Friday, June 25, 2010

Obama and Medvedev hang out at burger joint

Barack Obama has treated Dmitry Medvedev to lunch at a common burger place, surprising its staff and patrons in the process. The presidents signed cards, shook hands and posed in pictures for those who dared to ask. The American president ordered two "real American burgers" for the both of them, choosing cheddar cheese, jalapeno and mushrooms for Dmitry Medvedev and cheddar cheese, salted onions, lettuce and tomatoes and some pickles for himself. “This is on me. I am a big spender, I wanna show off,” joked Obama when the Russian president suggested assisting him with the payment. “Haven't had a burger in a while. Lunch with Obama at Ray's Hell Burger” Dmitry Medvedev wrote on his Twitter account after the meeting. Since the launch of his Twitter account on June 23, Dmitry Medvedev has been actively updating it (KremlinRussia_e – the English version, KremlinRussia – the Russian) with details of his visit’s schedule, pictures of him in Apple’s office and with Obama at the press conference, as well as reactions to hot topics like the gas spat with Belarus. After lunch at the joint press conference, Medvedev discussed with Obama the advantages Twitter has over the presidential phone line. “As a personal passion of the president and during his visit to Silicon Valley this week, he was at the headquarters of Twitter, where he opened his own account,” Obama said. “I have one as well, so we may finally be able to throw away those red phones that have been sitting around for so long.” Thursday’s events finalized Dmitry Medvedev's visit to the US. Both presidents left for the G8 and subsequent G20 summits in Canada afterwards.

Arizona Immigration Law: Who Benefits?

Immigration reform has always been a touchy subject in this country, but even by that standard, the immigration law that Arizona passed last month has stirred an incredible amount of outrage. The law in question attempts to crack down on Arizona’s immigration problem by allowing police to force anyone they find suspicious to produce their alien registration documents. While critics argue this essentially creates a police state where cops will undoubtedly engage in a kind of racial profiling, supporters claim that this will help reduce the number of illegal immigrants living and working in the state. The new law has been panned by officials in both parties, including President Obama and Tom Ridge, the former Homeland Security Chief under President Bush. Dozens of protests have been planned in cities across the country, several lawsuits have been filed against the state, some college students have started to withdraw from Arizona’s universities and the state's own basketball team is protesting the decision. Arizona is also feeling some serious financial backlash from the bill. Their tourism industry may suffer in the near future as Americans have reportedly canceled trips to the state, which is particularly bad since the industry is still ailing from the recession. Mexico has also issued a travel advisory to their citizens warning them that they may be “bothered and questioned” if they set foot in the state. On top of that, some Americans are boycotting products from Arizona, including Arizona Iced Tea (which is actually produced in New York). Yet, given the backlash, we were curious to find out who, if anyone, may actually benefit from the passage of this bill. Big Oil Businesses Pretty much the only thing more controversial than the immigration bill right now is the oil business, thanks to the awful Gulf Coast oil spill. But it turns out one may help push up the other. Several U.S. senators were on the verge of introducing a comprehensive bipartisan climate change bill, but once Arizona passed their immigration reform bill, Washington put those efforts on the backburner and are now urgently working on a federal overhaul of immigration law. For the time being, that means big oil companies have one less thing to worry about. Gay Couples It's also possible that this new bill could indirectly benefit gay couples. According to USA Today, the federal immigration reform bill that is currently being drafted in Washington may include language that allows “same-sex couples the same family-reunification status as traditional married couples.” Of course, the bill is a long way from being finalized and approved, but members of the gay and lesbian community have already applauded what they see as a sign of increased tolerance toward homosexual couples. Arizona’s Governor The bill is designed to benefit Arizona’s legal workers first and foremost by limiting competition for jobs from illegal immigrants, but in the immediate future, many employees may actually be worse off as Arizona’s businesses suffer for the reasons we mentioned earlier. That said, at least one Arizonan does stand to benefit from the bill, and that’s Governor Jan Brewer. While the law has been unpopular in many parts of the country, it remains favorable among Arizonans and recent polls have found all the attention around the issue has actually given Brewer a boost in approval ratings. Other States Several midwestern states like Colorado are hoping that the unpopularity of Arizona’s immigration law may deflect some business their way. According to The Denver Post, many companies are looking to relocate conventions that were scheduled to be held in Arizona in the next few months. And then of course there are all the tourists who no longer want to travel to the state, and may instead opt to travel to neighboring states. Drug Dealers One Chicago congressman argued on CBS News that this law may actually benefit drug dealers and other criminals in Arizona because it will shatter the “trust between the police and the public.” Admittedly, this claim seems to be a bit of a stretch, but there is a little bit of credibility there. Will citizens be as willing to contact authorities if they have been harassed by the police for citizenship credentials? Or what if an illegal but otherwise law abiding resident sees a crime? Will he or she now be less likely to report it to the authorities?

Swat smiles again - photo exhibition in Islamabad

Once known as "Pakistan's Switzerland", Swat valley hit media last year when bloody fights between Pakistan army forces and radicals ousted the Taliban rulers of the area. Now PNCA National Art Gallery of Islamabad is hosting a photo exhibition titled “Swat Smiles Again.” Nearly 300 images, the work of a dozen of photographers including ExWeb correspondent Karrar Haidri, offer a new picture of the area. A tribute to resilience and sacrifice “The exhibition showcases Swat’s recovery and intends to be a reminder of how security forces of the country, backed by the people of Pakistan, have brought back smiles on the faces of the Swat people,” Karrar stated. “It is a tribute to the resilience of the people of Swat and the sacrifices they made in a tough fight against terrorism." "The images capture Swat’s beauty; not only featuring its landscape though, but also the way life is now flourishing in it, and the way people of Swat are celebrating return of calmer times in their lives.” The show was inaugurated some days ago by Pakistan Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gillani, who applauded the photographers’ work. “I feel honoured to have taken part in the event,” Karrar said. Swat is a beautiful Pakistani valley located 170 km from Islamabad. Saidu Sharif is the capital, and Mingora the main city in the area. Swat was a princely state in the North West Frontier Province until it was dissolved in 1969. It's natural beauty of high mountains, green meadows and clear lakes has earned Swat a reputation as "the Switzerland of Pakistan.” Various religions have flourished there, including Buddhism, as shown in archaeological sites. In fact, Swat was once home to Buddhism, which then spread to other parts of Asia due to the personal dedication of King Ashoka. During his reign, Buddhism spread to Japan, Tibet, China and Bhutan.

Understanding Russia’s Approach on Afghanistan, Pakistan

US President Barack Obama’s June 24 meeting in Washington with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, focused mainly on trade and economics. They did not spend much time on security issues, such as Afghanistan. That means an opportunity to gain better mutual understanding about a crucial strategic matter may have been missed. It is important for American policy planners to understand that the Kremlin approach toward Afghanistan and Pakistan has undergone a dramatic shift in recent years. Back in 2001, in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist tragedy, the United States and its NATO allies established military bases in Central Asia and quickly drove the Taliban from power in Kabul. These developments were unsettling to Russian planners, who worried that Washington was gaining influence in the region at Moscow’s expense. In recent years, Russian thinking has adjusted to the reality that the United States and its allies could not easily contain the Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan. By 2009, Russian leaders even started to grow concerned that the Obama administration might suddenly withdraw American forces from Afghanistan, thus leaving Russia alone to deal with the threat that a resurgent Taliban would pose to Central Asia and Russia itself. Accordingly, Moscow helped the United States put together the Northern Distribution Network, a re-supply route that facilitates the overland transit of non-lethal goods from Europe to Afghanistan. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive]. While Moscow now supports the US/NATO position in Afghanistan, the Kremlin nevertheless is striving to differentiate Russia from the West in ways that Moscow hopes will boost its standing in the eyes of President Hamid Karzai’s administration in Kabul. US relations with Karzai have experienced a marked change in recent years. The Bush Administration strongly promoted Karzai, but the Afghan leader’s relations with President Obama have often been tense. Over the same period, Russian policy has sought to emphasize Moscow’s long-term interest in a stable Afghanistan. As Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Andrei Avetisyan, stated in December 2009; “Many of your friends will have to go sometimes because they came from far away to help you. But when they go, we stay—together with your neighbors, we stay.” There have been great changes in Russian-Pakistani relations in recent years too. Pakistan had long been a country that Moscow had antagonistic relations with. During the Cold War, sources of tension between the two countries included Pakistan’s close relations with both the United States and China; the Soviet Union’s close relations with Pakistan’s main rival, India; and Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Mujahedeen fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan. After most outside powers, including the United States and European nations, lost interest in Afghanistan following the Soviet troop withdrawal, Pakistan remained engaged in Afghanistan, eventually becoming the chief sponsor of the Taliban—something that Moscow found threatening. Indeed, Russia supported anti-Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan long before the United States and NATO did after the September 11 terrorist tragedy. More recently, Moscow—along with many others—grew agitated about the continued Taliban presence in Afghanistan. Russian leaders also worried about Pakistan’s seeming inability—or even unwillingness—to defeat Islamic militants. But over the past few years, Russian-Pakistani relations have improved, in part as a reaction to warming Indian-American relations. Another important factor is the fact that Russia has discovered Pakistan to be a lucrative market for arms exports. How long, though, is this friendly Russo-Pakistani relationship likely to last? There is reason to believe that the withdrawal of US/NATO forces from Afghanistan (now tentatively scheduled to begin in mid-2011) could lead to renewed tension between Russia and Pakistan over Afghanistan. Three decades of hostility cannot be easily ignored. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, Pakistan served as the conduit for external assistance to the Mujahedeen fighting against both Soviet forces and the Afghan Marxist regime. During this period, Moscow mainly supported the Uzbeks and Tajiks in the north of the country, while Pakistan mainly supported the Pashtuns in the south. After Soviet forces withdrew in 1989 and the Marxist regime they left behind fell in 1992, it was replaced by a self-proclaimed Islamic regime that was also dominated by northerners. Pakistan backed the predominantly Pashtun Taliban which overthrew this regime in 1996 and overran most of Afghanistan. From the early 1990s until just after 9/11, then, Russia tended to back Uzbek and Tajik forces in the North that resisted the advance of the Taliban. The US-led invasion in Afghanistan beginning in October 2001 sought to overcome Afghanistan’s North-South divide by creating a government that appealed to both. This effort was exemplified by the promotion of Karzai—a Pushtun with strong northern ties—as Afghanistan’s post-Taliban president. In time, though, the Karzai government came to be seen as not only corrupt and ineffective, but as serving the interests of northerners—who were especially prominent in its ranks. This increasingly led many Pashtuns to regard the Taliban as the defenders of Pashtun interests. While Pakistan has cooperated with the United States in Afghanistan to some extent, elements within its government in Islamabad have continued to support the Taliban. Russia, as noted above, has largely backed the Karzai government and the American-led effort to prop it up. The pattern, then, of Russia backing the northerners (Uzbeks and Tajiks) and Pakistan backing the southerners (Pashtuns) that existed both during the 1980’s and 1990’s is continuing today. Thus, a US withdrawal from Afghanistan could be expected to result in Russia and Pakistan both continuing—indeed, probably increasing—their support for their traditional Afghan allies. If this occurs, then the Russian-Pakistani relationship would most likely return to its accustomed mutual antagonism. The implications of this are that after an American departure from Afghanistan, Russia (probably along with India and Iran) can be expected to work to prevent the Pakistani-backed Taliban from reasserting control over all Afghanistan, just as they did in the 1990’s. How successful they can be in achieving this aim, though, may well depend on whether the United States abandons Afghanistan altogether as it did during the 1990s, or whether Washington actively works with Moscow and others to contain the Taliban and its Pakistani supporters.

Pakistan Is Said to Pursue a Foothold in Afghanistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan is exploiting the troubled United States military effort in Afghanistan to drive home a political settlement with Afghanistan that would give Pakistan important influence there but is likely to undermine United States interests, Pakistani and American officials said. The dismissal of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal will almost certainly embolden the Pakistanis in their plan as they detect increasing American uncertainty, Pakistani officials said. The Pakistani Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, preferred General McChrystal to his successor, Gen. David H. Petraeus, whom he considers more of a politician than a military strategist, said people who had spoken recently with General Kayani. Pakistan is presenting itself as the new viable partner for Afghanistan to President Hamid Karzai, who has soured on the Americans. Pakistani officials say they can deliver the network of Sirajuddin Haqqani, an ally of Al Qaeda who runs a major part of the insurgency in Afghanistan, into a power-sharing arrangement. In addition, Afghan officials say, the Pakistanis are pushing various other proxies, with General Kayani personally offering to broker a deal with the Taliban leadership. Washington has watched with some nervousness as General Kayani and Pakistan’s spy chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, shuttle between Islamabad and Kabul, telling Mr. Karzai that they agree with his assessment that the United States cannot win in Afghanistan, and that a postwar Afghanistan should incorporate the Haqqani network, a longtime Pakistani asset. In a sign of the shift in momentum, the two Pakistani officials were next scheduled to visit Kabul on Monday, according to Afghan TV. Despite General McChrystal’s 11 visits to General Kayani in Islamabad in the past year, the Pakistanis have not been altogether forthcoming on details of the conversations in the last two months, making the Pakistani moves even more worrisome for the United States, said an American official involved in the administration’s Afghanistan and Pakistan deliberations. “They know this creates a bigger breach between us and Karzai,” the American official said. Though encouraged by Washington, the thaw heightens the risk that the United States will find itself cut out of what amounts to a separate peace between the Afghans and Pakistanis, and one that does not necessarily guarantee Washington’s prime objective in the war: denying Al Qaeda a haven. It also provides another indication of how Pakistan, ostensibly an American ally, has worked many opposing sides in the war to safeguard its ultimate interest in having an Afghanistan that is pliable and free of the influence of its main strategic obsession, its more powerful neighbor, India. The Haqqani network has long been Pakistan’s crucial anti-India asset and has remained virtually untouched by Pakistani forces in their redoubt inside Pakistan, in the tribal areas on the Afghan border, even as the Americans have pressed Pakistan for an offensive against it. General Kayani has resisted the American pleas, saying his troops are too busy fighting the Pakistani Taliban in other parts of the tribal areas. But there have long been suspicions among Afghan, American and other Western officials that the Pakistanis were holding the Haqqanis in reserve for just such a moment, as a lever to shape the outcome of the war in its favor. On repeated occasions, Pakistan has used the Haqqani fighters to hit Indian targets inside Afghanistan, according to American intelligence officials. The Haqqanis have also hit American ones, a possible signal from the Pakistanis to the Americans that it is in their interest, too, to embrace a deal. General Petraeus told Congress last week that Haqqani fighters were responsible for recent major attacks in Kabul and the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, adding that he had informed General Kayani. Some officials in the Obama administration have not ruled out incorporating the Haqqani network in an Afghan settlement, though they stress that President Obama’s policy calls for Al Qaeda to be separated from the network. American officials are skeptical that that can be accomplished. Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, said on a visit to Islamabad last weekend that it was “hard to imagine” the Haqqani network in an Afghan arrangement, but added, “Who knows?” At a briefing this week at the headquarters of Pakistan’s premier spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistani analysts laid out a view of the war that dovetailed neatly with the doubts expressed by Mr. Karzai. They depicted a stark picture of an American military campaign in Afghanistan “that will not succeed.” They said the Taliban were gaining strength. Despite the impending arrival of new American troops, they concluded the “security situation would become more dangerous,” resulting in an erosion of the American will to fight. “That is the reason why Karzai is trying to negotiate now,” a senior analyst said. General Pasha, the head of the intelligence agency, dashed to Kabul on the eve of Mr. Karzai’s visit to Washington in May, an American official said. Neither Mr. Karzai nor the Pakistanis mentioned to the Americans about incorporating the Haqqanis in a postwar Afghanistan, the official said. Pakistan has already won what it sees as an important concession in Kabul, the resignations this month of the intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, and the interior minister, Hanif Atmar. The two officials, favored by Washington, were viewed by Pakistan as major obstacles to its vision of hard-core Taliban fighters’ being part of an Afghanistan settlement, though the circumstances of their resignations did not suggest any connection to Pakistan. Coupled with their strategic interests, the Pakistanis say they have chosen this juncture to open talks with Mr. Karzai because, even before the controversy over General McChrystal, they sensed uncertainty — “a lack of fire in the belly,” said one Pakistani — within the Obama administration over the Afghan fight. “The American timetable for getting out makes it easier for Pakistan to play a more visible role,” said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the spokesman for the Pakistani Army. He was referring to the July 2011 date set by Mr. Obama for the start of the withdrawal of some American combat troops. The offer by Pakistan to make the Haqqanis part of the solution in Afghanistan has now been adopted as basic Pakistani policy, said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of international relations at Islamabad University, and a confidant of top military generals. “The establishment thinks that without getting Haqqani on board, efforts to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan will be doomed,” Mr. Hussain said. “Haqqani has a large fighting force, and by co-opting him into a power-sharing arrangement a lot of bloodshed can be avoided.” The recent trips by General Kayani and General Pasha to Kabul were an “effort to make this happen,” he said. Afghan officials said General Kayani had offered to broker a deal with the Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, and had sent envoys to Kabul from another insurgent leader and longtime Pakistani ally, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, with the offer of a 15-point peace plan in March. As for the Haqqanis, whose fighters stretch across eastern Afghanistan all the way to Kabul, they are prepared to break with Al Qaeda, Pakistani intelligence and military officials said. The Taliban, including the Haqqani group, are ready to “do a deal” over Al Qaeda, a senior Pakistani official close to the Pakistani Army said. The Haqqanis could tell Al Qaeda to move elsewhere because it had been given nine years of protection since 9/11, the official said. But this official acknowledged that the Haqqanis and Al Qaeda were too “thick” with each other for a separation to happen. They had provided each other with fighters, money and other resources over a long period of time, he said. Also, there appeared to be no idea where the Qaeda forces would go, and no answer to whether the Haqqanis would hand over Osama bin Laden and his second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri, the official said. The Haqqanis may be playing their own game with their hosts, the Pakistanis, Mr. Hussain said. “Many believe that Haqqanis’ willingness to cut its links with Al Qaeda is a tactical move which is aimed at thwarting the impending military action by the Pakistani Army in North Waziristan,” he said.