29 May 2003, Volume
AFGHANISTAN: THE LAND OF PAPAVER SOMNIFERUM
By Roman Kupchinsky
Of the 50 different varieties of poppies in nature only one, Papaver somniferum, is capable of producing the white latex known as opium which, after it is chemically treated with ammonium chloride, results in crude morphine. The addition of acetic anhydride mixed with water to the morphine turns it into Heroin, the trademark brand name given to this substance in 1898 by German pharmaceutical company Bayer, a company now widely associated with aspirin.
The opium poppy is an annual plant and the seed it produces has no addictive qualities, and is used extensively as a spice throughout the world. Readily available in most supermarkets, anyone with some small change can buy a bag of poppy seeds. It is cheaper then saffron. And while most of these seeds are not from Somniferum bulbs, the real thing can be purchased by anyone from a number of on-line distributors, along with detailed instructions on how to produce morphine and from it heroin.
The world's population spends more money on illegal drugs than it does on food, education, and housing combined. As James Mills points out in his book "The Underground Empire," in 1987 interest alone from the billions of narco-dollars hidden in banks around the world earned $3 million per hour. Presumably this figure has grown by 2003. A good part of this hidden treasure is from the illegal sale of heroin and most of it is grown today in Afghanistan. By some estimates, in Russia alone this sum exceeds the amount made in the Russian petroleum business; some $8 billion-$11 billion in narcotics money was earned in Russia in 2001 according to the Russian newspaper "Profil", No. 46, December 2002.
Numerous studies and reports have recently been done about the opium-poppy industry in Afghanistan and the basic facts are more or less well-known (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 20 February 2003). The Taliban regime, after years of allowing this business to prosper (in 1999 Afghanistan produced 4,600 tons of opium) in order to win over the loyalty of local warlords and apparently using the proceeds to fund their own and Al-Qaeda's activities, came under pressure from the rest of the world and banned the cultivation of Papaver somniferum in July 2000. The ban was successful. In November 2001 the Taliban were evicted by U.S. forces for harboring Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda and the farmers reappeared and went back to sowing poppy seeds. By 2002 the crop was 3,400 tons and Europe, Russia, Iran, and Central Asia were awash in heroin.
The newly appointed interim government of the country could not cope with the problem simply because it did not control the poppy-growing provinces. The provincial warlords were also allies of the West in the fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and their support was needed to establish the interim government of Hamid Karzai.
The poppy farmers formed alliances with these local warlords and opium traders who began providing them not only protection from the government in Kabul so they could peacefully look after their crops, but many other needed commodities. The traders, as a UN report on the drug trade in Afghanistan notes, "secured respect by making economic contributions to the locality." In order to increase their profits, the warlords and the traders soon went into the business of importing the precursor chemicals acetic anhydride and ammonium chloride from Russia and began setting up laboratories in Afghanistan in order to produce heroin. This made a great deal of financial sense. The UN report on Afghanistan points out that in May 2002 a kilogram of opium cost $370 and injectable-quality heroin (heroin 4) cost $3,750 per kilogram. Today, a growing amount of heroin 4, as opposed to smokable brown heroin (heroin 3), is smuggled out of Afghanistan. The brown variety has a typical purity of 60 percent and requires further purification in laboratories in Iran, Turkey, or Eastern Europe, and then is ready to be cut and sold on the streets of London, Tehran, Frankfurt, and Zurich to name only a few places.
The above is all well-known. What nobody can agree on however is how to solve this problem.
Writing in the preface to the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention report released on 3 February, the director of the UN office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, stated: "Why is the international presence in Afghanistan not able to bring under control a phenomenon connected to international terrorism and organized crime? Why is the central government in Kabul not able to enforce the ban on opium cultivation as effectively as the Taliban regime did in 2000-01?" If it could be done in other countries, why was it not being done in Afghanistan?
When asked about drug trafficking from Afghanistan, the head of an economic forum held by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Prague in May, Dutch diplomat Daan Everts told RFE/RL: "Well, it is obviously difficult. Afghanistan is, strictly speaking, outside the OSCE area. So we don't have direct leverage." But in that case who does have the leverage?
In Iran, the law of 30 October 1955 prohibited opium production and consumption. In 1969 this was rescinded under pressure from landowners and farmers. The Islamic revolution in 1979 finally enacted a ban on opium cultivation which is still maintained.
In Turkey, pressure from the United States and the United Nations and the Turkish government's firm resolution implemented by rigorous law-enforcement measures ended the illicit cultivation of Papaver somniferum.
Law-enforcement agencies have a number of choices on how to approach this problem in Afghanistan. They can forcibly eradicate the growing fields and let the farmers fend for themselves; they can round up the traders (if they can find them) and lock them up; they can try to seal the borders of the country and shut down the routes which bring out the heroin and bring in the money -- a hopelessly impossible task; or they can try to replace the poppy crop with another, more profitable crop which can keep the farmers living in the style they were used to while farming poppies.
Close monitoring of Afghanistan's borders with Iran and Pakistan, including the use of U.S. Special Forces troops, has not ended the use of these routes. A new route from Badakhshan, a new major opium-production center, through Central Asia experienced a 200 percent increase in volume in 2002 according to the 10 March issue of "Jane's Intelligence Review." Yet the main route is still through Iran. Some 65 percent of Afghan opiates are trafficked through this border, which is guarded by 30,000 Iranian law-enforcement personnel and according to "Jane's Intelligence Review" costs Iran $400 million annually, part of which is subsidized by the U.K., Germany, and Switzerland.
It is no secret that the motivation to grow poppies is financial, so the motivation to change crops should be the same. This tactic worked in Turkey, Thailand, Iran, and Pakistan. Theoretically it should be successful in Afghanistan but thus far it has not worked.
In 2002 the gross income per Afghan family involved in poppy cultivation was $6,500. In 1994-2000 this number was $750, according to the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention report. The attempts by the Interim Administration of Afghanistan at implementing a program of paying farmers not to grow opium poppies turned out to be a dismal failure for the simple reason that the money being offered was only a fraction of what they were earning by growing poppy. "Jane's Intelligence Review" writes that the growers were being offered $250 per eradicated jirib (there are approximately 5 jiribs to one hectare). But the growers claimed they were making $1,700-$3,500 per jirib. In 2002 there were 30,750 hectares of land, or 153,750 jirib's, cultivating opium poppy according to the U.S. State Department's "International Narcotics Control Strategy Report" for 2002 (http://www.state.gov/g/inl/rls/nrcrpt/2002/html). Simple multiplication by $2,500 per jirib gives a total of $384 million. This is what might be needed per year to pay the farmers to stop opium-poppy cultivation. Along with proper policing they just might be induced to abandon their ways.
The sum of $384 million is not large considering that the EU, where most of the consumed heroin comes from Afghanistan, spends nearly 47 billion euros ($55 billion) for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which subsidizes farmers who grow less-addictive products such as potatoes and artichokes.
On 17 January 2002, Hamid Karzai's administration issued a decree banning the cultivation, production, and processing of narcotic drugs. Another decree in April 2002 confirmed the first one. A national security adviser was appointed by decree to be in charge of implementing the above decrees. Despite these measures, the problem continues to grow.
In 2002 the U.S. took the lead and provided $14 million for "cash-for-work" programs aimed at rebuilding the rural economy. Much of this $14 million was used to repair silt-clogged irrigation canals and the introduction of cotton and grape growing (for raisins) in the opium-cultivation districts. It was a fine, but modest beginning.
The responsibility for coordinating international efforts to help the Afghan Transitional Administration in its counternarcotics measures has fallen to the U.K., mostly because the U.K. is the main recipient of Afghan heroin in the EU. The position of the United States, as the "International Narcotics Control Strategy Report" for 2002 states, is "to support the British lead on Afghan drug control by providing assistance for a wide range of counternarcotics programs in Afghanistan."
Starting with the 2003 crop, the aim of the program is to reduce opium production by 70 percent by 2008 and completely eliminate it by 2013. Is this a realistic timetable? Only time will tell. Will the money be there to see this program through?
The major factor in stopping Afghan heroin is to control the countryside where it is grown. Thus far, the Afghan Transitional Administration has not been able to do so. The use of U.S. forces to patrol the opium-growing provinces is not a popular notion and unless it is made acceptable there are few other options. A joint multinational force, a "UN heroin police," might be able to do the job if backed up with enough funds to make crop replacement (that $384 million mentioned earlier) a viable alternative for the farmers.
In the meantime the kilogram bars of heroin, wrapped neatly in plastic with labels listing their brand names, continue to move across the successive borders of different countries until they reach their destination in the EU or former Soviet bloc, where organized criminal gangs are making billions of dollars spreading disease and devastation and very often death.
AFGHAN TEST GROUP SHOWS HIGH URANIUM LEVELS.
Dr. Asaf Durakovic of the Uranium Medical Research Center (UMRC) in Washington has said the results of urine tests from a small sample of Afghan civilians has revealed "astonishing" levels of uranium, the BBC reported on 22 May. Durakovic said the UMRC sent a team to Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan in May 2002 to interview and examine some Afghans and conducted tests on 17 "randomly selected" individuals. "Without exception, every person donating urine specimens tested positive for uranium internal contamination," a UMRC report stated. The average level of uranium in the urine tests was 315.5 nanograms per liter, while in the United States the maximum acceptable level is 12 nanograms per liter. One teenage Afghan boy's levels tested at 2,031 nanograms per liter. If the UMRC tests in Nangarhar prove to be representative of the entire Afghan population, "the country faces a severe public health disaster" that places "every subsequent generation at risk," according to the report. The UMRC said the tests "indicate that radioactive, toxic uranium alloys, and hard-target uranium warheads" were used by U.S.-led antiterrorism forces in Afghanistan. An unidentified spokesman for the U.S. Defense Department said U.S. forces did not use depleted uranium in Afghanistan, the BBC reported (for more on the UMRC's Afghanistan Project, see http://www.umrc.net/projectAfghanistan.asp). (Amin Tarzi).
NORTHERN WARLORD VOWS HE WILL NOT BE DISARMED BY RIVAL.
General Ata Mohammad, commander of the Afghan 7th Army Corps in northern Afghanistan, has said he will not allow rival General Abdul Rashid Dostum to disarm his military unit, Iranian state radio's Mashhad-based Dari service reported on 28 May. Ata Mohammad said that if an order comes from Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai or Defense Minister Marshall Mohammad Qasim Fahim to disarm his unit, he will obey that order. On 21 May, Karzai appointed Dostum -- who previously served as deputy defense minister but effectively controlled several provinces in northern Afghanistan -- as his special adviser on security and military affairs with one of his tasks being disarming the 7th Army Corps (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 May 2003). Dostum recently stated that he intends to disarm all military units in northern Afghanistan, but it is unclear whether he intends to do so under the direction of Kabul or in order to consolidate his hold over the area. (Amin Tarzi)
WARRING COMMANDERS FROM MAZAR-E SHARIF TO BE TRIED.
Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said on 22 May that two rival commanders from Mazar-e Sharif, one loyal to Jami'at-e Islami and the other to Hizb-e Wahdat, will be transferred to Kabul for trial, Radio Afghanistan reported. Jalali did not name the two commanders. Mohammad Farid, a member of Mazar-e Sharif's police department who also served the UN as its chief security adviser for the city, was killed on 16 May during fighting between militiamen belonging to the Jamiyat and Wahdat parties (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 May 2003). Jami'at is headed by former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani and the faction of Wadat that operates in Mazar-e Sharif is loyal to Planning Minister Mohammad Mohaqeq. (Amin Tarzi)
GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES TO BE PAID THROUGH MONEYCHANGERS.
Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai said on 27 May that the salaries of all government personnel will be issued via moneychangers, Radio Afghanistan reported. This is the first time that the Finance Ministry is planning to use independent moneychangers to pay government employees who until now received their salaries through Afghanistan's central bank (Da Afghanistan Bank). Ahmadzai said negotiators with Kabul's main money-changing market, Sarai-ye Shahzada, have concluded that the market is able to transfer the salaries of government personnel in the provinces as well. The report did not elaborate on the reason for the Finance Ministry's decision, but the action arguably undermines Da Afghanistan Bank and the Afghan Transitional Administration's cohesiveness as a governing body. Moreover, private moneychangers would be granted personal information about every government employee as a result of such a step. (Amin Tarzi)
UN ASSISTS AFGHANISTAN WITH CENSUS.
The first phase of the Afghan Census Project has been completed in Parwan, Kapisa, and Logar provinces and the project will continue soon in Samangan, Baghlan, and Takhar provinces, United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said, according to a UNAMA press release on 25 May. The Afghanistan Central Statistics Office is carrying out the census work in Afghanistan with assistance from the UN Population Fund. The first phase of the census project deals with updating maps, listing dwelling places, and "making preliminary population counts." The project is to be completed by early next year. The last attempt to conduct a census in Afghanistan was made in 1976-79, but the project was never completed. Census taking in Afghanistan is a controversial issue, as most of the major ethnic groups have often reported inflated numbers for their groups to justify their positions within the country's power structures. However, without a scientific census, holding the elections scheduled for June 2004 will be difficult. (Amin Tarzi)
LOCAL TALIBAN COMMANDER KILLED IN CLASH.
Hamidullah Tokhi, governor of Zabul Province, said his troops killed a local Taliban commander and another fighter in an attack on a suspected Taliban hideout in neighboring Kandahar Province on 27 May, Radio Afghanistan reported on 28 May. The dead Taliban commander was identified as Ghausuddin. Tohki said Ghausuddin was sought in connection with several terrorist acts in the province. (Amin Tarzi)
INSECURITY LEADS UN TO HALT MINE-CLEARING OPERATIONS IN PROVINCES.
The UN Mine Action Center for Afghanistan suspended activities on 20 May in six provinces following a monthlong string of armed attacks on deminers, AP reported. The order affects cleanup operations in eastern Afghanistan's Paktika, Paktiya, and Khost provinces, and in the southern provinces of Nimruz, Helmand, and Kandahar, according to UNAMA spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva. He added that equipment will be transferred to areas "where deminers can feel more safe." Earlier this month, the UN withdrew deminers from "insecure" sections along the road between Kabul and Kandahar, and UN workers are now traveling through the aforementioned southern provinces only under armed escort. Gunmen have staged four attacks since 22 April, killing one Afghan deminer and wounding seven others (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 15 May 2003). Authorities blame Taliban operatives and their allies for the resurgent violence in the country's southern and eastern regions. (Traci Hukill)
FEWER AFGHAN REFUGEES RETURNING DUE TO LACK OF SECURITY.
The United Nations says fewer Afghan refugees than expected have returned home this year due to concerns about unemployment and a lack of security, RFE/RL reported on 23 May. Maki Shinohara, a spokeswoman for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Kabul, said approximately 65,000 Afghans have returned from Pakistan and 35,000 from Iran since the beginning of this year. She said some returning refugees had cited unemployment and instability as the reason other refugees had decided not to return. The UN has projected that some 1.2 million refugees could return to Afghanistan this year. Last year, 1.8 million refugees returned to Afghanistan. (Amin Tarzi)
HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION CONDEMNS DEATHS OF AFGHAN SOLDIERS.
The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in a statement issued on 22 May condemned the deaths of three Afghan soldiers who were shot on 21 May by U.S. Marines guarding the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the Iranian state radio's Mashhad-based Dari service reported on 23 May. The statement said the U.S. soldiers' actions violated the Geneva Conventions and international norms. It called on U.S. troops in Afghanistan to respect the security of civilians as they carry out their missions. Meanwhile, General Dan McNeill, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, met on 22 May with Deputy Defense Minister and chief commander of the Kabul garrison Lieutenant General Besmellah Khan. McNeill expressed his regret for the incident and said an investigation is under way to determine what went wrong, Radio Afghanistan reported on 22 May. (Amin Tarzi)
NEW COMMANDER FOR U.S.-LED FORCES IN AFGHANISTAN.
Major General John Vines replaced Lieutenant General Dan McNeill as commander of the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition's forces in Afghanistan in a ceremony held at those forces' headquarters at Bagram Air Base on 27 May, AP reported. Vines said helping Afghanistan "establish itself as a peaceful, prosperous nation" will not be an easy task, but added that the presence of U.S. troops reflects the commitment of the United States to not "look the other way," as it did after the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in 1989. Vines said the Al-Qaeda terror network is broken down at the moment but has the potential to regroup. The coalition forces in Afghanistan comprise 11,500 troops, 8,500 of whom are U.S. forces. (Amin Tarzi)
GERMANY EXPANDS MILITARY PRESENCE IN AFGHANISTAN...
Germany is planning to establish a second military base in Herat Province in western Afghanistan, "Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on 26 May. Currently, Germany has one military base, which is located in Kabul. Under the new plan, German soldiers will cooperate with the U.S.-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 30 January 2003). According to German Defense Minister Peter Struck, plans to expand the mandate of German forces in Afghanistan are currently under consideration. (Amin Tarzi)
...AND FRANCE CONSIDERS SENDING SPECIAL FORCES.
French Special Forces are preparing to rejoin U.S.-led antiterrorism forces in Afghanistan, according to a French weekly strategic report dated 28 May, AFP reported. The French Defense Ministry said it could "not confirm" the information on French redeployment in Afghanistan "for the time being," AFP reported. France has been part of the coalition forces in Afghanistan from the beginning in October 2001, but the redeployment of French Special Forces might be an attempt by Paris to improve relations with Washington in the aftermath of disagreements over Iraq. (Amin Tarzi)
PLANE CARRYING SPANISH ISAF PEACEKEEPERS CRASHES, KILLING 75.
A Ukrainian Yak-42 charter aircraft carrying 62 Spanish troops from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, crashed in Trabzon, Turkey, on 26 May, killing all passengers and the crew, the BBC and other media reported. The Yak-42 was operated by Mediterranean Airways on route to Zaragoza and was landing in Turkey for refueling when it hit a mountain in thick fog. In addition to the Spanish troops, 13 crewmembers also died in the crash. According to ISAF, the Spanish peacekeepers were returning home after a four-month tour of duty with ISAF in Kabul. Spain contributes 120 peacekeepers in the fields of engineering and explosive-ordnance disposal to ISAF. (Amin Tarzi)
CANADA TO TAKE COMMAND OF ISAF UNDER NATO.
Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham said on 26 May that his country will assume command of ISAF under a NATO mandate, dpa reported. The current joint German-Dutch command of ISAF will expire at the end of August. In April, NATO agreed to assume administrative responsibility for ISAF (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 24 April 2003). Graham said that Canada is planning to deploy 2,000 troops in Afghanistan and will assume command of the ISAF for one year. Since its inception in December 2001, the ISAF has had three commands: the United Kingdom until June 2002; Turkey until February 2003; and the current Germany/Netherlands command. NATO's assumption of responsibility for the force is intended to give the ISAF a more structured and stable command system. (Amin Tarzi)
BRITAIN EXPECTED TO RELEASE AFGHAN HIJACKERS.
A British appeals court on 22 May overturned the convictions of nine Afghan men who were jailed for hijacking a plane in Afghanistan and forcing it to fly to an airport in London in February 2000, RFE/RL reported. The men were sentenced to jail last January after the jury in the case did not accept their defense that their actions were motivated by fear of death at the hands of the Taliban regime. The appeals court overturned that decision, calling the verdict "unsafe." The men are expected to be released. It was not immediately clear where they would go. The group, armed with handguns, knives, and explosives, seized the plane in Kabul with 187 people on board, forced it to fly to Moscow and then on to London's Stansted Airport, where the men were arrested. (Amin Tarzi)
AFGHAN ADMINISTRATION'S CHAIRMAN MEETS IRANIAN TRADE MINISTER.
Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai met with visiting Iranian Commerce Minister Mohammad Shari'atmadari on 27 May and thanked him for contributions made by Iran to establishing security in Afghanistan, IRNA reported. Shari'atmadari was in Kabul to open Iran's first industrial and commercial exhibition, which he viewed as part of Iran's efforts to promote stability and security in Afghanistan. Karzai said he will meet with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in mid-June during a planned visit to Tehran. (Amin Tarzi)
RUSSIAN PARLIAMENTARIAN ACCUSES TURKMENISTAN OF TIES TO FORMER TALIBAN REGIME.
Russian State Duma Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Dmitrii Rogozin told journalists in Moscow on 23 May that his committee has received "unconfirmed information" that the administration of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has ties with international terrorist organizations and is involved in drug trafficking from Afghanistan, RIA-Novosti and other Russian media reported. Rogozin said he has information that the Turkmen leadership maintained close relations with the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan and supported it with supplies of fuel and other commodities. If the information is confirmed, Rogozin said the Niyazov regime would face international isolation. Accusations about links between the Niyazov regime and terrorist organizations have appeared before in the Western press, but they have been generally ignored in Moscow, which has its own geopolitical interests in Turkmenistan, Deutsche Welle reported on 25 May. Rogozin's comments might reflect the changed international situation following the war in Iraq, which has forced Moscow to shift its position on Niyazov, the radio station commented. (Victor Yassman)
BRITAIN TO SUPPLY NIGHT-VISION GOGGLES TO IRAN.
Britain will provide night-vision equipment to Iran to help border guards combat drug smuggling from Afghanistan (see feature above), IRNA reported on 20 May. Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brien told the British Parliament on 19 May that the export is being funded by the UN Drug Control Program and that the British government is "satisfied that these goods would only be used for the end-use stated and there is no risk of these goods being diverted for use by the Iranian military," IRNA reported. (Stephen Fairbanks)
PAKISTANI MINISTER SAYS WORK ON TAP PROJECT WILL BEGIN IN 2004.
Pakistani Petroleum and Natural Resources Minister Nauriz Shakoor said on 27 May that work on the $3.5 billion Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) gas-pipeline project will begin in the first quarter of 2004 and will be completed in 2006, the Associated Press of Pakistan News Agency reported. Shakoor said that during the next meeting of the TAP project's steering committee, scheduled for June in Ashgabat, host-country agreements prepared by the Asian Development Bank will be finalized. India's participation as a major purchaser of gas is essential to the economic feasibility of the TAP project, and there has been no indication that New Delhi is interested in participating in the proposed pipeline project despite some Pakistani reports to the contrary. The security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan could also hamper the pipeline plans (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 27 February 2003). (Amin Tarzi)
AFGHAN WOMEN STILL STRUGGLING FOR RIGHT TO EDUCATION, WORK.
A year and a half after the Taliban's ouster, many Afghan girls and women are still deprived of education and work opportunities. Observers say Afghanistan's conservative traditions are still presenting an obstacle to greater rights and freedoms for women.
The Taliban administration is a thing of the past, but even so, few Afghan women dare to leave the house without covering their heads. Even working women in the capital Kabul wear a headscarf, a long-sleeved dress, and "tumbon," or long trousers, to cover nearly all of their body. Wearing the all-concealing burqa is still the norm for many Afghan women.
Women's rights activists say some women continue to wear the burqa out of traditional Afghan belief that women should maintain a low profile. Others feel it is simply not safe to leave the house bare-headed.
Khadija Bahari, the head of the Establishment and Rehabilitation Center, a nongovernmental organization in Kabul that supports women's rights and constitutional reform, told RFE/RL, "There are still many people in some provinces who could not tolerate their daughters and wives going outside their homes without a burqa."
But the burqa is only one part of the problem. Activists are also concerned about the fate of the country's 2 million war widows -- women who have lost their husbands and are left to raise a family on their own. In a society that discourages an active role for women and plagued by widespread unemployment, many Afghan war widows struggle to put food on their children's plates.
Shukriya Barakzai, the editor in chief of the Afghan magazine "Ayena-ye zan" (Women's Mirror), told RFE/RL on 28 May that many women work from home as tailors, but barely earn enough to make ends meet. Widespread illiteracy also reduces many Afghan women's chances of finding employment. "Some women earn money by sewing. For instance, they sew blankets and sell their products in markets. Some women have been left in such a desperate situation that they have become beggars or were even forced into inappropriate work [prostitution]." Barakzai said.
The current Afghan government officially encourages gender equality and has welcomed initiatives to create job and education opportunities for women. The Transitional Administration allocated some $10 million to the Women's Affairs Ministry to expand women's role in society. Even so, Barakzai said, there has been little evident change in women's lives so far. "The ministry claims that they support women," she said. "In reality, the ministry has not done anything. It does not have any clear strategy to prove that it is really working for women, and protecting women's political, social and economic rights."
Karima Salehi, a director at the Women's Affairs Ministry, told RFE/RL the ministry has opened offices throughout Kabul, as well as in many provinces, in order to provide more opportunities for women. Their initiatives include special courses to teach women how to read and write. "Our ministry provides job opportunities for women, especially for widows, the poor and refugees who have returned to their homes. About 75 percent of employees in our ministry are women. We have a project, which helps women to find jobs. We have established offices in 16 districts of Kabul," Salehi said.
During the current school year, millions of children, including girls, returned to school. Gulsang, a teenager from Kabul, told RFE/RL that despite shortages of textbooks, blackboards, and even chairs, she is happy to be able to resume her education. "I study in a high school. Under the Taliban administration we were not allowed to go school. Now girls' schools are reopened and I am very happy that I can attend my lessons freely," she said.
Bahari said the situation varies from region to region. In northern and central provinces like Balkh, Jowzjan, and Bamiyan, many parents were eager to send their daughters to school. "We had a survey in Bamiyan Province. Even in remote villages, many families want their daughters to return to school. But every province is different. In some places, such as Kandahar, people are still afraid of the Taliban and they do not allow their daughters to go to school," she said.
Experts believe that the role and rights of women is the most sensitive issue in Afghanistan's conservative society. Some men do not even allow female family members to leave the house alone, let alone permitting girls to attend school or women to seek employment. Some women still die during childbirth because they do not have access to professional health care.
The Women's Affairs Ministry and nongovernmental organizations dealing with women's rights say the country's deep conservatism means they have to take a careful and low-key approach to the issue. "Under the circumstances," Bahari said, "we have to focus on very basic steps, such as providing access to health care and establishing training classes for women. Issues like the burqa will be solved eventually, once Afghan women begin to earn a proper income and are guaranteed security." (Farangis Najibullah and Amin Tarzi)
24 May 1919 -- Kabul bombed by British Royal Air Force during the Third Anglo-Afghan War.
23 May 1966 -- The Afghan government bans distribution of "Khalq" weekly under Article 48 of the Press Law.
24 May 1996 -- Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani and Hizb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar sign peace agreement designed to oppose the Taliban.
Sources: "Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan" by Ludwig W. Adamec, (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1997); Voice of America.