Monday, July 11, 2011

Kandahar’s electrical system in shambles, despite years of foreign aid
If he goes to his office, Fazal Ahmad finds dozens of fuming businessmen and turbaned village elders waiting. If he stays away, people call his cell phone at all hours of the day and night.

The refrain is always the same: Give us electricity.

Mr. Ahmad, known to everyone here as Engineer Fazal, has the thankless job of running the utility company in Kandahar province. Through years of war and then neglect under Taliban rule, he has kept the shambolic system running, however imperfectly, by patching it with just about anything he could scrounge up short of chewing gum and rubber bands.But Mr. Ahmad cannot give what he does not have. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on stabilizing and rebuilding Afghanistan. Yet the electrical system here in the country’s second-largest city is on the verge of collapse, leaving people like Mr. Ahmad puzzled and frustrated. “First they should have paid attention to electricity,” he said. “Where there is electricity, there is life. There is security.”

It is now 10 years since the world started pouring money into Afghanistan. Much of the largesse came to Kandahar, the Taliban heartland. The largest part of the spending has been driven and delivered by the military, pushed into what commanders call “hot” areas where Taliban influence is strong and the Afghan government is weak.

The assumption, voiced by civilian agencies and the military alike, was that the more money that could be spent here, the more secure it would become.

Kandahar has seen the impact. It has new schools and rural government centres. The provincial capital has paved roads, a new set of sidewalks and some solar-powered streetlights. Irrigation canals are being repaired and village playgrounds built.

Yet the massive infusion of foreign money has not paid off in increased security, according to many aid experts. Nor has the money bought the Afghan government or the international community much love. And only now are foreign aid agencies and the military starting to take on the basic infrastructure, like Kandahar’s patched-together electricity network, rather than quick-fix projects that ate up most of the money in the past.

With last week’s withdrawal of Canadian combat forces from Afghanistan and the start of a wider withdrawal by other NATO countries, questions are being raised about the utility of spending aid money to achieve military objectives.

That formula, instead, may be counterproductive: raising unrealistic expectations, distorting the economy and fuelling corruption that further erodes Afghans’ confidence in their government.

“The assumptions of what could be done were unrealistic,” said Andrew Wilder, the director of Afghanistan and Pakistan programs at the United States Institute for Peace. “There were high expectations that development aid would have a security effect. In the end, you got neither.”

While Canada and the United States devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to Kandahar projects, much of the foreign spending in the restive province came wrapped in a

military package.

In just the last eight months, Canada’s last battle group spent $51 million from the Commander’s Contingency Fund, the discretionary money available to military officers in the field for small-scale quick-fix projects. The comparable American commanders’ fund has dispensed nearly $2.7-billion in the last eight years. While the portion spent in Kandahar has not been made public, officers here say most of it was concentrated in southern Afghanistan.

Mr. Wilder, who oversaw a study of the counterinsurgency effectiveness of such spending in several Afghan provinces, said it often had “perverse” effects.

“In a tribal society, that kind of spending exacerbates rivalries,” he said. “You could do a really good project in this one village and have a good effect, but then nine villages around it are unhappy.”

Much of the aid money also ended up in the pockets of “malign actors” and insurgent groups, he added. “Basically if you pour lots of money into a war zone with little accountability and oversight, it’s inevitably going to fuel corruption,” Mr. Wilder said. “In some cases there probably wasn’t as much corruption as was perceived to be, but everyone assumes the worst.”Local officials say that not enough of the aid money reaches Afghans and when it does, it distorts the economy and undermines the government.

According to recent report from the Provincial Reconstruction Team, the civilian wing of the coalition aid effort in Kandahar, city officials complained that foreign contractors on aid projects were poaching skilled professionals by paying salaries 15 times higher than the government can pay.

The provincial governor, Tooryalai Wesa, also blasted a $200-million aid project that had foreign consultants giving horticultural classes to Afghan farmers. With that money, the report quoted him as saying, he “could have paved the streets of Kandahar in gold.”

Late last year, the regional military command in Kandahar set up a joint civilian-military unit to start planning big-ticket infrastructure projects. With the military mission in Afghanistan set to end in just over three years and military money to fade with it, it marks a shift toward more classic development projects.

Commanders in the field still want money for quick cash-for-work schemes. “He’ll want to do something that will counter a source of instability, whether or not it makes sense development-wise,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Pierre St-Laurent, a Canadian military engineer who runs the infrastructure arm of the new unit. “Between stabilization and pure development, there’s a zone in between where we’re at right now.”

The story of Kandahar’s electricity woes is emblematic of how muddy that zone has been.

Unless they have their own generators, live in the prison or stay at the main hospital, city residents have electricity for just six hours a day, every other day. Anything from a single frayed line or a strong gust of wind takes the whole thing down at any time. Poles sag. Lines droop. Insulation is worn away. Transformers lack fuses. Diesel fuel promised by the central government in Kabul to run the old generators arrives late or not at all.

Outside the provincial capital, service is even spottier. Some small towns have generators, but most places have no electricity. One small rural area gets power from a tiny hydroelectric station built by Germany during the Second World War. Mr. Ahmad, the utility director, is particularly proud of having kept its near-antique machinery in operation.

A sustainable solution remains elusive.

Before the wars that tore Afghanistan apart, the main source of Kandahar’s electricity was hydroelectric power from the Kajaki dam in neighbouring Helmand province. The dam is nearly 60 years old now and American attempts to modernize it have been frustrated for the past seven years by contractor delays and Taliban attacks. It provides only fitful power over frayed lines.

By late last summer, amid fierce fighting in the south, the city’s chronic electricity problems were finally deemed a military emergency. As a senior Pentagon official put it, fixing the system “was an essential part of our campaign plan … to defeat the Taliban.”

Using money from their discretionary cash, American commanders brought in a new set of generators and a warehouse full of equipment to repair the city’s grid earlier this year. The commanders’ fund will also pay the annual fuel bill of $106 million for four years.

“It’s going to take years to get this done, and we can’t wait to get the pretty package,” said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Thomas Black, the deputy commander of the project for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“You can’t say, wait and we’re going to do one big fix,” he added. “We have to look at what can we do right now.”

For Mr. Ahmad, it all represents a gift that is impossible to refuse but could be difficult to maintain. The Afghan government does not have the money for diesel fuel after the military stops paying for it.

Asked how many skilled employees he has who can run the new machinery, he answered, “Two or three.” He said he hopes to hire more, maybe some new engineering graduates. But the salary he can offer is not much more than what an illiterate teenaged police officer earns. His own salary is the equivalent of $400 a month.

Bahrainis defy Saudi-backed crackdown

Bahraini protesters have taken to the streets across the country once again, defying the Saudi-backed crackdown on peaceful demonstrations and calling for the downfall of the regime.

Bahrain's Saudi-backed security forces have clashed with anti-government protesters that demand an end to the autocratic rule of Al Khalifa regime across the tiny Persian Gulf sheikdom, Press TV sources report.

Regime forces struggled to disperse protesters who staged rallies in several areas late Sunday. The nightly clampdown came after groups of young men and women chanted slogans against the Al Khalifa family rule, calling for its ouster.

Similarly, security forces fired tear gas and live rounds on Saturday to disperse protesters in the northeastern village of Nuwaidrat, who rejected the call for talks with the government.

Anti-regime demonstrators also staged rallies in the villages of Dair and Musalla, renewing their calls for the regime to give up power.

Saudi-backed security forces have been suppressing Bahraini protesters on a daily basis since Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates deployed military forces to the tiny country to assist the Bahraini government in its brutal crackdown on popular protests.

Bahrain's main opposition group, al-Wefaq, is currently in talks with Bahraini officials as part of the so-called “national dialogue.” It agreed to participate in the talks after the government pledged to allow an independent inquiry into the violent crackdown on protesters.

But the opposition bloc is not satisfied with the process, saying participants in the dialogue do not fairly represent the entire society and those in attendance are not allowed a fair chance to speak during the sessions.

On Friday, senior Bahraini cleric Sheikh Issa Qasim ruled out negotiations with the Al Khalifa regime, calling them meaningless and accusing Manama of using ongoing reconciliation talks as an instrument to delay democratic reforms.

In February, massive protests broke out in Bahrain, with people taking to the streets and calling for a constitutional monarchy -- a demand that later turned into calls for the regime's collapse.

Scores of protesters have been killed -- many under torture -- and numerous others detained and transferred to unknown locations during the regime's brutal onslaught on dissidents.

"Bol" Box-office hit boosts Pakistani film industry

A new Pakistani movie is breaking all box-office records here, and it's doing so by focusing on issues rarely discussed openly in Pakistani society such as women's rights and sexual identity. "Bol", which means "speak" in Urdu, has offered a rare glimmer of hope for a once-flourishing.

Pakistani film industry that has been on virtual life support in recent years as Pakistani moviegoers favored Hollywood and Bollywood productions at the expense of local films. A climate of growing insecurity and the widespread availability of the latest theatrical releases in DVD format have further hurt the industry by convincing many Pakistanis to watch movies at home.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to many observers when "Bol" earned more in ticket sales in its first week than My Name Is Khan, a 2010 Bollywood movie and the record holder until now.

"Bol" owes part of its success at the box office to the large-scale marketing orchestrated by one of the leading media conglomerates in Pakistan, but its appeal is also due to its unusually candid look at subjects that remain taboo in many sectors of Pakistan's society.

"Really looking at what are the issues, I think is essential," said Salima Hashmi, the dean of the School of Visual Arts at Lahore's Beaconhouse National University and a friend of Shoaib Mansoor, the movie's director.

"It's the only thing that makes Pakistanis go to the movies." "Bol" follows the story of a Pakistani father and his struggle to reconcile his religious conservatism with the aspirations of his daughters.

Throughout the movie tension rises between him and his eldest daughter, in particular over the treatment of his only son whose uncertain sexuality causes his father's despair and wrath.

Providing education to youth a wise investment: Kausar

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Governor Barrister Masood Kausar has said, providing education to youth especially in the stream of higher learning is a wise investment; a best contribution for image building of the country; a noble service to humanity and truly in line with the dreams of the Father of the Nation. Addressing as the chief guest at the 5th Convocation of Hazara University at its Main Campus in Mansehra on Sunday, the Governor further pointed out, that the purpose oriented and meaningful research activities through linkages with industries are the predominant characteristics of the modern age and there is a need to further concentrate on developing the dynamics of research and academic excellence, relevant to the modern and rapidly changing lifestyle. In all 612 graduates, 58 got gold medals for achieving distinctive positions in Genetics, Botany, Chemistry, Physics, Bio-Chemistry, Microbiology, Computer Science, Psychology, Archeology, Journalism & Mass Communication, Economics, Mathemetics, Islamiayat, English, Pushto, Urdu, Environmental Sciences, and Conservation Studies. Sahib Gul Afridi of Khyber Agency got the honour of being the first Ph.D scholar from the University in Genetics and also bagged gold medal for his distinctive position. Advisor to Prime Minister, Syed Qasim Shah, Minister of State, Sardar Shahjehan Yousaf and the provincial minister for Higher Education, Qazi Muhammad Asad Khan also attended the ceremony. Barrister Masood Kausar said, universities have been playing a decisive role for economic prosperity and social well-being of the people especially in the industrialized world and in our country too, the system of education, needs to be responsive to solve the confronting problems of life; ensure a stable society and better future for the coming generations. “There exists, tremendous expectations from the institutions of higher learning in this respect in our province too”, he remarked.In a vastly attended gathering, including heads of almost all the institutions of higher learning of the province, Barrister Masood Kausar said, “the universities should be the fountains of wisdom and the pillars of strength for the nation, and the scholars and researchers ought to provide the roadmap with clearly defined objectives for the society to achieve scientific ingenuity both as a source of power for economic prosperity and national security”. He further pointed out, ignorance and illiteracy, no doubt are the major social evils threatening the society in many ways and we need to focus on building of our universities to a level where they could contribute significantly towards sustainable development of the people and poverty alleviation. The Governor appreciated the working of the Hazara University and said that keeping in view the ground realities, its bold and courageous steps to build up its academic, administrative and research infrastructure, publication of research papers and books; carrying out collaborative research programs; holding of seminars and symposia and managing guest lectures are really the remarkable contributions. The ranking status of this University as NO.3 at the Provincial level and No.16 at the National level, he added, clearly depicts the achievement in this respect. He also assured to help in materializing the incomplete construction projects; as well as the proposed projects for its sub campuses at Haripur and Havelian.Pointing towards the graduates the Governor said that they have to prove their worth in the job market; be relevant and useful to serve Pakistan and deliver best services in the field of their specializations. ”The nation needs academically strong and creative youths to carry forward the motherland into 21st century with all its attending blessings of the modern world”, he said. Earlier, the Vice Chancellor of the University while welcoming the guests especially thanked the Governor for gracing the occasion despite rough weather because of torrential rains. The university, which, he said, started with seven faculty members and 57 students has now more than seven thousand students enrolled at its three campuses alongwith 290 faculty members including 65 Ph.D scholars. 25 Ph.D scholars, he added, will shortly join the campuses after completing their higher studies abroad. Three scientists of the University, he said, have been recognized productive scholars at the national level this year whereas, 125 research publications have been produced by the university.

Saleem Shahzad Commission


On May 31, Pakistan’s journalist community was shocked when Syed Saleem Shahzad’s body bearing torture marks was found two days after he had gone missing from Islamabad. Mr Shahzad had been voicing his concern about threats to his life from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Journalists from all over the world condemned this act of brutality. Fingers were directly pointed at the ISI for his abduction and murder. The ISI denied these charges. A judicial commission was set up at the insistence of Pakistani journalists after some dilly-dallying by the government. Supreme Court (SC) judge Justice Saqib Nisar, who is heading the Saleem Shahzad Commission, met senior journalists on Saturday (July 9) to share information regarding the murder of the slain journalist with members of the commission. They have been asked to submit their written statements by Friday. Justice Saqib Nisar also voiced his concerns over lack of cooperation from people who have not responded to the public appeal made by the commission.

Military dictators have ruled Pakistan for more than 30 years of its existence. Even when there is no direct military rule, our foreign and security policies are devised by the military establishment. Because of this, the military expanded its control over the media and developed a relationship with many media personalities. We find many mouthpieces of the military establishment amidst our journalist community. Those who do not cater to the military’s views are coerced, harassed, threatened and sometimes killed. Thus blaming the ISI for Shahzad’s murder has become quite a sensitive issue. There are not many people within the journalist community or the public who are willing to come forward and risk their lives. We have seen how the military has reacted to the recent humiliation it suffered after the Abbottabad raid, Kharotabad incident, PNS Mehran attack and Saleem Shahzad’s murder. Some journalists have received veiled while others have received not-so-veiled threats from the intelligence agencies following the media’s criticism of the armed forces in light of recent events. It is for this reason that the Saleem Shahzad Commission should make sure that whosoever comes forward with evidence against the ISI, he/she should be provided with adequate security. However, the case of the missing persons does not inspire much confidence in the judiciary as it backed out from making our intelligence agencies accountable. It is hoped that this time the judiciary will not hesitate in doing its work.

Suggestions were made by some journalists at Saturday’s hearing that a media ombudsman be set up in order to hear journalists’ complaints. This is a good idea since it would be able to provide redress and relief to many journalists. Publishers and editors have failed to get the Press Council going, which only exists on paper but does not do much. Perhaps a member of the judiciary can be appointed to ensure the safety of journalists. It was also suggested that the commission should be open to public since this was not a military tribunal. This should be done so that the public knows what is going on. Journalists also called for the commission to summon spy agencies since the ISI is being accused of committing this crime. It is hoped that the Saleem Shahzad Commission will take all these suggestions seriously and make its findings public. No one, especially state institutions, should be above the law.