The increasing desperation in the Middle East

The news reports are preoccupied with the many families fleeing the Middle East — mostly Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan — desperately trying to get into Europe, as if Europe were a safe haven.  As is becoming evident, after so many days and so much expense in order to make the journey, they are being greeted by reluctance if not open hostility.  Europe is in no way ready to receive them. But it is evident that these peoples — Muslims, Christians, people of all kinds and of all walks of life — are desperately voting with their feet.

In a sense this pattern of migration is not new.  The western world has benefited for many years by the flight of the middle classes, the professional and educated elements of these societies.  Those folks have been fleeing the troubled parts of Asia and Africa for years.  What is new here is that these refugees are from all levels of society:  the poor, the weak, the sick, the broken.  Everyone that has the means to flee seems to be fleeing.

So what drives them out of their homes, their whole social worlds?  Here is a note I received from a friend from one of those countries.

Tragedy and pain have found their way into my every organ today. What has turned my world upside down is that I have no solution to the problems I see. I have become mute. There’s too much suffering — way beyond my comprehension. Why God punishes its people when they are innocent? It’s on these trying days that we’d like to doubt God’s existence, His glory, His powers. But as I probe into the territory of the divine, it’s then that I see Him most vividly. Suffering and pain — contrary to the conventional belief — can make us a whole lot closer to the Almighty. I’m a fighter. Even though I despise the world and all its designs sometimes, I am grateful for all that has been bestowed upon me; and I feel lucky to be alive, fully functional — with all my cognitive faculties intact. In the midst of darkness, there’s always light. And that’s why I must remain sanguine and continue to stay in the fight and forge ahead.

At some point in the course of events we can come to the point when desperation leads us, as he says, to appeal to and seek help in the notion that there is a God who is above it all, who is well aware of the messy world that we live in, and is the only hope for any sense to be made in the human condition.  If there is no judgment, if there is nothing to look for beyond this life, if there is no mercy, then there is no hope.  It’s not good enough to rail at God.  At some point we have to throw ourselves on the mercy of One who is bigger than the world as we know it and has, as generations before us have desired, a bigger plan.

In the mean time, “In the midst of darkness” we seek the light, and remain sanguine, and continue the fight, and forge ahead.

[See the following site for a helpful analysis of what has caused the movement to flee Syria: Click here]



Fahim Masoud on the overwhelming need in Afghanistan

Fahim Masoud has written on Afghanistan, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and Chinese affairs has paid a visit home to see his family in Herat.  He has been sharing his experiences and observations with us.  Here is the latest report:

It happens every time I come to Afghanistan. During my first days I am shocked by the amount of pain and poverty I see. During my first days I go out of my way to give out money to the poor and to the people on the streets. Even though it relieves me to know that I just gave someone money to buy himself/herself a dinner, I become down as soon as I realize how temporary the fix to the problem of poverty is. You can’t keep giving these people fish — without teaching them how to fish, any aid is useless. People in Afghanistan have been given a lot of fish in the last 15 years, but they were never given lessons on how to fish. That’s why we have so much pain and poverty in this country today.

Foreigners gave Afghans billions of dollars in aid, but the majority of that money left Afghanistan for foreign banks before they arrived to Afghanistan. Corrupt leaders and politicians stole every dollar they could get their hands on and deposited it into their foreign banks. I think had the world community spent the money on building factories and industries in Afghanistan, today the people of Afghanistan would have been much better off in every way.

Before I proceed, please allow me to say what I mean by normalization of pain. Earlier I said that the amount of pain and poverty on display in this country shock me. However, after a few days of being here, I’m no longer shocked. In fact, because I see so much misery, it no longer bothers me. I no longer go out of my way to help out the poor. I become de-sensitized. I feel like I no longer have warm feelings toward my fellow human beings. Pain can become normalized. Pain can be processed like all other things and feel like it’s not there when it’s right in front of you. Pain — even though it’s very visible — can become very invisible.

Everyday I spent hours with people from all walks of life. These people are teachers, students, intellectuals, and laborers. Even though these people are so different in their occupations, they are very similar in their forecast of how the affairs will turn out for Afghanistan. They know that Afghanistan has traveled beyond the point of being fixed.

Some say that a lot of good things have happened in Afghanistan — an idea that bears some truth. What they mean is that Afghans shouldn’t forget where they came from. They compare the current situation to the times of the Taliban. Then Afghans were stripped of every basic right there was. Now, they are endowed with some rights; it’s not perfect but in comparison to the the Taliban times, it is much better. The same argument is held when it comes to the sphere of economics. The majority of Afghans are much more better off. Yes, there’s a lot of poverty but poverty is universal. People who hold this line of argument say that Afghanistan will get better. We, the Afghans, need to be patient because this situation of terror and panic cannot last for too long.

So many issues and so much poverty in this country that it breaks my heart to be witness to so much misery in this country.

We have stress and misery everywhere, but the kind that is manifested in this country is beyond comprehension. One of the guards — at a school that I frequent and utilize their wifi services — works for $100 a month day and night. The interesting thing is that he feels very lucky to be working at this job.

When I see so much pain and poverty, I feel extremely lucky to be a citizen of America. We have our stresses and pains in that world too, but at least we are entitled to rights and have options. Not in this country. The status of women is especially appalling. People treat their women worse than property. At least there are people in this world who take care of their properties but in Afghanistan there are some people who have no respect for women. I have heard some “intellectuals” say: zan che ast ka aql-ash bashad — what is a woman for her wisdom to be of any value? I feel sorry for so many people in this country.

What’s amazing is that some very patriotic Afghans who would have never imagined leaving Afghanistan are now thinking of leaving this country. There’s a doctor who’s a close relative of ours. He’s considered the best heart doctor in this country. This man has many good skills — skills and an education that makes him about $10,000 a month in Afghanistan now. But he’s too decent of a human being to think about money. This man with so much money and so much prestige is now leaving Afghanistan. Another friend of mine who knows this doctor said: I thought he would never leave this country. Now that he leaves, I realize how dire our situation has become.

This paragraph will intrude on the coherence of my other paragraphs, as it doesn’t bear relevance to them. The other day I was in a busy part of the city of Herat. All of a sudden I saw a number of police vehicles cruising through the crowded streets in an extremely unprofessional way. The convoy of the police cars were still on the streets when people on my right and left began to curse them. Such a scenario — people holding feelings of disgust and anguish toward their government and security officials — seems to be prevalent throughout the city of Herat and Afghanistan in general.

The people of Afghanistan have lost all their faith and confidence in their government. A government that is losing the fight against the insurgents is not because it doesn’t have enough security forces capable of doing the fight, but because it doesn’t have the backing of its own people. Today, a BBC article says that only 20 percent of the Afghan people approve of Ghani’s government. That’s the lowest of any other government I know around the world. Another recent report, which was prepared by Tolo TV, claims that corruption has gone up under the Unity Government. These are not good signs. Ominous dark clouds are gathering over the skies of Afghanistan. I’m afraid no sun can smash these clouds and make them go away . . .

I’ll be back with more to say.

Potential Trouble in the South China Sea?

Powerful interests will converge and compete wherever critical resources are located, an example being the gathering international tensions in the South China Sea.  AlJazeera’s “101 East” broadcast has a report on the situation there that suggests how important this sea could be in the future.  Here are some statements worth remembering:

Around half of the world’s merchant fleets pass through [this sea] every year carrying an estimated $5 trillion worth of trade. 

The area is also believed to contain valuable oil and gas deposits.   [T]he Spratly Islands’ hydrocarbon deposits [are] valued at $26.3 trillion.  [Of course, rights to them are being disputed.] 

The latest tension is at the Scarborough Shoal, a small cluster of uninhabitable islands … [that]  has valuable resources including fishing, shipping routes and potentially enormous oil and gas deposits.  

After more than two decades of double-digit increases in defense spending, China now has the largest fleet of advanced warships, submarines and long strike aircraft in Asia.

Another gas field discovered in Iran

The Iranians have discovered another large gas field — they claim 1.4 trillion cubic meters of reserves — in their Caspian Sea waters.  They already have the largest combination of oil and gas reserves in the world.  The significance of their discovery will lie in what they can make of it.

In any case, the discovery underlies the special difficulties the western world, especially the United States, of course, has in dealing with the Iranian government.  Even though roguish in policy it claims sovereignty over one of the most richly endowed territories on the earth.
Here is the TehranTimes report:

Iran envisages $50b investment to explore oil, gas fields in Caspian Sea 
Iranian oil ministry has envisaged investing up to $50 billion to explore oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea, the Mehr news agency quoted a member of parliament as saying on Friday. “In a recent meeting with the oil minister, he elaborately explained on plans to explore oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea,” Ali-Asghar Yousefnejad stated. Iran announced on December 11 it has discovered a large gas field in the Caspian Sea with at least 50 trillion cubic feet (some 1.4 trillion cubic meters) of reserves.
 The field, in waters 700 meters deep, lies wholly within Iran’s territorial waters, Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi explained.  He added excluding this new discovery Iran has 11 trillion cubic meters of proven gas reserves in the Caspian Sea. 

[For more, click on the title above.]

South China Sea as the emerging center of gravity?

In a recent article in Foreign Policy Magazine (Sept/Oct, 2011) Robert D. Kaplan has argued that the Western Pacific is becoming the world’s new center of naval activity, specifically the South China Sea. Here are some of the assertions in the article:
• East Asia is the center of global manufacturing.
• More than half the world’s merchant fleet tonnage passes through the choke points leading westward from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean
• A third of all maritime traffic passes through these choke points.
• Oil from the Indian Ocean passes through the strait of Malacca is more than six times the amount passing through Suez and seventeen times that through Panama Canal.
• About two thirds of Koreas energy supplies pass through the South China Sea; and 60% of Japans; 60% of Taiwan’s; 80% of China’s crude oil imports come through that choke point.
• South China Sea has 7 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
• All the nine states that touch the South China Sea are necessarily arrayed against China and therefore inclined to US.
• Energy consumption in Asia will double by 2030.
• South China Sea has become an “armed camp”: China has claimed 12 geographic features; Taiwan one; Vitname 25; Philippines 8; Malaysia 5.
• Defense budgets of Southeast Asian states have increased over the last decade while they have declined in the west: Since 2000 Indonesia has increased 84%, Singapore up 146%; Malaysia up 722%.
• Vietnam has spent 2 billion on Russian submarines and 1 Billion on jet planes.
• Military power has shifted from Europe to Asia “quietly”.
All this makes us wonder: How perceptive are we of the changes taking place in our time? It’s not easy to track shifts in power relationships, taking “power” here to mean military power, and even possibly industrial power. I don’t know Kaplan is right but I do take note of the some of the specific details he musters to develop his point: Shifts in leverage and military capability matter – especially in the long run.

The Turkmenistan to India pipeline may become a reality

Most of the news outlets are ignoring a development that over the long term will be vital for Pakistan and possibly India, and certainly for Afghanistan. This is the signing of the the $7.6 billion Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project. It will be 1640 km long and terminate in Fazilka on the Indian border. President Asif Ali Zardari will sign the agreement with Turkmenistan in Ashgabat representing Pakistan on the 11th.

The significance of this is that these countries are going ahead with agreements for the disposition of Turkmenistan gas even before the war is resolved in Afghanistan, through which the pipeline must past. Evidently everyone surmises that the conflict there will eventually be resolved and that the construction of a pipeline will be feasible without serious interruption, even in territories that are currently roiled by conflict.

These are large commitments in a project that cannot yet be commenced. Evidently these four countries are more sure that this conflict can be brought to a conclusion than most Americans.

The US is helping improve Central Asia’s Infrastructure

The infrastructural developments in Central Asia seem to be a major concern of the United States, owing to its evident importance as a vital line of supply for the in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Joshua Kucera’s recent report reminds us of how critical Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are to the Americans. [Click on the title for a direct link.]

[Published First on (

Central Asia: Washington to Expand Traffic on Northern Supply Route
November 18, 2010 – 2:05pm by Joshua Kucera

The United States intends to expand security cooperation with Central Asian states, US diplomats say. One means to do so, they add, is increasing the capacity of the Northern Distribution Network, which ships military cargo bound for US and NATO forces overland through Central Asia to Afghanistan.

The United States now can ship over 1,000 containers per week to Afghanistan via the NDN, said David Sedney, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. “And we expect to increase this figure even further in the coming months,” he added. About 98 percent of that traffic passes through Uzbekistan [8], he said November 17 at a hearing of a House of Representatives hearing, titled The Emerging Importance of the U.S.-Central Asia Partnership.

“We must increase our engagement with Central Asia at all levels— working in the short term to expand logistical flows and, in the long term, expanding and deepening our relations from a DoD perspective, particularly in the security sector. Such engagement will help give our partners in Central Asia the support they need as we all work to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda,” Sedney said at the hearing.

Gen. James Mattis, the commander of US Central Command, was traveling through Central Asia, including visits to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. According to the US Embassy in Tashkent, Mattis signed the “2011 Program of Security Cooperation between USCENTCOM and the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Uzbekistan,” which it said was similar to the previous year’s agreement.

“Through this increased engagement, we have seen an improved relationship with Uzbekistan, but many challenges remain,” said Robert Blake, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, who also testified at the hearing. “We continue to encourage the Uzbek authorities to address significant human rights concerns such as ending forced child labor [9], opening up the media environment, and demonstrating greater tolerance for religious activities. We are also encouraging building an investment-friendly business environment to enhance economic opportunities for American businesses and for the benefit of the Uzbek economy.”

The NDN could help expand Central Asia’s economy, Sedney said in his written statement for the hearing. “By expanding trade linkages, the NDN has the potential to one day reconnect Central Asia to India, Pakistan, and other formerly closed markets, in a direct land route from the heart of Asia to the heart of Europe,” he said.

Both Sedney and Blake addressed the recent instability in Tajikistan, but neither appeared to endorse the Tajikistan government’s explanation that transnational Islamist terror groups were behind the violence [10]. “In 2010, Tajikistan experienced a number of security challenges that the government told us originated with extremist elements,” Sedney said. Blake identified those fighting the government only as “former civil war combatants.”

Blake praised the performance of Kazakhstan as the chair-in-office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [11]. “We think that Kazakhstan has done a very credible job,” he said. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend the OSCE summit in December in Astana, and the U.S. wants the OSCE to adopt an action plan at the summit to focus on improving border security, countering trafficking and promoting legal commerce in Central Asia, Blake said.

[Editor’s note: Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.
Joshua Kucera Afghanistan Tajikistan US Uzbekistan NDN War in Afghanistan
2010 © Eurasianet]

More Infrastructural Development in Afghanistan

Good Afghan News also reports on highway improvements that are in motion. Yes, good news. [Click on the title for a link.]

Road construction projects underway in Faryab, Kabul, Parwan and Bamiyan provinces

Earlier this week, Afghanistan’s Public Works Ministry announced that a 7.7 kilometer road will be built in Maimana, the capital of Afghanistan’s northern province of Faryab. The project will cost $2.4 million and it is scheduled to take one year to complete. The ministry said that the government has given the construction work to a local Afghan company because they want to boost the private business sector in Afghanistan.

Yesterday, the mayor of Kabul, Muhammad Yunus Nawandesh, told reporters that a project to asphalt the Parwan-sea road, Badam Bagh Square, Lab Jar road, Chelmetra road, Tajor Sultan High School road and Malika Soraya road has started. A total of 5.2 kilometers of road will be asphalted once the project is completed. The work is expected to take 6 months to complete. Kabulis hope that once the project is completed, it will help reduce traffic congestion in the city.

Today, Afghanistan’s Public Works Ministry announced that work on a highway between Parwan province and Bamiyan province has started. The road will be 104 kilometers long and 11 meters wide, and it is scheduled to take one year to complete. Once the work has been completed, travel between the two provinces will be much easier and faster, and it will improve the economy as it will be safer to take goods to markets and it will reduce travel time.

A railroad through Afghanistan

Good Afghan News [A great name, right?] has reported that the Chinese are planning to build a railroad through Afghanistan. In the long run, railroads, pipelines, airports, good highways, cell phones — these will transform Afghanistan by making the country accessible to more influences and more opportunities by reducing the price and time of contact with the wider world. But also, importantly, infrastructural improvements like railroads make heavy industries more feasible. The huge copper mine being developed by the Chinese as Aynak are the immediate inducement to the Chinese to develop this railroad, but that railroad, with an extension into Hajigak, might also carry iron ore.

The Chinese are thinking ahead 50 years while many of us in the US can think ahead barely four years at a time.

Here is the article [click on my title above for a direct link]:

Afghanistan’s Ministry of Mines and the state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) signed an agreement today in Kabul in which the Chinese firm agreed to construct a railway corridor in Afghanistan.

MCC will construct a railway corridor from Aynak Copper Mine in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Logar to eastern Torkham and northern Hairatan border towns. Logar is 60 km south of the capital city of Kabul. “This northern railway is part of a wider plan to extend the Afghan rail network to connect Afghanistan to ports in Iran and Pakistan,” Afghanistan’s Minister of Mines, Wahidullah Shahrani told the media today.

Shahrani also told the media that the railway corridor will not only be used for transporting mineral deposits, but will also be used for the transportation of goods and passengers as well. According to the Ministry, MCC has also committed to employ Afghan workers as much as possible, and at all levels of the project.

A railroad through Afghanistan? The first signs.

Bloomberg’s report on plans to build a railway from the border town of Hairatan to Mazar-e Sharif is real news because the improved transport facilities will cheapen and speed up the movement of goods into Afghanistan. Could this be the beginning of a new railroad through Afghanistan? It has been a concept ever since the nineteenth century.

Afghan Railway to Draw Taliban Fire as It Boosts Economy, NATO Bloomberg By Eltaf Najafizada and James Rupert May 5, 2010 Workers are laying track across north Afghanistan~Rs rolling grassland for the country~Rs first rail line, a project that will boost the economy, supply NATO troops and become a target for Taliban bombs.

The railway, being built by Uzbekistan’s state railroad, will run 75 kilometers (45 miles) from the Uzbek border to the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, said Craig Steffensen, Kabul-based Afghanistan country director for the Asian Development Bank, who has inspected the work.

The line, to be completed this year, will more than double shipments of fuels, food grains, consumer goods and construction materials through a border crossing that handles half of the country~Rs imports, the bank says.

“Railroads can reduce our isolation,” said Hamidullah Farooqi, a Kabul University economics professor and former transport minister, in a phone interview. “This is just the first line for a network that we hope can turn our country into a new trade route. That is what we need to create stability.”

More than a century after Afghan monarch Amir Abdurrahman banned rail lines as potential invasion routes, physical isolation and war have left Afghanistan the second-least developed of 182 countries measured by the United Nations’ Human Development Index.

The line not only will help develop the north, which holds most of the country’s known gas, oil and coal, it is the first step in linking Central Asia to seaports in Iran, Steffensen said.

Needing Pakistan

The link to Uzbekistan and onward to Kazakhstan and Russia also will reduce the dependence of Afghanistan and of U.S.-led NATO forces on Pakistan, where local Taliban have hijacked or burned trucks carrying U.S. military supplies.

The railway will connect to a new U.S. supply network from the north and so “will be particularly helpful in bringing goods into the country for our needs,” said U.S. Colonel Wayne Shanks, a spokesman in Kabul for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization~Rs International Security Assistance Force.

Thus the Taliban plan to strike, said movement spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, in a mobile-phone interview. “If NATO uses this railroad to import their supplies we will attack them 100 percent, and we’ll block the railroad,” he said.

That may be difficult. The rail line passes west of the Pashtun districts in the north that the Taliban, a movement of ethnic Pashtuns, recently have taken over.

Ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks who live nearer the line are “not sympathetic,” to the Taliban, said Zabi Wahab, a native of the region who is the business development manager at the Dubai- based Kefayat Group.

First Step

The Manila-based Asian Development Bank is paying $165 million, 97 percent of the line’s cost, because “this is the first step of a development that will benefit the whole region” of Central Asia, Steffensen said in a telephone interview. The Afghan government is paying another $5 million.

More rail construction may follow. A separate line partly built by Iran into Afghanistan’s northwest, plus two projects being studied by China and the development bank, could give north Afghanistan the shortest rail link yet from Central Asia to Iranian seaports, and the first standard-gauge line from the Pacific Ocean to Europe, said Steffensen and Farooqi.

A standard-gauge route would eliminate the need for trans-Asian trains to stop at the Chinese-Kazakh border and in Eastern Europe to change their wheel assemblies to fit the broader ex-Soviet rail gauge.

Beijing-based Metallurgical Corp. of China Ltd. agreed to help build a railway to export ore in 2007 when it won the license for Afghanistan~Rs biggest copper mine. Afghan and Chinese officials have discussed a route north through Tajikistan to western China, Farooqi said.

Oil and Gas

Reports show Afghanistan has more than 150 million barrels of oil reserves and more than 4.5 trillion cubic feet of gas, the U.S. Geological Survey says.

The first Afghan rail line may turn Mazar-e-Sharif, a city of more than 300,000 people, into an Afghan transport hub, promoting business development in the north that “is crucial to Afghanistan~Rs economic development and stabilization,” said Anne Benjaminson, an economic officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Companies suffer as much as a month’s delay in getting rail shipments transferred to trucks at the northern Afghan border town of Hairaton. Uzbekistan “often closes the border for two weeks at a time, saying it is because of congestion at Hairaton,” said Wahab in a phone interview.

Trade at Hairaton is expected this year to reach 40,000 tons a month, Steffensen said. The greater efficiency of the railroad may boost demand for haulage across the border to 5,000 tons per day, according to the development bank.

Rail Bed

In northwest Afghanistan, Iran has built two-thirds of a 190-kilometer rail bed from the Iranian town of Khaf to the northwestern Afghan city of Herat. The Afghan government is seeking funds to build the rest, deputy public works minister Ahmad Shah Waheed said.

The development bank is funding technical surveys for a line of more than 700 kilometers (430 miles) to connect the two Afghan spurs under construction. That would offer the five, landlocked Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which have a combined Malaysia-sized GDP of $187 billion– their most direct trade route to Iran~Rs Gulf or Indian Ocean ports.

To contact the reporters on this story: Eltaf Najafizada in Kabul in Kabul at; James Rupert in New Delhi at