The Lioness of Afghanistan

by Genevieve Long for The Epoch Times and the Foreign Policy Association

One American woman’s personal battle to turn back the tide on the Taliban

Sonia Nassery Cole commands a room no matter what the size, and it’s for a good cause.

Cole, who has both Afghan and American citizenship, is founder and CEO of the Afghanistan World Foundation (AWF). The non-profit organization works to assist the humanitarian needs of Afghans and rebuild their country. AWF was founded in the wake of 9/11 in 2002, but its roots go back to the 1980s when Cole became a vocal advocate for her home country. She started by writing a letter to then-President Ronald Reagan to ask for his help.

Sonia Nassery Cole at the Children's Hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Sonia Nassery Cole at the Children's Hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan.

“I never dreamed that he wouldn’t answer my letter,” says Ms. Cole, recalling her first step into what has become a lifetime of advocating on behalf of those who have no voice.

But Reagan did respond, and invited the young refugee to the White House. She organized congressional testimony to arm legendary Afghan rebel commander Ahmad Massoud and his Northern Alliance Freedom Fighters. Massoud, who was later assassinated, was nicknamed the lion of Afghanistan. He called Cole his “lioness” for her work and spirit on behalf of their country. It’s a nickname she has lived up to, and then some.

Cole is as unfailingly polite as she is incomparably passionate about rebuilding Afghanistan from decades of war and the poison grip of the Taliban. And she knows how to be genuinely charming when describing deadly serious situations.

Case in point was a recent screening and presentation in New York City of a documentary she produced about an 8-year-old Afghan boy who is the sole income-earner in his family, called The Bread Winner. Cole surprised the audience by stepping out from behind the podium to give a heartfelt explanation of the story behind the making of the documentary.

But if Ms. Cole has mastered the art of charming an audience, she also knows how to keep the focus on the urgent situation in Afghanistan.

“The country is falling apart because of the Taliban,” said Ms. Cole during the presentation.

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Taliban Fill NATO’s Big Gaps in Afghan South

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By Dexter Filkins for The New York Times

TSAPOWZAI, Afghanistan — The Taliban are everywhere the soldiers are not, the saying goes in the southern part of the country.

And that is a lot of places.

For starters, there is the 550 miles of border with Pakistan, where the Taliban’s busiest infiltration routes lie.

“We’re not there,” said Brig. Gen. John W. Nicholson, the deputy commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. “The borders are wide open.”

Then there is the 100-mile stretch of Helmand River running south from the town of Garmser, where the Taliban and their money crop, poppy, bloom in isolation.

“No one,” General Nicholson said, pointing to the area on the map.

Then there is Nimroz Province, all of it, which borders Iran. No troops there. And the Ghorak district northwest of Kandahar, which officers refer to as the “jet stream” for the Taliban fighters who flow through.

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Estimated War Costs for 2009 is $136 Billion

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By Genevieve Long for The Epoch Times

The cost of fighting two wars in Iraq in Afghanistan will cost taxpayers dearly in 2009. An estimate by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates puts the estimated total for the coming year at $136 billion, according to the Associated Press. In a letter to congressional leaders, Gates said his “personal assessment” is that $70 billion more will be needed in addition to the $66 billion already approved last year.

Days before the letter, which was sent at the beginning of January, the Department of Defense (DoD) also released its updated Unified Command Plan. The Command Plan, which is updated every two years, is a key strategic document that establishes the missions, responsibilities, and geographic areas of responsibility for commanders of combatant commands.

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Military Finds an Unlikely Adviser in School-Building Humanitarian

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Yochi J. Dreazen
The Wall Street Journal

Greg Mortenson, a humanitarian and co-author of the best-selling book “Three Cups of Tea,” has a surprising new job: advising the U.S. military on how to fight Islamic extremism.

Mr. Mortenson is a former mountain climber who has built 78 schools in remote, poverty-stricken parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. His foundation, the Central Asia Institute, also runs 48 other schools in refugee camps in the region. More than 28,000 children in the two countries attend Mr. Mortenson’s schools.

In recent months, Mr. Mortenson has begun a second career as a guru of sorts for the military. In November, he was invited to the Pentagon for a private meeting with Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In December, he flew to Florida to talk to senior officers from the secretive Special Operations Command, which directs elite units like the Army’s Delta Force.

Mr. Mortenson’s popularity in military circles stems from a shift in thinking about the war in Afghanistan. In the war’s first years, top commanders focused on working with the Afghan central government. But with the insurgency worsening and the Kabul government struggling, many senior officers have begun to seek Mr. Mortenson’s advice on how to build stronger relationships with village elders and tribal leaders.

Several of the officers said they have also come to share Mr. Mortenson’s belief that providing young Muslims with a moderate education is the most effective way of curbing the growth of Islamic extremism.

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Struggle for Kabul: The Taliban Advance

SOURCE: The International Council on Security and Development

The Taliban now holds a permanent presence in 72% of Afghanistan, up from 54% a year ago. Taliban forces have advanced from their southern heartlands, where they are now the de facto governing power in a number of towns and villages, to Afghanistan’s western and north-western provinces, as well as provinces north of Kabul. Within a year, the Taliban’s permanent presence in the country has increased by a startling 18%.

Three out of the four main highways into Kabul are now compromised by Taliban activity. The capital city has plummeted to minimum levels of control, with the Taliban and other criminal elements infiltrating the city at will.

Through its research platform in Afghanistan, ICOS determined the Taliban’s presence across the country using a combination of publicly recorded attacks and local perceptions of Taliban presence. One or more insurgent attacks per week in a province constitutes a “permanent Taliban presence” according to ICOS (see full methodology).

Local Author Explores Prospects for Peace in Iraq

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NEW YORK—A longtime New York Times foreign correspondent and recent book author will make the final stop on his book tour here on Monday. Dexter Filkins is the author of the new book about war in Iraq and Afghanistan, “The Forever War”.

Filkins and fellow author Robin Wright drew a full house earlier this month at a TimesTalks event where they discussed prospects for peace in the Middle East. Wright is a former Washington Post correspondent and author of “Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East.” The forum was moderated by Steven Erlanger, Paris bureau chief of the New York Times.

Filkins, who recently visited the Middle East, spent almost ten years there covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He says although things are changing in Iraq for the better, it seems like a “fragile” peace, and the situation on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is getting worse.

Filkins, who is an avid runner, used to jog in Baghdad at the height of the war as a mental and emotional outlet. He says the park where he used to jog was always deserted, but is now full of families and women in western clothing.

“I went to that park [where I used to jog] at dusk and there were women in blue jeans, families,” said Filkins. “Peace has a momentum, and the longer it goes on, the more people will demand it.”

The contrast Filkins experienced in Afghanistan was at the other end of the spectrum.

“I went in with the Northern Alliance when the Taliban collapsed,” said Filkins. “It was like a party with women throwing their burqas off.” Now, he says the country is “basically a sanctuary for the Taliban”.

When asked by the moderator, Erlanger, if efforts to negotiate with the Taliban should be made, Filkins was emphatic that it would be fruitless.

“What would you talk about with the Taliban?” Filkins asked rhetorically. “You can sit across from these guys and look into their eyes and there is not a lot of light in their eyes. It’s like they’re from a different planet.” Filkins notes that if asked, they’ll tell you, “We’ll fight forever”.