Bamiyan Panorama

Bamiyan Panorama

Monday, September 30, 2013

The bombing of my childhood haunt in Peshawar



A Pakistani Christian woman embraces children as she mourns the death of relatives at the suicide bombing site at All Saints church in Peshawar on September 23, 2013

The beautiful whitewashed church was a landmark in Haroon Rashid's childhood

The deadly suicide bombing of a church in the Pakistani city of Peshawar last weekend shocked the nation. When BBC Urdu journalist Haroon Rashid, who has reported on many bombings, arrived at the scene, he found himself overwhelmed by the tragedy that struck at the very doorstep of a childhood haunt.

Last Sunday dozens of people were killed in an instant when two suicide bombers detonated themselves in the grounds of the beautiful whitewashed All Saints church in the city of my birth, Peshawar. The final death toll was 81.

I arrived at the scene a few hours later. I thought I had to go and see what had happened to my old haunt. I was not prepared for the feelings that would overcome me.

This church tragedy - after all the tragedies I have witnessed in 25 years of reporting - became an emotional watershed - perhaps because it felt as if my childhood had been bombed that day.
Horrifying and surreal
Across the road from the white church was my missionary-run Edwardes High School. I studied there from the age of five to 15, and for a decade of my school life I played in front of this church.

It was part of my daily landscape. As we usually arrived 10 to 15 minutes early and did not want to go straight into school, we would play hide-and-seek on that road until the bell rang.

The road had barely changed but I did not recognise the scene that greeted me.

Pakistani Christian worshippers, some of them who survived Sunday's suicide bombing, pray during a special mass for the victims of the bombing, at the Church where the attack took place, in Peshawar, Pakistan. Pakistan's Christians are considered a passive and unobtrusive community

As soon as I entered the vast playground of nearby St John's Church and School, where the bodies were kept, I felt I had suddenly shifted to another universe - a horrifying and surreal place.

There were wailing relatives, crying children and men trying unsuccessfully to stop tears rolling down their cheeks. Coffins, some decorated with colourful sheets, were being moved around in different directions.

The blaring ambulance sirens added to the strange, depressing environment.

When the bombers struck, Sunday Mass had finished and about 60% of the congregation had already left. Those who remained had stayed back for the free food that was being distributed on the premises.

I am told the atmosphere was relaxed, and even some of the security guards joined in to get food - the service was over and they did not feel vigilance was needed at that point.

Now dozens of coffins were lined up, surrounded by wailing mothers and sisters. My mind just froze. I had a microphone in one hand and a camera in another, but I wasn't able to focus.

It was the first time in my career that I went back empty-handed.

I gave up trying to gather material and just stood in the middle of it all. For a moment I felt as if I was no longer in the world of the living. I was of no help to anybody, I was not even gathering the material to tell the world what had happened. I almost wept there.

Of my 25 years of journalism, 15 have been spent covering death and destruction in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This event is not unique in terms of the brutality meted out to ordinary people in this part of the world.

From counting charred bodies in Peshawar's busy Lady Reading Hospital in a December 1995 market blast to the massive earthquake that hit Pakistan's northern areas in 2005 and the unthinkable Red Mosque siege in 2007, I have seen a lot of horror - but so have the people of this city and country.

I can vividly recall the burnt body of a woman clinging to her dead baby. And the sobs of a man bombed in a US attack in Kandahar. A cameraman once fell right in front of me from a gunshot wound.

I also remember some of my dearest journalist friends like Hayatullah Khan, killed in the troubled North Waziristan tribal region.

Peshawar is on the frontline of Pakistani terror, as it is frequently targeted by militants.

I asked one ambulance driver at the scene how he coped with the daily diet of transporting bodies. He said that initially it was hard but one gets used to it.

Mourners at Peshawar church Coffins were lined up and mothers and sisters gathered around to grieve

A group of teenage boys seemed uncertain about what to do. They were carrying a coffin carelessly, probably looking for a relative of the body inside.

They held it slanted and put it to the ground head-down to take a rest. It might have been a friend of theirs. They looked stunned too.
Assault on innocence
In the early 1980s, the city maintained an exemplary peace. I don't recall any religious tensions.

In 1992, when the old city of Peshawar was placed under curfew, it was sectarian Sunni-Shia tensions that divided society then.

The passive Christian community lived on menial municipal jobs or as teachers in missionary schools. They did not pose any economic or religious challenge to dominant Muslim society.

But back at the scene of the old church, I realised that I could not even remember if I had ever been inside it. I know things have changed: the church used to be much more visible and feel much more part of the fabric of the city because there were lower boundary walls and gates you could see through.

These days, security has made it more inaccessible.

I still do not know why this particular incident set off a response which rendered me unable to function - perhaps it was because it hit the site of my childhood, and seemed an assault on innocence.

A woman crying passed me by and she wailed: "My son has gone. My daughter has gone. Please take me as well. I don't want to live as well."

I may have been overcome with the situation, but she - like all the other Pakistani victims of terror - have to live with this loss until they too die.

Afghanistan mourns victims of communist era



Afghans have begun two days of mourning for victims of the communist government in the late 1970s. It was prompted by a list naming 5,000 people who were killed or disappeared in that time. Many were conservative opponents of the government which seized power in April 1978 - a year before the Soviet invasion. The BBC's David Loyn reports from Kabul.

Zamir Mihanpoor was inseparable from his brother Khwarja.

"He was not only my brother, he was my friend," he said, his voice thick with emotion.

Khwarja, 26, was among 5,000 people whose names have emerged on a list of those killed by the communist government in Afghanistan in the 18 months before the Soviet invasion at Christmas 1979. They will be remembered in two days of national mourning on 30 September and 1 October.

Khwarja was a teacher, but was also politically active in the Parcham wing of the Afghan communist movement. He was arrested when the rival Khalq faction seized power in April 1978 in the so-called Saur Revolution - named for the month in the Afghan calendar when it happened.

His brother Zamir said that he heard from two of Khwarja's cellmates that the young teacher was badly beaten every day, to the point that he could hardly drink water when he was thrown back in the cell in the evenings. One day, he did not return from the beatings.
War crimes
This undated picture shows Kabul citizens reading local papers in the early days after the Moscow-backed Afghan communist party took power in a military coup in 1978.
Kabul residents read the papers after the Afghan communist party assumed power in the 1970s

The list of 5,000 names emerged in the hands of an Afghan now living in Germany. It was part of the evidence collected as part of a war crimes trial in the Netherlands for a former Afghan intelligence officer, Amanullah Osman, who had originally claimed political asylum.

The list was released by the court, who thought it ought to be made public after Comm Osman died.

In the confusion of the times, one of those on the list, Habib Rahman, an engineer, is still alive. He is now a businessman in Kabul, but saw his name at number 2676 on the list. For months, he said that he and other prisoners in Pul-e-Charki jail lived "each day as if it was the last".

After the cell doors were locked at night, 10 or 15 names would be read out, and people led out to be shot.

"Everybody was thinking that tomorrow night it might be me," he said.

But although the list showed that his execution was ordered, he was never called out. Days after the Russian invasion, a knife was cut through the plastic sheeting that kept the weather from their cell, a blond head appeared, and a Russian soldier greeted them warmly. Days later, they were freed.
Scores dead
Friends and relatives remember those who died or disappeared under the communists
Afghans came together to remember those who died or disappeared

Mr Rahman went to the Ministry of Interior in January 1980 to see thousands of people lining up in front of boards listing names of those killed by the regime that preceded the Soviet-backed government.

The list of 5,000 names published by the Dutch court is about half of the list announced then, and a small fraction of the total number of perhaps 50,000 killed in the year before the Soviet invasion.

A million more would die in the years that followed at the hands of the Soviet forces, their Afghan followers, the mujahideen who opposed them, and later the Taliban.

Last Friday, an event described as a "mass funeral and memorial for those martyrs without graves" was held on open ground in central Kabul. Men wept openly during speeches and prayers, and photos of the dead were propped up on chairs in front of a stage.

Many of the speakers called for trials for the crimes of the communists. And research by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission showed that there is a widespread desire for reparations to be made for the past, and for those responsible for killings to be brought to justice.

The cruelty of the Taliban is well-known in the west, although the focus groups questioned for this research were more concerned about the crimes of the communists and later the mujahideen, who fought among themselves after the fall of the Soviet-backed government in Kabul in 1992.

On a recent visit to Kabul, the UN high commissioner for human rights said: "I would back investigations, prosecutions and trials."

But despite a groundswell in opinion that there should be trials for the crimes of the past, former warlords rely on an amnesty law passed in parliament, and many remain in powerful positions, not challenged by Nato forces in Afghanistan.

Militants kill (mostly Muslim) students in Nigeria college attack

AP of Associated Press            

POTISKUM, Nigeria — Suspected Islamic extremists attacked an agricultural college in the dead of night, gunning down dozens of students as they slept in dormitories and torching classrooms, the school's provost said — the latest violence in northeastern Nigeria's ongoing Islamic uprising.
The attack, blamed on the Boko Haram extremist group, came despite a 4 ½-month-old state of emergency covering three states and one-sixth of the country. It and other recent violence have led many to doubt assurances from the government and the military that they are winning Nigeria's war on the extremists.
Provost Molima Idi Mato of Yobe State College of Agriculture told The Associated Press that there were no security forces protecting the college. Two weeks ago, the state commissioner for education had begged schools and colleges to reopen and promised they would be guarded by soldiers and police.
Idi Mato said as many as 50 students may have been killed in the assault that began at about 1 a.m. Sunday in rural Gujba. "They attacked our students while they were sleeping in their hostels. They opened fire at them," he said, adding that most victims were aged between 18 and 22.
Soldiers recovered 42 bodies and transported 18 wounded students to Damaturu Specialist Hospital 25 miles north, said a military intelligence official who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Two of the wounded later died, said Adamu Usman, a survivor from Gujba who was helping at the hospital.
President Goodluck Jonathan condemned the attack in a televised "chat with the media" Sunday night, and questioned the motives of Boko Haram, which wants to impose Islamic law across Nigeria. He said he wondered whether the victims were Muslim or Christian.
Usman said almost all those killed were Muslims, as is the majority of the college's student body.
Jonathan likened the assault to that on Nairobi's premier shopping mall last week, where Islamic extremists from Somalia's al-Shabab movement killed 67 civilians — but only after allowing many Muslims to leave. Boko Haram has said some of its fighters trained with al-Shabab in Somalia.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has said in video addresses that his group wants to end democracy in Nigeria and allow education only in Islamic schools. Boko Haram means "Western education is forbidden."
Its uprising poses the biggest security challenge in years to this country. Nigeria is Africa's biggest oil producer and its most populous nation with more than 160 million people — almost equal numbers of which are Muslims and Christians.
Boko Haram militants have killed more than 1,700 people since 2010.
"Sometimes you need courage" to confront such challenges, Jonathan said, accusing the extremists of choosing soft targets to embarrass his government.

Gov. Ibrahim Gaidam of Yobe state, where the killings occurred, indicated that the military crackdown is ineffective.
"Although there is (an) increase in troop movement and military hardware deployment in the northeast, people are yet to see the kind of action on the ground that effectively nips criminal and terrorist activities in the bud," he said in a statement.
The extremists rode into the college in two double-cabin pickup all-terrain vehicles and on motorcycles, some dressed in Nigerian military uniforms, a surviving student, Ibrahim Mohammed, told the AP. He said they appeared to know the layout of the college, attacking the four male hostels but avoiding the one hostel reserved for women.
"We ran into the bush, nobody is left in the school now," Mohammed said.
Wailing relatives gathered outside the hospital morgue, where workers laid out bloody bodies in an orderly row on the lawn for family members to identify loved ones.
One body had its fists clenched to the chest in a protective gesture. Another had hands clasped under the chin, as if in prayer. A third had arms raised in surrender.
Provost Idi Mato confirmed the school's other 1,000 enrolled students have fled the college.
Most schools in the area closed after militants on July 6 killed 29 pupils and a teacher, burning some alive in their hostels, at Mamudo outside Damaturu.
President Barack Obama on Tuesday described Boko Haram as one of the most vicious terrorist organizations in the world, speaking at a meeting with Jonathan at which both reaffirmed their commitment to fight terrorism.
The Islamic extremists have killed at least 30 other civilians in the past week, including a pastor and his son. And the military said it killed more than 100 militants and lost 16 soldiers in an attack on an extremist stronghold Sept. 21-22.

Human rights groups have accused Nigeria's military of summary killings of civilians in reprisal attacks and no one knows the fate of hundreds of people detained as suspected militants.
Meanwhile, farmers and government officials are fleeing threats of imminent attacks from Boko Haram in the area of the Gwoza Hills, a mountainous region with caves that shelter the militants despite repeated aerial bombardments by the military.
A local government official said there had been a series of attacks in recent weeks. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared for his life, said Gwoza town was deserted when he visited it briefly under heavy security escort on Thursday.
He said militants had chased medical officers from the government hospital in Gwoza, which had been treating some victims of attacks, and torched three public schools.
More than 30,000 people have fled to neighboring Cameroon and Chad and the uprising combined with the military emergency has forced farmers from their fields and vendors from the markets.
The attacks come as Nigeria prepares to celebrate 53 years of independence from Britain on Tuesday and amid political jockeying in the run up to presidential elections next year. Many northern Muslim politicians say they do not want another term for Jonathan, who is from the predominantly Christian south.
Associated Press writer Haruna Umar contributed to this report.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Rape - It's Your Fault.

An Indian Satire.

Price of onions nearly costs Indian omelet vendor his life

Price of onions nearly costs Indian omelet vendor his life

LUCKNOW — A north Indian street food vendor has been shot at by a customer furious that there were too few onions in his omelet, police said on Tuesday, the latest crime triggered by the soaring price of one of India's staple foods.
The customer opened fire in the village of Aliganj in Uttar Pradesh state after the vendor, Deepu Kashyap, dismissed his complaint by saying "Don't you know that onions are expensive?" Kashyap was able to duck under his food cart just in time.
The price of onions, the foundation of much Indian cooking, has more than trebled in a year, partly owing to erratic monsoon rains. Last month, three armed men made off with a truck loaded with onions, Indian media reported.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Pakistan Taliban are idiots

Just my opinion..... why attack and kill Pakistanis for American drone strikes?  Do you really think that Christians in your country have a military connection with the US?  If you do, you are acting on misinformation and that makes you an idiot.  Christianity came from the Middle East.  Not America.  If you think blowing up Pakistani Christians is revenge for something a foreign country did - you are an idiot. 
I have a great idea!  Why don't you find a herd of goats and blow them up, and announce that it is revenge for US drone strikes!  That makes about as much sense! 

Friday, September 20, 2013

When Duke Ellington played Kabul

When Duke Ellington played Kabul

Duke Ellington Arriving in Kabul, 1963.  CU Collection Box 345:10.  Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville Duke Ellington arrives in Kabul with US charge d'affaires William Brewer (left)

Fifty years ago this week, Duke Ellington and his band played in a concert he later called one of the most memorable of his life. The performance was in Kabul, in Afghanistan, and even though Ellington was at the height of his fame, almost all traces of it have been lost.

For the organiser, Faiz Khairzada, and hundreds of Afghans in the audience, the concert was a high point of the early 1960s. "It was very exciting for me to have him in Kabul," says Khairzada, then head of Afghanistan's cultural affairs organisation.

It was he who met Ellington at the airport and drove him on a golden afternoon across Kabul, then a small city, to the stage he'd built at the Ghazi stadium. Khairzada was a jazz fan and they chatted on the way about Louis Armstrong and about plans to make home-grown Afghan films. "You make the movie, kid - and I'll do the music for it," Ellington offered, and in the Kabul of 1963, all that seemed possible.
Duke Ellington talks to Michael Parkinson in 1973 about his Kabul concert, and plays a number with the house band

Tickets were free and around 5,000 people made their way to the stadium to hear what to them was the new and strange sound of jazz. Ellington opened with Caravan, followed by Don't Get Around Much Anymore. Khairzada remembers that between numbers Ellington would come to the edge of the stage and chat to the audience.

"Of course the people didn't understand. This kind of music - blues and jazz - was very little known," he says. "But they loved the style. When the trumpets and saxophones came out and did their solos, people were awed - not so much by the sound, but the performance."

Ellington was puzzled when, halfway through the concert, the audience appeared to leave. But Khairzada explained that it was the hour of prayer, and the seats soon filled up again. King Zahir and the royal family came over to shake hands with the band after the concert.

Ellington remembered "riding round all night long" after the concert, listening to Afghan music in cafes. "They have their own thing going on there, and it's good," he told BBC chat show host Michael Parkinson in 1973.

The Kabul concert was part of a longer tour sponsored by the US State Department - jazz diplomacy playing out against the backdrop of the Cold War.

As early as 1953 the American jazz giant Dave Brubeck had himself played Kabul. His visit, he said, had inspired his hit Nomad on the album Impressions of Eurasia. Ellington's tour took in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Iran and Lebanon, where, according to Ellington, "those cats were swinging". The band had reached Turkey on 22 November 1963 when the shocking news came that President John F Kennedy had been assassinated.

Women in Kabul, 1960s

In Afghanistan the old order was changing too. This was still a poor country of farmers and herdsmen, but new ideas were in play at least among the elite. Hemlines were going up and hair was going higher. The British supermarket Marks and Spencer opened a branch in 1960. The old absolute monarchy was reforming and Kabul University was thick with factions. Islamic, communist, modernist and other groups began to crowd the growing political space, each with its own idea of what it meant to be Afghan.

Khairzada and many other young intellectuals shared a vision of an Afghanistan with culturally open borders. They welcomed performers from Germany and the US, Iran, Russia, India and Turkey. "I felt we were on a launch pad, we were full of optimism," he says.

He set up an ambitious youth theatre group, staging a production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, which Khairzada had translated into Dari.

Khairzada also booked the Joffrey Ballet, then based in New York. Its co-founder, choreographer Robert Joffrey - born Abdullah Jaffa Bey Khan - was of Afghan descent and later described the trip with great warmth.

"It was a very, very big deal for us," Khairzada says. "Joffrey gave a masterclass for the kids [in Kabul] and a command performance. We had perhaps the worst theatre in the world. It was winter and I collected all the heaters and stoves I could find to keep the dancers warm. But the performance was dazzling."

The Joffrey Ballet company in Afghanistan Robert Joffrey was said to be thrilled to be performing in his homeland with his ballet troupe

Politically, things were often difficult for Khairzada. He was backed by some elements in government and opposed by others. But then, on 28 April 1978, the communist Khalq party staged the coup that would herald the Soviet invasion and a generation of war.

He and his wife rushed to pick up the children from school and buy as much bread as possible.

Khairzada managed to get the family out of Afghanistan, but he was arrested and put under house detention, as were hundreds of intellectuals. He knew that these were probably his last days, so, slipping out after dark, he arranged to escape. Disguised as a nomad and guided by a smuggler, Khairzada walked for three days along the passes and over the Afghan border.

The Khairzada family were eventually reunited and started life again as refugees in the US. Behind them their house, full of scores, plays, art, and records was looted and then bombed. Everything inside was stolen, including the Duke Ellington LPs.

Khairzada, the organiser of the extraordinary Ellington concert, continued to work in arts administration. He is still a jazz fan.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Afghans flock to colleges, even as Taliban loom

Afghans flock to colleges, even as Taliban loom

KABUL, Afghanistan — Ten years ago, Roeen Rahmani and some friends spent $300 on an overhead projector and a rented room to teach a business course to Afghans emerging from civil war and Taliban rule. Nobody showed up for the first class.
Today, that initial effort has evolved into Kardan University, a private institution educating more than 8,000 students in programs ranging from political science to civil engineering. But for Rahmani, the school's chancellor, it's not enough.  "My vision is bigger than this," he says.

Afghanistan colleges: Roeen Rahmani, chancellor and president of Kardan University
Roeen Rahmani, chancellor and president of Kardan University
Rahmani's dreams of growth could easily come true if Afghanistan doesn't fall apart after foreign forces complete their withdrawal next year. Demand for higher education is soaring in the war-weary country, a striking vote of confidence in its future.
It's a remarkable trend in a nation where, just 12 years ago, the Taliban government barred girls from attending school and many educated Afghans were forced to flee. Some 7,870 students attended Afghan colleges before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001; today, the figure is up around 26-fold to almost 204,000, as many as a fifth of them women, according to the Ministry of Higher Education.
The growth has been possible in part because Afghan leaders realized that the country's public universities, decimated by years of war, couldn't meet the demand for seats. So in 2006, they legalized private higher education.
Today, 70 private institutions of higher education operate in Afghanistan, educating about 74,000 students, or more than a third of the total, according to the ministry. Many are like Kardan, set up by businessmen with little or no background in academia. Some are backed by foreign governments striving for influence here, and at least one is run by an ex-Taliban leader.
Education authorities say steps are being taken to ensure that the private schools are not merely money-making schemes. But even critics agree that a thriving private sector is crucial for education in this country of 30 million people, two-thirds of whom are 24 or younger.
"In developing countries, especially, you need to invest in higher education, because the need for leadership is so great," said C. Michael Smith, president of the American University of Afghanistan, a private nonprofit institution with more than 1,000 students. "You need a strong government sector, and you need a strong private sector."

Afghanistan colleges: An Afghan sophomore student
An Afghan sophomore student takes notes in a business administration class at Kardan University in Kabul, Afghanistan.
A stroll through a Kardan campus offers a vision of Afghanistan often lost amid the daily reports on the violence, the Taliban insurgency and the struggles of Afghan troops taking over from the departing U.S.-led coalition.
Young women in skinny jeans and colorful headscarves take notes alongside young men with modishly spiked hair. Fliers post notices for extracurricular activities. Teachers recruited from Pakistan, India and farther afield add something of an international flavor.
There's no campus quad or sports stadium — it's basically an office building — but the energy coursing through the halls is palpable.
Katia Mohib, a shy, slender 22-year-old, is finishing a business administration degree. Like many of her fellow classmates, she didn't score well enough on Afghanistan's highly competitive college entrance exam to land a spot in a public university, so she chose Kardan.
"I am very happy," Mohib says. "I am sure that after I finish, I will be able to work for a good organization."
The driving force behind Kardan is Rahmani, a wiry man who, being just 31, sports a goatee, lest any members of the academic establishment judge him too young for his job. His founding partners have parted ways, but Rahmani has recruited a staff of other young, energetic Afghans.
Rahmani spent much of his childhood as a refugee in neighboring Pakistan. He says he has multiple business degrees — one is an MBA from the York University Schulich School of Business in Canada, where he has lived on and off.

Rahmani says Kardan has a $4 million operating budget, and charges around $6,600 for a four-year bachelor's degree. The students, many of whom have jobs, can pay monthly.
The school's rapid rise has prompted questions about whether it is producing qualified graduates or suckering students out of their money.
None of its critics would go on the record, but Rahmani says their suspicions are misplaced, and that all profits are invested back into the school. "I've read people calling me a drug dealer, mafia, stuff like that, but I'm happy I'm not involved in any of those things," he said.

Afghanistan colleges: An Afghan sophomore student
An Afghan sophomore student attends a business administration class at Kardan University in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Rahmani acknowledged that some of Kardan's programs need more academic rigor but predicted standards would improve with time. He said that if private universities operating in a war zone had to meet Western standards, countless Afghans would never get a college degree.
"We need to get going, otherwise we can't get anywhere," Rahmani said.
Of course, few ordinary Afghans can afford any type of college, especially in the rural areas where illiteracy and poverty are rampant. Even the 31 public universities, which don't charge tuition, are unaffordable for many, due to side costs such as transportation and textbook fees.
Afghanistan's public universities themselves would struggle to meet the standards of higher educational institutions in more developed countries. Only about 5 percent of their faculty members have Ph.D.s, and just over a third have master's degrees, while there are only two authorized doctoral programs in the entire country, according to the ministry.
It did not have the figures for the private sector, but it's not unusual to find teachers in their 20s at places such as Kardan.
Last year, the ministry launched an accreditation system for all colleges. For now, getting accredited is a voluntary process, but it will be mandatory in the coming years, said Fred Hayward, a U.S. adviser to the ministry. The drawn-out timeline gives schools a chance to improve themselves.
"The goal is not to shut down higher education institutions. The goal is to make them better," Hayward said.

Kardan — the name means "professional" — is big competition for the public colleges, but so are the increasing number of other private institutions, some of which promote religious ideologies, national interests or both.
Iran's Islamic Azad University has a campus in Kabul, believed to be one of several Iranian-funded colleges in Afghanistan. Afghan and Arab media have reported that Saudi Arabia is planning to build a massive Islamic center in Kabul that includes a university.
The American University of Afghanistan, considered one of the best in the country, operates primarily on a two-hectare (five-acre) campus in Kabul and is developing an additional 32 hectares (80 acres) across the street, as well as branches in other cities.
Afghanistan colleges: Afghan female students leave Kardan University in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Afghan female students leave Kardan University in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Then, there's the Afghan Institute of Higher Education. It is led by Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, who, in the 1990s, served as a foreign minister under the Taliban government.
Around 55 of the institute's 360 students are women, and classes are gender-segregated, though men teach some women's classes because of a lack of female staff. Its programs include business administration and Islamic studies.
Abdul Jabbar Baheer, a school administrator, dismissed the notion that the Taliban would frown on admitting women. He said the movement wanted all students to be educated within a religious framework, but that when the Taliban ruled, their government lacked the funds to educate women as well as men.
Whether the Taliban will return to power is a question that looms large here. As U.S.-led troops reduce their presence, with a full exit planned by the end of 2014, Taliban insurgents have stepped up attacks across the country.
But Afghan college students were upbeat, even defiant, about pursuing their dreams in spite of the uncertainty.
Kardan student Liza Ormol has a 10-year academic plan. During that period, she intends to obtain a bachelor's degree in business, two master's degrees and a Ph.D.
"I am a very positive-thinking person," the 19-year-old said. "I believe what I am doing is best for me and my country."

Associated Press Writer Amir Shah contributed to this report.

She Who Tells a Story: Female lens on Iran and the Arab world

In the Middle East, a number of pioneering female photographers have risen to prominence, using art to defy stereotypes and explore questions of identity in the changing region.

She Who Tells a Story, an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, features the work of 12 contemporary women photographers from Iran and the Arab world.

Curator Kristen Gresh told the BBC that the exhibit and accompanying book showcase the powerful, diverse work of these women and offer a different lens through which to view the politics and culture of the region.

Produced by Ashley Semler and Bill McKenna
Photographs courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Newsha Tavakolian, Gohar Dashti, Nermine Hammam, Shirin Neshat, Rana El Nemr, Rania Matar, Tanya Habjouqa, Rula Halawani, Boushra Almutawakel, Shadi Ghadirian and Lalla Essaydi.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Women's Cricket: Afghanistan's Secretive New Sport

Women's Cricket: Afghanistan's Secretive New Sport

Abigail Hauslohner for TIME
Afghanistan's national women's cricket team practices in the private yard of team manager Mohamed Naeem, in Paghman district, 12 miles west of Kabul. The Afghanistan Olympic Committee agreed extended official sponsorship to Naeem's team two weeks ago. It is Afghanistan's first national women's cricket team.
The dust storm whips through town and obscures the mud-brick farming compounds built into the rocky hillsides 12 miles west of Kabul. The bustling thoroughfares of the Afghan capital, with its women in jeans and loose headscarves, have given way to men on rickshaws and the ghost-like figures of women in burqas that whip around them in the wind. "This neighborhood has lots of mujahideen and people who are close-minded. If they are not Taliban, they have a Taliban mentality," says Mohammed Ajmal Barakzai of his neighbors in Paghman District. "So we keep a low profile so as not to create a problem."
Barakzai is being secretive about Afghanistan's first national women's cricket team, which is using Paghman as its practice grounds — albeit shielded by a high brick wall from public view. The team, where he is assistant coach, isn't typical of Afghanistan, certainly not of Paghman. Last year, Barakzai's father, Mohamed Naeem, returned from a decade in exile in Pakistan with an unusual mission: to set up a cricket team on which his four cricket-loving daughters could play. The plan quickly mushroomed into a family dream for a national women's cricket team. Cricket had already hit it big in Afghanistan, with enthusiasm for the sport fueled by 3 million refugees returning from Pakistan, where it is hugely popular. Afghanistan's national men's team was one of 12 top teams to compete in this year's International Cricket Council Twenty20 international cricket tournament — a first for Afghanistan and a matter of huge national pride. During President Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington in May, Hillary Clinton even used the war-torn country's cricket team as a model for overcoming adversity. "I might suggest that if we are searching for a model of how to meet tough international challenges with skill, dedication and teamwork, we need only look to the Afghan national cricket team," she said, speaking alongside the Afghan president. That was the men. For the women's team however, one might speak more of the domestic challenges. Eight years after the fall of the Taliban, women's cricket — like other initiatives for women — still lags far behind. And despite efforts by the Afghanistan Olympic Committee to bring sports to girls in Afghan schools and establish national teams, the country had yet to see a national women's cricket team — until two weeks ago.
Most of the players are teens with little to no prior cricket experience. They pile into taxis and rickshaws several days a week to journey from Kabul to Naeem's rented home in Paghman, where the family borrowed a tractor to smooth a fallow plot of land into a makeshift cricket pitch. It's a routine that would be unacceptable for most girls in Afghanistan's provinces, but most members of Naeem's team hail from relatively well-educated families, or at least families exposed to the more liberal leanings of Kabul. Naeem says all of the girls' parents have approved their travel to India to participate in a tournament next month — provided he can find the money. "They are motivating me," says Madina Wahidi, 18, of her parents and her sport. "I want to be world famous."
For the Afghan Olympic Committee, the cricket team marks the latest of over two dozen women's teams to be registered across 21 sports — all developed since 2002. "Six months after the collapse of the Taliban, we started to go into schools to establish teams," says Shamsol Ayot Alam, head of social women's sports at the Afghanistan Olympic Committee. But Alam received "warnings" at first: that girls shouldn't be playing sports; and a year ago, she received a threat over the phone. Around the same time, a man on a motorcycle drove into the girl's basketball team, injuring one of the players. Still, she says there are now around 2,000 female athletes participating in sports in Kabul — most of them in schools.
Then again, as Naeem has learned over a year of organizing, the fact that his players are women is only one of the challenges. And Afghan sports are no more immune to the rampant corruption, inefficiency, and cronyism than other Afghanistan institutions. On a few weekdays, when TIME visited, Olympic Committee staff sat in cramped offices at empty desks. Some stared listlessly into space. Others lamented their low government salaries. And no one appeared to be working.
But accomplishing just about anything official in Afghanistan can be a challenge if you don't have the right connections. And Naeem says it's a mix of politics and tribal loyalties — not gender — that has so far kept the women from getting sponsorship from the Afghanistan Cricket Board, which manages the men's team. "The majority of the cricket board is Pashtun, and they don't want a non-Pashtun team," says Naeem, who is himself a Pashtun, but says his team is a mix of Pashtuns and Tajiks. "They like their own tribes from the border and they like Pakistanis," he says. Head coach Diana Barakzai, Naeem's eldest daughter, adds: "For us, it doesn't matter as long as they're Afghans."
Naeem has been unable to mobilize financial sponsorship — a failure that he likewise attributes to cricket board maneuvering. The chairman of the cricket board is also Afghanistan's finance minister — a post with close ties to Kabul's rapidly developing economy, and a common example of overlapping responsibilities in a system fraught with corruption. "Azizi Bank Foundation had promised some money to prepare the cricket pitch, but today they said they have other priorities now," says Naeem. "The banks are under control of the finance ministry." Emal Shinwari, CEO of the Cricket Board says the rejection of Naeem's team had nothing to do with tribe, gender or politics; it was merely a matter of budget.
Funding and recognition will be the team's most crucial obstacles moving forward. The team has been invited to competitions in New Zealand and Argentina, but had to decline the invitations without official backing and official funds. "We were ready for it, but we couldn't make it," says head coach Diana Barakzai. It was only because of Olympic Committee sponsorship that the team was assigned a practice field for training. But the pitch was deemed unsuitable for girls because it isn't "covered" from public view, so Naeem continues to pay for the transport of his players to Paghman. "In Afghanistan, if they play in public, people will disturb them and say girls cannot play cricket," explains Ajmal, the assistant coach.
Additionally, some national players are spread across the country, in cities like Mazar-e-Sharif and Ghor, making it impossible for them to practice as a group more than once a month. On any given practice day, only 10 of the 15-person national team members can make it. The session is supplemented by younger cricket trainees from the family's now 200-strong cricket workshops, where enrollment is free.
It may be a long time before Naeem has the resources to create Afghanistan's first female cricket heroes. But he seems patient. "My dream is that my daughters, my team, go to another country and bring me a cup of victory from an international competition," Naeem says. "If I have a chance, I'll make a team of retired people too."

Afghanistan’s Soccer Captain: Meet the Humble Hero of a War-Torn Nation

Afghanistan’s Soccer Captain: Meet the Humble Hero of a War-Torn Nation


In the little room, barely 3 m by 4 m, 48 men sit wherever they can: on the floor, on the windowsill and on a lone bed tucked into the corner. A modest dwelling in Kabul’s Char-qala shantytown, it seems far too small for its tenant — Afghanistan’s newfound national hero.
Islam Amiri, 26, captained the Afghan football team to its first international title, the South Asia Football Federation Championship, after the squad defeated India 2-0 last week in Nepal. The triumph, coming just days after the country commemorated its annual Martyrs’ Week, gave a nation struggling to emerge from decades of war something to celebrate away from the battlefield. Amiri’s dance of celebration — a happy shuffle, with his tattooed hands moving up and down his side — endeared him to Afghans.
“Tell us stories of the games,” an elderly man asks Amiri, who, unable to enter his own front room, hangs around at the entrance, wearing his sky blue No. 3 practice jersey.
“Well, you watched it all on TV,” Amiri responds with a smile. They all laugh.
The festivities began soon after the game ended, amid celebratory gunshots. In scenes rare for the Afghan capital, soccer fans in the city’s western Darulaman quarter stopped cars, asked drivers to blare music as loudly as possible and then danced in the streets. Only when they had strutted their fill did they let traffic resume.

Afghan soccerMujib Mashal
Afghan soccer captain Islam Amiri, center in red jersey, returns to his home neighborhood of Char-qala, in Kabul, in the wake of the national squad's victory in the South Asia Football Federation Championship

The next morning, Afghan President Hamid Karzai welcomed the players at the airport, from where they were led to a national stadium filled with tens of thousands of cheering supporters. The ride normally takes 15 minutes, but jubilant crowds slowed the convoy’s journey to three and a half hours.
“The coach and I were in an armored vehicle and people were all over it. They even cracked the back window — an armored window,” Amiri says in disbelief. “Everyone wanted to get their hands on the trophy.”
The son of an ethnic Hazara shopkeeper, Amiri grew up playing his football in the narrow alleys of Char-qala, first using rolled-up fabric stitched into a ball, and later worn-out footballs bought with money chipped in by several neighborhood kids. They smashed a lot of windows. “We got a beating when we would come home at night,” he tells TIME. During the period of Taliban rule, he attended matches at the local stadium where the militants would conduct public executions at the center of the pitch during half time.
Amiri credits his success to coincidence and luck. In 2005, he took part in a minor-league game as a guest player and was spotted by Kabul football officials, who recruited him to the provincial B team. Just months later, he was asked to join the national squad.

Luck brought Amiri his foreign experience too. When his local club in Kabul — owned by Khalil Ferozi, one of the founders of the scandal-ridden Kabul Bank — emerged as league victors in 2011, the team were sent to India for a short vacation. They ended up playing a last-minute friendly with a local club. Officials from the Mumbai Football Club were in the audience and were so impressed with Amiri’s play they signed him right away, as a left-back. In the 2012 season, he was promoted to Mumbai captain and was chosen as the Fans’ Player of the Year.
His greatest triumphs, however, have come from representing his country. The South Asia Football Federation victory is testament to the determination of an Afghan team that has had to make do with few resources. As recently as 2009, Amiri recalls that his team — which he has captained since 2010 — would spend as long as 48 hours in transit terminals because they lacked the money to get a hotel.
“We slept there in the terminal, in front of bathrooms, and there were days we didn’t even have money to buy water,” he says.
The players only had one change of uniform. When, at the end of matches the opposition teams would try to exchange jerseys, as is custom, the Afghan players would apologize and say they did not have replacements. Even today, despite a successful two years in the international arena, the only compensation the players get when traveling is a daily travel stipend of roughly $50, which is paid months late. When practicing at home, they get a daily stipend of 35 afghanis — the equivalent of 70 cents.
With the India win, however, promises of monetary rewards and donations have come in from across the country — much to the relief of a soccer captain unable to find space in his own home.
“Well, with some of that money, you can at least make your house bigger,” one of his guests tells him.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Sayed Habib Sadat - maker of Karokhail Afghan Hats

About a third generation hat maker in Afghanistan.  This man has been making hats for 45 years. 

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Outrage over death of Yemeni child bride, 8, on wedding night

Outrage over death of Yemeni child bride, 8, on wedding night

SANAA, Yemen -- Yemeni authorities are investigating the death of an eight-year-old girl from internal bleeding on her wedding night and will prosecute those responsible, the government said on Friday, a case that has rekindled international outrage over child brides.
Yemeni rights campaigner Arwa Othman said earlier this week that the girl, identified as Rawan, died after intercourse that ruptured her uterus following her wedding to a man five times her age. Residents in the town of Meedi in Hajjah province in northwestern Yemen confirmed the incident.
Othman said no action had been taken against the man.
"The government (of Yemen) is dealing seriously with this issue and it will investigate it and those responsible will be brought to justice," Rajeh Badi, an aide to Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Basindwa, told Reuters.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton urged the Sanaa authorities on Friday to investigate the case "without delay and to prosecute all those responsible for this crime".
In a statement, she said the Arabian Peninsula country should reinstate a law setting a minimum age for marriage.
Many poor families in Yemen marry off young daughters to save on the costs of bringing up a child and earn extra money from the dowry given to a girl.
According to the United Nations around half of Yemen's 24 million people lack sufficient food and access to safe water.
Under international norms such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every person regardless of their age must give their consent before they can be married.
Human Rights Watch previously urged Yemen's government to ban marriages of girls under the age of 18. It said nearly 14 percent of Yemeni girls were married before the age of 15 and 52 percent before the age of 18. HRW said many Yemeni child brides-to-be are kept from school when they reach puberty.
The European Union spends some $79.85 million a year on aid to Yemen.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Nina Davuluri, Miss America's first Indian-American winner, shrugs off racist backlash

Nina Davuluri, Miss America's first Indian-American winner, shrugs off racist backlash

*****I have some comments - i'll post them in red*****  - The Author of this Blog

Miss New York Nina Davuluri performs during the Miss America 2014 pageant, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Atlantic City, N.J. (Mel Evans | The Associated Press)
 By Geoff Herbert |    
                *****I have some comments - i'll post them in red*****      - The Author of this Blog

In 1983, a Syracuse University student named Vanessa Williams became the first African-American woman to be crowned Miss America. Thirty years later, the second Miss Syracuse winner to receive the same national honor, Miss New York Nina Davuluri, became the first Indian-American woman to win Miss America.
Davuluri, of Fayetteville, N.Y., is also the first Indian-American Miss New York, but her victory Sunday night put her race in the national spotlight with some hateful responses.
Sites like CNN, Buzzfeed and compiled some of the most racist Twitter reactions to the Miss America 2014 results, and they're nowhere near as pretty as the contestants. Here's a sampling of some of the worst tweets:
  • "I swear I'm not racist but this is America."
  • Yes, it is.
  • "If you're #Miss America you should have to be American"
  • She was born here - she is American.
  • "Miss America? You mean Miss 7-11."
  • Wow, good one.  That was funny.
  • "Even Miss America has been outsourced to India. #NinaDavuluri!"
  • """
  • Does a white woman need to win it?  Are we keeping track?  Oh, is Miss America only for White Women?
  • "And the Arab wins Miss America. Classic."
  • Comparing Indians to Arabs is kind-of like comparing the Portugese to Afghans. 
  • "Congratulations Al-Qaeda. Our Miss America is one of you."
  • Al-Qaeda isn't Indian.  How do you know she belongs to Al-Qaeda?  Go back to school.
  • "Well they just picked a Muslim for Miss America. That must've made Obama happy. Maybe he had a vote."
  • How do you know she is Muslim.  India is 80% Hindu, and also has Christians and Buddhists.
  • "9/11 was 4 days ago and she gets miss America?"
  • What does she have to do with 9/11?    No.  Really.  Answer the question.  WHAT does she have to do with 9/11?  She was born in New York. 
For the record, Davuluri is neither Arab, Muslim or a member of Al-Qaeda -- she's an American with Indian heritage. She was born in Syracuse, moved to Oklahoma at age 4 and then Michigan at 10. Six years ago, her family moved back to Central New York where her father is an obstetrician-gynecologist affiliated with St. Joseph's Hospital.
"I have to rise above that," she said, shrugging off the online backlash in a post-pageant press conference. "I always viewed myself as first and foremost American."
During Sunday night's live broadcast, she spoke out against plastic surgery, but said people are entitled to their own choice and encouraged them to be confident in their appearances. She dazzled in an animal print bikini for the swimsuit competition and, for her talent, she displayed her training in Indian dance with a Bollywood number choreographed by Nakul Dev Mahajan of "So You Think You Can Dance."
"It's the first time Bollywood has ever been performed on the Miss America stage and it's such an honor for myself, my family and the Indian community, as well," she said Monday in an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Celebrating a parent/grandparent culture means you aren't American?  100-300 years ago the majority of 'white' people in this country would be considered non-American. 
Davuluri, 24, ran on a pageant platform of "celebrating diversity through cultural competency." She plans to use the $50,000 scholarship she won to help pay for medical school and become a doctor.
"I'm so happy this organization has embraced diversity," the new Miss America said at Atlantic City, New Jersey's Boardwalk Hall. "I'm thankful there are children watching at home who can finally relate to a new Miss America."
But can you imagine if Twitter existed when Williams won Miss America 30 years ago? Even some well-known public figures expressed disappointment in this year's results.
"The liberal Miss America judges won't say this - but Miss Kansas lost because she actually represented American values," Fox News host Todd Starnes suggested.
Miss Kansas Theresa Vail was among the most-talked-about contestants last week when she became the first in the pageant to display visible tattoos. Others praised the Army sergeant's military service and love of hunting as making her a "real American," but she didn't make the top five.
"This was the most stressful night of my entire life," judge Lance Bass said in a press conference after the coronation. "I mean, I was sweating bullets the whole entire time [but] I think the judges did an incredible job choosing the best Miss America."
Other popular contestants included the injured Miss Florida, wearing a bejeweled knee brace, but Miss New York was a hot topic of controversy over the weekend after she was accused of calling last year's Miss America (and Miss New York) winner Mallory Hagan "fat." Davuluri denied making the comments, and a a rep for Miss America said the incident had been investigated and found the story had "no validity."
Davuluri told The Post-Standard this summer that she hated the word "skinny" and struggled with weight and bulimia herself. Before entering the pageant, she lost 60 pounds with the help of a local personal trainer.
"People who've been overweight, especially women, feel like at a moment's notice we can go back to where we were," she said in July. "It makes you more sympathetic, more empathetic. You don't judge. I've been there, and if I can pull myself out of where I've been, anyone can."

Top Afghanistan female police officer shot dies

Top Afghanistan female police officer dies

The BBC's David Loyn in Kabul: "A heroine by any account... when there was a suspect suicide bomber, she'd thrown her arms around him in a bear hug"

The most senior woman police officer in Afghanistan's troubled Helmand province has died in hospital, a day after being shot by unidentified gunmen.

Lieutenant Negar was shot in the neck near police headquarters in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

She is the third senior policewoman to be killed in recent months. Her predecessor in Helmand, Islam Bibi, was killed on her way to work in July.

Police in Helmand face the twin threats of Taliban insurgents and drug traders.

No group has said it carried out the latest attack. A spokesman for the governor of Helmand described Lt Negar's assailants as "enemies of Afghanistan".

Afghan policewomen and relatives grieve over the body of Negar, who was shot Sunday by unknown attackers, in Helmand province of southern Afghanistan, Monday, Sept. 16, 2013.
Relatives and police grieve over Lt Negar's body

The BBC's David Loyn in Kabul says Afghan troops and police are increasingly bearing the load as British and American troops draw down their forces.

Women make up just under 1% of Afghanistan's police, with nearly 1,600 policewomen serving and about 200 more in training.

Lt Negar, known only by her surname, was walking near police headquarters when she was shot by a gunman on a motorbike, officials say.


Helmand Provincial governor's spokesman Omar Zawak told the Associated Press news agency that the 38-year-old suffered a bullet wound to the neck.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Lt Negar said she loved her job, and felt it was important that women came forward to work for the police.

After her two female colleagues were killed in July, she said her role was to give courage to the 30 or so other women police officers in Helmand and boost their morale.

Lt Negar served as a sub-inspector in the police criminal investigation department in Helmand.

She took over when 37-year-old Islam Bibi was shot dead in July. Lt Bibi had been hailed as a role model for other women in the conservative province.

Several prominent Afghan women have been attacked or kidnapped in recent months.

Earlier this month the Taliban released a female member of parliament who they had held hostage for a month.

In August, insurgents ambushed the convoy of a female Afghan senator, seriously wounding her and killing her nine-year-old daughter.

In 2008 gunmen in Kandahar killed Lt-Col Malalai Kakar, the country's most prominent policewoman and head of Kandahar's department of crimes against women.

Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission says general violence against women has increased sharply over the last two years, and donor nations have expressed fears that advances in women's rights could be at risk when Nato-led troops withdraw next year.

'At least 27' Afghan miners killed in collapse

'At least 27' Afghan miners killed in collapse

Afghan miners work at a gold mine on a mountainside near the village of Qara Zaghan in Baghlan province
Afghanistan has vast mineral deposits which on paper are worth trillions of dollars

Twenty-seven Afghan miners trapped underground have been found dead in the northern province of Samangan, officials have confirmed to the BBC.

Provincial governor's spokesman Mohammad Seddiq Azizi said that the men had been working at the Abkhorak coal mine when part of it collapsed.

Four members of the rescue teams were badly injured; 14 were overcome by fumes but have been brought out safely.

An official said the rescue teams did not have the appropriate equipment.


The collapse at the mine, 215km (135 miles) north of the capital, Kabul, is the latest accident to hit Afghanistan's state-run mining industry.

In December, 11 miners were reported to have been killed in a similar incident in the northern province of Baghlan.

Afghanistan is known to have vast reserves of oil, gas, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium.

The country is also known to have a wider array of mineral resources; in 2010, the Afghan ministry of mines claimed its reserves were worth nearly $1tn (£0.63tn)

To read more about precious gems and metals of Afghanistan click HERE

To be directed to a site about Precious Gems of Afghanistan click HERE

Taliban bombing and killing Afghans in Wardak and Kunar Province

Taliban bombers hit Afghanistan Wardak intelligence HQ

Afghan policemen and villagers look on near a crater at the scene of suicide attack in Maidan Shar, the capital city of Wardak province More than 100 people - mostly civilians - were injured in the attack, police said

At least four Afghan intelligence staff have been killed after suicide bombers attacked offices of the provincial intelligence department in Wardak.

Five suicide bombers were shot dead in the series of co-ordinated attacks, an hour away from the capital Kabul.

More than 100 people - mostly civilians - were injured, police said.

Separately a Nato air strike on Saturday in the eastern province of Kunar killed 15 people, including nine civilians, Afghan officials said.

But a Nato spokeswoman told the BBC that a precision attack had killed 10 insurgents and that she had no reports of civilians dying.

Huge explosion

Police say that that the suicide bombers in Wardak were targeting key government offices within the provincial intelligence department in Maidan Shar, the capital city of Wardak.

Nearby buildings and shops were destroyed, a statement from the governor's office said.

The Taliban have claimed responsibility for the attack.


In a statement, the governor's office said at least six militants launched the attack shortly after a powerful car bomb was detonated by a suicide attacker.

Local shopkeepers told the BBC that the explosion was so powerful that it broke windows of homes at least 1km (0.6 miles) away.

Afghan special forces engaged the five other attackers in heavy exchanges of fire.

Taliban insurgents and al-Qaeda fighters use Wardak as a gateway to launch attacks on nearby Kabul province.

They also frequently launch attacks in Kunar province, which borders Pakistan's lawless tribal areas.
Harsh terrain
Police in Kunar told the BBC's Bilal Sarwary in Kabul that the airstrike on Saturday hit a pick-up truck soon after three Arab and three Afghan militants boarded it in the village of Gambir in the remote and mountainous Peach River Valley in Watapur district on Saturday evening.

Afghan National Army soldiers test fire a Howitzer gun during a training session in Kunar The Afghan National Army faces a stern challenge in Kunar province from the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters

Civilian casualties are a source of tension between Afghan and Nato forces.

In February President Karzai ordered a ban on Afghan security forces calling in air strikes in residential areas after 10 civilians were allegedly killed in a Nato night attack in Kunar.

Nato troops are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and have gradually been handing over responsibility for security to their Afghan counterparts, who now lead about 90% of all security operations.

Yet the Afghan air force has limited strength, so Nato air support is considered crucial, especially for operations in harsh terrain and mountainous areas.

Officials say that women and children were among the casualties.

The Kunar area has been the site of intense fighting between the Taliban and American and Afghan forces for much of the last 10 years.

In August 2012 a US drone attack in Kunar killed Mullah Dadullah, a high-ranking Pakistani Taliban commander. In May of that year Nato said that an air strike had killed senior al-Qaeda leader Sakhar al-Taifi in the same province.

About 1,000 Afghan civilians have been killed and more than 2,000 wounded in the first half of this year - most of them in insurgent attacks - according to the United Nations.

This represents a 23% increase in casualties compared with the same period last year.

Afghan MP Fariba Ahmadi Kakar freed by the Taliban

Afghan MP Fariba Ahmadi Kakar freed by the Taliban

Afghan policemen search passengers at a checkpoint where Taliban militants kidnapped Fariba Ahmadi Kakar in Ghazni province on 14 on August 2013
Ms Kakar's kidnapping was the first time a female MP was snatched by insurgents

Female Afghan MP Fariba Ahmadi Kakar has been released by her Taliban kidnappers, the Taliban and Afghan officials say.

She and her children were abducted at gunpoint last month by insurgents in the central province of Ghazni on the main highway from Kabul to Kandahar.

Officials say that she was handed over by the Taliban to local elders on Saturday night.

She was reportedly freed in exchange for five Taliban fighters.

Six family members of Taliban militants were also released, officials say.

"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan handed over with dignity the female Member of Parliament to her relatives in Ghazni province in the form of a prisoner exchange after four wronged women and their children were released by the Kabul government," the militant group said in a statement.

Ms Kakar's three children and her driver were released by the Taliban soon after they were abducted on 14 August.

Fariba Ahmadi Kakar in June 2013 Ms Kakar is reported by Afghan officials to be in good health and has now been reunited with her family

Kidnapping has been an increasing problem in Afghanistan in recent years - government officials, wealthy people or their relatives are abducted mostly by criminal groups who either demand a ransom or sell them to the insurgents.

Ms Kakar's kidnapping was the first time a female MP was snatched by insurgents. Correspondents say that it marked a sinister milestone in violent attacks against prominent women.

Officials say that she was released following mediation by tribal elders and clerics in Ghazni. They say that she is in good health and has been reunited with her family.

Ms Kakar was elected in 2005 as an independent member of the lower house - one of 69 female deputies in the 249-seat chamber - after previously working as a teacher.

As Nato troops prepare to leave the country at the end of next year, there are concerns that limited freedoms won for Afghan women are starting to unravel.

On Thursday militants in Paktika province shot dead Indian diarist Sushmita Banerjee, who had written a memoir about life under the former Taliban government that was turned into a Bollywood movie.

In July the most senior policewoman in southern Helmand province was shot dead on her way to work.

U.S. Soldiers Find Surprise on Returning to Afghan Valley: Peace

U.S. Soldiers Find Surprise on Returning to Afghan Valley: Peace

Christoph Bangert for The New York Times
A group of American soldiers took pictures during a visit this summer to a military base in the Pech Valley that they turned over to the Afghan National Army two years ago.
Published: August 30, 2013   

NANGALAM, Afghanistan — The Americans arrived under cover of night, the static electricity from their helicopter blades casting halos of blue in the pitch black.
It was their first return to the Pech Valley — a rugged swath of eastern Afghanistan so violent they nicknamed it the Valley of Death — since the American military abruptly ended an offensive against the Taliban here in 2011 after taking heavy casualties.       
But the Americans, from the First Battalion of the 327th Infantry, had not come back to fight. Instead, their visit this summer was a chance to witness something unthinkable two years ago: the Afghan forces they had left in charge of the valley then, and who nobody believed could hold the ground even for weeks, have not just stood — they have had an effect.
The main road leading in the Pech is now drivable, to a point, and rockets no longer rain down constantly on the base the Americans had left the Afghans. Local residents said they felt safer than they had in years.
“Man, you couldn’t walk this road without getting lit up,” said Staff Sgt. Benjamin Griffiths, amazed as he and about a dozen soldiers surveyed one area the day after their arrival.
No one is exactly sure how the Afghan forces have managed to make some gains that eluded the Americans for so many years in the Pech Valley. But it presents a sketch portrait of what Afghan-led security might look like in some places after the international military coalition is gone next year.
Interviews with American and Afghan officials and local residents paint the progress as an amalgam of many things: the absence of foreign troops as an irritant, the weakening of the Taliban and an improved Afghan Army. Officials also noted the beginning of de facto agreements in some areas between Afghan soldiers and militants about what is and is not off-limits — not a particularly positive sign, but still an indication of how the battle might change when it is Afghan fighting Afghan.
The insurgents long promised that if Americans left, the violence would subside — a narrative American commanders seized on at the time. The thinking went like this: Foreign fighters drawn to Afghanistan would lose interest, or go elsewhere, like Syria, and locals who were not so much pro-Taliban as anti-outsider would ease their militancy.
That seems to mostly be the case in the Pech now; locals say the insurgents have been more reluctant to attack fellow Muslims, though they are still far from docile.
“When Americans were here and were driving around or patrolling the area, nobody looked at them as friends or liberators,” said Hajji Yar Mohammed, a tribal elder in nearby Manogai District. “Everyone in the villages was trying to fight them for the sake of jihad.”
The combination of Taliban determination, local hostility and dauntingly rugged terrain made the valley particularly deadly for Americans, who over all lost more than 100 dead during the last offensive here.
When it started in 2009, the Pech offensive was billed as a critical chance to bloody the Taliban in a place they had kept in their grip for years. But by the time the mission was called off, in early 2011, there were open assertions that the valley was not worth the losses being inflicted. Some American soldiers quietly expressed the view that their Afghan successors were being given a suicide mission.
So the Americans left, and the Afghan forces moved into the outposts the troops left behind. No one gave them much chance.
Two years later, the commander of the American battalion’s overall brigade combat team decided to orchestrate the trip to Pech to show that, instead, the Afghans had made good on American sacrifices.
Whatever amount of success the Afghans have had, however, has not been without at least some American help.
An aggressive campaign of American drone strikes in the Pech over the past year and a half has been instrumental, Afghans and American officials say. They assert that the strikes have devastated the insurgent networks, focusing on Qaeda leaders and their facilitators. The recent targeted killing of the Nuristan shadow governor, Dost Muhammad Khan, considered one of the top Taliban leaders in the country and a crucial asset for Al Qaeda, was a high point of the campaign.
More than American air power, with its looming expiration date next year, is in effect here, though. Analysts and officials also say that the Afghan approach to policing the area has been a strong point. While the Americans consolidated on one main base and a few outposts, the Afghans have set up more than a dozen new outposts and checkpoints farther into the valley. Their aim is focused: securing the main road that runs through the Pech through Nangalam and keeping it open for the first time in nearly 10 years.       
The Afghan National Army has also notably improved in the intervening two years, the visiting Americans noted.
“The A.N.A. we left in this valley are not the A.N.A. here right now,” said Sgt. Merle Powell, who, like others, believed the Afghans would be overrun in a matter of weeks after the American departure.
What is less clear is how big a role deals worked out with the insurgents might play in pacifying the area.
While most Afghan officers were reluctant to talk about any such compromises in the Pech Valley, one general — Gen. Nasim Sangin, the executive officer of the Second Brigade of the Afghan Army’s 201st Corps — briefly discussed a larger example of restrained military ambition, in the nearby Korangal Valley. General Sangin said the army had decided not to mount operations there because it lacked the resources and the loss of life would hardly be worth it.
“The Korangal, it is a good place for the insurgents,” he said. “It is not a good place for us.”
The Americans say they have no evidence of arrangements between the security forces and the insurgents, but recognize that the Afghans may not have the capacity to go after particularly remote areas.
“Some of these places inflict too much pain for too little gain,” said Col. J. P. McGee, the commander of the First Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division.
As the visiting Americans continued their foray around their old base in the Pech Valley, they snapped pictures and talked about how much had changed. Sometimes, they stumbled on mementos they had left behind. One soldier plucked a picture of two women in bikinis that American troops had long ago taped to the wall. “I bet this picture has made many an Afghan soldier happy,” he told his colleagues.
Capt. Ramone Leon-Guerrero pointed out sites of rocket attacks, noting the damage and offering a few words of context like some grim tour guide. “I had to do crater analysis on every single one,” he explained.
Reminders of loss lurked everywhere, but the tone was more nostalgic than sad. Some men even acknowledged they missed it — the action, the camaraderie, the shared struggle.
“I told myself if I got a chance to come back I would,” Captain Leon-Guerrero said. “It’s one of those things you always want to look back on. Like going back to your old neighborhood and driving past your old house.”