the military.

Recognising Castro continuity, and aghast at European and Asian competitors getting a free hand, US corporate interests are impatient to do business with Cuba. Oil companies want to drill offshore, farmers to export more rice, vegetables and meat, construction firms to build infrastructure projects.

Young Cuban exiles in Florida, less radical than their parents, have advocated ending the policy of isolation. As a senator, Obama opposed the embargo, but as a presidential candidate he supported it - and simultaneously promised engagement with Havana.

A handful of hardline anti-Castro Republican and Democrat members of Congress have threatened to derail the $410bn spending bill unless the Cuba provisions are removed, but most analysts think the legislation will survive.

Compared to intractable challenges in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East, the opportunity for quick progress on Cuba has been called the "low-hanging fruit" of US foreign policy.

That Obama has moved so cautiously has frustrated many reformers. But after decades of freeze, even a slight thaw is welcome, and there is speculation that more will follow.

Old enemies

President Kennedy imposed an economic and trade embargo on Cuba on 7 February 1962 after Fidel Castro's government expropriated US property on the island. Known by Cubans as el bloqueo, the blockade, elements have been toughened and relaxed under succeeding US presidents. Exceptions have been made for food and medicine exports. George Bush added restrictions on travel and remittances.

The sanctions regime

• No Cuban products or raw materials may enter the US

• US companies and foreign subsidiaries banned from trade with Cuba

• Cuba must pay cash up front when importing US food

• Ships which dock in Cuba may not dock in the US for six months

• US citizens banned from spending money or receiving gifts in Cuba without special permission, in effect a travel ban

• Americans with family on the island limited to one visit every three years.

Jirga opposes peace deal at cost of women rights

PESHAWAR: A women peace jirga on Sunday demanded of the government not to compromise with extremists and militants at the cost of fundamental rights of women in the NWFP.
‘When negotiating and implementing peace agreements, adopt gender perspective, ensure protection of rights of women and girls. There should be no negotiations with militants and terrorists unless they commit to putting down arms, and under no condition threaten and violate women’s rights ensured in constitution and international covenant,’ said a declaration after the jirga.
The event ‘role of women in peace and security’ was jointly organised by civil society organisations, women activists and parliamentarians of the ruling Awami National Party in connection with the International Women’s Day.
Speakers on the occasion asked the government to ensure women’s perspective in negotiations and implementation of peace deals. They pointed out that insurgency and counter-insurgency strategies were threatening women’s rights and participation, mobility and access to socio-economic and political development.Musarrat Hilali, vice-chairperson Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, NWFP chapter, urged the provincial government that it should guarantee women’s rights to education, work, freedom of movement and other fundamental rights when it signed peace deals with militants.‘Islam gives women their due rights. When it comes to women’s rights then you should follow Islam not the Pakhtun mindset,’ she said while criticising the male-dominated society where, according to her, men suppressed women in the name of religion and culture.Afrasiab Khattak, ANP provincial president, said the government would not reconcile with those who oppose girls’ education. He assured that schools would open for girls in Swat. Khattak said that they held talks with militants and wanted to implement Nizam-i-Adal in Swat.‘The fire that has spread in our home could engulf the entire country. So we appeal to the rest of the country to help us bring peace here,’ Khattak said. He assured to amend those laws which violated women’s rights. ‘We will fight evil, destructive and violent forces which curb women’s rights.’Women had come from different civil society groups and political parties to attend the event. They spoke in Urdu, Pashto, Hindko, Siraiki and other languages. In a unified voice, they demanded peace so that women could play their role in social and economic development in the region.MPA Noor Sahar said that girls should not be deprived of education as they had a rebuilding role in society. Shabina Ayaz, resident director Aurat Foundation, highlighted the situation of women in the Frontier. Referring to the peace accord with the militants in Swat, she hoped that women of the province should not be forced to pay a price for the peace deals. ‘The government should always keep women’s rights in mind when signing such deals with the extremists,’ she said.The women jirga called upon the government to facilitate women’s participation in decision-making process. It demanded end to crimes against humanity including sexual violence against women. It sought an independent humanitarian commission to analyse the extent of devastation as a result of insurgency and military operations and recommend adequate compensation. Health and education facilities for women were also demanded.Slogans like ‘we flower-like children want peace’ and ‘war is not solution, don’t fight’ were also heard on the occasion. Women narrated their ordeal after the waves of extremism, militancy and military operations in the NWFP. The jirga ended with a peace rally. Women raised slogans for peace and were holding placards while marching from the Nishtar Hall to the Provincial Assembly building.Meanwhile, Women reiterated their demand for ending violence against women during a gathering.