Sunday, November 29, 2015

Taliban’s Foreign Support Vexes U.S.


U.S. officials recently concluded that the Afghan Taliban may receive as much money from foreign donors as it does from opium sales, potentially hindering the Obama administration’s strategy to rehabilitate Afghanistan by stopping the country’s drug trade.

Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said in a recent interview that the Taliban has three main sources of funding: drug revenue; payments from legitimate businesses that are secretly owned by the armed group or that pay it kickbacks; and donations from foreign charitable foundations and individuals.

“You have funds generated locally, funds that come in from the outside, and funds that come from the illegal narcotics business,” he said. “It’s a hotly debated topic as to which is the most significant and it may be that they are all roughly around the same level.”

Gen. Petraeus estimated that the Taliban raise a total of “hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars” each year from the three sources, and said the U.S. doesn’t have precise figures.

The Taliban have depended in part on foreign support for decades. In an interview last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said some Afghan militants could draw on “external funding channels” created in the 1980s for wealthy Muslims — with U.S. support — to funnel money to Islamic fighters battling the Soviet military. “It wouldn’t surprise me if those channels have remained open,” he said.

Two senior U.S. officials said the Central Intelligence Agency has identified individuals and charities suspected of providing the bulk of the Taliban funding, but declined to name them, citing continuing operations to disrupt the money flows.

Senior U.S. officials said the Taliban received significant donations from Pakistan — where sympathy for the group is widespread in the country’s Pashtun community — and Gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Pakistani Ambassador Hussein Haqqani said his government had frozen hundreds of bank accounts tied to the Taliban and other extremist groups and said the effort is a “work in progress.”

“The extremist networks continue to find new financing schemes and methods to evade law enforcement,” he said.

A senior Saudi official here said his government regularly arrested citizens suspected of funneling money to armed groups such as the Taliban but questioned the extent of the practice. The official said Saudi charities are barred from sending money outside the country.

“If the Americans have actionable intelligence on Saudis who are supporting the Taliban, they should provide us the intelligence, and we will act on it,” he said.

Officials from the Kuwaiti Embassy declined to comment.

The Taliban’s ability to continually replenish its coffers concerns U.S. policy makers such as Mr. Gates, who conjectured in the interview that American public support for the war will dissipate before the end of the year unless the administration achieves a “perceptible shift in momentum” there.

American officials said most of the money was sent to the Taliban through the informal hawala money-transfer system — a network of money brokers with little outside oversight. A 2006 World Bank report about Afghanistan said the hawala system “carries out the majority of the country’s cash payments and transfers.”

The resurgent Taliban have been mounting attacks in recent months, inflicting heavy casualties on U.S., North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Afghan soldiers. On Thursday, U.S.-led forces raided a suspected foreign-fighter camp in eastern Afghanistan, setting off a gun fight that killed 34 militants, according to an Afghan official.
-Siobhan Gorman contributed to this article.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Debate Over Child Executions Roils Iran’s Presidential Vote


TEHRAN, Iran , The day before two of his young clients were to be hanged, lawyer Mohamad Mostafaei went to a Justice Ministry office here to request a stay of execution.

Mr. Mostafaei’s errand should have been routine, if solemn: He represents 30 of the 135 criminals under the age of 18 on Iran’s death row. Instead, he says, he was detained and grilled for an hour and a half, part of Iran’s widening crackdown on human-rights activists.

“Anything can happen to you at any time,” said Mr. Mostafaei, 34 years old. A Justice Ministry spokesman said the mid-May incident wasn’t a detention, and that Mr. Mostafaei was merely asked the purpose of his visit.
Agencies Suffer in Iran

As Iranians prepare to elect their next president on June 12, a range of civil-liberties issues — from juvenile executions to the freedom to blog — have become hot topics. Ending a period of relative openness, the government has pursued a clampdown on dissidents, human-rights activists, journalists and students, the likes of which hasn’t been seen here in decades.

The crackdown is led by conservative lawmakers who rose to power in recent years. Analysts say Iran’s regime tends to view dissent as a national-security risk and a departure from the ideals of Iran’s Islamic revolution of the 1970s under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

In June’s vote, all three of the major candidates seeking to unseat President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — two reformists, and one conservative — have criticized his government for its lack of tolerance. Each has promised more personal and social freedom if elected.

Iran’s use of the death penalty in juvenile cases has become particularly controversial, largely due to efforts by Mr. Mostafaei. The past two years, Iran led the world with a total of 28 hangings of youth offenders. Iran’s constitution stipulates that the age of maturity for boys is 15, and for girls, 9 — the ages at which Islamic law calls for children to take on religious duties such as prayer and fasting. (Executions aren’t carried out until the person reaches 18.)

Some other Islamic countries also have juveniles on death row, but executions are rarer. According to Human Rights Watch, since January 2005, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen have carried out a total of six juvenile executions.

In some U.S. states, death penalties for crimes committed by juveniles over the age of 15 remained legal until 2005, when the Supreme Court said the punishment should be reserved for individuals who had committed their crimes after reaching the age of 18. That ruling ended a 29-year era in which the U.S. executed 22 people for crimes committed as juveniles.

Iran’s Parliament, under intense pressure from local activists and international human-rights groups alike, recently approved legislation to make it tougher — although not impossible in murder cases — to sentence juveniles to death.

“The issue of juvenile executions has preoccupied us. We are not indifferent to world public opinion about this matter, and we are trying to find a solution,” said Ali Shahrokhi, a cleric and lawmaker who heads the Parliament’s judiciary committee.

The legislation, must still win the approval of the Guardian Council, a conservative committee of clerics, to become law.

Mr. Mostafaei and others want Iran to ban juvenile executions altogether by changing the age of maturity to 18, where it stood before the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Earlier this month, one prominent presidential candidate who is also a cleric, Mehdi Karroubi, denounced child executions and said he would end them if elected. The next day, the conservative newspaper Kayhan called Mr. Karroubi an agent for Zionists.

“The intimidations won’t stop us from doing what we believe is right,” said Mr. Mostafaei. The day after his run-in with authorities earlier this month — with his two clients scheduled to be hanged at dawn — Mr. Mostafaei gathered several dozen protesters at 4 a.m. near the execution grounds, shouting the names of Muslim saints and calling for an end to child executions.

Just minutes before sunrise, prison officials announced a six-month stay of execution. His two clients, both convicted of murder in their teens, remain alive, for now.

However, their stay of execution isn’t much of a guarantee. Earlier this month another of Mr. Mostafaei’s clients, a young woman named Delara Darabi, was hanged in violation of a two-month stay she had obtained.

Word of Ms. Darabi’s fate came when the executioner let her phone her family. “Oh mother, I see the hangman’s noose in front of me,” she said, according to Mr. Mostafaei. At age 17, Ms. Darabi had confessed to a murder that took place in a jewelry heist, but later said her boyfriend was the killer and that she took the blame to protect him.

Human-rights activists have long complained that Iran has curbed civil liberties. In the past few years, reform-minded newspapers and magazines have been shut one by one. In May, one such paper published by another presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, lived for only one day before a court ordered it to shut.

Movies and books go through rigorous layers of censorship. Art galleries must seek approval for every item to be displayed. Restrictions like these were put in place or expanded over the past four years during Mr. Ahmadinejad’s tenure.

Mr. Ahmadinejad dismisses claims that human rights have deteriorated. “I have not been informed that anybody has spent time in prison for criticizing the president, who is the No. 1 executive of the country, after all, or has been subjected to persecution of any sort. It’s really very free,” he said last September at a press conference at the United Nations General Assembly.

The president’s office hasn’t responded to interview requests from The Wall Street Journal.

As recently as five years ago, under President Mohammad Khatami, Iran was relatively progressive in the Islamic world, as embodied in its expanding array of human-rights groups, charities and other so-called nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. Between 1997 and 2005, as many as 7,000 such domestic groups worked in areas as diverse as women’s issues, children’s cancer, transvestites’ rights and environmental policy.

When Mr. Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, he set out to limit their activity. The Ministry of Interior created a special office to supervise them. The government also set new restrictions on United Nations activities regarding NGOs, requiring them to work only with groups recommended by the government.

In interviews, nearly two-dozen NGOs said they must now get the government’s OK for every activity, from naming board members to holding fund-raisers.

“The regime has made it clear that it does not like NGOs and it’s very afraid of us,” said Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient whose own organization, Iran’s Center for the Defense of Human Rights, was shut down in January.

The government believes some NGOs are fronts for foreign spies. In January, Iranian intelligence officials said they uncovered a coup plot involving the Central Intelligence Agency and a local AIDS charity.

Tehran suspects the U.S. is trying to stir up a “velvet revolution” — a peaceful uprising like the one that overturned communism in the Czech Republic two decades ago. It cites Congress’s 2006 decision to allocate $75 million toward social programs in Iran. “Our enemies have officially announced that they want to infiltrate our civil society and have even declared a budget for their plans,” said Ali Fouladi, who heads the Interior Ministry’s department for monitoring NGOs. “We will outsmart them.”

The U.S. and other countries have denied that they aim to overthrow the government. “Yes, we support reform and defend human rights, but there’s a world of difference between that and trying to start a revolution here,” said a senior Western diplomat in Tehran.

Mr. Mostafaei began his human-rights advocacy by volunteering with Rahi, an NGO that doled out free legal advice to women prisoners. He sought clients by reading crime stories in local papers.

Today he runs a private law practice. Along a narrow, tree-lined street in central Tehran, a bronze plaque with the words “The Protectors” marks his office.

“We defend and protect victims whom the law does not protect,” he said recently, sitting at his desk there. The walls are decorated with artwork by death-row clients including Ms. Darabi, the woman executed earlier this month. One of her oil paintings hangs above a fireplace, depicting an old man with a violin.

Mr. Mostafaei’s reputation grew after he won a case five years ago involving a teenage girl, Nazanin Fatehi, who faced execution for stabbing and killing a man who she said was trying to rape her. Nazanin was 15 years old at the time of the stabbing.

After Mr. Mostafaei won her release, parents of other death-row children sought him out. He is both attorney and therapist, of sorts. During a recent interview, his phone rang — it was the mother of a client. “It’s OK. Don’t cry,” he says. “You have to be strong.” He tells her he saw her son that morning.

Mr. Mostafaei grew up in a poor family with five siblings and a father who forced the children to take jobs. In elementary school, he said, he worked at a brick factory.

“I’m mostly seeking justice for children because I suffered so much as a child,” he said.

As a young man, he took Iran’s national university entrance exam, and ranked in the top 50. He ended up at the prestigious Tehran University Law School.

His budding law career coincided with Iran’s reform years, a period starting in late 1997 when politicians moved away from the strict ideology rooted in Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1970s Islamic revolution.

The clampdown began more recently. In March 2007, Rahi, the NGO where Mr. Mostafaei volunteered, was shuttered by Iran’s Revolutionary Court, which deals with national-security matters. Rahi’s founder, lawyer Shadi Sadr, was put in solitary confinement for two weeks and charged with conspiring to overthrow the Iranian leadership with foreign funds via a “velvet revolution.” Ms. Sadr is awaiting trial on bail.

Other NGOs also say they have come under pressure. The president of Mahak, a widely known Iranian NGO that helps children with cancer, said security forces last year conducted an unannounced audit of its financial records.

“These are the darkest days for NGOs,” said Zahra Eshraghi, who runs a women’s organization that she says was instructed several years ago to avoid advocacy work by the Interior Ministry. Ms. Eshraghi is also the granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomeini.

As for Mr. Mostafaei, he is responding to the pressure with unconventional means of advocacy. He recruited Iranian movie stars to campaign for his cause, although in November the judiciary subpoenaed the stars and warned them to stay away from publicly campaigning against juvenile executions.

He also runs a blog that tracks human-rights cases. And this past summer, Mr. Mostafaei made a documentary about juveniles on death row. The film opens with the voice of Behnam Zareh, a former client of his, who was convicted of murder at age 15 after killing another boy in a fight over a bird.

“I want to stay alive. Please, please I want to stay alive,” the young man says. The recording is his final phone conversation with Mr. Mostafaei before being hanged last August.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

“I have never felt more welcome in any other part of the world”

Chris Alexander, the United Nations Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan, has left after six years in the country. Mr Alexander worked in Kabul from 2003, first as Canadian ambassador, and then as one of two deputies at UNAMA with responsibility for political affairs.

The following is an extract from an interview he did on his last day in Kabul.

I have to say there are mixed feelings about leaving. It’s been a time of suffering for a lot of Afghans. Peace has not come to this country, humanitarian suffering continues, people don’t have enough to eat and just when they have rebuilt their house a flood comes or the Taliban come, girls who’ve gone back to school aren’t able to continue in some parts of this country.

One has to be honest. We haven’t achieved enough. We have much more to do together in this country: Afghans because they will always be in the lead and their international partners.

But at the same time, sometimes many people both Afghans and foreigners forget what the starting point was. They forget how devastated, how isolated Afghanistan was in 2001 when really the very limited Government, repressive Government that it had, disappeared over night and there was nothing, there was no institution to replace it. And so when we started together under the leadership of an interim administration in late 2001 there were no services being delivered, there was no rural development, there was no system of clinics or schools, all of that had to be rebuilt.

And what is remarkable is the extent to which those basic things have been done. They don’t make Afghanistan a rich country, they don’t solve the problem of hunger in this country and they certainly haven’t brought peace. But they are the right things that need to be done as soon as one has the opportunity after the fall of a hostile regime, one that wasn’t willing to do these things. And so I think the international community has focused on the right priorities. What I regret is that the scale of effort wasn’t larger at the beginning; fortunately it’s much larger now and the prospects for the future, if the Government takes the right decisions, if Afghans consider their options seriously in these elections, if they demand accountability from their elected leaders, the future can be bright.

Many say this will be a very difficult and challenging time especially during the upcoming elections. How do you see the coming months?

They will be a time of drama, that’s the same for elections anywhere in the world. It’s an opportunity for people to literally consider their choices with regard to who should be in Government and in constitutionally authorized positions to lead and I think Afghans will take that question seriously. But they want to know from all of the candidates: What are you programmes? What can you deliver? If we vote what are we likely to get in return in terms of security, in terms of better governance (which is a huge priority for Afghans in terms of better services and development)? There will be some debate, there may even been some controversy. But our sense is that the political class here is much more sophisticated even than it was six or seven years ago, the media are very professional and sophisticated, the institutions running the elections, the Independent Election Commission, the Complaints Commission, the Media Commission, even the police and state institutions that are involved, are going to be doing their best to be responsible, to play their roles impartially and without interfering in the substantive debate. I think that will make for a good election and I’m a bit sorry that I will not be here to see it but I think the whole world will be watching as well.

How do you see the future of Afghanistan in the next five to ten years?

Let me answer that question by thinking back to five or six years ago when I arrived. This city was not under the control of the national police, it was under the control of the militia forces. There was no national army and the mujahideen, who had defeated the Taliban, had over ten thousand heavy weapons under their authority. These were the same mujahideen, some of them who had proudly served in the resistance to the Taliban but also took part in the civil war, and as a result there wasn’t a great deal of trust by the population to them. Everyone was grateful to be rid of the Taliban but the situation was fragile.

Today there is an elected president, a more professional Government and cabinet of ministers than we’ve ever seen in the past seven years, some very good national programmes like the National Solidarity Programme, like the basic package of health care, the road building programme that continues to be implemented across this country and disarmament has taken place. The Urdu-i-Milli (the Afghan National Army) is closing in on 100,000 members from all over Afghanistan; well-trained, well-disciplined and people are proud of their army. Think of the difference between the suspicion of six years ago and the pride today.

The police are also making improvements. The Amniat-i-Milli (Afghan National Police) is helping keep many parts of the country safe to discover bombs before they explode. All of that shows how important institutions are to every country and the Afghanistan that I imagine five or ten years from now one is one that will have even stronger Government institutions, a much more thriving private sector one connected to the region by trade, by more and more trading of energy and also by better management of water resources and thirdly it will be an Afghanistan in which civil society has a very central place, this is something we insist on in the United Nations. The media, the school system, universities are all already a sign of that vibrancy of that civil society. The NGO community is also very strong and I think on human rights, even transitional justice, there’s a lot of work ahead for this country; but work that is best done by civil society. And I think the trend lines in all of those areas of Government institutions, private sector, civil society, are all heading in the right direction. The challenge now is to scale up the effort, sustain the effort, not do the same thing that we did last year or the year before, but be creative and ensure that we get the best out of people and out of institutions.

What is your message for the people of Afghanistan and their future?

My message would be to join together in making effective institutions a reality in this country. Many people most Afghans have never lived in an Afghanistan that had a well functioning Government and Afghanistan that was at peace, an Afghanistan that had strong private sector because of all the events of these 30 years. But the Afghanistan we all know from history, from the time of Zahir Shah, from the time of many stages of its history in the past was an Afghanistan that not only had institutions, invented some institutions that were later adopted in many parts of the world. That is the Afghanistan that will be stable and prosperous; one that trusts not only in the instincts of the individual but in the traditions and authority of institutions. Yes, based on elections and national representation, but institutions that are strong enough to be respected by Afghans. It’s very easy to give up on the institution building process, it’s certainly not finished, in some sectors it hasn’t even started. My message would be work with us, the UN certainly believes in this, and work with the international community on a partnership of mutual accountability where Afghans lead but in providing support where the international community has the right to hold Afghans accountable.

I would simply like to add how grateful I am and I know many of my colleagues who’ve had the privilege of working in UNAMA are for all of the friendship and support we’ve had from all of our Afghan partners. I have never felt more welcome in any other part of the world and that’s something which Afghans should be proud of.

Interview by Jamil Danish, UNAMA