Friday, October 8, 2010

Liu Xiaobo Nobel peace prize may harm China-Norway relations

Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to China's Liu Xiaobo desecrated the prize and could harm China-Norway ties, said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu on Friday.

Ma made the remarks in a press release after he was asked to comment on the award, which was announced earlier in Oslo, Norway.

Liu was sentenced to 11 years in jail on Dec. 25, 2009 after a local court in Beijing convicted him of agitation aimed at subverting the government.

The Nobel Peace Prize should be awarded to people who contribute to national harmony, country-to-country friendship, advancing disarmament, and convening and propagandizing peace conferences, Ma said.

He claimed this was the wish of Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prizes.

Ma said Liu was a criminal sentenced by the Chinese judicial authorities for violating Chinese law.

"What he has done is contrary to the purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize," he said.

The Nobel committee's decision to award such a person the peace prize ran contrary to and desecrated the prize, he said.

China and Norway had enjoyed sound development of bilateral ties in recent years. Ma said this was conducive to the fundamental interests of the two nations and their peoples.

Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu might harm China-Norway ties, Ma said.

Source: Xinhua

Afghan Talks But Peace Is Not at Hand

Nine years after the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan, a flurry of reports this week confirm one of the worst-kept secrets of the conflict: the protagonists on all sides - and in various combinations, depending on which reports are to be believed - have begun negotiating over a political settlement. But nobody ought to hold their breath until all the parties with irons in the Afghan fire manage to forge an agreement.

History has demonstrated that the onset of negotiations does not necessarily bring an end to fighting. Often, both sides seek to reinforce their hand at the table by strengthening their position on the battlefield. For example, the U.S. and North Vietnam began negotiating an end to the Vietnam war in May of 1968; the Paris Agreement formalizing peace terms were signed by Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in January of 1973; and the war only really ended in March of 1975, on terms quite different to those envisaged in the peace deal. And there are far more players with competing agendas and an ability to influence events in the Afghan theater than there ever were in Vietnam. (See photos of a civilian casualty in Afghanistan.)

It is hardly surprising, then, that the reports suggest there are multiple conversations currently underway among longtime antagonists. President Hamid Karzai's government has been meeting with representatives of the Taliban leadership in talks blessed by the movement's leader, Mullah Omar, according to the Washington Post. Earlier reports had suggested that exploratory talks between representatives of Karzai and of the Taliban leadership had been held late last year under the auspices of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. (See photos of U.S. troops deep in the Taliban heartland.)

Pakistan, mindful of its strategic interests in Kabul, will work hard to avoid being cut out of any peace deal. Last year, in a rare departure from its hands-off approach to Afghan Taliban leaders on its turf, Pakistani authorities arrested Mullah Baradar, a Taliban commander believed to have opened his own talks with Karzai. But Karzai and the U.S. are also reported by Britain's Guardian to have begun exploratory talks (indirect in the case of the U.S.) with the Haqqani network, the most feared insurgent group which remains close to the Pakistani intelligence service and which also has the strongest ties with al-Qaeda of any of the Afghan groups. A third insurgent group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, also historically close to both Pakistan and Iran, has been negotiating openly with the Karzai government.

But even if everybody's suddenly talking, the formal preconditions set by the two main players preclude any serious negotiations. The Taliban says it won't talk until all foreign troops have left Afghanistan; the U.S. says the only basis for a negotiated peace is if the Taliban agrees to cut ties with al-Qaeda, lay down arms and respect Afghanistan's constitution. But each of those positions is unrealistic unless the side holding it believes the other side can be militarily vanquished. Even if it kept to President Obama's summer of 2011 deadline to begin reducing troop levels, the U.S. is not about to cut and run from Afghanistan. Still, the Taliban are reportedly open to talking on the basis of a timeline for U.S. withdrawal. Similarly, while a number of reports suggest Taliban leaders are willing to prevent al-Qaeda operating from Afghanistan, they're unlikely to lay down arms and embrace the Afghan constitution. That constitution, after all, was negotiated largely under NATO auspices at the Bonn conference in 2002; the Taliban had no say in it. And they're hardly likely to lay down their arms and adopt it - in other words, to surrender - when they believe, not without good reason, that they're winning the war. (Is the U.S.-Pakistan border spat crippling the Afghanistan campaign?)

While Bob Woodward's latest book, Obama's Wars, has revealed that many in the Obama Administration concur with most U.S. allies in Afghanistan that the war cannot be won, General David Petraeus and others in the military still believe that the balance of forces can be made more favorable through a counterinsurgency strategy. The Taliban, they argue, will only be ready to settle on terms acceptable to the U.S. if it is pummeled to standstill. Until then, reconciliation efforts should focus on reintegrating Taliban elements willing to change sides.

So, while everyone in Washington accepts the need to combine military action in Afghanistan with peace talks, where they place the emphasis in that combination - and the terms they set for such talks - will be settled in the Administration's ongoing debate. While President Obama has ordered a review of Afghanistan strategy at the end of 2010, the expected surge of the G.O.P. in November's election and the prospect of his own reelection campaign may restrain the President from picking a fight with his top general - indeed, by Woodward's account, the President ducked such a battle last year, when he was politically far stronger than he is now.

The Taliban, to the extent that one can talk of it as a single entity, is also likely divided on the question. The most powerful element of the insurgency currently is the Haqqani network, which operates independently of the Quetta-based leadership of Mullah Omar. Hekmatyar, who has historically had relations with both Pakistan and Iran, has proven the most amenable thus far of insurgent commanders. Reports on the purported Pakistani-Saudi mediated talks suggest that the Taliban is ready to break with al-Qaeda and to accept some form of power-sharing, although the insurgent movement is unlikely to have a single coherent approach to these questions.

President Karzai has established a High Peace Commission to reach out to the Taliban, a move pilloried by his many political critics in Kabul because of the heavy presence in the commission of warlords who have been the Taliban's most ferocious opponents. But Karzai may be operating from the assumption that peace with the Taliban will need buy-in from precisely those longtime enemies of the Taliban in the north of the country who have threatened a civil war if Karzai agrees to share any power with their hated foe.

At the onset of President Bush's Afghan war nine years ago, Pakistan had been holding out for a different scenario: a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan without al-Qaeda. And while it may have given up on the prospect of restoring a Taliban monopoly on power, it certainly aims to restore the influence of its Pashtun allies in Kabul and curb that of its chief rival, India, which is a key ally of the Northern Alliance factions that make up the core of the Karzai government. For that reason, Pakistan can be expected to play a spoiler role in any talks from which it is excluded.

The end game in Afghanistan is clearly underway, and its outcome won't resemble either side's best-case. But just what that outcome will be comprised of is a chapter that will be written on the battlefield, at the negotiating table and in the corridors of power in Washington, Kabul, Islamabad and other more discreet venues over the next couple of years.

Pakistan allies sound alarm on disorganized flood recovery

The U.S. and other foreign donors are voicing alarm that Pakistan's civilian government, having failed to organize rescue and relief during the floods that devastated a fifth of the country this past summer, still hasn't produced a reconstruction plan for the 20 million people affected.

They also fault President Asif Ali Zardari for failing to shake up the government's top-heavy cabinet with a reputation for corruption, and they criticize the government of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani for failing to introduce taxes on the wealthy to pay for day-to-day government and for reconstruction.

Experts and officials say a restructuring is crucial to the future of the state, at a time when Zardari's government is facing a political crisis that threatens its survival.

The vacuum in governance in Islamabad has added to U.S.-Pakistan tensions, which already are high over American helicopter and pilotless-drone incursions across the border from Afghanistan, a symptom of a broader clash over Afghan policy and the sanctuaries that the Taliban and other militant groups enjoy on the Pakistani side of the border.

"We are committed to helping Pakistan, but Pakistan has to help itself," said a senior Western diplomat, who requested to remain anonymous to speak more candidly. "We know it's not easy to make changes, particularly in difficult times, but it is difficult times that focus the mind to bring difficult changes."

The political and fiscal gridlock are making it difficult for the Pakistani government to focus on tackling extremism and on helping to bolster the struggling campaign in neighboring Afghanistan, analysts say. On Thursday, a suicide bombing ripped through a famed shrine in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi, home to a mild spiritual form of Islam that's anathema to extremists. The attack claimed at least 10 lives and injured 65.

"While success in its ongoing struggle against extremism is critical to the country's well-being, the other war that it should be fighting, but is not, is essential for its survival. That war is against vested interests, which prevents taxation of the elite and derails the best laid-out plans for improving the efficiency of the government as well as of the public sector," wrote former finance minister Shaukat Tareen, in an opinion article Thursday in Daily Times, a Pakistani newspaper.

Some, however, see the floods as an opportunity for the country, providing the impetus to long-needed restructuring and a focus on the rural areas, where the majority of the country's population live.

Although the floods ravaged as many as 40,000 square miles of land, the affected areas, when they dry out, and others that were spared will potentially be more productive in the next few years, assuming government provides help for farms to get back on their feet.

Some economists had predicted that the floods would wipe out growth, but the International Monetary Fund forecast Wednesday that the Pakistani economy would still expand 2.8 percent this year, down from its previous prediction of 4.5 percent.

Pakistanis are among the least taxed people in the world. Large parts of Pakistan's economy go untaxed, including the country's landowning elite, while the declared assets and yearly tax returns of even its members of parliament draw widespread skepticism in a country where corruption and tax avoidance is ingrained in the national culture.

Pakistan repeatedly has pledged to the IMF that it will broaden the narrow scope of its sales tax, but it has missed deadlines for doing so, including the latest on Oct 1.

So far, the world has donated $640 million to the Pakistani flood effort in response to an urgent United Nations appeal, plus another $866 million outside the appeal, and pledges total some $500 million more, according to U.N. figures released on Oct. 4.

The U.S. has contributed $362 million of that sum, according to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, separate from the $1.5 billion in annual civilian assistance program and the roughly $2 billion in yearly military aid that Pakistan currently receives.

None of the money that's coming in for the floods covers reconstruction work, only immediate relief and "early recovery." Experts say there is no plan and no funding in place for rebuilding, a bill that's expected to run into the tens of billions of dollars. Some 2 million houses, more than 12,000 schools and thousands of miles of road have to be rebuilt.

The government also is under intense pressures for reform from within - from the courts, the opposition, the media and the powerful military. The coalition government in Islamabad has an unwieldy Cabinet of over 60 members. Many ministers and bureaucrats have reputations for incompetence and corruption, with several, including Zardari, holding their positions because a controversial legal amnesty had wiped out graft charges against them.

State-owned enterprises, ranging from steel mills to airlines, a vehicle for corruption for their politically connected bosses, lose around $3 billion a year. There are some 300 state agencies tied to various ministries in a bloated bureaucracy. Chronic double-digit inflation, galloping national debt and a yawning budget deficit will have to be tackled, economists say.

According to several Pakistani and foreign officials, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, the military has presented the government with a list of inept and dishonest officials it wants dismissed, a move backed by at least some of Pakistan's Western allies.

Zardari, who's resisting the demand to sack members of his government, insisted this week that the "victory" of his reconciliatory approach to politics was that "no one wants an undemocratic act" now. Many in his own party think that he'll have to cull allies if the government is to survive. Zardari called this week for a one-off "flood tax" but gave no specifics and suggested that each province would have to decide whether to impose it.

"You can't run a country with tax-to-GDP ratio of 9 percent, particularly when you're fighting a war on terror," said Jahangir Tareen, an opposition member of parliament. "For the first time, tax has become such an important issue, as somehow we could get by in the past."

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