You can bet that there wasn't a soul in Afghanistan who thought their Olympians had even a chance for a medal. They had no training facilities, no professional coaches, no funding…in short, no hope.
In July, the only female on the Afghan team disappeared from a training facility in Italy, amid fears she had been kidnapped. Nineteen-year old Mehboba Ahdyar surfaced a week later in a phone call to her parents. She was abandoning her dream of running the 800 and 1500 metre races in the Olympics, she said, and she was going to seek asylum in Norway. The fear of being murderd by Muslim fanatics when she returned home had grown too great.
But the team perservered, and when they get home, they'll have with them Afghanistan's first ever Olympic medal.
On Wednesday, 21-year-old Rohullah Nikpai captured the bronze medal in the 58-kg Taekwondo competition by defeating his Spanish opponent.
The moment his match was over, he fell to his knees and burst into tears.
"I hope this medal can be a message of peace in Afghanistan," he said after hugging his coaches. Nikpai, from Wardak province, will get a house for his victory. Even the rest of the team, made up of another Taekwondo fighter and two runners (including sprinter Robina Muqimyar who replaced Ahdyar as the lone female athlete) will benefit; a mobile phone tycoon promised them $50,000 if they came back with a medal.
Olympic bronze was a welcome interlude from an otherwise brutal month in Afghanistan.
* August is shaping up to be the worst month of coalition fatalities this year. To date 37 NATO and U.S. soldiers have been killed this month, a shade under the 41 killed in June. IED's have claimed 20 soldiers and enemy fire killed 15, including 10 French troops in the single worst combat toll in 2008. One soldier was killed by a suicide bomber and one by a land mine.
The French recently took over control of the Kabul regional command which includes Sarobi. (30 miles east of Kabul.)
But while the war raged in Afghanistan, the real story was next door in Pakistan where Al Qaeda forces have repeated the mistakes that cost them the war in Iraq.
* Driven from Iraq, they've been trying to rebuild in Pakistan's lawless tribal regions, setting up 100 terrorist camps and expanding their fanatic brand of Islam even to settled regions and encroaching onto the city of Peshwar.
The Muslim terrorists have worked to destroy "an education system that was once the pride of Pakistan" in the words of one reporter. 87 girls' schools have been destroyed in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and another 62 closed by fearful administrators.
Maulana Fazlullah, chief of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan in the Swat Valley, called female education "a source of obscenity". He ordered girls to go home and wear th+e burka.
A year long campaign of suicide bombings in Pakistan following a crackdown on militants in July, 2007, killed about 4,300 people, including 740 security personnel, according to the Pakistan Daily, The News.
The tribal regions are still living in the medieval ages, where power is determined by brute force, not law. Al Qaeda and their allies simply set out to kill anyone who disagreed with them. 250 tribal elders have been killed by different militant groups in FATA.
In June, forces of Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban, killed 28 members of a government-sponsored peace committee
"The targeting of the peace committee sent a particularly chilling message because it was a brutal tactic by Mehsud's forces to quash pro-government groups in the region, tribal elders said. The killings appeared to directly challenge the policy of the new Pakistani government to negotiate with militants rather than use military force. Some of the men had been shot; others had their throats slit." wrote New York Times reporter Jane Perlez (28 Pakistani peace committee members executed by Taliban, New York Times, June 25, 2008).
Then, in July, Mehsud's men killed 15 members of a rival tribe. But that resulted in a split in the Pakistani Taliban, with four commanders setting up their own group. As you'll see, that wasn't such a good thing for Mehsud.
* Meanwhile, there's a huge backlash growing against the Al Qaeda supporting Mehsud, similar to the tribal revolt against Al Qaeda in Iraq. 500 elders of the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe met in July in Wana, the capital of South Waziristan, and vowed to expel Uzbek fighters allied to Mehsud.
Zee News reported that Ahmadzai Wazir tribesmen vowed to "resist all people from Mehsud-inhabited areas and neighbouring north Waziristan who attack government installations and supporters of Maulvi Nazir". Nazir is a pro-government militant commander who belongs to the Wazir tribe.
A senior commander of the Maulvi Nazir group told Zee News that around 4,000 armed tribesmen had assured his group of their support. The anti-Taliban revolt is spreading.
Pakistani tribesmen vow not to shelter Taliban, extremist groups
Eight tribes in a northwestern Pakistani town have decided not to shelter local Taliban and any other extremist and armed group in their areas, a tribal elder has said.
The tribesmen gathered at the town of Hangu also vowed to help authorities in expelling Taliban and members of other fundamentalist armed factions, said Malik Jalil-ur Rehman, who attended the jirga or council.
Over 100 members from tribes Darsamandar, Karbogha Sharif, Zargeri, Shnawarey, Naryab, Doaba, Chery Naryab, Kahi and Saruzi attended the jirga.
Hangu, located at the edge of Orakzai tribal region, has seen violence in recent months and the worst was this month when Taliban shot dead 17 soldiers who were heading to a fort in the protection of tribal elders.
The forces then launched a major operation against the Taliban and killed 20 of them, according to the army's spokesman. Up to 60 other Taliban were arrested, the spokesman said. INRA
And this month, the newly elected government of Pakistan dropped its gloves and came out fighting. In a speech to the National Assembly, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani declared he would re-establish control in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. "We will establish the writ of the Government at all costs (as) a parallel government cannot be tolerated," he said.
The government has attacked militant strongholds with helicopter gunships, fixed-wing strike aircraft, tanks and heavy artillery. More than 500 Taliban fighters have been killed in the past 10 days. That's FIVE HUNDRED. As in 500 terrorists who won't be crossing the border to fight in Afghanistan.
And Pakistan's new leaders are treating with benign neglect reports of cross-border missile strikes. A week ago at least 10 militants were killed when four missiles from Afghanistan blasted their hideouts in a terrorist training camp in South Waziristan. In July, a missile attack by a pilotless drone killed another group of terrorists in South Waziristan, including Abu Khabab al-Masri, Al Qaeda's chemical terrorism expert, the latest to fall in the coalition's decapitation campaign.
This past week, eight were killed in Wana when two missiles hit a house owned by a local tribesaman known to give Al Qaeda fighters shelter.
And unconfirmed reports from Pakistan say that Mustafa Abu Yazid, al Qaeda's commander in Afghanistan, has been killed during the heavy fighting in Pakistan's tribal agency of Bajaur. If Yazid's death is confirmed, he would be the fourth senior al Qaeda leader killed in Pakistan's tribal areas this year. Don't you wonder where the tips are coming from that lead government forces to their targets? Fraternal splits can be so messy.
* Back in Afghanistan, the Taliban launched an attack that can only be seen as a metaphor for their summer offensive.
An estimated 30 Taliban insurgents spearheaded by suicide bombers tried to overrun Camp Salerno, the biggest US military base in eastern Afghanistan located 19 miles from the border with Pakistan. Isaf confirmed the base Camp had been attacked by rockets or mortars, and that a number of suicide bombers had tried to storm the base on foot. News reports said six blew themselves up, in some cases killing insurgents beside them. Another six were shot down. One report says the attackers were spotted more than half a mile from the base, then met with artillery and rocket fire until helicopter gunships could arrive.
The attack came a day after a suicide bomber in a car blew himself up outside the base, killing 10 Afghan labourers waiting to go in.
* The attacks on Camp Salerno may have been a pre-emptive strike. For weeks the Internet has been full of stories from Pakistan predicting an imminent tank-led ground incursion into North Waziristan from Khost and two other southern Afghan provinces.
But we said the attack on Camp Salerno serves as a metaphor for the entire Taliban summer.
- A hopeless attack on a heavily protected American military base.
- The attackers managing only to kill themselves and any companions near them.
- The murder of innocent civilians the day before to no end.
* Taliban suicide bombs have killed more than 250 civilians and wounded nearly 500 already this year.
In 2007, according to Pajhwok News, there were 137 suicide attacks which killed 300 civilians and wounded 757. The attacks killed 171 policemen, 37 Afghan National Army and 12 foreign soldiers.
While the Taliban is managing to slaughter hundreds of innocents, the majority of their suicide bombers end up like this:
"A suicide bomber, meanwhile, blew himself up while being chased by police in the southwestern town of Zaranj in Nimroz province… said the provincial governor Ghulam Dastagir Azad. The attack killed three people, including two young girls, and wounded five other civilians. The police wounded the man before he blew himself up, Azad said."
Authorities are thwarting many other planned attacks, particularly in Kandahar province which saw the largest number of suicide bombers last year.
During an Aug. 4 operation, Afghan commandos and coalition forces on a patrol in the Maywand district of Kandahar province discovered multiple weapons caches which contained sixty 5-gallon plastic containers of ammonium nitrate primed with detonation cords. They also discovered a stolen tour bus.
* With the summer winding down, the Taliban is thrashing around for something, anything, to call a success.
They've scored some propaganda victories---a big jailbreak, the killing of 10 French soldiers in a single attack and 9 Americans in another-but for a resilient, resurgent insurgency, that's small potatoes.
In return, they've been driven out of the Garmsir area of Helmand province; they've conceded they can't defeat the coalition forces in their heartland, the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan, resulting in a shift of attacks to the east; they're being crushed in the Pakistani tribal region; their leaders are being systematically hunted down and killed; and television and education of girls is weakening their whole medieval culture.
While they still command the attention of the Western press which oohs and ahhs every attack on NATO troops, they know there's been a subtle change in the conditions in the country.
Chris Alexander, a United Nations envoy to Afghanistan, was recently interviewed by the Globe and Mail. Past the obligatory references to "more insurgents roaming the countryside, more bombings, more violence of all kinds" was this little nugget of news.
"Mr. Alexander cites an unpublished UN study that suggests public servants, such as doctors and teachers, now enjoy greater access to rural districts than they did a year ago, despite increasing Taliban activity. That may indicate signs of détente between government and insurgent figures at the lowest levels."
"In some cases, the survey found, Afghan government officials can drive without armed escorts into districts where a visit by Canadian troops routinely provokes a firefight."
"The fact that government employees are ranging farther into districts heavily influenced by the Taliban shows that some Afghans are finding pragmatic ways to live alongside the insurgents, he says. But it's also a sign that government institutions are growing stronger and gaining support from villagers who want services."
(An upbeat view beyond the battlefields, Graeme Smith, Globe and Mail July 28, 2008)
A similar story is found in some of the most embattled zones of Afghanistan.
Strangely calm in 'Dutch' Uruzgan
by RNW Security and Defence specialist Hans de Vreij*
There have recently been many positive have recently been many positive changes in the Afghan province of Uruzgan. There is peace in areas, which recently witnessed heavy fighting. Many places, which were controlled by the Taliban and other rebel groups, are now in the hands of Dutch troops and the Afghan army.
The situation is also peaceful in Chora, which just a year ago was the scene of heavy fighting. The same applies to the district Deh Rawod, previously known as 'the Taliban's home base'.
New hustle and bustle
Colonel Richard van Harskamp is commander of the Dutch/Australian Task Force Uruzgan. He agrees that much has changed:
"Two years ago Tarin Kowt would have looked like a large black stain from where we are now standing. Now lights are burning and there is an enormous hustle and bustle of people engaged in commerce and many kinds of activities - all sorts of things are going on."
The same can be seen in Deh Rawod Bazar; a village to the south of the town Deh Rawod that was captured by the Taliban last Autumn. Earlier this year the militias were routed again and now there are lights glowing in the evening and the place is bustling with life.
Local residents and small businessmen believe that it's safe enough to travel through the province. Richard van Harskamp says:
"People can move around fairly freely here, through the Baluchi Valley to Chora. Last year this was impossible. They can travel to Deh Rawod unhindered. We are on the other side of the Helmand River. If I compare it with where we stood two years ago an unbelievable amount has changed."
The Taliban is worried, with reason. Maybe they read past the headline to what most Americans and Canadians didn't…
Blasts Kill 5 NATO Soldiers In Afghanistan
Roadside Bombs Explode As Aid Groups Warn Of Spreading Violence
KABUL, Afghanistan, Aug. 1, 2008
(CBS/ AP) Roadside bombs killed five NATO troops in eastern Afghanistan on Friday, as 100 aid groups warned that violence in the country was spreading to once-stable regions and hindering humanitarian efforts.
Separately, a suicide bomber in southwestern Afghanistan killed three people, including two young girls, a provincial governor said.
The soldiers' deaths marked a bloody start to the month in what's already been a deadly year for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, where a Taliban-led insurgency is raging nearly seven years after their fundamentalist Muslim regime was ousted in a U.S.-led invasion.
In response to the insurgency, the U.S. has started to divert reinforcements from Iraq to Afghanistan, though they currently comprise mostly of several helicopters and some combat engineers, reports CBS News national security correspondent David Martin. The overall Afghanistan troop surge could eventually total 10,000 soldiers.