News From Afghanistan

Much too much to post. So here are the highlights and links!

Joining the exodus from warlordism to democratic politics

To maintain the momentum in this area, the Afghan government has recently launched an extensive three-month consultation process between its ministries and numerous Non Government Organizations. The National Plan of Action for the Women of Afghanistan, as it’s officially called, aims to develop further strategies for protecting women’s rights in the new Afghanistan

Meanwhile, on a different level, another first for the women of Afghanistan: “Twelve girls from the southwestern province of Helmand are preparing to launch an all girls Kung Fu Twa team in the provinces.” Fighting women kicking men’s butts? Afghanistan has sure come a long way in three and a half years since the fall of the Taliban

The United Nations is beginning the next phase of the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan to Afghanistan, under which 400,000 refugees are expected to return over the next twelve months.

You can also read this story of an Afghan family, one among one million Afghans, returning home after 25 years in Iran.

The UNICEF is also providing considerable assistance across the board:
“As more than 4 million Afghan children prepare to return to school from next week after a particularly harsh winter, the United Nations Children’s (UNICEF) has been helping the Ministry of Education to provide basic classroom stationery and materials to schools nationwide.”Although the difficult weather delayed distribution of some materials en route from Pakistan and classroom kits destined for northern provinces, tens of thousands of student kits have been prepared for more than 2 million children, containing materials such as exercise books, pens, pencils and other stationery. Full distribution to an estimated 4.3 million children is expected to be completed by mid-April.”

Kabul is also getting a new high-tech school.

In related news, “the University of Washington School of Law has been awarded a $2 million State Department grant to establish a graduate programme for Afghan lawyers. The grant will pay for a three-year project aimed at helping rebuild Afghanistan’s legal system. Under the programme, Afghan lawyers will spend a year in Seattle to learn about the US legal system either as visiting scholars or masters of laws candidates.”

The Afghan government is also getting on the act to improve the country’s justice system:

There’s also some high-tech help from India.

The University of Loma Linda, in Southern California will soon be taking over the management of one of Kabul’s major hospitals.

There are also great success stories in the development of free Afghan media:

A new magazine “Paktika” has been launched in this remote province which has no access to radio and TV.

And a chess tournament will be taking place in Kabul next month to select the national team for the next Olympics

The Associated Press paints this picture of Afghanistan more than three years after the liberation.

There is more help for Afghan small businesses which is likely to fuel the recovery over the long term.

THE COALITION TROOPS: In addition to performing their security duties, the Coalition forces throughout Afghanistan are also heavily involved in rebuilding the country. One Provincial Reconstruction Team is combining economic and cultural assistance.

Capt. Simon Schaefer of the Farah Provincial Reconstruction Team is seeing progress.

There is so much more. If you have the time visit. Chrenkoff’s Blog!

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Home Sale Rip-offs!

From an article in LA Times:

In settlements announced March 21, regulators broke up what they alleged to be a sophisticated kickback scheme in which realty agents, home builders and title and escrow executives illegally shared portions of consumers’ closing fees.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, realty agents in Tulsa, Okla., created a shell corporation that bought a part interest in a local title insurance and escrow agency at a below-market price. A group of builders created a separate corporation that allegedly did the same.

The agents and builders sent their clients’ title and settlement work to the title agencies in which they had interests. Those agencies then recycled portions of the title and settlement fees to individual agents and builders, based on the amount of business they referred.

In some cases, according to HUD, the title agencies also allegedly marked up consumers’ fees âââ charging home buyers more for certain services than the actual cost.

Are kickback and referral fee schemes unusual? Not unusual enough, in the view of federal regulators such as Ivy Jackson, who heads the government’s real estate settlement oversight unit at HUD. Jackson’s investigators receive information on hundreds of alleged kickback schemes every year and currently have probes or negotiations underway nationwide on more than 60 cases.

A central thread running through many of the alleged kickback arrangements that HUD investigates is title insurance. Though most consumers are unaware of it, a substantial portion of the title premium they pay at closing does not go to the national insurance company underwriting the actual title policy. If you paid title charges of $1,500, for example, just $300 of that amount might be going to pay for the actual insurance policy; $1,200 might be going to the closing or title agent.

When a title agent kicks back a portion of the premium to realty agents or loan officers solely for referring your business, that violates federal law.

The story quotes numerous instances.

Though several federal appellate courts have ruled against HUD’s position regarding markups, HUD continues to pursue the issue nationwide, as it did in the Oklahoma settlement.When closing a home purchase, make sure to ask for guaranteed fees up front.Request to see the HUD-1 settlement sheet in advance. Question fees that you don’t understand or didn’t expect. If you have evidence or a suspicion of hanky-panky, write to RESPA Unit, HUD, 451 7th St. SW, Washington, DC 20410. Or go to HUD .

Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith Awarded The Medal Of Honor

Unfortunetely It was Awarded posthumously.

On the day of the battle, the 33-year-old Smith, a veteran of the first Gulf War, was put in charge of his unit — 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 11th Engineer Battalion — while his lieutenant went on a scouting mission.

Smith summoned a Bradley Fighting Vehicle after as many as 100 Iraqis, who had been attacked with rifles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, launched counterattacks. Incoming RPGs battered the Bradley, which retreated. Then a mortar struck an M113 armored personnel carrier that had joined the fray. Three soldiers inside were wounded, leaving its heavy machine gun unmanned.

After directing another soldier to pull the wounded M113 crewmen to safety, Smith climbed into the machine gun position and began firing at the enemy soldiers. During a stretch of 15 minutes or longer, with his upper torso and head exposed, Smith fired more than 300 rounds.

“With complete disregard for his own life, and under constant enemy fire, Sergeant Smith rallied his men and led a counterattack,” Bush said. “From a completely exposed position, he killed as many as 50 enemy soldiers as he protected his men. … Sergeant Smith continued to fire until he took a fatal round to the head.”

More than 3,400 Medals of Honor have been awarded since the decoration was created in 1861. More than 600 of them have been given posthumously. Smith’s is only the third Medal of Honor given for actions since the Vietnam War, and the first from the Iraq war.

Paul Ray Smith’s 11-year-old son, standing only chest-high to President Bush, accepted the nation’s highest award for valor on Monday for his late father.

Our soldiers continue to make me proud of their actions. Let us not dwell on the few bad apples, but on the many brave soldiers in our armed forces.

Freedom of Information Act: Fight Over Changes

From the AP:

Republican Sen. John Cornyn said Wednesday there is broad support for a bill to create a panel to study the federal Freedom of Information Act, but real reforms could run into trouble.

The bill, sponsored by Cornyn and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, would create a 16-member panel that would recommend ways to speed information requests. The bill passed committee March 17 and was sent to the Senate floor for debate.

Cornyn said his colleagues haven’t been so accepting of legislation that puts teeth in the 1966 act.

The measure would create an ombudsman to settle records disputes, which are currently resolved in court, with the Justice Department defending the agencies.

It would also require agencies to give people seeking documents a tracking number within 10 days and to set up telephone or Internet systems allowing them to learn the status and estimated completion date. Agencies that didn’t respond within 20 days would lose many of the exemptions to FOIA requests, and could be forced to pay attorney fees.

There are currently no penalties for agencies that fail to respond in 20 days.

Cornyn said even if the reform bill doesn’t get support, creating the advisory panel is a good place to start.

Bush Administration Absolved Of Manipulating Intelligence

From the Associated Press:

In a scathing report, a presidential commission said Thursday that America’s spy agencies were “dead wrong” in most of their judgments about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction before the war and that the United States knows “disturbingly little” about the threats posed by many of the nation’s most dangerous adversaries.

The report implicitly absolves the administration of manipulating the intelligence used to launch the 2003 Iraq war, putting the blame for bad intelligence directly on the intelligence community.

Amazingly on Canada.com Katherine Schroder writes an article quoting the same source leaving the above paragraph out. The headline reads: ââÅBush administration chastised as ‘dead wrong’ by panel on prewar intelligence on Iraqââ?. Another fine example of Canadian journalism.

“The daily intelligence briefings given to you before the Iraq war were flawed,” it said. “Through attention-grabbing headlines and repetition of questionable data, these briefings overstated the case that Iraq was rebuilding its WMD programs.”

On al-Qaeda, the commission found that the intelligence community was surprised by the terrorist network’s advances in biological weapons, particularly a virulent strain of a disease that the report keeps secret, identifying it only as “Agent X.”

The report urged Bush to give more authority to Negroponte, his new director of national intelligence, overseeing all of the nation’s 15 spy agencies.

“It won’t be easy to provide this leadership to the intelligence components of the Defense Department or to the CIA,” the commissioners said. “They are some of the government’s most headstrong agencies. Sooner or later, they will try to run around âââ or over âââ the DNI. Then, only your determined backing will convince them that we cannot return to the old ways,” the commission told Bush.

Read the full Article here

Judge Blocks Rule Cutting Seniors Benefits

Taken from an article in the NY Times dated March 30th:

A federal district judge on Wednesday blocked a Bush administration rule that would have allowed employers to reduce or eliminate health benefits for retirees when they reach age 65 and become eligible for Medicare,

The judge, Anita B. Brody of the Federal District Court in Philadelphia, struck down the rule and issued a permanent injunction that prohibits federal officials from enforcing it.

The rule “is contrary to Congressional intent and the plain language of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act,” the 1967 law that bans most forms of age discrimination in the workplace, Judge Brody wrote.

The rule would have created an explicit exemption to the age discrimination law, allowing employers to reduce health benefits for retirees when they became eligible for Medicare. Under the rule, Judge Brody said, employers could have given older retirees “health benefits that are inferior” to those given retirees younger than 65.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission argued that employers were more likely to continue providing health benefits to retirees under 65 if they were allowed to reduce or eliminate benefits for those 65 and older.

AARP, the main plaintiff in the case, rejected that argument. It said the rule would accelerate the erosion of retiree health benefits, a trend that has been evident for more than a decade.

Judge Brody rejected that contention. The commission, she said, was trying to “issue a blanket exemption for illegal behavior,” not confined to a few individual cases. “An administrative agency, including the E.E.O.C., may not issue regulations, rules or exemptions that go against the intent of Congress,” she added.

The law clearly forbids employers to discriminate on the basis of age in setting pay and employee benefits, Judge Brody said. And the law, as interpreted by the appeals court, “prohibits the practice of coordinating retiree benefits with Medicare eligibility,” she said.

Lawyers said the ruling would apply to companies that give health benefits to early retirees and want to reduce coverage when the retirees reach 65 and become eligible for Medicare. Employer-provided health benefits do not duplicate Medicare. Rather, they help retirees pay medical expenses not covered by Medicare. Those expenses could include co-payments and deductibles and prescription drug costs, beyond what Medicare might pay.

Michele Pollak, a lawyer at AARP, said, “It is less expensive for employers to purchase a health plan that supplements Medicare than it is to purchase health benefits for younger retirees not eligible for Medicare.”

The American Benefits Council, a trade group for large employers, and the HR Policy Association, which represents human resource executives at 250 large companies, said they were disappointed with Judge Brody’s decision.

Daniel V. Yager, senior vice president of the association, said the ruling was “a major setback for many employers that are trying to maintain employer-provided benefits for pre-65 retirees.”

I get the feeling we are going to here allot about social Security and Medicare over the next few years.