Posts Tagged ‘ Afghanistan ’

Why Do They Hate Us?

By Mona Eltahawy for Foreign Policy

In “Distant View of a Minaret,” the late and much-neglected Egyptian writer Alifa Rifaat begins her short story with a woman so unmoved by sex with her husband that as he focuses solely on his pleasure, she notices a spider web she must sweep off the ceiling and has time to ruminate on her husband’s repeated refusal to prolong intercourse until she too climaxes, “as though purposely to deprive her.” Just as her husband denies her an orgasm, the call to prayer interrupts his, and the man leaves. After washing up, she loses herself in prayer — so much more satisfying that she can’t wait until the next prayer — and looks out onto the street from her balcony. She interrupts her reverie to make coffee dutifully for her husband to drink after his nap. Taking it to their bedroom to pour it in front of him as he prefers, she notices he is dead. She instructs their son to go and get a doctor. “She returned to the living room and poured out the coffee for herself. She was surprised at how calm she was,” Rifaat writes.

But let’s put aside what the United States does or doesn’t do to women. Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend. When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt — including my mother and all but one of her six sisters — have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty, then surely we must all blaspheme. When Egyptian women are subjected to humiliating “virginity tests” merely for speaking out, it’s no time for silence. When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband “with good intentions” no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness. And what, pray tell, are “good intentions”? They are legally deemed to include any beating that is “not severe” or “directed at the face.” What all this means is that when it comes to the status of women in the Middle East, it’s not better than you think. It’s much, much worse. Even after these “revolutions,” all is more or less considered well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry without a male guardian’s blessing — or divorce either.

Not a single Arab country ranks in the top 100 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, putting the region as a whole solidly at the planet’s rock bottom. Poor or rich, we all hate our women. Neighbors Saudi Arabia and Yemen, for instance, might be eons apart when it comes to GDP, but only four places separate them on the index, with the kingdom at 131 and Yemen coming in at 135 out of 135 countries. Morocco, often touted for its “progressive” family law (a 2005 report by Western “experts” called it “an example for Muslim countries aiming to integrate into modern society”), ranks 129; according to Morocco’s Ministry of Justice, 41,098 girls under age 18 were married there in 2010.

It’s easy to see why the lowest-ranked country is Yemen, where 55 percent of women are illiterate, 79 percent do not participate in the labor force, and just one woman serves in the 301-person parliament. Horrific news reports about 12-year-old girls dying in childbirth do little to stem the tide of child marriage there. Instead, demonstrations in support of child marriage outstrip those against it, fueled by clerical declarations that opponents of state-sanctioned pedophilia are apostates because the Prophet Mohammed, according to them, married his second wife, Aisha, when she was a child.

In a crisp three-and-a-half pages, Rifaat lays out a trifecta of sex, death, and religion, a bulldozer that crushes denial and defensiveness to get at the pulsating heart of misogyny in the Middle East. There is no sugarcoating it. They don’t hate us because of our freedoms, as the tired, post-9/11 American cliché had it. We have no freedoms because they hate us, as this Arab woman so powerfully says.

Yes: They hate us. It must be said.

Some may ask why I’m bringing this up now, at a time when the region has risen up, fueled not by the usual hatred of America and Israel but by a common demand for freedom. After all, shouldn’t everyone get basic rights first, before women demand special treatment? And what does gender, or for that matter, sex, have to do with the Arab Spring? But I’m not talking about sex hidden away in dark corners and closed bedrooms. An entire political and economic system — one that treats half of humanity like animals — must be destroyed along with the other more obvious tyrannies choking off the region from its future. Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun.

But at least Yemeni women can drive. It surely hasn’t ended their litany of problems, but it symbolizes freedom — and nowhere does such symbolism resonate more than in Saudi Arabia, where child marriage is also practiced and women are perpetually minors regardless of their age or education. Saudi women far outnumber their male counterparts on university campuses but are reduced to watching men far less qualified control every aspect of their lives.

Yes, Saudi Arabia, the country where a gang-rape survivor was sentenced to jail for agreeing to get into a car with an unrelated male and needed a royal pardon; Saudi Arabia, where a woman who broke the ban on driving was sentenced to 10 lashes and again needed a royal pardon; Saudi Arabia, where women still can’t vote or run in elections, yet it’s considered “progress” that a royal decree promised to enfranchise them for almost completely symbolic local elections in — wait for it — 2015. So bad is it for women in Saudi Arabia that those tiny paternalistic pats on their backs are greeted with delight as the monarch behind them, King Abdullah, is hailed as a “reformer” — even by those who ought to know better, such as Newsweek, which in 2010 named the king one of the top 11 most respected world leaders. You want to know how bad it is? The “reformer’s” answer to the revolutions popping up across the region was to numb his people with still more government handouts — especially for the Salafi zealots from whom the Saudi royal family inhales legitimacy. King Abdullah is 87. Just wait until you see the next in line, Prince Nayef, a man straight out of the Middle Ages. His misogyny and zealotry make King Abdullah look like Susan B. Anthony.

So: Yes, women all over the world have problems; yes, the United States has yet to elect a female president; and yes, women continue to be objectified in many “Western” countries (I live in one of them). That’s where the conversation usually ends when you try to discuss why Arab societies hate women.

“Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently. “But they all seem to. It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim. They want to control women.” (And yet Clinton represents an administration that openly supports many of those misogynistic despots.) Attempts to control by such regimes often stem from the suspicion that without it, a woman is just a few degrees short of sexual insatiability. Observe Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the popular cleric and longtime conservative TV host on Al Jazeera who developed a stunning penchant for the Arab Spring revolutions — once they were under way, that is — undoubtedly understanding that they would eliminate the tyrants who long tormented and oppressed both him and the Muslim Brotherhood movement from which he springs.

I could find you a host of crackpots sounding off on Woman the Insatiable Temptress, but I’m staying mainstream with Qaradawi, who commands a huge audience on and off the satellite channels. Although he says female genital mutilation (which he calls “circumcision,” a common euphemism that tries to put the practice on a par with male circumcision) is not “obligatory,” you will also find this priceless observation in one of his books: “I personally support this under the current circumstances in the modern world. Anyone who thinks that circumcision is the best way to protect his daughters should do it,” he wrote, adding, “The moderate opinion is in favor of practicing circumcision to reduce temptation.” So even among “moderates,” girls’ genitals are cut to ensure their desire is nipped in the bud — pun fully intended. Qaradawi has since issued a fatwa against female genital mutilation, but it comes as no surprise that when Egypt banned the practice in 2008, some Muslim Brotherhood legislators opposed the law. And some still do — including a prominent female parliamentarian, Azza al-Garf.

Yet it’s the men who can’t control themselves on the streets, where from Morocco to Yemen, sexual harassment is endemic and it’s for the men’s sake that so many women are encouraged to cover up. Cairo has a women-only subway car to protect us from wandering hands and worse; countless Saudi malls are for families only, barring single men from entry unless they produce a requisite female to accompany them.

We often hear how the Middle East’s failing economies have left many men unable to marry, and some even use that to explain rising levels of sexual harassment on the streets. In a 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, more than 80 percent of Egyptian women said they’d experienced sexual harassment and more than 60 percent of men admitted to harassing women. Yet we never hear how a later marriage age affects women. Do women have sex drives or not? Apparently, the Arab jury is still out on the basics of human biology.

Enter that call to prayer and the sublimation through religion that Rifaat so brilliantly introduces in her story. Just as regime-appointed clerics lull the poor across the region with promises of justice — and nubile virgins — in the next world rather than a reckoning with the corruption and nepotism of the dictator in this life, so women are silenced by a deadly combination of men who hate them while also claiming to have God firmly on their side.

I turn again to Saudi Arabia, and not just because when I encountered the country at age 15 I was traumatized into feminism — there’s no other way to describe it — but because the kingdom is unabashed in its worship of a misogynistic God and never suffers any consequences for it, thanks to its double-whammy advantage of having oil and being home to Islam’s two holiest places, Mecca and Medina.

Then — the 1980s and 1990s — as now, clerics on Saudi TV were obsessed with women and their orifices, especially what came out of them. I’ll never forget hearing that if a baby boy urinated on you, you could go ahead and pray in the same clothes, yet if a baby girl peed on you, you had to change. What on Earth in the girl’s urine made you impure? I wondered.

Hatred of women.

How much does Saudi Arabia hate women? So much so that 15 girls died in a school fire in Mecca in 2002, after “morality police” barred them from fleeing the burning building — and kept firefighters from rescuing them — because the girls were not wearing headscarves and cloaks required in public. And nothing happened. No one was put on trial. Parents were silenced. The only concession to the horror was that girls’ education was quietly taken away by then-Crown Prince Abdullah from the Salafi zealots, who have nonetheless managed to retain their vise-like grip on the kingdom’s education system writ large.

This, however, is no mere Saudi phenomenon, no hateful curiosity in the rich, isolated desert. The Islamist hatred of women burns brightly across the region — now more than ever.

In Kuwait, where for years Islamists fought women’s enfranchisement, they hounded the four women who finally made it into parliament, demanding that the two who didn’t cover their hair wear hijabs. When the Kuwaiti parliament was dissolved this past December, an Islamist parliamentarian demanded the new house — devoid of a single female legislator — discuss his proposed “decent attire” law.

In Tunisia, long considered the closest thing to a beacon of tolerance in the region, women took a deep breath last fall after the Islamist Ennahda party won the largest share of votes in the country’s Constituent Assembly. Party leaders vowed to respect Tunisia’s 1956 Personal Status Code, which declared “the principle of equality between men and women” as citizens and banned polygamy. But female university professors and students have complained since then of assaults and intimidation by Islamists for not wearing hijabs, while many women’s rights activists wonder how talk of Islamic law will affect the actual law they will live under in post-revolution Tunisia.

In Libya, the first thing the head of the interim government, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, promised to do was to lift the late Libyan tyrant’s restrictions on polygamy. Lest you think of Muammar al-Qaddafi as a feminist of any kind, remember that under his rule girls and women who survived sexual assaults or were suspected of “moral crimes” were dumped into “social rehabilitation centers,” effective prisons from which they could not leave unless a man agreed to marry them or their families took them back.

Then there’s Egypt, where less than a month after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, the military junta that replaced him, ostensibly to “protect the revolution,” inadvertently reminded us of the two revolutions we women need. After it cleared Tahrir Square of protesters, the military detained dozens of male and female activists. Tyrants oppress, beat, and torture all. We know. But these officers reserved “virginity tests” for female activists: rape disguised as a medical doctor inserting his fingers into their vaginal opening in search of hymens. (The doctor was sued and eventually acquitted in March.)

What hope can there be for women in the new Egyptian parliament, dominated as it is by men stuck in the seventh century? A quarter of those parliamentary seats are now held by Salafis, who believe that mimicking the original ways of the Prophet Mohammed is an appropriate prescription for modern life. Last fall, when fielding female candidates, Egypt’s Salafi Nour Party ran a flower in place of each woman’s face. Women are not to be seen or heard — even their voices are a temptation — so there they are in the Egyptian parliament, covered from head to toe in black and never uttering a word.

And we’re in the middle of a revolution in Egypt! It’s a revolution in which women have died, been beaten, shot at, and sexually assaulted fighting alongside men to rid our country of that uppercase Patriarch — Mubarak — yet so many lowercase patriarchs still oppress us. The Muslim Brotherhood, with almost half the total seats in our new revolutionary parliament, does not believe women (or Christians for that matter) can be president. The woman who heads the “women’s committee” of the Brotherhood’s political party said recently that women should not march or protest because it’s more “dignified” to let their husbands and brothers demonstrate for them.

The hatred of women goes deep in Egyptian society. Those of us who have marched and protested have had to navigate a minefield of sexual assaults by both the regime and its lackeys, and, sadly, at times by our fellow revolutionaries. On the November day I was sexually assaulted on Mohamed Mahmoud Street near Tahrir Square, by at least four Egyptian riot police, I was first groped by a man in the square itself. While we are eager to expose assaults by the regime, when we’re violated by our fellow civilians we immediately assume they’re agents of the regime or thugs because we don’t want to taint the revolution.

SO WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

First we stop pretending. Call out the hate for what it is. Resist cultural relativism and know that even in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips. You — the outside world — will be told that it’s our “culture” and “religion” to do X, Y, or Z to women. Understand that whoever deemed it as such was never a woman. The Arab uprisings may have been sparked by an Arab man — Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in desperation — but they will be finished by Arab women.

Amina Filali — the 16-year-old Moroccan girl who drank poison after she was forced to marry, and beaten by, her rapist — is our Bouazizi. Salwa el-Husseini, the first Egyptian woman to speak out against the “virginity tests”; Samira Ibrahim, the first one to sue; and Rasha Abdel Rahman, who testified alongside her — they are our Bouazizis. We must not wait for them to die to become so. Manal al-Sharif, who spent nine days in jail for breaking her country’s ban on women driving, is Saudi Arabia’s Bouazizi. She is a one-woman revolutionary force who pushes against an ocean of misogyny.

Our political revolutions will not succeed unless they are accompanied by revolutions of thought — social, sexual, and cultural revolutions that topple the Mubaraks in our minds as well as our bedrooms.

“Do you know why they subjected us to virginity tests?” Ibrahim asked me soon after we’d spent hours marching together to mark International Women’s Day in Cairo on March 8. “They want to silence us; they want to chase women back home. But we’re not going anywhere.”

We are more than our headscarves and our hymens. Listen to those of us fighting. Amplify the voices of the region and poke the hatred in its eye. There was a time when being an Islamist was the most vulnerable political position in Egypt and Tunisia. Understand that now it very well might be Woman. As it always has been.

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-American columnist. In November 2011, Egyptian police beat her, breaking her left arm and right hand, and sexually assaulted her. She was detained by the Interior Ministry and military intelligence for 12 hours.

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Taliban Commander Turns Self in… For Reward on ‘Wanted’ Poster

As Reported by Kevin Sieff for The Washington Post

Mohammad Ashan, a mid-level Taliban commander in Paktika province, strolled toward a police checkpoint in the district of Sar Howza with a wanted poster bearing his own face. He demanded the finder’s fee referenced on the poster: $100.

Afghan officials, perplexed by the man’s misguided motives, arrested him on the spot. Ashan is suspected of plotting at least two attacks on Afghan security forces. His misdeeds prompted officials to plaster the district with hundreds of so-called “Be on the Lookout” posters emblazoned with his name and likeness.

When U.S. troops went to confirm that Ashan had in fact come forward to claim the finder’s fee, they were initially incredulous.

“We asked him, ‘Is this you?’ Mohammad Ashan answered with an incredible amount of enthusiasm, ‘Yes, yes, that’s me! Can I get my award now?’” recalled SPC Matthew Baker.

A biometric scan confirmed that the man in Afghan custody was the insurgent they had been looking for.

“This guy is the Taliban equivalent of the ‘Home Alone” burglars,” one U.S. official said.

Wanted posters are often distributed by NATO forces, but rarely have such a direct impact on the apprehension of an insurgent. In restive Paktika province, civilians are typically afraid to pass on intelligence that might lead to an arrest. And insurgents tend to shy away from the urban centers where they’re being hunted, particularly while carrying evidence of their own transgressions.

Officials have guessed at what the unusual details of Ashan’s arrest might tell us about the state of the insurgency — its desperation, its lack of resources, its defiance of law and order.

But, for now, the consensus has landed on the singularity of Ashan’s act, and the intellectual calculus that led to it.

Taliban Storm Pakistani Prison: Nearly 400 Freed

By Zulfiqar Ali and Alex Rodriguez for The Los Angeles Times

Pakistani Taliban militants stormed a prison in northwest Pakistan early Sunday and freed 390 prisoners, including 20 militants, local officials said.

The attack occurred about 2:30 a.m. at a prison in Bannu. The town is considered the gateway to North Waziristan, a tribal region along the Afghan border that has long been a stronghold for Taliban insurgents and several other militant groups.

Local police officials said as many as 200 Taliban militants drove up in pickups, lobbing hand grenades to break through the jail’s main gate.

Once inside, a two-hour firefight broke out between the attackers and roughly 30 jail guards. The militants began freeing prisoners after the guards ran out of ammunition, officials said. No one was seriously injured or killed in the attack.

One of the prisoners freed was Adnan Rashid, on death row for an assassination attempt on former Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf when the general was president, police said.

Officials said the jail’s 944 prisoners, including some militant commanders, recently had been moved to the Bannu jail after authorities received intelligence that Taliban militants might be planning major raids on detention centers holding insurgents.

In recent years, Pakistan has sent more than 140,000 troops to battle the Pakistani Taliban across much of the tribal region along the Afghan border. The army has retaken large stretches of territory, but the militants still cling to pockets of resistance throughout the tribal belt and continue to carry out periodic attacks on a variety of targets, including military checkpoints, mosques and markets.

Like the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani movement is made up of factions united by the goal of toppling the government and imposing Sharia, or Islamic law. It maintains links with Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and other Pakistani militant groups ensconced in Pakistan’s tribal belt.

Authorities in Islamabad, the capital, have blamed the Pakistani Taliban for some of the country’s worst terrorist attacks, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.

Pakistani Parliament Approves Proposals on US Ties

As Reported By The Associated Press

Pakistan’s parliament on Thursday unanimously approved new guidelines for the country in its troubled relationship with the United States, a decision that could pave the way for the reopening of supply lines to NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan.

The guidelines allow for the blockade on U.S. and NATO supplies to be lifted, but also call for an immediate end to American drone strikes against militants on Pakistani soil.

However, the lawmakers did not make a halt in the CIA-led missile attacks a prerequisite to reopening the supply lines, as some lawmakers had been demanding. The government and the army will use the recommendations as the basis for re-engaging with Washington.

Ties between the U.S. and Pakistan all but collapsed in November after U.S. airstrikes inadvertently killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border, after which Islamabad blocked the supply lines in protest. Washington wants the relationship back on track.

The U.S. State Department expressed respect for the Pakistani parliament’s decision. “We respect the seriousness with which parliament’s review of U.S.-Pakistan relations has been conducted,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. “We seek a relationship with Pakistan that is enduring, strategic, and more clearly defined. We look forward to discussing these policy recommendations with the Government of Pakistan and continuing to engage with it on our shared interests.”

About 30 percent of supplies used by NATO and U.S. troops in landlocked Afghanistan are transported through Pakistan. Washington also needs Islamabad’s cooperation to negotiate an end to the Afghan war because many insurgent leaders are based on Pakistani soil.

The drones are a source of popular outrage in the country and have fueled anti-U.S. sentiment, although Pakistan’s powerful army has tacitly aided the missile attacks in the past, weakening Islamabad’s official stance that they are a violation of sovereignty.

Washington has ignored previous entreaties by the parliament to end the strikes, and is seen as unlikely to change its policy now.

Despite calls by Islamists for a permanent supply line blockade, few inside the Pakistani government or the army believed this was desirable, given that Pakistan relies on the U.S. and other NATO countries for its economic survival and diplomatic and military support.

Soon after the deadly airstrikes on the border, the Pakistani government called on parliament to draw up new guidelines for Islamabad’s relations with the U.S. The government’s move was widely seen as way to give it political cover for reopening the routes.

The national security committee presented a first set of proposals last month but opposition parties riding a wave of anti-American sentiment rejected them, seemingly unwilling to share any fallout ahead of elections this year or early next.

But on Thursday the opposition voted with government lawmakers to approve a revised set of guidelines, which differed little from the original ones. Opposition lawmakers didn’t explain why they had dropped earlier objections, but they could have come under pressure from the army or extracted other, unrelated concessions from the government.

The guidelines call for NATO and the U.S. to pay Pakistan more for the right to ship supplies across its soil and stipulate that no arms or ammunitions be transported. Western forces have only ever trucked fuel and other nonfatal supplies across Pakistan because of the risk they could fall into the hands of insurgents.

“We believe that the world has heard the voice of the people of Pakistan,” Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told parliament. “I would like to assure the house that our government will implement the recommendations that have been made in both letter and spirit.” Gilani did not say when the supply lines would reopen.

Western officials have said Pakistan would come under intense criticism if routes remained blocked during a NATO conference in Chicago on May 20-21 where more than 50 heads of state will discuss progress on ending the war.

Washington’s public line has been that it is waiting for the parliament to finish its review before calling for Pakistan to reopen the routes. It has refused to apologize for the border incident in November, and last week put a $10 million bounty on the head of a militant leader believed close to Pakistan’s security forces.

Behind the scenes, however, negotiations have been going on between the U.S. and Pakistan over the supply line issue and drone strikes. It was unclear whether there has been any new agreement on the strikes, which Washington believes are key to keeping al-Qaida on its back foot.

U.S. officials had said they had offered Pakistan notice about impending strikes and new limits on which militants are being targeted. For most of the Afghan war, 90 percent of the supplies came through Pakistan, but NATO has increased its reliance on an alternate, so-called “northern” route, through Central Asia in recent years.

Increased use of the northern route has removed some of the leverage Islamabad had over the West, but at a cost to the coalition.

Pentagon officials now say it costs about $17,000 per container to go through the north, compared with about $7,000 per container to go through Pakistan.

Rural Tinkerer Builds The First Airplane Made in Afghanistan

By Tom A Peter for The Christian Science Monitor

Afghanistan’s rural Ghazni Province usually appears on the news radar only to herald a tragedy: Five Polish soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb days before Christmas. A group of armed men accused a widow and her daughter of adultery in November and stoned the pair before shooting them in front of their home.

In other words, it’s not the sort of place you’d expect to find a hobbyist aviator in his backyard building what he describes as the first airplane ever designed and constructed in Afghanistan.

Yet, over the past three years Ghazni-native Sabir Shah managed to fashion a one-man “microlight,” aircraft at his family home using instructions from the Internet and parts from the local market.

While impressive compared with a Wright Brothers’ creation, the plane is far from a marvel of modern aviation. But Mr. Shah hopes it’s enough to inspire government support or private investment in Afghan aviation.

So far though, aside from modest, but passing interest from a few government officials, he’s received little attention. Most Afghans, including his own family, have called him crazy and told him to get a regular job. Still, Shah remains determined to create a business building airplanes for Afghanistan.

“I believe that if you want something, you can get it,” he says.

Shah is an unlikely candidate to be Afghanistan’s aviation advocate. A high school graduate with no pilot training nor aeronautical engineering background, he’d never even traveled by airplane when he started building one.

For Afghans wishing to learn how to fly, the options are extremely limited. The country has a fledging air force, but there are no other practical opportunities for pilot training. The Ministry of Transportation and Aviation offers flight classes, but ministry officials admit that few students actually take the courses because Afghan airlines almost exclusively hire foreign pilots with better training and more experience.

After high school, Shah considered going on to college. Yet even though public universities are free, his family couldn’t afford losing the extra pair of hands.
Given his circumstances it’s easy to understand why people were skeptical when Shah announced his plans to build a microlight airplane after seeing one featured on a documentary and doing a bit of Internet research.

“I didn’t have money and there was no one to help me,” says Shah. “Everyone was saying, ‘Have you studied about airplanes? Do you know anything about airplanes?’ I would say, ‘I have got some recommendations from the Internet.’ Nobody believed I could build it.”

Undeterred, Shah continued his research and worked a series of odd jobs to save up money for parts and equipment. As he progressed, friends and family donated money. An uncle in Australia gave him a vital $2,000 donation and even Afghan Vice President Abdul Karim Khalili contributed $1,000 when he learned of the project.

After three years, Shah had constructed a microlight airplane using a propeller he made himself, a small Toyota car engine, a homemade fiberglass body, a wing made of a metal frame and cloth, and some spare gauges he bought at the market for his instrument panel. The project cost Shah a total of $12,000, a small fortune here.

When it came time for his first test flight, the Afghan Ministry of Defense agreed to use a military helicopter to transport Shah and his plane to an airfield north of Kabul. The trip was the first time Shah had ever traveled by air. “I was frightened a little when I was looking down,” he says, recalling the trip.

Before Shah climbed into the pilot seat, a retired Afghan pilot who’d flown jets for the Soviets and now managed the airport gave him a few pointers. Otherwise, he was relying on manuals he’d collected on other microlight aircraft.

As his plane sped down the runway, his fear momentarily faded. The flight lasted less than a minute before he set it down on the runway again.

In a total of four takeoffs, his longest and last flight traveled about a quarter of a mile – nothing compared with professional tests, but 11 times farther than the original Wright Brothers’ flight. However, that final flight ended when he crash-landed just off the runway. Though he walked away from the crash, the plane was damaged beyond repair.

Considering that it’s been 64 years since a pilot first broke the sound barrier and 25 years since a plane circumnavigated the globe without stopping or refueling, Shah’s achievement may seem hardly worth mentioning. But his accomplishment is much less about the actual plane he built and more about his creativity and inventiveness in a country where innovation and ingenuity are in short supply after three decades of war.

“Innovation doesn’t mean anything in this country,” says Daoud Sultanzoy, a former member of parliament from Ghanzi, who has been a pilot since 1973 and is now starting his own airline. “We always look at the past and behind us instead of looking forward…. He’s a young man who must have used his own know-how to build his own airplane, which should be encouraged.”

Despite the challenges, Shah says he’ll keep working. If he can find a scholarship to study abroad he will, but he doesn’t know how to look for such an opportunity and doubts it will happen. For now, he hopes his initial success will attract investors as he endeavors to start his next project, an eight- to 10-seater airplane that he hopes can be used for domestic travel in Afghanistan.

Pakistanis for Peace Editor’s NoteWhat an amazing story of ingeunity and ambition that Sabir Shah demonstrates that should make all Afghans and Pakistanis proud. Just imagine what amazing talents could be nurtured with several billion dollars in seed money in start-ups in Kabul instead of all the money lost on wars~

Why President Zardari’s Visit Is A Small Bonus

By Soutik Biswas for The BBC

Hope is not a policy, but neither is despair, as South Asia expert Stephen Cohen says in a recent essay on Pakistan.

So it is with relations between India and Pakistan.

The past few days have shown how fragile the relationship can be – even as India welcomed President Asif Ali Zardari’s private trip to India on Sunday – the first by a Pakistani head of state for seven years – and PM Manmohan Singh invited him for lunch, the $10m US bounty for Hafiz Saeed, the founder of Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, provoked the cleric to openly launch a fresh attack against India (and the US).

But people live in hope, so Indian media is gung-ho about Mr Zardari’s visit.

They say the Pakistani president must be applauded for trying to end trade discrimination against India, easing petroleum imports from across the border, and moving towards a liberal visa deal.

“Under Mr Zardari’s watch, India and Pakistan are considering a sweeping agenda for economic co-operation for the first time in decades. The prime minister has every reason to welcome Mr Zardari warmly and consider the next steps in consolidating the unexpected movement in bilateral relations,” the Indian Express wrote.

Analyst C Raja Mohan believes Mr Singh must make an official trip to Pakistan after his meeting with Mr Zardari. “For his part,” he wrote, “Mr Singh should convey to Mr Zardari his readiness to move as fast and as far as the Pakistan president is willing to go.” Others like Jyoti Malhotra actually find Mr Zardari’s visit to the shrine of a famous Sufi Muslim saint in Rajasthan loaded with symbolism in these troubled times. “Clearly, Mr Zardari has stolen an imaginative moment from the bitter-sullen history of India-Pakistan, by asking to come to pay his respects to a cherished and much-beloved saint across the Indian subcontinent,” she wrote.

The relations between two neighbours remain complex. A 2010 Pew survey found 53% of the respondents in Pakistan chose India as the greater threat to their country, and only 26% chose the Taliban and al-Qaeda. At the same time 72% said it was important to improve relations with India, and about 75% wanted more trade relations and talks with India.

Pundits like Mr Cohen believe that it will “take the [Pakistan] army’s compliance, strong political leadership, and resolutely independent-minded foreign ministers to secure any significant shift of approach towards India”.

None of this appears to be in much evidence at the moment.

Both countries have seriously weakened governments that makes them unable to move towards any radical confidence building measures. In the current circumstances, President Zardari’s visit can only be a small bonus. And as scholars like Kanti Bajpai suggest, India must remain patient (even if faced with another Mumbai-style attack), continue to engage with Islamabad, help the civilian government in Pakistan politically, try to resolve a few outstanding disputes like Siachen and Sir Creek, build a relationship with the army and explore the possibility of cooperating with Islamabad on the future of Afghanistan. Despair does not help mend a stormy relationship.

U.S. and Pakistan Take Step to Mend Relations

By Salman Masood and Declan Walsh for The New York Times

President Obama took a symbolic step toward improving ties with Pakistan on Tuesday when he met with Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on the sidelines of a nuclear summit meeting in South Korea.

But even as the two leaders made polite, if freighted, comments about improved cooperation, harsh debate in Pakistan’s Parliament on Tuesday made clear that there may be very little political upside for any Pakistani warming toward Washington.

Speaking in Seoul, President Obama acknowledged “strains” in the relationship and voiced his support for a parliamentary review process in Pakistan that aims to get the relationship back on its feet. “I think it’s important for us to get it right,” he said at a joint news conference.

But Mr. Obama added that Pakistan must also respect pressing American security concerns centered on “national security and our needs to battle terrorists who have targeted us in the past.”

Mr. Gilani replied that he would help work with Mr. Obama “to have all the peace, prosperity and progress of the whole world.”

Relations between the two countries plunged steeply after the American commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden last May, then worsened further after American warplanes fired airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the border with Afghanistan in November.

The border strikes caused Pakistan to close NATO supply routes into Afghanistan and expel American officials from a remote air based used by the C.I.A. to launch drone strikes against militants from Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the northwestern Pakistani tribal belt. More recently, a Pakistani parliamentary committee on national security demanded an end to drone strikes and an unconditional American apology for the airstrikes.

In Islamabad on Tuesday, Parliament was supposed to start a long-awaited debate that would pave the way toward re-engaging diplomatically with the United States. But the opposition stalled the debate, with some lawmakers expressing fury at news reports that the government had already promised to reopen the NATO supply lines.

Ayaz Amir, an influential lawmaker with the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N party, questioned why Pakistan even bothered blocking the supply routes if it was assumed they would start right back up again. “We are fooling ourselves, and we are also fooling the Pakistani people,” he said.

The most scathing criticism came from Maulana Fazalur Rehman, an influential religious politician, who warned that if the government failed to win broad political backing for its review of American ties, he would take his protests onto the streets.

“We will not let such a decision to be implemented in the field,” he said.

Mr. Rehman asserted that given urgent efforts by the Americans to start negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, American weapons transported through NATO supply lines could ultimately be turned back on Pakistan, earning loud applause from fellow lawmakers. And he asked how the government intended to bring covert American operations in Pakistan under the law of the land.

Raza Rabbani, a senior government lawmaker, responded that the parliamentary committee’s recommendations on American policy were “broad policy guidelines” and not a final decision.

The session was adjourned until Wednesday evening, when the formal debate is due to begin. Meanwhile, outside Parliament, a newly formed alliance of religious parties and extremist groups, the Defense of Pakistan Council, held a large street rally against the reopening of the supply routes.

“If Parliament compromises on the security and sovereignty of the country, then we cannot guarantee the security of the lawmakers,” said Maulana Sami ul-Haq, head of the alliance, as hundreds of protesters chanted anti-American slogans.

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