The people who know no war: Afghanistan’s most isolated corner

File photo shows an Afghan Wakhi nomad family in the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan. The region is so remote that its residents, known as the Wakhi — a tribe of roughly 12,000 nomadic people who populate the area — are untouched by decades of conflict devastating their country. (AFP)
Updated 10 February 2018

The people who know no war: Afghanistan’s most isolated corner

WAKHAN CORRIDOR: “Taliban — what’s that?” asks Sultan Begium shyly from her freezing home in Afghanistan’s mountainous Wakhan Corridor, a region so remote that its residents are untouched by the decades of conflict that have devastated their country.
The frail-looking grandmother whose harsh life has etched deep lines in her face, is a woman of the Wakhi, a tribe of roughly 12,000 nomadic people who populate the area.
Known to those who live there by its Persian name Bam-e-Dunya, or “roof of the world,” it is a narrow strip of inhospitable and barely accessible land in Afghanistan bordered by the mountains of what is now Tajikistan and Pakistan, and extending all the way to China.
Few venture out, even fewer venture in — but this isolation has kept the Wakhi sheltered from almost 40 years of the near constant fighting that has ravaged their fellow Afghans.
“War, what war? There has never been a war,” Begium says, poking at a dying fire of yak dung, though she remembers people speaking of Russian soldiers dispensing cigarettes on the border at the other end of the corridor.
Such decades-old anecdotes are all the tribe really know of the Soviet invasion and US-funded mujahideen fightback, a brutal nine-year conflict that may have left as many as one million civilians dead and hundreds of thousands more displaced.
The subsequent civil war, in which tens of thousands more people were killed and uprooted, and the rise of the extremist Taliban regime seem to them like folklore.
“Taliban are very bad people from some other country who rape sheep and slaughter humans,” says Askar Shah, Begium’s eldest son, who has heard stories about them from Pakistani traders.
There is little knowledge of the US invasion or the bloody resurgence of the Taliban, and more recently the emergence of the Daesh group, that have killed or injured hundreds of thousands across the nation.
“Foreigners invaded our country?” Askar Shah asks incredulously after being told how America and its allies went to war with the Taliban regime in 2001.
“No, they can’t do that. They are good people,” he says.
Created in the 19th century as a Great Game buffer zone between Tsarist Russia and British India, the corridor has since remained untouched by any kind of government.
It can be reached from surrounding countries, but only via treacherous journeys by horse, yak or on foot through the “Pamir Knot,” where three of the highest mountain ranges in the world converge.
Known in Afghanistan itself as Pamiris, the Wakhi form the bulk of the corridor’s population — the nomadic Kyrgyz tribe, which numbers just 1,100 people, live separately at its northern end.
The Wakhi are moderate Ismaili Muslims, followers of the Aga Khan. The burka — which is ubiquitous elsewhere in Afghanistan and is regarded by critics as a symbol of women’s oppression — is unknown.
Their life, largely free from crime and violence, revolves around yaks and cattle, which they barter for food and clothes from the few traders who visit the remote region.
Without electricity they have no Internet or mobile phone service, often communicating with one another across the vast terrain by walkie-talkie.
Occasionally they have access to radios, listening to Russian broadcasts or Afghan news — Iranian music is also popular — however such opportunities are rare, and once the batteries run down they fall silent until the traders arrive again.
But with temperatures below freezing for more than 300 days a year, this is no rural idyll.
Even minor flu can kill, and childbirth means death nearly as often as it means life. The endless grief helps fuel use of the only drug freely available in Wakhan: opium.
Opium is “the only Afghan identity we have,” says Nazar, a Wakhi who goes by one name, adding: “The whole population is addicted to it.”
But change may be coming: The Afghan government says it’s conducting aerial surveys to assess potential routes to connect Wakhan to the rest of Badakhshan province by road. The Chinese are also in talks with Kabul to help build a military base at the northern end of the corridor, according to Afghan officials.
If it all comes to fruition, it could bring more trade, tourism, and much-needed medical facilities.
It could also spell the end of the Wakhi’s protection from the brutality of war.

Trump to meet with Netanyahu, chair Security Council meeting

Updated 44 min 34 sec ago

Trump to meet with Netanyahu, chair Security Council meeting

  • Trump approached his address to the world body as something of an annual report to the world on his country’s progress since his inauguration
  • The leaders’ spontaneous response to Trump’s address only reinforced the American president’s isolation among allies and foes alike

UNITED NATIONS: President Donald Trump poured scorn on the “ideology of globalism” and heaped praise on his own administration’s achievements in a speech to the UN General Assembly that drew headshakes and even mocking laughter from his audience of fellow world leaders.

“The US will not tell you how to live and work or worship,” Trump said as he unapologetically promoted his “America First” agenda. “We only ask that you honor our sovereignty in return.”

Speaking in triumphal terms, Trump approached his address to the world body as something of an annual report to the world on his country’s progress since his inauguration. He showcased strong economic numbers, declared that the US military is “more powerful than it has ever been before” and crowed that in “less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”

Just sentences into the president’s remarks, the audience began to chuckle and some leaders broke into outright laughter, suggesting the one-time reality television star’s puffery is as familiar abroad as it is at home. Trump appeared briefly flustered, then smiled and said it was not the reaction he expected “but that’s all right.”

Later he brushed off the episode, telling reporters, “Oh it was great. Well, that was meant to get some laughter so it was great.”

The leaders’ spontaneous response to Trump’s address only reinforced the American president’s isolation among allies and foes alike, as his nationalistic policies have created rifts with erstwhile partners and cast doubt in some circles about the reliability of American commitments around the world.

Barely an hour before he spoke, in fact, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres declared to the assembly that global cooperation is the world’s best hope and “multilateralism is under fire precisely when we need it most.”

Since taking office, Trump has removed the US from the Paris climate accord, promoted protectionist tariffs and questioned the value of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other alliances in furtherance of what he termed on Tuesday a strategy of “principled realism.”

To that end, Trump flaunted his embrace of negotiations with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un just a year after he had warned of raining down “total destruction” on a leader he branded “Little Rocket Man.” As Trump praised Kim’s “courage” on Tuesday, he unloaded harsh rhetoric on nuclear-aspirant Iran as a persistent malign influence across the Middle East.

“We ask all nations to isolate Iran’s regime as long as its aggression continues,” said Trump. The president has removed the US from the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, citing the country’s destabilizing actions throughout the region and support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah, and he accused its leaders on Tuesday of sowing “chaos, death and destruction.”

His national security adviser, John Bolton, was to go even further in a speech Tuesday, issuing a dire warning to Iran: “If you cross us, our allies or our partners; if you harm our citizens; if you continue to lie, cheat and deceive, yes, there will indeed be hell to pay,” Bolton said, according to prepared remarks released by the White House.

In addition to his keynote speech, Trump is to chair a meeting of the UN Security Council about nuclear proliferation on Wednesday. His four days of choreographed foreign affairs were designed to stand in contrast to a presidency sometimes defined by disorder, but they were quickly overshadowed by domestic political crises.

The fate of his second Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, was in fresh doubt after a second allegation of sexual misconduct, which Kavanaugh denies. Kavanaugh and his first accuser testify to Congress on Thursday.

Drama also swirls around the job security of Trump’s deputy attorney general. Rod Rosenstein was reported last week to have floated the idea of secretly recording the president last year and to have raised the idea of using the 25th Amendment to remove him from office. He will meet with Trump at the White House, also on Thursday.

At the UN, Trump seized his opportunity to assert American independence from the international body. He showcased his decisions to engage with the erstwhile pariah North Korea, remove the US from the international Iran nuclear accord and object to UN programs he believes are contrary to American interests.

“We reject the ideology of globalism and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism,” Trump said.

He referenced a list of UN bodies, from the International Criminal Court to the Human Rights Council, that his administration is working to undermine.

“America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control and domination,” Trump declared. His denunciations of globalism drew murmurs from other members of the organization that stands as the very embodiment of the notion.

Shortly before he spoke, in fact, UN Secretary-General Guterres had defended international cooperation as the only way to tackle the challenges and threats of increasingly chaotic times.

“Democratic principles are under siege,” Guterres said. “The world is more connected, yet societies are becoming more fragmented. Challenges are growing outward, while many people are turning inward.”

The laughter in the first moments of Trump’s address evoked a campaign line Trump frequently deployed against his predecessor Barack Obama — who embraced international engagement — suggesting that due to weak American leadership, “the world is laughing at us.”

In 2014, Trump tweeted, “We need a President who isn’t a laughingstock to the entire World. We need a truly great leader, a genius at strategy and winning. Respect!”

Appearances on the global stage tend to elevate the stature of presidents both abroad and at home. But even before his arrival for the annual gathering of world leaders and diplomats, the desired image was being eclipsed as Trump was forced to confront the salacious and embarrassing in the controversies over Rosenstein and Kavanaugh.

With cable news chyrons flashing breathless updates about both Beltway dramas, news of Trump’s foreign policy moves from the UN, led by a new trade deal with South Korea, struggled to break through.