Girls on the wheels: Skateboarding in Kabul

Syed Zafar Mehdi

To empower young girls and expose them to the brighter side of life, a skateboarding school running in Kabul for past 6 years has done wonders 

In the summer of 2007, Australian skater Oliver Percovich came to Afghanistan with three skateboards, and a dream. In a country with 70 percent youth population, he wanted to bring a change. He was not a magician riding the silk carpet, but he had a vision. He decided to make Kabul his permanent base and used the unconventional sport of skating as a tool to distract the mind of young boys and girls from daily horror and mayhem.

His dream materialized with Skateistan, the skateboarding school where hundreds of children come to learn skating and engage in various creative activities. In 2009, two years after establishing his school in Kabul, Skateistan: Four Wheels and a Board in Kabul, a documentary based on it bagged the 2011 Cinema for Peace Berlin Award.

For Mr. Percovich, it is a means to empower youth of Afghanistan and expose them to the brighter side of life. “The youth in this country have been through a lot, and it is our humble attempt to give them something to cheer about,” he says. “We want to help them fulfill their dreams and unleash their creative talent.”

The 5248 square meter facility adjacent to Afghan National Olympic Stadium in Kabul is thronged by children, mostly girls from marginalized sections of society. They include underprivileged, orphans, refugees etc. Inside the classrooms, they are taught creative arts and outside the classroom, they jump on the wheels and do skating. “It is a wonderful sport, I like to come here every other day,” says Sakina, a little girl on the wheels, wearing small helmet.

On December 21 2013, Skateistan Kabul branch turned four. Almost 400 students and their families turned up to celebrate the occasion. “The reason why this school is doing wonders in Afghanistan is because children, especially young girls, have been starved of such fun and adventure for years and this gives them an opportunity to unleash their creative energy,” says Ahmed Jawad, a young skateboarding enthusiast.

The 5248 square meter facility adjacent to Afghan National Olympic Stadium in Kabul is thronged by children, mostly girls from marginalized sections of society

In a country where women were banned from driving cars or riding bicycles, Skateistan has given them wings to fly. Many young girls throng this school every day. “It is of course wonderful for Afghanistan and our youth, especially girls because it has helped them break free from the mundane life,” says Zheela Sharif, an activist.

Since the school was established in Kabul in 2007, they have spread out to Pakistan and Cambodia too. Another school is coming up in Mazar-e-Sharif, the province famous for Blue Mosque.


“The Afghanistan I remember was totally different”

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Barmal Gran is a business advisor, political commentator and documentary filmmaker based in United States. He is the Founder/CEO of Afghan Media Broadcasting Company

Q. When did you leave the country and what are your earliest memories of growing up in Afghanistan?
 I left Afghanistan in December 1979, fifteen days before the Russian invasion with my mother and two sisters. The earliest memories of Afghanistan pretty much revolve around family gatherings, playing football in Macroyan, riding my bike, and flying kites. A large majority of Afghans are now based abroad, mostly in Europe and U.S.

Q. How difficult is the cultural adjustment, especially for someone coming from a third world country?
 We came to United States in 1983 as refugees. I was young, and so were my sisters. My mother was a widow. It was really tough in terms of getting acclimated to new society, and it was much harder for my mother. She was a young widow, and she had to put in extra effort in raising her kids. Financially and emotionally, it was tough on our family at times because of losing my father in Kabul.

Q. As an Afghan living and working abroad, have you faced any stereotype, prejudice or racism?
 This is a hard question to answer or quantify. Racism happens all over the world. Yes, after 9/11, stereotyping Muslims and even the likes of Afghans was prevalent. But, I never personally experienced anything serious. I actually felt like an ambassador for Afghan community here. I had many open discussions with Americans about politics and Afghanistan. In most cases, they appreciated my feedback and experience. Generally speaking, most Afghans felt safe after 9/11.

Q. When you come across news reports about suicide attacks, violence against women and children in Afghanistan, how do you feel?
 I feel like this was not the Afghanistan I left. What makes me angry and sad is the fact that Afghanistan changed after 1977. When my father was killed in 1977 (Captain Inam-ul-Haq Gran, Afghanistan’s first Captain, and Chief Pilot of Ariana Afghan Airlines with joint venture with Pan Am), Kabul changed forever.

The Afghanistan I remember was totally different. Afghanistan was secular, and women and men looked so much different. Kabul looked like any other city in the world. What you see in Afghanistan today is nothing like the old days. The terrorism was exported from another country. Even during the war against Russians, Afghans never used suicide bombings as a means to fight the war. Afghanistan’s identity has been hijacked by foreign interventions and groups within Afghanistan.

Q. Do you believe the Afghans who are settled abroad should return home and help in rebuilding their country?
 We all have a vested interest in our homeland. This is our roots and it gives us our identity. Personally, I always felt connected with my home country because of my family roots. My father and grandfather were very well known individuals in Afghanistan. I am proud of my family’s contribution to Afghanistan. This is why it is important to give back to our home country, and be involved in helping Afghanistan in some fashion.

Q. Tell us a bit about the work you do?
 I am currently involved in many projects. I am the CEO/Founder of Afghan Media Broadcasting Company, which works on projects to elevate the Afghan community. I am the host/executive producer of a show called Business Advisors 101, which currently airs on Ariana TV. It is a business show aiming to educate and create business opportunities for Afghans.

I am also currently developing a documentary film titled A Captain, A Uniform, A Country. This project is about Ariana Afghan Airlines, Pan AM, and the story of Captain Inam-ul-Haq Gran. It shows Afghanistan from a different perspective via aviation and embracing of technology. The story revolves around Captain Gran’s achievement as ‘Ambassador of Goodwill’ and Afghanistan’s finest pilot from that era. I am looking to partner with companies who will collaborate and fund the project.

I am also part of the Unity and Freedom Movement of Afghanistan. It is the first Afghan-American political advocacy group and lobbyist group registered in America. The goal of this organization is to promote peace.

Q. As they say, you can take the person out of country, but you cannot take country out of the person. What is the one thing that makes you proud as an Afghan?
 This is a true statement. I will always see myself as an Afghan first. This is what distinguishes me as a person, and my beliefs. The one thing I am really proud of Afghans is their dedication towards family and the pride in their identity. Generally speaking, Afghans are very proud of being one of the most hospitable people on earth, and their code of honor is incredible.

Nawroz celebrations held amid tight security in Kabul

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Many top leaders from the neighboring countries arrived in Kabul today to participate in the Nawroz festivities hosted by Afghanistan this year

After a few weeks marked by violence, chaos and tension, the residents in Kabul finally had something to cheer about. The traditional Nawroz festivities, marking the Afghan New Year, kicked off in Kabul on Thursday amid tight security.

Nawroz, which falls on March 21, is the first day of spring in Afghanistan and marks the beginning of the New Year. The Afghan government had postponed the celebrations to March 27.

The glitzy ceremony held in highly-fortified Presidential palace, also called Arg, was attended by a galaxy of high-profile guests from many neighboring countries. The representatives of United Nations (UN) and many top leaders from India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Armenia were in attendance.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain, Tajikistan President Emomali Rakhmon and Turkmenistan Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Rashid Meredov attended the ceremony that started with the Afghan national dance called Atan, performed by local Afghan artists.

Iranian President Mr. Rouhani created a momentary stir by referring to the host country in his speech as “occupied”, much to the chagrin to many foreign diplomats who attended the ceremony. He said the upcoming elections are important for the future stability of Afghanistan. Pakistani President Mr. Mamnoon said festivals like Nawroz that deliver the message of peace and solidarity must be celebrated with fervor. He said the cultural ties are important for countries in the region.

The ceremony was originally scheduled to be held in Paghman, the picturesque hill station on the outskirts of Kabul, where the government had come up with a lavish palace called ‘Qasr e Paghman’ as the venue for Nawroz festivities. But, the venue was shifted to Presidential palace at the last minute owing to security reasons, and also because the newly-built palace, according to government officials, was not yet fully ready to host the grand celebrations.

On the sidelines of Nawroz celebrations, a quadrilateral summit was held between the Presidents of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan. According to the joint statement, the four leaders “reaffirmed their commitment to constructive and supportive relationship based on principles of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, mutual respect and shared interests”. They also expressed concern over the “growing threat posed by terrorism and extremism in the region.”

The leaders underlined the importance of holding “inclusive and transparent elections as a crucial step towards consolidating democracy and promoting peace, stability and sustainable development in Afghanistan”. They also reiterated that joint celebration of Nowruz is a “manifestation of friendship and common heritage of the countries and peoples of the region.”

The security had been beefed up across the city with all roads leading to Presidential palace blocked for traffic. Security personnel manned every street to make sure there was no untoward incident.

In 2010, The UN General Assembly recognized Nawroz as the International Day. The day is observed with great reverence in Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan. Last year, the joint Nawroz celebrations were hosted by Turkmenistan.

(First published in Afghan Zariza)

“Afghans won’t welcome armed opposition groups ever again”

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Spogmay Waziri Kakar is a BBC Pashto columnist and Co-Founder of Pashtun Women Viewpoint website. She is a graduate of George Mason University with a degree in International Politics.

Q. We have witnessed the historic elections in Afghanistan with unprecedented voter turnout. Did you expect such tremendous response, considering the security threats?
 Based on conversations with family in Afghanistan and friends on social media and from my monitoring of Afghan news, I had a feeling that this election would be different and that the turnout would be high because we were dealing with a much more informed citizenry. The role of traditional (preparing specific election-related programs) and social media cannot be ignored. The media delivered the message about the importance of elections and social media provided a platform for Afghans to discuss the topics related to elections freely. In other words, the Afghan population was informed, encouraged and committed to participate in these elections.

At the same time, I was worried about security, especially after the attack on Serena Hotel in Kabul. I was hoping that this attack would not discourage people from going to polling stations. I was also hoping that no major incident takes place on the Election Day. I was on Twitter following the election updates right from the moment polling centers opened until they closed. Luckily, there was no major security incident.

The new government should work on the local level with community elders and religious leaders to convince those who have taken up arms against the government to join the peace process

Q. As a young Afghan, what are your expectations from the new government? What are the three biggest challenges the new government faces?
 People voted in these elections for change, better education, better governance and better life. I hope the new government is able to bring change in the lives of ordinary Afghans. The first challenge for the new President is to deal with those candidates who lose elections and those people whose preferred candidate end up on the losing side.

The new government will have to assure the losing candidates and their supporters that their voices will still be heard. The second challenge would be to deal with corruption. Afghanistan has been ranked as the most corrupt country in the world, and the new government has to formulate policies that would help reduce corruption.

The third challenge would be to create economic opportunities for Afghans. This would help people get employed and will have a direct impact on the security (people who have stable jobs will not recruited by insurgents). Having a robust foreign policy will help in boosting the economy of the country. The new government will have to provide a secure and friendly environment for foreign investors.

Q. International forces are scheduled to pull out from Afghanistan later this year. Do you think the Afghan forces are fully geared up to take the security responsibility?
 I think the Afghan national security forces can assume security responsibility if they work a little harder, and they proved it during the elections. One reason why the turnout was high is because Afghan security forces were able to secure the polling stations, making it possible for people to vote.

Q. How would you rate Karzai government’s performance? What has been this one biggest achievement and one major failure?
 One major failure is that he did not sign the BSA despite the fact that the consultative Loya Jirga advised him to do so. He spent a lot of money on this jirga for no reason and went against the decision of the jirga. His biggest achievement was to help make this election possible. There were many speculations until a few months ago that this election would not happen. He deserves credit for making this transition of power possible.

Q. As we have seen in recent weeks, security continues to be a concern. Do you think the new government should open the channels of peace negotiations with armed opposition groups?
 The new government should work on the local level with community elders and religious leaders to convince those who have taken up arms against the government to join the peace process. Afghans have made it clear that they will not welcome the armed opposition groups ever again. People went to polling stations in these elections not only because they had to, but because they wanted to show their commitment to democracy and rule of law.

Q. Where do you see Afghanistan ten years down the line?
 By 2024, Afghanistan would have seen two more democratic transitions of power. Afghanistan has a long way to go politically and economically, but it is important to recognize how much work is left to be done. Afghanistan is a young democracy but is headed towards the right direction and these elections were by all means historic. The good thing about democracy is that there will be another chance to have an election after five years. Therefore, the people who have been elected now can be held accountable after their term ends. Hopefully, the future Presidents will take Afghanistan forward in the right direction.


Will release of 5 Taliban prisoners in exchange of captive U.S. soldier prove costly?


Syed Zafar Mehdi

The family, friends and well-wishers of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, 28, were elated when the U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday announced that he has been freed from the captivity of the Taliban after five long years. His parents, Robert and Jani Bergdahl, who have been running helter-skelter for past five years, pushing the U.S. government to revive talks and reaching out to insurgents, have finally something to cheer about.

“We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son,” Bergdahl’s parents said in a statement. “And of course, we want to take this opportunity to thank all those in the many U.S. Government agencies who never gave up. Today, we are ecstatic,” the statement adds. The last they saw him was on Christmas 2008.

“Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery is a reminder of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield,” President Obama said in a statement. He personally called Bergdahl’s parents to tell them their son would be returning home. “The cost of years of captivity to Sergeant Bergdahl and his family is immeasurable,” said Secretary of State John Kerry, in a statement.

Story of Sergeant Bergdahl

The story of Bergdahl, 28, is both strange and puzzling. He was deployed as a machine gunner in May 2009 to a small outpost in Paktia province, at a time when there was very little presence of U.S. soldiers in the area. On June 30, 2009, he failed to show up for the morning roll call, barely two months after his deployment. He was captured by the Taliban in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan under circumstances that continue to be shrouded in mystery. Reports suggested that he was held by Pakistan’s dreaded Haqqani network, which was named a foreign terrorist organization in 2012 by U.S. State department.

He was the only U.S. soldier ever to be captured by insurgents in Afghanistan. Many theories sprang up soon after his disappearance. The military initially said he had walked off his remote outpost during a counterinsurgency operation. In a video released by Taliban a month after his capture, Bergdahl said he had lagged behind on a patrol. A classified military report made public by whistle blowing site WikiLeaks suggested that the Taliban insurgents caught Bergdahl while he was in a latrine.

A year after his incarceration, his distraught family broke the silence and alleged that their son has become a centerpiece in stalled negotiations between the U.S. government and the Taliban over a proposed prisoner exchange. According to the deal, five Taliban prisoners had to be released from Guantánamo Bay for Bergdahl.

His father Robert Bergdahl, who went public to push the U.S. government to revive the stalled negotiations, also reached out to the Taliban. “You don’t leave something like this to government officials,” Mr. Bergdahl said in a 2012 interview with The New York Times. He, however, expressed confidence that the Taliban would not harm his son, because they want to strike a deal with the Obama administration.

Bergdahl appeared in many videos released by the Taliban, in which he called for an end to the U.S. war in Afghanistan and release of Afghan war prisoners. U.S. officials dismissed the videos, claiming that he has said that under duress.

Released at a price?

Bergdahi’s release, though, came at a price. As per the deal, Bergdahl was released on May 31 in exchange for five dreaded Taliban prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay prison. The exchange happened on the Afghan-Pakistan border. According to reports, eighteen Taliban insurgents were present on the site, but there was no exchange of fire.

The release of Bergdahl, according to reports, was not negotiated directly with the Haqqani network. It was brokered through the Qatar government. Both President Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel praised the efforts of Emir of Qatar for helping in Bergdahl’s release.

However, back in the U.S., the exchange has stirred hornet’s nest with some of top Republicans on the Senate and House Armed Services Committee criticizing President Obama for negotiating with the Taliban in securing release of Bergdahl in exchange of five Guantanamo Bay prisoners, believed to be hardened Taliban insurgents. The five insurgents released include Khair Ulla Said Wali Khairkhwa, Mullah Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Nori, Abdul Haq Wasiq and Mohammad Nabi Omari.

“These particular individuals are hardened terrorists who have the blood of Americans and countless Afghans on their hands,” said Senator John McCain said (R-Ariz.).

Profile of five Taliban leaders released

According to CNN, Khairkhwa was one of the founder members of Taliban who served as Interior Minister in Taliban government. Belonging to the same tribe as Afghan President Hamid Karzai, he was arrested in January 2002 in Pakistan and was taken to Guantanamo in May 2002. A very influential drug-lord, he was also the Governor of Herat province between 1999 and 2001, and allegedly had close links with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda’s slain leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi.

Fazl, Khairkhwa’s close associate who served as Chief of Army during Taliban government, was the commander of forces that fought the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance in 2001. Fazl was detained after he surrendered to Abdul Rashid Dostam, the prominent Uzbek leader and currently the running mate of Presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. He was shifted to Guantanamo in December 2001 and was one of the first prisoners there.

Noori served as Governor of Balkh during the Taliban regime and played instrumental role in the fight against Northern Alliance. He also surrendered to Dostam in 2001. Wasiq was the deputy intelligence chief during the Taliban regime and he allegedly had links with other armed opposition groups like Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin.

Omari was a small recruit of Taliban in eastern Khost province. He was Taliban’s chief of communications who helped al Qaeda members sneak into Pakistan from Afghanisan. According to the administrative review, he was also associated with al Qaeda and Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin.

Will it affect security ahead of elections?

Qatar has agreed to take custody of the five detainees on the assurance that they would not pose any threat to the U.S., and they have also been barred from travelling out of Qatar for one year. However, the security experts believe the release of these Taliban prisoners can prove counter-productive and embolden the insurgents inside Afghanistan.

“It is not the wisest idea to release five top Taliban hawks at a time when the country is bracing up for political and security transition; it can have unwanted repercussions,” says Javed Kohistani, a security analyst. Afghanistan is gearing up for runoff between two Presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai on June 14. Mr. Kohistani fears the release of these top Taliban officials might affect security situation in the run up to elections.

General Taqat, former intelligence official, also harbors similar apprehensions. “The fears are legitimate as we have seen in recent past how the violence escalates whenever the Taliban insurgents are released, like we saw after some Taliban fighters were set free from Bagram prison recently,” says Mr. Taqat. However, he is confident that the Afghan security forces will be able to provide security during and after the elections.

While some are in favor of peace negotiations with the Taliban, some others believe it is an exercise in futility. Atiqullah Amarkhil, security analyst, believes the Taliban who have genuine grievances and are willing to negotiate must be engaged. “The insurgents exported from neighboring countries need to be isolated and exterminated and only the local insurgents who have grievances and are willing to give peace a chance must be invited for talks.”

He says the Haqqani network, which is believed to be behind the capture of Bergdahl, only seeks to foment trouble in Afghanistan. “Those who create hurdles for peace and stability should be given a fitting reply,” says Mr. Amarkhil.

(First published in Afghan Zariza)