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Afghan Report: August 10, 2006

August 10, 2006, Volume 5, Number 21
When the leaders of the world's only three Persian-speaking countries gathered in Dushanbe in July, there was talk of closer cooperation based on commonality of language and history. But while Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan share both linguistic and historical heritage, their world views are very divergent. Even the common language is not as shared as it looks from the surface.

The trilateral meeting between Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov in Dushanbe in late July was dubbed by Tajik media as the "first meeting of leaders of Persian-speaking states."

The three leaders signed a number of documents, including a proposal to establish a joint commission that would meet regularly and would, according to Rakhmonov, be "given a wide range of authorities in solving current problems and it will take into account the interests of all sides." Ahmadinejad said that the "security of Tajikistan and Afghanistan depends on Iran, and stability in Iran depends on security in these countries," and expressed hope that his country along with Afghanistan and Tajikistan would forge a unified economy, culture, and arts.

The official Afghan news agency, Bakhtar, was silent on the cultural aspects of the Dushanbe meeting, concentrating instead on the agreement by the three states to coordinate their counterterrorism and counternarcotics efforts

Close Yet Far

The geographical, linguistic, and cultural proximity of the peoples of Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan suggests strong links between the three states. However, while Afghanistan shares a common language and a common heritage with Iran and Tajikistan, historically there has been a tendency to discount the effects and relevance of these on Afghanistan. This tendency is especially true in the case of Iran.

Tensions surfaced around 1747, when the Pashtuns under Ahmad Khan Abdali (later known as Ahmad Shah Durrani) established an independent mini-empire centered in Kandahar. This was traditionally ancestral land of the Pashtuns, but at the time was under Iranian control. This led to the foundation of the present state of Afghanistan. This initial action pitted Afghanistan and Iran against each other, and the rivalry continued until very recently. Iran has tended to regard Afghanistan as a lesser state, speaking an unsophisticated dialect of the pure Persian spoken in Tehran. Afghanistan has viewed Iran with suspicion and historically rejected the idea of cultural and national superiority that Iran perpetuated.

Linguistically, there should be no barriers between the two states. However, ironically, language has been a barrier to the transmission of ideas from Iran to Afghanistan. Afghan Persian -- officially referred to in Afghanistan as Dari since the promulgation of the 1964 constitution -- has served as the lingua franca since the beginning of the evolution into the Afghan state. That said, the Pashtuns have always viewed Persian as a tool of Iranian influence.

Since the early 20th century, there have been attempts by various Afghan governments to elevate Pashto as the main official language to give Afghanistan its own unique national language. However, these attempts failed and were often done at the expense of the country's overall education system. Elevation of Pashto often resulted in the downgrading of Persian (Dari). The general Iranian contempt toward Afghan Persian and the Afghan's aversion to using an Iranian language have exasperated the links between the two countries.

Beyond the obvious religious and political differences that exist between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran, the cultural and linguistic ties also ironically work as separators between the two neighbors. As such, and since Afghanistan is the only physical link between Iran and Tajikistan, the dream of unity based on cultural ties between the "three Persian-speaking states" may be just that. (By Amin Tarzi)

The difficulties of childbirth in Afghanistan have caused the country's air corps to lose its only two female pilots. One of the pilots, Colonel Lailuma, died recently from complications during the birth of her daughter. The other is Lailuma's mourning sister, Latifa. She says she'll stop flying because she thinks a commanding officer's negligence led to her sister's death.

Latifa is the only woman pilot in the Afghan National Army's Air Corps. But she has vowed she will never fly again for that volunteer force. Latifa blames a senior commander for the death of her 36-year-old sister and fellow aviator, Lailuma.

For Lailuma's relatives, there is bitter irony in the fact that she did not die in combat -- as they had feared. Instead, she died on July 17 from complications during childbirth at Kabul's Rabia-ye Balkhi Maternity Hospital.

Early Signs Of Trouble

Family members say the commander of the Afghan Air Corps, Major General Mohammad Dawran, should have paid closer attention to signs of trouble during Lailuma's pregnancy.

"I wanted the commander in chief of the air corps to send my sister abroad for treatment. Didn't she deserve to be sent abroad for treatment?" one of Lailuma's other sisters, who asked not to be named, tearfully explained to RFE/RL. "The commander goes to foreign countries for his eye problem -- and even for a simple headache -- every month and year. Did my sister not deserve it? I called on Dawran to come and transfer his pilot abroad for treatment."

RFE/RL contacted Dawran to discuss the allegations by Lailuma's family. He refused to comment on any aspect of the story.

Ma'ruf Same'i, a doctor at the Kabul maternity hospital, told RFE/RL that Lailuma could have been saved if her complications had been brought to the attention of medical staff sooner. Same'i says Lailuma died of excessive bleeding and high blood pressure. He says her rare blood type made it impossible -- at a moment's notice -- to get the blood transfusions she required.

"Unfortunately, the patient [Lailuma] had Rh-negative blood. And Rh-negative blood is not often available in [Afghan] blood banks. This type of blood can rarely be found [here]," Same'i says. "Her relatives were extremely affectionate to her and tried their best to help, but we were unable to find [a sufficient amount of] Rh-negative blood for her. Only one bag of blood was available for her operation, and her relatives only managed to get another bag of blood [late that night]."

Afghanistan's Most Dangerous Job

Lailuma's death is an example of what the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) calls "one the world's most neglected health problems" -- maternal mortality rates in Afghanistan.

Recent UNICEF studies suggest that 1.6 percent of all women who give birth in Afghanistan die during childbirth. That means 1,600 pregnant women die for every 100,000 live births. And the Afghan Public Health Ministry says maternal mortality in some parts of the country is as high as 6 percent.

Kabul-based officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) say poor roads and insecurity in provincial regions make it difficult for many Afghan women to be transported quickly to medical facilities in an emergency. A lack of modern medical equipment -- even in the capital -- also contributes to the problem.

But WHO officials say the biggest contributing factors to Afghanistan's high maternal death rate are cultural taboos that make many Afghan men reluctant allow routine medical examinations for their womenfolk.

Career Pilot

Lailuma was born in the Shirin Tajab District of Afghanistan's northeastern Faryab Province. By the age of 20, during the final years of communist rule in Afghanistan, she had finished her education at Afghanistan's military university and begun piloting helicopters. When the fundamentalist Taliban came to power, she was grounded and spent her days at home -- only venturing outside shrouded in a burqa.

She began flying again after the ouster of the Taliban regime -- raising her total number of flight hours to more than 960.

General Abdul Wahab Wardak was one of Lailuma's commanders in the air corps. He describes Lailuma as a heroine whose name will be remembered in Afghan history.

"Lailuma's death was a grave loss to our air force," Wardak says. "Lailuma was a knowledgeable and intelligent pilot of the Afghan National Army Air Corps. The Afghan Air Corps is very proud of her and will never forget her."

Lailuma's brother, Wahidullah, says she always wanted her pioneering role in women's aviation in Afghanistan to be recognized by authorities in Kabul. He says President Hamid Karzai praised women who trained to work as pilots in neighboring Pakistan. But Wahidullah says Karzai never recognized the female pilots in his own country.

Mohammad Qasim -- Lailuma's brother-in-law -- agrees. "Lailuma wanted to meet Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, in person at least once," Qasim says. "But unfortunately she couldn't do that. Nobody paid any attention to her in Mr. Karzai's government. They should have sent her abroad for treatment."

Lailuma's daughter, born just minutes before her mother's death, survived. But family members say they are saddened that Lailuma never had a chance to hold her baby daughter -- or even to see her face. (By Mustafa Sarwar, with contribution from Radio Free Afghanistan reporters Hamida Osman and Fawzia Ehsan in Kabul and RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz in Prague.)

Members of a South Korean Christian aid group that tried to organize a three-day "peace festival" in Afghanistan have been expelled after Islamic clerics accused them of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. The event, scheduled to start on August 5, was to include a medical conference and two soccer games at Kabul's Olympic Stadium between Korean players and Afghanistan's national team. It was being organized by the Institute of Asian Culture and Development (IACD) -- a Seoul-based Christian humanitarian-aid group that has run medical clinics in Afghanistan since January 2002.

Ali Askar Laly, an adviser for the Afghan Football Federation, told RFE/RL on August 3 that complaints from Muslim clerics about proselytizing by the aid group's members turned the "peace festival" into a contentious political issue for the Afghan government.

Charges Of Proselytizing

"According to the information we have received, they wanted to do propaganda for Christianity here," he said. "Members of the South Korean nongovernmental organization that was bringing the [Korean soccer] team here were expelled from Afghanistan today. For that reason, it was not possible for [the Korean players] to come [and play]."

Officials in Kabul say hundreds of South Korean Christians who arrived for the peace festival were warned not to "preach religion." But the officials say some group members ignored the warnings and were seen trying to convert Muslims -- a serious crime in the Islamic republic.

Kang Sung Han, Central Asia director for the Institute of Asian Culture and Development, told RFE/RL that the allegations about evangelistic activities by his group are untrue.

"No," he said. "Not at all. That is wrong information. We have no programs on religious activity nor any Christian rally. No. Not at all. All programs are for medical education and sports. No religious activities. Not at all. That is all wrong rumors. The IACD is shocked by these rumors. So we are very sad. And we regret these rumors."

Kang said the Institute of Asian Culture is aware of Afghanistan's religious sensitivities and Islamic traditions because the group has been running a medical clinic in the northern Afghan town of Sheberghan since January 2002.

A Peaceful Festival?

He told RFE/RL that the idea for the festival was to give ordinary Koreans and Afghans a chance to interact with each other peacefully. "We have been working in Afghanistan for the past five years," he said. "The IACD has known well about Afghanis and Islamic culture. We [just wanted to] make a sports project, a medical project, and a medical conference. We were to have our own meeting in a gymnasium on contributions to a brighter future for Afghanistan -- because we were bringing a list of 400 men from the United States and from Korea. They want to be involved in the reconstruction of Afghanistan."

Afghan officials say some 1,500 group members have entered Afghanistan on tourist visas in recent weeks. They arrived despite warnings from South Korea's Foreign Ministry and Seoul's embassy in Kabul that their presence could be seen as a provocation by conservative Islamists.

Scores of group members who have arrived at Kabul Airport since August 2 have been refused entry visas and turned back by customs officials. Afghan authorities say all group members will be expelled from Afghanistan "as soon as possible" because their safety cannot be guaranteed.

The Afghan Foreign Ministry has confirmed that it gave tourist visas to several hundred South Koreans who said they wanted to spread peace and help with reconstruction. Foreign Ministry adviser Daud Muradian said group leaders had promised not to preach religion or try to convert anyone.

Clerics Complain

But on August 2, Muslim clerics in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif demonstrated in the streets to call for the expulsions. Among them was cleric Sayyed Hashemi. He explains to RFE/RL the allegations against the Seoul-based group.

"Some Korean students who are Christians came as tourists to Afghanistan," he said. "Some came to Mazar-e Sharif -- and in addition to their tourist activities, they've been spreading Christian propaganda both secretly and overtly.

Some time ago, in the presence of the religious adviser of the Afghan president, there were discussions in which provincial officials presented evidence about Christians spreading propaganda through documents and compact discs. They were seen doing this in one of the districts [of Balkh Province]."

But Sher Jan Durrani, a spokesman for the chief of the Afghan National Police in Balkh Province, told RFE/RL that authorities in the northern province have no evidence that IACD members have tried to convert Muslims to Christianity.

"There has been nothing in Mazar-e Sharif like [what the clerics] have described," he said. "If [Christian preaching and attempts at converting Muslims] is going on, for sure, the police of Mazar-e Sharif will arrest them and put them in jail according to the law."

Religion is a sensitive matter in Afghanistan's strictly Islamic society. In February, thousands of Afghan demonstrators took to the streets to demand the death penalty for an Afghan man who had converted to Christianity. The man, Abdul Rahman, was released from prison and sent to Italy under international pressure (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," April 3, 2006).

Recent protests about the desecration of the Koran and Western newspaper cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad also have turned violent on the streets of Afghanistan. (By Ron Synovitz, with contribution from Freshta Jalalazai of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan)

Afghan President Hamid Karzai swore in the newly approved members of Afghanistan's Supreme Court in Kabul on August 5. They are: Chief Justice Abdul Salam Azimi; Mohammad Qasem Hashemzai; Abdul Rashid Rashid; Gholam Nabi Nawai; Bahuddin Baha; Zamen Ali Behsudi; Mohammad Qasem; Mohammad Alim Nasimi; and Mohammad Omar Barakzai. The court's new composition marks a fresh beginning and could, in the long term, represent a stabilizing factor among the three branches of government.

Also The Afghan National Assembly's Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) approved Karzai's nominations for five ministerial posts whose nominees were previously rejected, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," April 28, 2006). The new ministers are: Ne'amatullah Ehsan Jawed (Transport and Aviation), Mohammad Jalil Shams (Economy and Labor), Abdul Karim Khurram (Culture and Youth), Hasan Banu Ghazanfar (Women's Affairs), and Mir Mohammad Amin Farhang (Commerce and Industry). The Wolesi Jirga in April rejected Farhang as a nominee to head the Economy and Labor Ministry. (Amin Tarzi)