Thursday, November 11, 2010

Afghanistan Develops a National Women’s Cricket Team

Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) is about to create a National Women’s Cricket Team for the 2011 Asian Elite Cup Tournament in February 2011. Their participation in the Asian Cup will be one of the first times an Afghan women’s team has been able to take part in an international event.
Women’s Cricket has a short but highly motivated and fast moving history in Afghanistan. More than 100 young women are currently playing cricket in Kabul and three women took part in a recent umpire’s training course. The ACB has set up training and coaching sessions to increase women’s participation. The sessions take place in four girl’s schools around Kabul, with more schools showing interest and joining the programme daily. In each school, 50 women players have been trained by ACB coaches and trainers. Training sessions have also taken place in Bagh-e-Zanana, a “women’s only” park in Kabul and in Darul Itam.
A women’s championship tournament will take place shortly and will be used to select the new Afghanistan Women’s National Cricket Team for the Asian Cup Tournament.
“This development is so exciting for our young women cricketers and their families and supporters,” Diana, ACB Women’s Cricket Development Officer, commented when asked about the creation of the Women’s Team, “we love our country and hope to support it through our sport. Seeing a women’s cricket team in the Asian Cup will do so much to raise the hopes of many women here.”
Plans are also afoot to build a cricket academy for women in Kabul. Locations and designs are being considered which will provide the culturally appropriate situation for women cricketers.
Afghanistan Cricket Board, in consultation with women leaders and with cultural sensitivity, has decided to use the design of the United Arab Emirates women’s cricket uniform for the Afghan one. It includes a scarf, or hijab. In developing the National Women’s Team the ACB is placing strong emphasis upon Islamic law and Afghan cultural sensitivities.“Women’s cricket provides an opportunity for Afghan young women to be fit and have healthier and more active lives,” CEO of the Cricket Board, Dr Hamid Shinwari, said, “The ACB has a strong commitment to developing the game for women in a way that is good for them and, at the same time, respects our Islamic and Afghan values. Women’s cricket will build self-esteem, leadership and positive values for young women in our country, just as it is doing for young men.”

U.S. Tweaks Message on Troops in Afghanistan

New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is increasingly emphasizing the idea that the United States will have forces in Afghanistan until at least the end of 2014, a change in tone aimed at persuading the Afghans and the Taliban that there will be no significant American troop withdrawals next summer.

In a move away from President Obama’s deadline of July 2011 for the start of an American drawdown from Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all cited 2014 this week as the key date for handing over the defense of Afghanistan to the Afghans themselves. Implicit in their message, delivered at a security and diplomatic conference in Australia, was that the United States would be fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan for at least four more years.

Administration officials said the three had made loosely coordinated comments at the conference, in Melbourne, to try to convince Afghans that the United States was not walking away next summer and to warn the Taliban that aggressive operations against them would continue. Although Mr. Obama and administration officials have repeatedly said that July 2011 would be only the start of troop withdrawals, the Taliban have successfully promoted the deadline among the Afghan populace as a large-scale exit of the 100,000 United States troops now in the country.

“There’s not really any change, but what we’re trying to do is to get past that July 2011 obsession so that people can see what the president’s strategy really entails,” a senior administration official said Wednesday.

In Australia, Mr. Gates said the Taliban would be “very surprised come August, September, October and November, when most American forces are still there, and still coming after them.”

The message shift is effectively a victory for the military, which has long said the July 2011 deadline undermined its mission by making Afghans reluctant to work with troops perceived to be leaving shortly. “They say you’ll leave in 2011 and the Taliban will chop their heads off,” Cpl. Lisa Gardner, a Marine based in Helmand Province, told a reporter this past spring. This summer Gen. James T. Conway, then the Marine Corps’s commandant, went so far as to say that the deadline “was probably giving our enemy sustenance.”

Last year the White House insisted on the July deadline to inject a sense of urgency into the Afghans to get their security in order — military officials acknowledge that it has partly worked — but also to quiet critics in the Democratic Party upset about Mr. Obama’s escalation of the war and his decision to order 30,000 more troops to the country.

On Wednesday, the White House insisted that there had been no change in tone. “The old message was, we’re looking to July 2011 to begin a transition,” a White House official said. “Now we’re telling people what happens beyond 2011, and I don’t think that represents a shift. We’re bringing some clarity to the policy of our future in Afghanistan.”

Like most people involved in the issue, the official asked for anonymity because a review of Mr. Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan is under way and people involved in it are reluctant to speak openly to reporters.

Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, was adamant on Wednesday night that the White House had not shifted. “The president has been crystal clear that we will begin drawing down troops in July of 2011,” he said. “There is absolutely no change to that policy.”

The 2014 date will be a focus at a NATO summit meeting that Mr. Obama is to attend next week in Lisbon, Portugal, where the alliance is to be presented with a transition plan, drawn up by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, that calls for a gradual four-year shifting of security responsibility to the Afghans. Administration officials said that the document had no timetable for specific numbers of troop withdrawals and instead set forth the conditions that had to be met in crucial provinces before NATO forces could hand off security to the Afghans.

Administration officials emphasized that the 2014 date was first set by President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, who mentioned it in his inaugural address last year and again at a conference in Kabul this past summer.

The officials acknowledged that the 2014 date was based on the presumption that the American military would be successful enough in fighting the Taliban that significant withdrawals would be under way by then. Recently, commanders in some parts of Afghanistan have reported a tactical shift in momentum away from the Taliban, but officials in Washington, though encouraged, have been skeptical or reluctant to say this will translate into strategic success.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was last in Afghanistan in September, said the 2014 date made sense, because the Afghan Army and the police were scheduled to increase their numbers to 350,000, their goal, by 2013.

“It is far enough away to allow lots to happen, yet it is still close enough to debunk the myth of an indefinite foreign occupation of the country,” Mr. O’Hanlon said.

But Mr. Gates has said that the United States will nonetheless be in Afghanistan for many more years to come.

Pakistan border region becomes terror epicenter

It’s a land of daunting mountains, crisscrossed with rugged paths. Tucked in the valleys, families live a subsistence existence in mud houses secluded behind 10-foot-high walls, cooking over open fires and sleeping under the sky. Dirt poor, uneducated, their only knowledge of the outside world comes from a crackling radio.

The wilds of North Waziristan, on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, have become a crossroads for terrorism. The United States is pushing Pakistan to mount an offensive there before the year is out, but Pakistan is saying it won’t be rushed.

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen has branded North Waziristan the “epicenter of terrorism,” and President Barack Obama has said controlling it is key to winning the Afghan war.

In mosques, mullahs tell worshippers that it is their religious duty to fight the US-led forces just over the mountains in Afghanistan. Villagers open up their homes to would-be fighters and suicide bombers heading across the border to kill coalition troops – or heading the other direction into Pakistan’s heartland to carry out attacks that have shaken the fragile US-allied government in Islamabad.

The threat is also exported far abroad.

Among the thousands of militants holed up in the territory are scores with European or US passports, believed to be planning attacks in Europe and North America. The arrest of a German in Afghanistan this year revealed a plot hatched in North Waziristan to carry out bloody bombings and shootings in Europe. It was also to North Waziristan that US resident Faisal Shahzad traveled to train in arms and bombmaking, before attempting to detonate a car bomb in New York City’s tourist-packed Times Square in May.

Any offensive will be a formidable task. Until 2004, the Pakistani army had not entered North Waziristan, part of Pakistan’s highly autonomous tribal border belt. Even now the army, with 140,000 soldiers deployed elsewhere in the tribal region, has little presence in North Waziristan. At their base in the region’s main town, Miran Shah, they rarely patrol.

One of the main militant groups in North Waziristan led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur handed out pamphlets at the bazaar in Miran Shah on Sunday warning the government that any offensive would result in “unending war.” A copy of the pamphlet was obtained by The Associated Press and verified by intelligence officials and local residents.

Some 10,000 foreign militants are in North Waziristan, says Kamran Khan, a parliament member from Miran Shah, a figure that mirrors estimates by US and Pakistani officials.

They are mixed in a cauldron of armed jihadist organizations, including Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda. One of Afghanistan’s deadliest insurgent groups, the network of Jalaluddin Haqqani, has been headquartered in Miran Shah for three decades. US and Pakistani intelligence believe they sighted Al-Qaeda’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, in the territory in 2004 and nearly killed him with a drone strike.

“Everyone is there. There are Arabs, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Indonesians, Bengalis, Punjabis, Afghans, Chechens and the ones they call the white jihadis” – meaning European militants, Khan said, speaking to The Associated Press in Islamabad.

Residents are widely sympathetic with the Taliban and their fight against the Americans in Afghanistan, said Khan, 28, who says he only travels to Miran Shah with an escort of 30 armed guards because of regular death threats.

“Our area has no development, no education, only madrasas (Islamic religious schools),” said Khan. “Our people listen five times a day to the maulvis (clerics) and they are always saying this is jihad.”

Because of the dangers, international journalists are restricted by the government from entering the territory. Its tribes have close connections with the key border city of Peshawar, 170 kilometers (100 miles) to the northeast.

Roughly the size of Connecticut, North Waziristan’s population of 350,000 is mainly Pashtun, the same majority ethnic group in Afghanistan that is the backbone of the Taliban. Mountain paths lead across the unguarded border into the Afghan provinces of Paktia and Paktika, both Taliban strongholds.

In the 1980’s, North Waziristan was a vital supply route for US-backed rebels fighting the invading Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Islamic holy warriors from around the globe flocked to the territory.

Among them were Osama bin Laden and his Arab warriors, who before setting across the border stayed in Miran Shah’s gritty hotels, where pieces of dirty foam on the wooden floors serve as beds.

Washington has stepped up drone attacks in the territory. One resident told AP of two cemeteries in North Waziristan with the graves of 300 foreign fighters, most killed by drones.

Pakistani officers say the army will launch an offensive — but the question is when. They say the military won’t be rushed.

“It has to lay the foundations, create the conditions, weaken and divide its enemies” and solidify civilian control elsewhere in the tribal belt so troops there can be deployed in the operation, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk frankly of the plans.

The initial foray could be a limited operation against Mir Ali, a small town east of Miran Shah where US intelligence says Al-Qaeda has reconstituted, the official said.

But most likely, any offensive would not go after the Afghan Haqqani network, a key target that Washington wants hit to ease attacks on its troops in Afghanistan. Doing so could spark a backlash from sympathetic Pashtuns in the tribal belt and fuel accusations by rightwing politicians and TV commentators that the Pakistan army is selling out to Americans.

If Pakistani forces go too far, “there will be a contagion of rage across the Pashtun tribes against the Pakistan army, and they will be faced with the choice of being driven from the tribal region (or) having a major wave of attacks in Pakistan cities,” Michael Scheuer, former CIA pointman in the hunt for bin Laden, told AP.

Instead, an offensive would likely focus on the Pakistani Taliban, which has declared war on the Islamabad government, and on any non-Afghan militants.

Another challenge is that the Pakistani military is tied down elsewhere.

The army is still trying to stabilize neighboring South Waziristan, where an operation late last year flushed out Taliban fighters but also drove hundreds of thousands of residents from their homes.

And many troops are busy holding down the nearby valley of Swat, where the military put down a Taliban surge in 2008.

“If we leave Swat today, they (the Taliban) will be back tomorrow,” said the security official.

US lawmakers voice concern about Afghan corruption

Afghan President Hamid Karzai must curb corruption in his government or current gains being made on the battlefield could be lost, a group of U.S. lawmakers warned Wednesday on a visit to Afghanistan.
Ahead of a meeting with Karzai, Sen. John McCain, the senior Republican on the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, said he and three of his colleagues will express their concerns about rampant bribery and graft in the Afghan government.
"We are concerned about continuing corruption at all levels of government," McCain said. "We know that without addressing this very serious issue long-term success is jeopardized."
McCain, who was joined at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul by Sens. Joe Lieberman, Lindsey Graham and Kirsten Gillibrand, said the tens of thousands of U.S., NATO and Afghan troops who have been fighting in Taliban strongholds in the south have made progress in recent months, but significant challenges remain.
"Obviously the clearing, holding and securing is vital and what we are hopeful of is that good governance will go along with that," McCain said. But he added: "Now, whether it actually will or not is yet to be determined."
The lawmakers arrived in Afghanistan after visiting Iraq. Their next stop is Islamabad where McCain said the four would push Pakistani officials to pressure the al-Qaida-linked Haqqani insurgent network, which plots attacks in Afghanistan from hideouts inside Pakistan — out of the reach of coalition ground forces.
"The Haqqani network continues to operate with impunity and we will be going to Pakistan and raising that issue with the Pakistani leadership," said McCain.
Lieberman, an Independent from Connecticut and chairman of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee, said bipartisan support for Afghanistan continues in Congress following last week's midterm election. The support, however, is not unconditional, he said."Every time there is a corruption case, or evidence of corruption ... it makes it harder for us in Congress in a budget-difficult environment to sustain the support that we need to succeed here," Lieberman said. "That's why it's in Afghanistan's interest, President Karzai's interest to fight corruption."
Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, echoed Lieberman's comments, saying she too was concerned about "chronic problems with corruption, lack of transparency and oversight and accountability in funding and spending."
Graham of South Carolina, a top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, acknowledged Karzai's complaint that the flood of international money into Afghanistan also has fostered corruption.
"We've been spreading money around this country for years and actually we've been paying some of the people who are part of the problem," Graham said, noting that the U.S. and NATO are working to reform contracting procedures. "Better governance is the key to us leaving here and sustaining the gains we've made."
"There are a couple high-visibility (corruption) cases that hit close to home that have somehow stalled," Graham added, without identifying the cases.
He said he planned to tell Karzai that if corruption was not curbed, "there is no amount of troops in the world that can turn this country around."
Lieberman also said he planned to reassure Karzai that the U.S. was committed to Afghanistan — and that no mass exodus of U.S. troops was planned in July 2011, the date President Barack Obama hopes to start withdrawing American forces. Some Afghans liken the date to U.S. abandonment of the war and Lieberman said he's heard that even the Taliban were spreading rumors that Americans are leaving in mid-2011.
"What will happen in July 2011 is not the beginning of an American pullout," Lieberman said. "That was a goal the president set for a review of where we were, based on conditions on the ground. And if conditions on the ground justify, some American troops would begin to be withdrawn."
McCain was critical of Obama's July 2011 date, saying it has discouraged U.S. partners in Afghanistan and has convinced the Taliban that they only need to wait for the U.S. to leave. He said Obama needs to state clearly that U.S. troops will only be pulled out if security allows.
"He has not done that to my satisfaction so far," he said.