Afghans embarking on homeward journey amid uncertainty

by Delawar Jan

 PESHAWAR: Haji Khan is worried about his brother who ended his refugee status in Pakistan to begin another journey as a homeless person in Afghanistan. His brother’s native Gardez being in grip of insurgency, the choice is to settle in Khost in tents.

“This is an unwise and irrational decision. He failed to tell us what led him to leave Pakistan,” Haji Khan said while fidgeting in anger standing beside the trucks being loaded with returning families and their belongings at voluntary repatriation centre in Chamkani near here. “I am not going to leave Pakistan until I am thrown out,” he declared as he explained how happy he had been in this country for the last 33 years.

 As his brother was busy in the process of his de-registration, Haji Khan who lives in Khaki area in Mansehra district said he was concerned for his brother’s life. “Gardez is still a troubled region. He cannot go there. He has no house in Khost where he is going,” he said.

 Pressure mounted on Afghan refugees to return by December 31, 2012 as an agreement among United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Pakistan and Afghanistan is expiring on December 31, 2012. According to UNHCR, 1.64 million Afghan refugees are still living in Pakistan while 3.8 million have been repatriated since 2002.

 Sultan Muhammad’s last few hours of his 25 years’ stay in Pakistan were consumed in the process of de-registration. Though he was uncertain as to what he would do for a living in Afghanistan, he said his economic condition in Pakistan was no better. It was evident from his appearance. Wearing plastic slippers, he was in rags.

 Sultan Muhammad, who came to Pakistan unmarried, is now returning with a wife and nine children. He knows security, economic and weather conditions in Afghanistan were unfriendly. He knows he has no house in Afghanistan. He is clear that nobody is forcing him to leave Pakistan. “But we have to go back anyway, so it’s better now,” he said without showing any emotion.

 At a distance from him were two cousins sitting on a bench. They were waiting for the completion of their documents with a bittersweet feeling. “I was born and raised here. I have all my friends in Pakistan and am now going to leave them. I will miss them,” said 16-year old Ayub Khan, who lived in Haripur. “I will even not recognise our neighbours in Afghanistan,” he added. The teenager, however, said he was happy to return to his own country.

 His cousin Wali Khan said they wouldn’t be able to go to his native Kunduz because of violence. His family will settle in Jalalabad, Nangarhar’s capital considered to be relatively peaceful.

 “I will be missing cricket, but will try to resume it there,” said 7th grader, Abidullah, who was going to Afghanistan for the first time.

 Haji Alladad may be the only Afghan refugee who had spent 40 years in Pakistan. The man who now wears a small grey beard claimed his family came much before the refugees streamed into Pakistan. “I was born here,” he said.

 Hundreds of thousands of Afghans spent decades in Pakistan in the hope that their country would finally return to peace. Even today, Afghans are unsure what will happen post-2014, the year of foreign forces’ withdrawal. Officials say hundreds of thousands of Afghans have come again to Pakistan with no legal documents.

 Around one million illegal Afghan immigrants, according to Imran Zeb, joint secretary Safron ministry, were living in Pakistan. The government, he said, would decide on December 7 how to handle the illegal immigrants.

 The UNHCR which is facilitating voluntary repatriation at Chamkani, Timergara and Quetta says repatriation is picking up. Around 70,000 have returned home this year showing a surge in repatriation. 

 “The repatriation has increased by 38 per cent if we compare it to the same period last year,” Qaiser Afridi, UNHCR’s spokesperson in Pakistan, said. The number of families returning on weekly basis has witnessed a surge, he added.

 He said returning refugees were offered $150 per head, limited transport and non-food items that include jerry cans, buckets, soap, mosquito nets, sleeping mats, blankets, cooking set, plastic tarpaulins, quilts, sanitary kit and winter clothes. He added the offer would be valid till December 31.

 Raidi Gul revved up engine of his loaded truck before leaving for a long journey. He said he was preparing to embark on a 7-8 hours journey from Peshawar to Jalalabad. “We charge Rs31,500 as fare,” he said, sitting behind the steering of the decorated truck. As the truck rumbled on the pebble-covered ground, the returning refugees waved to bid farewell to Pakistan.

A promising future, conditions apply By Ayesha Hasan

The first time I met her, I noticed her branded handbag, her golden wrist watch, her light pink wrinkle-free coat and a black chiffon scarf carefully wrapped around her head. I wondered if that was what she was all about. In my next talk with her, I realised there was more to her than her impressive carriage and subtle, yet strong arguments.

This is Fawzia Koofi, Afghanistan’s first woman deputy speaker and now a presidential candidate for 2014 elections. A woman competing for the presidential post in Afghanistan is not easy to digest, but it certainly means that women in Afghanistan are getting ready to take over important positions. Having lost her husband to extremists and having survived two murder attempts by the Taliban herself, Koofi continues her fight for women and a sovereign Afghanistan.

Three burqa-clad Afghan women on a road in Kabul. Photo: Rawa.org

During my days in Kabul, my visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Institute of Diplomacy, a few picnic spots in the city including the Bagh-e-Zanana (the women’s garden) and  the market place on Shara-e-Naw (the New Road) broke more stereotypes about the situation of women in the country.

While Kabul alone cannot represent the situation across the country, it still symbolises the waves of change affecting women in Afghanistan. At the ministry, I met some young diplomats, few of them very impressive young women. Their poignant stories about the road to higher education, their exposure and people’s response in foreign trips relating work, family support and future goals were enthralling.

But amidst these stories, I could sense their fear of the return of Taliban after the pullout of the American forces in 2014. While America keeps reminding the people of their support and assistance for at least the next 10 years after 2014, it doesn’t seem to help the Afghans. For them, the Taliban are nothing less than a nightmare.

But one question kept nagging me, why are the Afghan women portrayed as weak? I found the answer a few days later. Kabul is full of foreign aides and non government organisations working for the cause of women. You meet their representatives at almost every meeting, every party, at every restaurant you visit. But you find fewer people working for women and more working about women.

Why I could not see as many projects for women compared to, say, the number of articles I read in foreign magazines about the plight of Afghan women was because most journalists tend to find stories in misery than in achievements. Most of the women I met were not quite happy about the image of a common Afghan woman in foreign media.

While one cannot entirely deny foreign-funded development projects in the country, the few NGOs that I came across were mostly run by local women who stood up against all odds to make their country a safer place for their daughters even if it meant putting their own lives in danger. And that is what is required for the time being. A little courage, a little support in words for the women who have a long way to go after America pulls out.

This blog first appeared on the DW’s women’s blog: WomenTalkOnline

Read more on: http://blogs.dw.de/womentalkonline/

Understanding our neighbor!

Islamabad/Kabul: Why do we feel the need to understand our neighbor? We can’t choose our neighbors, can we? No, I don’t think so. What we can do is, to have good relationship with our next-door neighbors and live happily ever after. *Fairytale style

Can you tell, who is a Pakistani and who is an Afghan? Ayesha and Farkhonda.

Who wants to live in a place where one is always suspicious about the role of his/her neighbor. Oh, my neighbor blocks my water pipe. My neighbor is planning to bomb my house. My neighbor is stinky. Who wants to live a life like that? Stop ranting about your neighbor Pakistan and Afghanistan! Stop it! Life is not a Hollywood film and we are not James Bond. You can’t air lift your country and take it somewhere else and choose your neighbors.

Let’s have the courage and give voice to your complaints and tell your neighbors, how you feel about them. You don’t have to hide it from them that you don’t like them. You never know, how pissed they are at you. It is possible that you are annoying them more than they annoy you. Come to think of it, everything is possible.

Margaret Mead, the renowned anthropologist said that to understand ‘others’ we have to understand them with ‘others’ point of view not our own point of view. We have to leave our pre-conceived notions, myth, stereotypes and biases and understand others with an open heart and mind, without judging them for what they are and most importantly, what they are not.

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We are very happy that we achieved this goal. The 22 journalists from both side of the Durand Line are the living example of what we achieved in two-phase project, FES-Af-Pak Journalists Exchange Program: Understanding the Neighbor.  They will make the world understand the Af-Pak relation with their new understanding. They are ready to challenge the decades old established narratives about their neighbors- the narratives that are missing in the public sphere. I am very happy while writing this that these journos are no more neighbors, they happily call each other friends now. Mission accomplished!

Kabul Rocks! We will come again:)

Author: Annie Zaman

Afghanistan emerges as new job market for Pakistanis by Delawar Jan

KABUL: Afghanistan is emerging an unlikely new job market for Pakistanis as the number of the youth who are employed in the war-torn country crossed 100,000, officials here say.
“Around 100,000 Pakistanis are working in Afghanistan as chartered accountants, bankers, teachers, engineers, doctors and labourers,” said Muhammad Sadiq, Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan. He said the Pakistani workers were preferred for hiring because of their skills and experience. He revealed that $2.6 billion official exports to the country, which makes it the biggest exporter to Afghanistan, had created 3.5 million jobs in Pakistan.
The Pakistanis who work in Kabul suggested that the number of the workers in Afghanistan was well over 100,000. “The ambassador might be talking of the workers having official record. I think a good number of unregistered Pakistanis have also been working in Afghanistan which is in addition to the 100,000,” said Afzal Ahmad, manager at a food company.
The Pakistanis said they had taken up jobs in the war-struck country due to the saturated job market in Pakistan. Many of those interviewed said handsome salaries in Afghanistan had enticed them to seek job in the country that has been a theatre of a long war.
However, the number of Afghans who have been getting economic benefits from Pakistan dwarfs the total of Pakistani workers in Afghanistan. Muhammad Sadiq said 56,000 Afghans crossed into Pakistan every day for different needs including jobs. Around three million refugees who have jobs or businesses aren’t part of this count.
Daud Badshah, a resident of Shergarh in Mardan district, said he was underpaid in Pakistan. “A measly Rs4,000 salary was offered to me by NHA which was insufficient for the needs of my family,” said Sher Badshah, whose father is a watchman at a factory in Shergarh.
The 26-year-old man, who could study only up to 9th class, works for 14 hours daily (7am-9pm) at a restaurant in Kabul where he supervises a staff of 35 people and is able to make good money. “I am getting Rs16,380 (Af.9,000), plus the tip,” he said. “My family tried to stop me from taking up the job in Afghanistan but my poor economic conditions forced me to come here. Four years later, the pressure continues,” he added.
Sher Badshah’s job encouraged his brother Sardar Badshah to come to Afghanistan in search of a job. Now, he gets a salary of 500 US dollars as a cook.“Afghan police harass us despite the fact that we have visas. They demand bribe and misbehave with us. But people here are nice and respectful,” he said.
At the same restaurant, Muhammad Ayaz from Peshawar and Muhammad Ali from Skardu receive salary of Rs23,660 (Af.13,000) and Rs30,940 (Af.17,000), respectively.
Waqar Ahmad came from Peshawar to Kabul in 2007 to find a job. Now he is holding an executive position in a company for the last almost six years and gets an undisclosed ‘handsome’ salary. “The road that winds through the troubled areas into Pakistan is very dangerous,” he said. “I have seen bombs exploding in front of me. I have seen Taliban blocking the road and checking. I have been caught up in crossfire. But thanks God, I have remained unscathed each time,” he said of the threats.

Originally published in The News International on 19th October 2012

In a man’s world: The women politicians of Afghanistan by Ayesha Hasan

It was a sight rarely seen in traditional Afghan society. Last month, Fawzia Koofi, a presidential candidate for the 2014 elections and one of the 69 female Afghan parliamentarians, arrived to meet a delegation of Pakistani journalists. In the times of the Taliban, this face-to-face encounter between a woman and a group mostly comprising men, would have been inconceivable.

Watching her interact so freely and with such obvious confidence, one can see why she’s been named among the world’s “150 Fearless Women” by The Daily Beast news website for her bold account of the hardships that women face in Afghanistan in her book The Favoured Daughter. Wearing a solitaire ring and a chunky gold wristwatch on one hand, and carrying a designer bag on her arm, she reminded me a bit of Pakistan’s own foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar.

There’s a great deal of substance to go with the style as well, and Koofi talks eloquently and with passion. She talks openly about women’s empowerment through education and access to better healthcare, saying that great strides have been made in the 11 years after the fall of the Taliban regime. She may not quite be the modern Malalai of Maiwand, the celebrated 19th century folk hero who rallied the Pashtun army against the British in the 1880 Battle of Maiwand, but her struggle is equally heroic.

In a deeply patriarchal society that is yet to fully accept women’s rights and participation in public life, Koofi and her fellow women parliamentarians have refused to bow down to rigid ideals and often suffocating customs.

Talking to us, a group of journalists who were part of an Af-Pak fellowship, she describes how women had to physically grab the microphone to make a speech in parliament because the male MPs would ignore their turn and would oppose resolutions put forward by them, just because they were women.

Being a shrinking violet in Afghanistan’s often rowdy parliament just isn’t an option. In June this year, women MPs caused an uproar when Justice Minister Habibullah Ghaleb suggested, during a conference organised by the Women’s Affairs Committee, that more than 250 women living in 12 foreign-funded shelters were prostitutes. He had said the shelters were encouraging girls to disobey their parents if they were stopped from going outside their homes.

While the women MPs were unable to get Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sack Ghaleb, it was nevertheless an achievement to be able to challenge the opinions of a man on the floor of the parliament.

Likewise, the dismissal of former politician Malala Joya from parliament in May 2007 for publicly denouncing the presence of those she called warlords and criminals in parliament was followed by condemnation from female politicians and local women. Three years later, Joya’s name appeared in the list of 100 Most Influential Women prepared annually by Time Magazine.

For Koofi, these are signs of hope. As her achievements would suggest, female parliamentarians have not settled for just being able to lambast society and state over the treatment of women. They have managed to wriggle out substantial — though still few — policy changes from the government.

After years of activism by Koofi and her fellow women parliamentarians, the government has fixed a quota for women in higher education institutions without which, she says, there is no point in allotting quotas for women in parliament. Egged on by this development, Koofi, who is also the chairperson of women rights in parliament — the only woman to have the post of a chairperson — has now proposed to President Karzai that at least one woman member be appointed in the Supreme Court.

“We need to increase women’s capacity for them to be able to effectively function on the political front,” she says. “This is the first time such a programme [like the new higher education policy] has been introduced for women. Trust me, this was not easy as months of work and campaigning are involved before a policy is approved.”

No matter how difficult it may be to overcome age-old Afghan traditions, women seem to be slowly making their presence felt in the political domain.

One indication of this is the Taliban’s absence of dissent to the presence of women in the High Peace Council’s governing body that is assigned with carrying out peace negotiations with them. Najia Zewari is one of two women who serve on the 15-member body, and it seems the Taliban have accepted her presence.

“The governing body directly negotiates with the Taliban, and that is not an easy thing to do,” she says. “But I am glad that us women have not once been criticised for being a part of the council.”

Overall, the HPC has 70 members, nine of which are women.

As Afghan women prepare themselves for a post-US withdrawal scenario, many of them are eager to take on new-found opportunities in Afghan politics. There has been a surge in admissions of female students in the Institute of Diplomacy (ID) in Kabul, and 21-year-old Hadeia Amiry, head of NGOs at the economics department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul, is one of them.

She hopes to become a politician one day, and says that she “would be more of a people’s representative than a conventional politician”. She is happy that the present government is supporting female political participation which, she says, cannot be increased until women receive higher education.

The ID’s one-year mandatory course for future diplomats includes subjects like politics, global political economy, conflict resolution, policy making, international relations, foreign languages, culture, ethics, organisational behaviour and entrepreneurship.

Other than the course, Amiry is also in the process of self-training: she wears suits and light makeup, and walks with obvious confidence. She crosses her hands at her back and broadens her shoulders while she stands to talk to her colleagues and guests at the office.

Yet at the same office, her colleague Samira (not her real name) is worried about getting permission from her husband for a one-week business-related foreign trip. She is a new bride and is not allowed to attend conferences abroad, even though her husband knew her from before and was aware that she worked at the foreign office.

This is what critics point to when they downplay the importance of Koofi and other likeminded women politicians and activists. To think that allowing women a few displays of opposition and giving them token political representation amounts to any substantial change in the way people think and act around them is naive at best, these critics contend.

“It will take another three decades before Afghanistan is ready for a female president,” says Faheem Dashti, editor-in-chief of Kabul Weekly. “I doubt even five men can handle the country after all that it has been through.”

Women parliamentarians are, in fact, aware of their limitations. A prominent feminist, journalist-turned-politician Shukriya Barakzai, agrees that even if an Afghan woman is successful, she still remains a victim of tradition.

For traditions to change in a patriarchal society, men need to change their mindset. But the country director of the Open Society Foundation, Najla Ayubi, a judge-turned-human rights activist, says there is still a long way to go before education starts changing the minds of men in Afghanistan. She believes that the government is trying to appease the Taliban, and hence would not want women in decision-making political offices.

But no matter how painstakingly slow the progress on women’s political representation is, for a country like Afghanistan, where war has ravaged lives for decades and the patriarchal mindset has reigned supreme, it is at least a starting point. It may take many years, even generations, before Afghan women can measure up to their counterparts in other countries, but the first steps on the road to emancipation have been taken by women like Koofi and Barakzai.

(This report was written during the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Af-Pak fellowship 2012 in collaboration with The Express Tribune).

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 4th, 2012.

 

CityScapes: Kabul

Originally published at PakTeaHouse

The experience of any city is created by the ‘user.’ You can make any city our own. Even in a city as close as Karachi, Kabul is deemed ‘exotic’ and adventurous.  As a Pakistani, it is closer to home than most of us would imagine. However, Kabul is not for tourists, it is for travelers. But there is a romance in the air that is unmistakable. If you are in Kabul, explore something besides the ruins and war relics.

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Food Trail

Kabul, like Karachi, has only one kind of nightlife – a foodie kind of nightlife. But it can be a little bit more risqué/fun that Karachi. While Karachi asks you to bring your own, Kabul serves its own.  Kabul has a decent variety of cuisines being served across the city. Thai, Chinese, Indian, Croatian, Middle Eastern and many more.

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Kebabs are everywhere in Kabul!For traditional Afghan food head to Sufi . The restaurant is frequented by expats and visiting delegations as an introduction to Afghan food and will cost you about $10-12.  For a flavor of the aid-worker/foreign journalist watering hole try L’Atmosphere – a French restaurant serving crepes, pizzas, pastas, salads and soups. The bar area is rather popular  for obvoious reasons. The food is a bit pricey but the music is nice – starting with classics in the early evening and ending with Lady Gaga and Pitbull at night. A meal and drinks will set you back by $20.  To eat where the locals eat, try Barg Restaurant in the Khair Khana bazaar.  Barg serves Western fast food and local fare. The ground floor is for men and the upper floors are for families. Meal and drinks will cost you no more than $7.

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Golden pakoras and fries at Mandavi

 

Kabul also has fantastic street food – pakoras, fries, deep fried ‘aloo paratha’ and spicy corn on the cob – from 5 to 10 Afghani.

It is not uncommon for most ‘meetings’ to take place at lunch. It seems most offices, organizations and even ministries have their own mini-catering units, manned mostly by women. These lunches will be the best food you find anywhere in Kabul.

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Home made mantu at the FES Kabul office

 

 

Bazaars

There are plenty of bazaars all over Kabul. The cool weather makes it easy to spend hours in a bazaar but the dust doesn’t help. Mandavi, is a whole sale market selling almost everything you can imagine – vegetables, fruits, clothes, shoes, motorcycles, mattresses, biscuits – from Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, Iran and China. Of course, the one thing you must buy from here are the dry fruits – go for the local produce instead of those imported from Iran.

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Dried fruits and seeds at Mandavi

 

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The legendary Kandhari Anar

If you’re looking for more contemporary’ shopping then head to the Laisa Marium bazaar in the Khair Khana locality – you can find traditional Afghan outfits here, colorful, embroidered kurtas for men and women. It’s also a great place for people watching. The Shar Nau area is great for loitering around and get posters of Afghan heroes and local handicrafts. Most of the malls including Kabul Mall and City Center are also located in the area.

 

People

By far, the most interesting thing about Kabul is it’s people. The city is rich with stories. Nearly every Afghan I have spoken to in Kabul has lived in Pakistan and speaks Urdu fluently. The people on the streets are friendly and love telling their stories – even if they are a bit exaggerated. Striking a conversation is not difficult. Kabul is a microcosm of Afghan society – Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek and the foreigners from all over the world. Take the time to visit sporting events, cafes, barber shops, beauty salons and markets and talk to people to get the real flavor of Kabul.

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Semi-final game of the first ever Afghan Premier League football tournament

Music  

Kabul has a thriving music scene – both local and foreign. There are some plenty of venues that host and groom young musicians. The French Cultural Center in Kabul, recently hosted the Sound Central Festival – an alternate music festival featuring bands from Central and South Asia and beyond.

The Venue is a space for young musicians to get together and jam. The Venue is run by Humayun Zadran, an avid music supporter working on several music related projects including ‘The Bridge’ – which currently brings Pakistani musicians to Afghanistan. If you are a rock music fan, look out for performances by Kabul Dreams. Kabul Dreams consists of young Afghan men, who are average musicians at best but rock and roll needs all the encouragement and support it can get. White City is another Kabul based rock band consisting of an Australian, a Brit and a Swede, who describe themselves as ‘rock therapy.’

 

The dust never settles in Kabul. There is a permanent slow moving haze. In October, the air is chilly and dry – dry enough to cut skin. Kabul is not an easy city – moving around the city is difficult and slow; the weather can be harsh; a woman’s laughter might offend someone on the street.   – but it is a city that will embrace you only when you begin to embrace it. I would love to return to Kabul and get to know it even better, because this was one of the hardest goodbyes I have had to say….

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Reluctant good bye

 

For more pictures from Kabul, check out my tumblr

Palatial mansion: Pakistan’s biggest and busiest diplomatic mission

By Robin Fernandez

KABUL: Situated in the Karte Parwan neighbourhood of Kabul is Pakistan’s diplomatic mission. Steeped in history, the embassy building and the adjoining ambassador’s residence together form the country’s single biggest mission in the world – a frontispiece to our public diplomacy abroad.

Inaugurated in July 2012, the sprawling grounds of the Quaid-e-Azam Complex cover more than 26 acres of land that once belonged to the British Legation in Kabul. Today it may well be Pakistan’s busiest diplomatic mission.

On any week day (from Sunday to Thursday) one is likely to find thousands of Afghans queuing up outside the Pakistan Embassy for a visa. “Up to 12,000 multiple [entry] visas are issued every day. Not a single application has been rejected so far,” says Ambassador Muhammad Sadiq. This figure may seem high, according to officials, but it pales in comparison to the sheer number of people who make border crossings every day between the two countries. Currently, Pakistani officials say, 56,000 people travel between Pakistan and Afghanistan through both designated and undesignated crossing points daily — mainly for trade and business purposes.

The main embassy buildings are now housed in what used to be the dispensary of the British Legation buildings in the Afghan capital. In one corner of the premises, English-language and computer classes are held for Afghan students, especially those in the neighborhood. “The classes are free and are part of the embassy’s effort to encourage education,” says an official.

The next door residential complex of the ambassador is much grander, still reflecting the colonial glory that Lord George Curzon, the then foreign secretary, had wanted Britain’s top envoy in Kabul to have. Curzon, also a former viceroy general of India, did not live to see the majestic Legation structure, dying two years before its completion. The Legation buildings in Kabul sprang up some eight years after Britain signed the 1919 Treaty of Rawalpindi which officially recognised the independence of Afghanistan.

Though Pakistan’s right to the Legation buildings’ ownership was recognised by the early 1960s, Islamabad had to wait three more decades for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to finally accede to its possession. But the property did not pass into Pakistan’s hands until another decade and a half. By that time it had already been ransacked by a violent mob and suffered a vicious arson attack. Several buildings, including a church and smaller residences, were razed to the ground. Perhaps the only building that escaped harm was the clock tower that stands near one of the boundary walls.

When Ambassador Sadiq moved into the gleaming white palatial building this year following a massive renovation of the premises, President Hamid Karzai took a gentle swipe at the envoy. “I see you have moved into your vice-regal seat,” Karzai was quoted as telling Sadiq.

The entire building was reconstructed in a record time. “Despite the huge challenge, it took us about six months to restore the complex,” a Pakistan Embassy official said. Another official said the funds saved through the [earlier used] Wazir Akbar Khan mission were spent on the restoration work. “We used that money for restoration and saved thousands of dollars in the bargain,” the official explained.

From the vantage point of the ambassador’s residence, one can see a freshly-manicured cricket ground and an equally impressive soccer pitch. And in the distance one can see the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains. The sight would have certainly pleased Curzon no end.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 22nd,  2012.

The To-Do List for Kabul by Sundus Rasheed

The second leg of the FES Af-Pak Journalism Fellowship 2012 is due to begin in early October. In the second phase of the program, 11 Pakistani journalists will travel to Afghanistan and once again work with their Afghan counterparts on stories of mutual interest.

As we start thinking about what stories we want to do, I can’t help but want to know more and more about the magnificent yet heart-breaking city of Kabul – it’s past splendour and current attractions. However, it is not often that people think of Kabul in terms of it’s ‘attractions’ – but why not? Browsing through various travel websites and blogs has lead me to believe that Kabul is a city that’s brimming with excitement, you just have to know where to look.

So here’s my list of ‘things to do in Kabul’ – let’s see how many of these things I get around to doing:

  1. Visit the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) :

As a project of the Ministry of Education, ANIM provides free music education to young Afghans. Students who have financial difficulty and/or are earning members of their family are even given special ‘scholarships’ to make up for their loss of income. The institute was founded by and currently run by Dr. Ahmad Nasser Sarmast, a PhD in Music. I was introduced to ANIM by my very talented friend, musician and ANIM faculty member – William Harvey. Harvey is also the co-founder of the Afghan Youth Orchestra

2. Check out Chicken Street

This sounds a lot like Bohri Bazar in Karachi. All kinds of handicrafts are available here, from jewellery to carpets, ‘antique’ muskets to lapis lazuli. Most of the buyers are foreign, so prices are bound to be scaled up. I’m not sure what the verdict is on women wandering around Chicken Street. I think I am going to need a male escort – preferably a local.

3. Trek on the foodie trail

Kabul seems to be have a greater variety of restaurants than Karachi – thanks to the huge expat population in the city – Mexican, Italian, Korean, Russian, Thai, Japanese,  French, Indian, Middle Eastern and of course, the delectable Afghan cuisine itself. I am hoping to check out more local food  establishments than foreign but definitely want to see how the more ‘posh’ outlets compare with those in Pakistani cities.

4.  Visit an Afghan family home

Simple enough. You never really understand a city until you visit a home. Hopefully I can get one of my Afghans colleagues or friends to invite me to their home and meet their families and talk to them

5. Kabul nightlife

Yup. There is such a thing. Kabul has a thriving expat scene supported by well paid aid workers, journalists, diplomats and ‘contractors’. Interesting to see what it would be like to party in the time of war ( a bit like Karachi, perhaps?). The two names that keep popping up are Gandamak, established by a former British soldier turned BBC cameraman and L’Atmosphere by a French radio journalist.

Sounds like a plan! Who’s with me?

A Day in Kabul by Raza Rumi

Originally published in The Friday Times

As we landed in Kabul, the place was familiar, unfamiliar. The city reminded me of Quetta for its locale and topography and cultural diversity. But then for many Pakistanis, Afghanistan is a remote figment of imagination. A place which has sent many refugees and where Pakistan directly and indirectly has been part of violent conflict and political upheavals for the last thirty years.


We were part of a delegation, which accompanied the beleaguered Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf on his first foreign trip. That this trip was made to Afghanistan is a significant reminder of the importance that Pakistan attaches to the country both for the conventional strategic reasons and perhaps for the existential dilemma that the country faces now with multiple brands of extremists on both sides of the Durand line.

Kabul, once a happening place in the 1970s, is now a sorry reminder of its past. Whereas the recent years’ development efforts are visible through a housing boom and new apartment blocks, one cannot miss out on the mud houses and infrastructure deficits that are a direct result of what the world has done to this country. The world has treated it as an arena of war, conflict and pandering to ‘national’ jingoistic egos.


Be it the Soviet Union, the United States, or the self-appointed guardians of Islamic faith i.e. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, each country has contributed to where the Afghans are today. Little wonder that the younger Afghans have grown up resenting Pakistan – its immediate neighbour that has not once but twice been a party to US’ imperial games in the region. Who said that the Great Game was over? In fact its newest manifestation is the age that we live in and where terms such as ‘energy corridor’, ‘stability’ and ‘regional players’ denote the simple fact that no one is willing to leave the country alone and there might be yet another scramble for influence, leverage and gains. All I hope is that the Afghan youth, its vibrant civil society and skilled diaspora will negotiate with the world not to repeat what has been happening in the past.

The high powered Pakistani contingent was in Kabul to achieve several things: some symbolic, some substantive. The day began with the inauguration of the reconstructed Pakistan embassy in an area that is dominated by non-Pashtuns. The earlier building was destroyed during the time when when Pakistan backed Taliban were at loggerheads over the capture of central power. It is some measure of Pakistan’s diplomatic success – especially the untiring efforts of our Ambassador Mohammad Sadiq – that we are engaging with the leaders of erstwhile Northern Alliance, which has now permutated into several political coalitions. The leader of Afghanistan National Front, Ahmad Zia Massoud, who is also the brother of the slain Ahmad Shah Massoud, was present. Others in attendance at the embassy function included Ustad Mohaqiq, leader of the Hazara community, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and even the deputy of General Dostum. All of these leaders vilified by Pakistan’s Urdu press and their puppet masters indicated that for a change we were doing the right thing: By not reducing Afghanistan to the land of Pashtuns or ‘anti-Pakistan’ or ‘pro-India’ Northern Alliance. Ahmad Wali Massoud, Ahmad Zia Massoud is a soft-spoken man and is charismatic like his brother.


While talking to us he emphasized how Pakistan, not unlike Afghanistan, was a victim of extremism and how the two ought to be working together to counter these worrying trends. In fact most of the people present aired similar views in their informal chit chat. This reminded me of the recent declaration that the anti-Taliban forces had signed and released earlier this year: “…any negotiation with the Taliban can only be acceptable, and therefore effective, if all parties to the conflict are involved in the process. The present form of discussions with the Taliban is flawed, as it excludes anti-Taliban Afghans…The present negotiations with the Taliban fail to take into account the risks, sacrifices and legitimate interests of the Afghans who ended the brutal oppression of all Afghans.”

Symbolism always says a lot. Former Prime Minister Gilani had started the work on the reconstruction of the embassy as a small plaque reminded us while the completion and reopening of the building was being undertaken by his successor, another PPP Prime Minister. Ironic that we are always keen to play down the efforts of the civilians including the Foreign Office in the policy process but at the end of the day even Pakistan’s security establishment needs them. The inauguration ceremony took place in the presence of the all-powerful ISI chief Lt Gen Zahir-ul-Islam.

As we departed from the high security zone and passed through the empty roads of Kabul (apparently the traffic was closed to ensure that there was a secure passage of the delegation) one could see how Kabul represents a series of protected zones given the onslaught of Taliban who remain powerful in the South and East of the country.

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In a few minutes we were entering Karzai’s palace, another fortress where layers of security kept the President of the country safe. This is not all too different from Pakistan where the President’s movements are limited and he operates in a highly protected zone. But the palace with its pine, chinar and other old, rare trees is immensely beautiful. Parts of several buildings have been reconstructed given the recent history but one can see the old and new forms of architecture layered on each other.

We waited as the PM, Foreign Minister, Interior Adviser Rahman Malik and DG ISI met President Karzai, visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron and presented themselves before world cameras. Perhaps all sides want to show that there were engaged and this is what diplomacy is all about. Getting conflicting views laid out on a table and finding a common ground and not letting conflict become a means of ironing out such differences.

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Karzai and Raja held detailed parleys while we waited in the annex of the Presidential Palace. I spotted a lovely painting which depicted Afghan musicians at work. The image made me both hopeful and sad. That Afghan were celebrating their culture, the threat of a medieval ideology had to be addressed. Reintegration of Taliban warriors is once again a common challenge for both the countries.

The regal press conference was held under the shade of huge chinar trees and a lovely breeze kept on ruffling the arrangements. Both the leaders were poised and gave a friendly feel to their public appearance. There were tough questions raised from both the sides especially by the AlJazeera correspondent based in Kabul. The latter asked our PM if the civilian government actually controlled the military and ISI. To his credit PM Raja handled this question rather well and displayed his well honed political skills by citing the Pakistani constitution and how it distributed powers. Of course we are miles away from such ideal constitutional governance but to hear this being said in a foreign land made me a little proud. Unlike the Zia and Musharraf eras, which constitute my lived memory, there was a beginning howsoever tenuous the civilian rule might be. Small mercies in a martial state, I told myself.


As we drove back to the airport the posters and iconography around the ‘national’ martyr Ahmad Shah Massoud could not escape my attention. His presence is ubiquitous. How will a 1990s repeat take place under such circumstances? This is what Pakistan needs to reflect and also the Pakistanis who dream of crushing India on Afghan soil to ensure that there is a ‘friendly’ government next door.

It is time that we engage with Afghans as our neighbours, respect their autonomy and also not shy away from talking to our feared adversary India. We cannot stop India from investing in Afghanistan if that is what Afghans want. But we can trade with India and also agree on a common ground. Most importantly, after the repeated tragedies in our Afghan expeditions we should have learned a lesson or two. For instance we may have to focus on the Taliban off-shoots that endanger our way of life at home. Perhaps that should be our top priority.

Raza Rumi is Director Policy & Programs at Jinnah Institute in Islamabad. The views expressed are his own. He is also a consulting editor at TFT. His writings are archived at www.razarumi.com

‘Pakistan lacks a clear policy against militancy’

Exclusive interview with Author Zahid Hussain by Beenish Javed

Islamabad, July 25, 2012:

Last week, I had an opportunity to meet Zahid Hussain, who is the author of two famous books, Frontline Pakistan and The Struggle with Militant Islam. He has an expert view on Pakistan’s tribal areas and the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Q. 2014 is fast approaching, but the world still thinks that Pakistan is not serious in stabilizing Afghanistan. Do you think this perception is correct?

Zahid Hussain (ZH):  This perception is incorrect. It is the responsibility of American and NATO troops on the ground to stabilize Afghanistan. Peace in Afghanistan is largely dependent on the U.S. policy. Would U.S. want to leave a stabilize Afghanistan? And it is possible through a political reconciliation in Afghanistan. A combined political settlement might help in bringing peace.

Q. Everyone has hopes from the reconciliation process. Do you think Pakistan has the potential to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table with the Afghans and the Americans?

ZH: Firstly, we have to see if the U.S. really wants to talk with the Taliban.  The   negotiations have been stalled from last six months. The process depends on both the Taliban and the U.S.  I think it’s incorrect to say that Pakistan can convince Taliban to talk because it’s wrong to think that the Taliban will ultimately do what Pakistan asks them to do.

Q. Is the government and the military of Pakistan taking steps to bring peace in Afghanistan?

ZH: The differences between Pakistan and the U.S are an obstacle in bringing peace in Afghanistan. And if the relations between the two countries don’t improve than it would be difficult to achieve a political settlement in Afghanistan. It is not only the responsibility of Pakistan to make efforts to improve relations with the U.S. The U.S should also try to address the issues that are the cause of the differences between two countries. And with the continuation of drone attacks , peace is difficult to achieve in this region.

Q. Do you think there is a consensus in Pakistan’s military about fighting the terrorist groups?

ZH:  Pakistan has suffered the most from militancy and a big reason for that is we do not have a clear policy against militancy. We don’t understand how to deal with this problem which is a big threat to Pakistan’s sovereignty.  Terrorists are now all over Pakistan. Militancy has not reduced from last few months we see an increase in attacks by the militants. It is high time that we devise a national policy against the militants as they are a big threat to Pakistan’s existence.  The interview can be viewed by clicking on the following link.

The interviewer’s more work can be seen on: Beenishjaved.com