Afghanistan Female Delegation Negotiates Face-to-Face with Taliban in Historic Oslo Meeting

OSLO, Norway - Earlier this week, it was widely reported that the first all-female delegation of Afghan women led by Parliamentarians Shukria Barakzai and Fawzia Koofi, met with Taliban representatives in Oslo, Norway to discuss women's rights, with a particular focus on the need for reform in how women are treated within Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan. The desired outcome of these negotiations was the protection of the gains women’s rights activists had achieved.

"Afghan women defended their rights with courage," Barakzai said. Their demands at this initial meeting were about "safeguarding the democratic values achieved in the last decade."

Given the historically hardline position that the Taliban has exerted over women in Afghanistan in terms of their rights to self-determination, education, and freedom of expression; these talks were a momentous milestone in a road that is still fraught with peril and has many miles to be travelled toward achieving any future power-sharing agreement.

These groundbreaking talks happened in the midst of a country trying to reassert its identity after decades of external and internal military and religious turmoil. An environment which help to foment a level of religious conservatism which promulgated the harshest and most appalling acts of human rights abuses. With the encroachment of ISIS and its extremist’s tactics, most of which make the Taliban seem rational by contrast; ideas and dogma previously held sacrosanct are being reevaluated.

It is within this context of the Arab proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” that new alliances are emerging as Kabul and the Taliban begin to explore a peaceful end to the ongoing conflict. These current talks can be seen as an extension of negotiations hosted by Qatar a month earlier between militants and an unofficial Afghan delegation. Although, Afghan women have been members of parliament for a number of years, these progressive talks provided them with a seat at the table whereupon negotiations affecting all of the citizens of Afghanistan were being discussed.

It was reported that about a dozen women attended the negotiations, although most chose to hide their identities for fear of reprisal. Last year Barakzai was targeted by militants and narrowly escaped a suicide bomb attack with minor injuries. Despite this, she continues to push for women’s rights and praised the relative ease of these talks in part due to the election of President Ashraf Ghani, a prominent supporter of employment and education rights for all Afghan citizens, regardless of gender.

It's too early to tell how much of an impact the unofficial meetings will have, but ideally these historic negotiations will be a turning point in Taliban/women relations and will pave the way for many more similar exchanges.

Contributing Journalist: @SJJakubowski
Facebook: Sarah Joanne Jakubowski

Despite Presidential Legacy Goals, Obama Agrees to Slow Afghanistan Troop Drawdown

U.S. Soldier in Afghanistan, Courtesy of the U.S. Army

U.S. Soldier in Afghanistan, Courtesy of the U.S. Army

AFGHANISTAN - In March, President Obama announced that troop levels in Afghanistan would not be reduced, despite the president's pledge to decrease the number by half. In the following weeks a flood of diplomatic engagements, press conferences and speculation by world leaders unraveled about what the bilateral relationship will look like in the coming months and years.

What has become clear is an already tense and fragile relationship has become increasingly volatile with the rise of ISIS, coupled with the lessons learned from Iraq’s draw downs. In Iraq, many think we withdrew too quickly, leaving the vulnerable Iraqi troops to fend for themselves against ISIS, who advanced quickly against the inexperienced resistance.

Despite these factors, amplified lobbying efforts by President Ashraf Ghani certainly doesn't bode well for Obama’s plan to get half of the troops remaining in Afghanistan out by the end of 2015. With these pressures accumulating for months, Obama has officially decided to slow his planned troop draw down by scratching the 50% reduction in troops he was planning for the end of 2015. Now, the plan is to keep 10,000 troops in Afghanistan through the end of 2015, when the timeline will be further evaluated and structured for 2016.

Regardless of this major decision, Obama is unyielding on his benchmark goal of ending the war in Afghanistan before his Presidency comes to an end. Therefore, while there may be 10,000 troops in Afghanistan in December, he plans to have only a few hundred troops at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul left in the country by the end of 2016. The pace of this drawdown, though, is yet to be situated.

No doubt the White House, Pentagon, CIA and others are weighing the pros and cons versus staying longer to establish peace and stability, a strong Afghan military, and a more robust response to ISIS advances – but there is the eternal reminder that this is already America’s longest war and it cannot drag on forever. And while Obama may be dogged about having troops out by the end of 2016, he may be outweighed by recommendations from senior advisers and officials in these agencies who are pushing for Americans to stay longer and lock in the progress made over the last 13-years. It remains to be seen who will win this fight.

Africa Correspondent: @JessamyNichols
LinkedIn: Jessamy Nichols

The Radical Feminist, Afghanistan's Sara Bahayi

afghanistans northern militia, photo courtesy of faculty of journalism moscow state university ap photo van sekretarev

afghanistans northern militia, photo courtesy of faculty of journalism moscow state university ap photo van sekretarev

AFGHANISTAN, Mazar-i-Sharif – Yesterday, U.S. citizens awoke to 'news reports' that a YouTube video of a dress that changed colors had received 25+ million hits. People spoke about it on elevators, argued their selection of colors in cafeterias, shared and watched the video on their iPhones, and an endless round of recaps flooded every local and national news outlet.

Concurrently, Americans awoke to the incredible story featured on the front page of the Washington Post about Sara Bahayi, the only female taxi cab driver in Afghanistan. This woman is the epitome of a radical feminist, but her story of courage and tenacity remained far from the topic of inane conversation.

Unlike the bra burning icons of the 60's who sought the opportunity to break through the glass ceiling in Corporate America and ascend to the vaulted ranks of male executives, or even those who just wanted to escape the ennui of their housewife status; Bahayi, 38, is one of a new breed of women who are risking their lives in pursuit of basic freedoms.

As Afghanistan's first and perhaps only female driver, Bahayi's life and those of her loved ones are in very real danger. Something that most women take for granted has become the focus of a feminist revolution in countries like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. It is easy to call yourself a feminist if you are safely ensconced in a political and social system which legislates equal rights protections, even if these protections are not always enforced.

It is quite another to seek equality in a society and culture in which women are considered chattel, a precept that is enforced by Taliban militia and other radicalized groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman, who at 15-years-old was shot in the head by an assassin and nearly died because of her efforts to lobby for the right for girls and women to get an education, is an example of the lengths to which extremists will go to reinforce their belief systems.

Bahayi has waged her quiet campaign of civil disobedience for 10-years driving a taxi through the streets of Mazar-i-Sharif. She has been threatened with grievous harm and even death, though she bravely takes the opportunity to talk to some of her male passengers to try and help them understand that driving a car even if it is a taxi, is not sacrilegious. However, most of her passengers are women who seem to feel more comfortable riding inside the car with a woman driver, and even in some cases riding in the front passenger seat.

Unlike the feature photo in which Burqa clad women are forced to ride in the open trunk of a car, Bahayi has literally taken control of destiny at the wheel of her taxi. According to the Washington Post, she earns roughly $10-20 she earns per day. As an unmarried, childless woman, she uses the money that she earns to help support 15 relatives. "She started working outside the home in the late '90s when her brother-in-law was killed by the Taliban; a male neighbor taught her to drive after Bahayi decided her high school teacher's salary was insufficient; she got her drivers license two years ago in a class of 30 students, all male, only nine of whom passed the test. When driving into Taliban-controlled areas, she sometimes disguises herself as male..."

Bahayi has waged a quiet revolution and it is nice to read that her inspirational story was brought to international attention. Reportedly she is in negotiations to open a dealership. Because of the complexity of property ownership in Afghanistan's patriarchal society, she will require the initial investment and auspices of male partners to launch her business. However, she has stated that once the business is established, she hopes to transform it into Afghanistan's first female-owned car dealership. Watch her tell her story in her own language.

Editor-in-Chief: @AyannaNahmias
LinkedIn: Ayanna Nahmias

Is Saudi Arabia on Path Toward Balance?

kingdom tower saudi arabia, By faisal photography

kingdom tower saudi arabia, By faisal photography

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -  Geographically located at the geopolitical crossroads of the Middle East and the West, Saudi Arabia has come a long way from being known only as a religiously constrained nation dominated by hardline conservatives focused more on internal governance to the exclusion of Western opportunities because of their possibly corrosive influences.

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, 90, who died on 23 January 2015, was also known as 'the reformer' king, and under his decade long reign the socioeconomic transition strategies had already yielded positive results as the country became more open to doing business with partners that sometimes were at odds with the country's religious precepts. This fact was underscored by the number of world leaders and top dignitaries who visited Saudi Arabia to give their condolences.

The newly enthroned King Salman welcomed U.S. President Barack Obama, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito, Spain's King Felipe VI, Jordan's King Abdullah, Denmark's Crown Prince Frederik, Dutch King Willem-Alexander, and the United Kingdom's Prince Charles and others and will hopefully continue Saudi Arabia's embrace of a path that leads out of the religious cocoon that has historically governed it.

Though still a monarchy, the Saudi Arabian government is relatively stable, and the influx of new business partners is helping this thriving society to transform its image of being a totally Islam-centric culture to one that at least entertains and hosts people from different nations and backgrounds. This includes, doing business with Western companies that sometime send female executives to manage large scale projects.

However, Saudi Arabia is a nation that is built on Islamic principles and protecting these principles remains its cornerstone and governs every transaction. For instance, though Western women may come to work there, they are still expected to observe the decorum and customs that are unique to Muslim society. Even First Lady Michelle Obama was criticized in the media for not wearing an Abaya or head scarf during a recent visit; however, it was noted by the Associated Press that former First Ladies Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush have also appeared in public meetings Saudi royals without an Abaya.

Even still, Saudi Arabia is realizing unprecedented global, economic and employment growth as people embrace the reality that it is simultaneously the ultimate ‘Hajj’ destination, but also for non-Muslims it is a country where they can achieve economic success, explore great job opportunities, or just visit as a great vacation destination.

Socioeconomic Transformation:  In 1970 Saudi Arabia introduced the first of a series of the ongoing five-year development plans. The long-range plan had in scope the implementation of a modern infrastructure, fostering the development of business relations with other nations, and making the kingdom an affordable place for one and all. As a result of assiduously following the scope of this program over a 30-year period, today Saudi Arabia has been transformed into one of the most modern and sophisticated Arab states.

The table below provides a high-level summary of some of the major social and political breakthroughs that were achieved as a consequence of the Social Economic Transformation policies.

Government Goals and Objectives

Achievements

2001, December (Fight for Values & Saving the grace of Islam)

The government calls for the eradication of terrorism, and publicly states that terrorist acts are explicitly prohibited by Islam. The government also takes the unprecedented step of issuing ID cards to women.

2002, May (Sabotaging the rule to “offer pain”)

The criminal code underwent major revision that included ban on torture and right of suspects to legal representation.

2005, November (The World knows the worth now)

The prestigious World Trade Organization (WTO) gives a green signal to Saudi Arabia's membership after 12-years of negotiations.

2009, June (Making relations rock-solid)

U.S. President Barack Obama visits Saudi Arabia as part of a Middle East tour. The visit was aimed at increasing U.S. engagement with the Islamic world.

2012 June (Let the souls breathe and get their dreams)

Saudi Arabia agreed to allow women athletes to compete in the Olympics for the first time. This decision was against the background of speculation that the entire Saudi team might be disqualified on grounds of sex discrimination.

2014 February (Banish the “Crude”)

New anti-terrorism law were introduced to fortify the suppression of violent groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda.

2014, June-September

Activists for women's rights have become more vocal and public in their demands for equal rights for women to fully participate in society, in particular, being able to drive. Among other platforms, social media users continue to push the boundaries and test the limits of freedom of expression.

The Employment Affairs:  Saudi Arabia currently possesses more than 25% of the world's oil reserves. The oil and gas sector in Saudi Arabia has created astounding wealth for the country, and has encouraged investment by other nations that buy oil and gas from this Middle East powerhouse. Experts believe that with social reforms that continue to take place, will encourage nations not traditionally inclined to do business with Saudi Arabia to reconsider. Such expansion should result in the creation of many high-paying job opportunities for foreign and domestic workers alike; a fact evidenced by Jeddah being named one of the top livable cities in the world.

Persistent Concerns:  Saudi Arabia still has much to improve upon when it comes to human rights especially with regard to meting out punishment. In this respect the country is still in a religious cocoon of ultra-conservative, orthodox ‘Wahhabism' which has been Saudi Arabia's dominant faith for the past two centuries. This religious interpretation of Islamic law takes a literalist view of Qur'an and the tenets, and thus continues to condone heinous acts such as "death penalty or stoning for adultery and fornication, flogging and amputation for stealing, and punishments of retribution, are sanctioned by the Qur'an and are unchangeable," legal scholar Shahid M. Shahidullah explains. Wahhabist interpretation of "sharia law is the exclusive foundation of criminal justice" in Saudi Arabia. (Source: VOX)

Frontline PBS featured an Analyses of Wahhabism and its rigidity that "has led it to misinterpretation and distortion of Islam, pointing to extremists such as Osama bin Laden and the Taliban." Indeed, many of the perpetrators of the September 11th air attacks against the U.S. were instigated and perpetrated by Saudi nationals, and indeed many people still believe that the government and constituent nations in the region harbor extremist.

Between 2014 and 2015 Saudi Arabia has more than redeemed itself with tangible efforts and resources in the fight against radical Islamist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda, two of the greatest terrorists threats facing the world today. The "Saudis have sent jets to bomb the group in the Syrian regions where it [ISIS] first gained strength and broader influence. The result is that Saudi Arabia now has useful intelligence on the groups the U.S. will be arming and training within Syria later this year. Saudi Arabia is one of only three Muslim countries (the others are Turkey and Qatar) that would allow the U.S. to set up rebel-training camps on its soil." (Source: Huffington Post)

In summary, Saudi Arabia has realized vast improvements and it has boldly embraced the challenges that face a country that struggles to balance modernity with tradition; and though many may yet criticize this nation, its increased presence on and involvement in global affairs heralds its desire to move toward balance.

Middle East Correspondent:  @Vinita Tiwari

Did Bergdahl Desert in Afghanistan? Questions Remain for Families of Slain Soldiers

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Michael Ransom, Contributing EditorLast Modified: 01:56 a.m. DST, 6 June 2014

"Dirt Devils" Photo by: Marines

THE NEGOTIATIONS that freed prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban insurgents are continuing to amass criticism as more and more controversial information about Bergdahl and the deal surface.

While Republicans originally condemned the bargaining agreement because Congress was not notified about the release of Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay detention center, and because the government in effect negotiated with terror groups during the settlement, the disapproval is becoming increasingly bipartisan, and is starting to include more voices from Bergdahl's past.

New insight from Bergdahl's unit have been particularly troubling for the image of the liberated soldier. Gerald Sutton, for instance, was a close friend and comrade of Bergdahl and unequivocally states that his fellow soldier was a deserter. Many in Bergdahl's platoon have made similar remarks, and auxiliary evidence supports many of their claims.

Before leaving his post in Paktika, Afghanistan, Bergdahl mailed his personal belongings, including his laptop, to his parents in Idaho. In the months leading up to this shipment, Bergdahl used his laptop to email his parents and explain his frustration with American involvement in the region, and stated that he was ashamed to be an American.

Also noteworthy, a military investigation written in the months after Bergdahl went missing indicate that the young soldier has run away from duty in the past. Once during training, Bergdahl left his exercises in California and later returned. In an incident unrelated to his capture, Bergdahl left his post in Afghanistan and reappeared soon after. Why serious action was not taken after either of these incidents is unknown.

Claims that six men died trying to locate their comrade are cause for anger, but the proof is somewhat dubious. Six men died in the Paktika in the months after Bergdahl's disappearance, but whether or not these men died directly searching for their fellow American is unclear. Some members of the platoon say yes, while other intelligence cites a rise in regional violence as the root of the six fatalities. Still, it is likely that at least some of the deaths are directly related to the search for Bergdahl.

Two things are true as this saga unfolds. As a United States soldier in harm's way, the government was right to pursue Bergdahl's release, although the conditions of the trade are questionable. One national for five is an exploitation of the high value that America holds for each service member.

And also, like all Americans, Bergdahl should be regarded innocent until proven otherwise, no matter how damning the evidence.

Follow Michael on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report Contributing Editor: @MAndrewRansom

Bowe Bergdahl Freed by Taliban, But at What Cost?

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Michael Ransom, Contributing EditorLast Modified: 12:42 p.m. DST, 2 June 2014

"Early-morning dismounted patrol mission" Photo by:  The U.S. Army

AN AMERICAN SOLDIER captured in Afghanistan in 2009 is returning home. 28-year-old Bowe Bergdahl was the last prisoner of war from the Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom conflicts.

His homecoming marks the end of an ongoing discussion with Taliban executives, which were largely mediated by Qatari representatives. Since 2011, the United States has actively pursued Bergdahl's release. A recent video provided by Taliban leaders indicated the young man's failing health.

In June of 2009, Bergdahl left his military outpost in Paktika, Afghanistan for reasons still unknown. Outside of the military stronghold, Bergdahl was captured by Taliban affiliates. Those close to the family have described Bergdahl as a sensitive, questioning young man who was struggling with aspects of his service. This, coupled with the possibility of preexisting mental health problems could help to explain his disappearance.

The nation celebrates his arrival, but Bergdahl's release is not without a price. Five Taliban officials are scheduled to be released from Guantanamo Bay detention center and transported to Qatar. Here, the five are required to spend one year, and will be monitored to some extent.

Those safeguards are not enough to prevent their return to extremism, according to some conservative members of Congress, namely Californian Representative Howard McKeon and Oklahoman Senator James Inhofe. The two have become outspoken critics of the White House's secret negotiations.

Among their concerns--Congress was not notified about the release of Guantanamo Bay detainees a month in advance as per federal law, and the move to bring Bergdahl out of harm's way broke a longstanding American policy of not negotiating with terror groups.

In the years since his son's capture, Robert Bergdahl has learned Pashto, the language widely spoken in Afghanistan. Using this new skill set, R. Bergdahl has made efforts to speak with Taliban members to arrange his son's release.

According to officials, B. Bergdahl has spoken relatively no English in the past five years and he is having difficulty communicating in his native tongue. His father will help him in the meantime, as he adjusts to civilian life in his hometown of Hailey, Idaho.

Follow Michael on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report Contributing Editor: @MAndrewRansom

The Opium Economy Booms in Afghanistan

picture-of-child-smoking-opium-northern-region-afghanistan-photo-by-irex.jpg

AFGHANISTAN — The concerted efforts of Afghanistan and US governments will not be enough to curb this year’s opium industry in Afghanistan. The high unemployment rates and political instability in the country will create a surge of opium production and usage; which is predicted to break records for this year. With the threat of complete crop destruction forcing people into the arms of the Taliban, but also a desire to eradicate the drug, this year’s booming opium growth is prompting new courses of action.

Opium, from poppies, is the main ingredient used in heroin. Three-quarters of the world’s supply of opium is grown in Afghanistan. According to VICE News, it is predicted to reach ninety-percent by this year. The Washington Times reports there has been a thirty-six percent increase in poppy farm acreage, to approximately 516,000 acres. The US currently spends $7.5 billion on defensive measures against the opium trade.

Despite production of opium in mostly the southern and western provinces of Afghanistan, US forces are being located to the east to combat the trade. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction defends the shift to the east because it is “generally less than the threat in the south and southwest”. The US forces are trying to fight the trade in the opposite direction of the problem.

Because of the International Security Assistance Force, the Afghan forces have little jurisdiction in combatting the opium trade themselves. A report from Washington’s Afghanistan war watchdog said on the issue, “Drug labs, storage sites, and major trafficking networks are concentrated in rural areas that are increasingly off-limits to Afghan forces due the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) drawdown and declining security in these areas.”

Due to the end of the war in Afghanistan, foreign troops will be leaving by the end of the year, taking with them the most effective combative forces against the trade, as well as much of the country’s stability. As they face staggering unemployment and security concerns against forces like the Taliban, the lack of foreign aid could promote the opium industry.

Opium-use is rising among Afghans because of the tough economic times. The Guardian reports about 1.3 million Afghan adults were regular drug users in 2012 out of a population near 32 million.

Not only is the demand increasing, but it is providing jobs for those unemployed more than any other form of cultivation. Some see the possible utilization of opium production as a solution to actually provide economic growth and stability for the weak Afghan government. Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on counter-narcotic efforts in Afghanistan, told VICE News that because opium cultivation is labor-intensive and profitable, if the 806 square miles of opium fields last year were instead wheat then that would only create twenty percent of the jobs that the opium fields provided.

Felbab-Brown goes on to say, “What we really need to ask ourselves is, is it bad to have this illicit economy? It probably is bad, but is it much worse than the alternative? The alternative right now would be huge political instability and it would also be huge unemployment,” she said. “So yes, it’s undesirable that there is a major illicit economy that constitutes so much of the country’s GDP, but there’s just no way to walk away from that.”

What concerns the US government, though, is more than the illicitness of the opium trade and drug use; The US is more concerned with the implications that this trade can have on strengthening the Taliban and warlords.

The poor farmers are not the ones who profit off of the opium crop. The local warlords, Taliban, and wealthy elites connected to the government instead pocket the revenue, according to VICE News. The DEA claims that high-ranking Taliban members double as drug lords who finance terrorist attacks using drug money.

However, eradicating the drugs could also promote the Taliban. With eliminating the crops, it would cripple the poorest farmers who would them be forced to turn to the Taliban. Felbab-Brown told VICE News, “[…] what would inevitably happen is that eradication would target the poorest sectors of society, and they would then become dependent on the support of the Taliban for basic survival, and consequently they would dislike the state and dislike the counterinsurgency, and strengthen their bond to militants like the Taliban.”

To regulate the opium trade prompts the concern of drug use and funding terrorists, however to eliminate the trade offers similar outcomes. Graeme Smith, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, told VICE News, “The fact of the matter is that Afghanistan will continue to be the world’s leading opium producer probably for many years to come and the international community will need to help Afghanistan get off the sauce when it comes to finding another way to bring in hard currency.”

Follow Allyson on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report Contributing Journalist: @allysoncwright

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