Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Syria's government vacillates between crackdown and suggestions of compromise

The great Beer and Cheese-Off

By:Jay R. Brooks
Food & Wine

Everyone knows about wine and cheese pairings, but the affinity between beer and fromage always has been something of a secret -- until now. A growing number of culinary experts are starting to recognize what we beer geeks always have known. Beer and cheese -- especially artisanal cheese -- is a match made in heaven. Both beer and cheese balance "sweetness and acidity with fruitiness and fermentation flavors," says brewer Garrett Oliver in his book "The Brewmaster's Table" (Ecco, 2005). They're both traditional fermented, farmhouse products, whose roots lie in the grasses that ultimately flavor the final product. So it's hardly surprising to discover that some monastery breweries, such as Chimay, make both beer and cheese.

But finding just the right combination is key and that's a project I've been working on. I've chosen three artisanal cheeses for a panel of colleagues to pair with the perfect beers. Why not taste right along with us? I have some prizes for the best beer pairing for each of the three cheeses listed below, and I've offered a few tips to get you started.he artisanal cheeses
1. Maytag Blue: This is one of my favorite blues, and not just because it's owned by the Maytag family, who until recently owned Anchor Brewery. The Maytag Dairy Farm was founded by Fritz Maytag's father in Iowa in 1941, making it one of the first artisanal cheese companies in America. If you can't find Maytag Blue, any similar blue cheese should work. Barley wines and imperial stouts generally pair well with blue cheese.

2. Widmer 1-Year Aged Cheddar: I wanted to make sure I included at least one Wisconsin cheese, and Widmer's Cheese Cellars makes some great golden-orange cheddars. Even the 1-year old aged cheddar is very full-flavored. Widmer Cellars describes it as having a "rich, nutty flavor (that) becomes increasingly sharp with age. Smooth, firm texture becomes more granular and crumbly with age." If you can't find Widmer, any 1-year old aged cheddar should do the trick. For milder cheddars, brown or pale ales are often suggested; India Pale Ales are usually recommended for sharper varieties.
3. Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog: Humboldt Fog is a soft goat cheese from Cypress Grove Chevre, which describes its texture as "creamy and luscious with a subtle tangy flavor. Each handcrafted wheel features a ribbon of edible vegetable ash along its center and a coating of ash under its exterior to give it a distinctive, cakelike appearance." If you can't locate Humboldt Fog, another similar goat cheese can be substituted. For goat cheese, experts recommend spicy Belgian ales, such as Ommegang's Hennepin, Belgian-style witbier or doppelbocks.
The challenge
Pick a cheese or try all three, then think about your favorite beers and which might taste good with them. Invite a few friends over and taste each cheese with a few beers. Then pick the one that works best. (Be sure to choose beers that are readily available; no home-brew or draft-only beers, please.)
I'll post this invitation over at Bottoms Up (www.ibabuzz.com/bottomsup) too. Post a comment there any time before May 1, and tell us which beer you think pairs best with each cheese -- and most important, why you think it works so well. What flavors does the beer bring out in the cheese, or vice versa? What makes the pairing more than the sum of its parts? What did you learn about the pairing, or about beer and cheese together more generally?
Based on your descriptions of which beer worked best, I'll choose a winner for each of the three cheeses. Each winner will receive a copy of my friend Maureen Ogle's book "Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer" (Harvest Books, 2007). It's a great read about the history of American beer from the industrial revolution to present-day craft brewers.
The following week, I'll be hosting another tasting with a number of local brewers and beer writers and I'll include your winning beers in our tasting, too. Look for the results of the Great Beer & Cheese-Off Challenge -- and recommendations for perfect beer and cheese pairings -- in mid-May.

Balochistan scenario

COAS General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has taken to making regular visits to Balochistan of late. On his latest tour, he addressed ceremonies marking the launching of a newly established military college in Sui and the Gwadar Institute of Technology, also an army project. Previously, the army has set up a cadet college in the province, some of the graduates of which (about 5,000) are about to be inducted into the Pakistani military. At Sui the COAS was at pains to assert that no ‘military’ operation was being conducted in Balochistan and that the two battalions of the army deployed on security duties at Sui would be withdrawn, to be replaced by the Frontier Corps (FC). He also stated that no military operation would be conducted without the permission of the provincial government (which would certainly be a first). Also, that the four cantonments to be built in Balochistan that were announced by General Pervez Musharraf at the height of the troubles following the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti, are not now going to be built and no new cantonment will be built unless the people agree to it. General Kayani also underlined the importance of the civilian law enforcement agencies’ need to get their act together, since the army could not handle internal security entirely on its own. He also voiced his apprehensions regarding the economy of the country, warning of the consequences of an economic meltdown, a la the Soviet Union.

Now all these are sweet words and quite unlike what the Baloch are used to hearing from official quarters. However, if they are meant to placate the anger seething amongst the people of the province and to convince the Baloch that the Pakistan army is a national institution, their institution, far more than sweet words may be required. While ostensibly the COAS’ statement that no ‘military’ operation is being conducted appears technically accurate since it is not the regular army but the FC that is carrying out ‘operations’ in Balochistan such as disappearances of nationalist cadres and the dumping of their tortured and bullet-riddled bodies all over the province, the fact that regular army formations such as the one at Sui will be sent back to their barracks in Quetta does not provide the salve to the wounds of the angry Baloch that it may be intended to since the FC is arguably hated the most in the province, being considered the main culprit in the miseries visited upon the province’s people. The replacement of the regular army by the FC at Sui may be likened by the Baloch to jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

The setting up of cadet and technical institutions to provide education and training to Baloch youth with a view to the possible induction of more and more of them into the ranks of the armed forces is unexceptionable as a concept and in itself. At Gwadar, General Kayani announced that the army would set up an Army Medical College, an Institute of Mineralogy, and a Cardiac Treatment Centre in Quetta. But all this too may not suffice to ease the hurt and anger of the people of Balochistan.

Chief Minister Aslam Raisani too pitched in with his wisdom while talking to journalists after returning to Quetta from the ceremony at Gwadar. He asserted that the people of Balochistan do not want separation. This is the propaganda of a few and the (ubiquitous) foreign hand too cannot be ruled out. If the separatist sentiment is the work of only a few, it must be said that they are proving increasingly effective in stoking the fires of nationalism, helped and abetted by the actions of the authorities, especially the FC. Could it be that it is the repressive policies of the FC that are persuading more and more youth to take up arms in the mountains? As to the always present ‘foreign hand’, this is an old and tired record in which the needle has been stuck in the same groove as long as can be remembered. Nevertheless, logically no conditions should be created in any part of the country that may open the doors to the ‘foreign hand’ fishing in troubled waters.

To avoid the catastrophe that is looming in Balochistan and therefore for the country, sops such as army-organised education, training and induction into the armed forces of Baloch youth and all other welfare measures may not prove efficacious so long as the repression continues. What is missing in this scenario is a dialogue with the guerrillas in the mountains, the nationalist leadership at home and in exile, and with the people of Balochistan as a whole to address their grievances and bring them into the fold through a process of genuine reconciliation. Do we have the vision and will for that?

Bahraini activist's home tear gassed

A Human Rights Watch official is calling on the government of Bahrain to investigate a Monday morning teargas attack on the Bani Jamra home of prominent activist Nabeel Rajab.
The attack took place at 3:30 a.m., according to Human Rights Watch. Rajab, who heads the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was apparently not injured. However, the attack by unknown assailants caused "great distress" for his 78-year-old mother, who suffers from respiratory disease, Human Rights Watch said.
"This attack certainly appears to target Nabeel Rajab for his human rights advocacy," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Bahraini authorities need to investigate this incident and hold those responsible to account."
There was no immediate response to the Human Right Watch statement by the Bahrain government.The country is ruled by the Al-Khalifa family, which has been in power since the 18th century. Many protesters are calling for the removal of the royal family, whom they blame for the country's high unemployment rate and for running a corrupt government that relies on torture and other harsh measures to clamp down on dissent.
Rajab's vocal opposition to the government's violent crackdown on anti-regime protesters has made him a target.
On March 20, about 25 people in about a dozen cars pulled up to Rajab's house and took him to the offices of the Interior Ministry's investigative department. There, according to Rajab, he was beaten, blindfolded, and interrogated about an armed suspect they believed he knew.
The government confirmed the arrest but provided no other details.
Nine days ago, officials publicly accused Rajab of fabricating photos posted on his Facebook site of the body of Ali Isa Ibrahim Saqer, who died in detention on April 9. The photos showed slash marks all over the victim's back and other signs of physical abuse. A Human Rights Watch researcher saw Saqer's body just prior to his burial and said the photos were accurate.
Human Rights Watch said it knows of no other entity than Bahrain's security forces that have access to the kind of grenades used in the attack on Rajab's home.
Rajab, according to Human Rights Watch, said that markings on the grenades show they were manufactured in Pennsylvania.
Rajab, the organization stated, said everyone in the two houses that belong to the family was sleeping at the time. Rajab, according to Human Rights Watch, said the assailants tossed the grenades over a high wall surrounding his and his mother's houses.
Rajab is one of hundreds of Bahrainis to be arrested by security forces in recent weeks. The arrests, according to human rights activists, have often been violent and have taken place at night.
Others arrested include Mohammed al-Tajer, a prominent defense attorney for various opposition figures. Al-Tajer was seized during a Friday raid on his home by more than two dozen uniformed and plainclothes officers. There was no reason given for his arrest, Human Rights Watch said.
Another prominent Bahraini who was recently arrested is human rights activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja. Masked gunmen, according to human rights activists, stormed the home of Al-Khawaja's daughter, Zainab, where he was staying. They beat him severely and took him away, she said.
After the arrest, Zainab Al-Khawaja launched a hunger strike to protest the assault and detention of her father and her husband. She was taken to a hospital Sunday after her health had deteriorated so much that she could not talk or move, Rajab said.
However, the woman was released after refusing an intravenous tube, a human rights activist told CNN.

Fidel Castro quits Communist Party

Fidel Castro confirmed his exit from the Communist Party leadership on Tuesday, ceding power to his brother Raul as delegates prepare to vote on changes that could bring term limits to key posts.

The move came after the sixth Communist Party Congress approved a flurry of measures on Monday aimed at keeping Cuba's centrally planned economy from collapse but without any broad embrace of market-oriented change.

"Raul knew that I would not accept a formal role in the party today," Fidel wrote in an article on the Cubadebate.cu portal, referring to his absence from the party's new Central Committee, elected on Monday.

Castro, 84, had served as first secretary in the Central Committee of the party -- which underpins the country's Communist government -- since the party's creation in 1965.

Fidel said he had handed over the functions of the party head to Raul when he ceded power to his brother because of his own declining health in 2006, though he retained the first secretary title.

"(Raul) has always been who I described as First Secretary and Commander in Chief," Fidel wrote in the article.

"He never failed to convey to me the ideas that were planned," he added.

Castro said he supported the stepping aside of some of the older luminaries in the party, adding that "the most important thing was that I did not appear on that list.

"I have received too many honors. I never thought I would live so long."

The 1,000 delegates gathered in Havana for the four-day party congress have meanwhile approved some 300 economic proposals.

The reforms promise to inject a modicum of the free market into the island's economy ahead of a vote Tuesday expected to officially relieve Castro of his position as party head.

Reforms include the eventual trimming of a million state jobs and the decentralization of the agricultural sector.

Many of the measures have already been adopted over the past year, with the Congress now formally approving them.

Results of the voting on leadership term limits will be presented Tuesday, when Fidel would be finally officially replaced as party chief.

Raul, who turns 80 on June 3, was expected to take over as the party's new first secretary.

Raul said on Saturday that he backed term limits of 10 years for the top leadership spots, in a country he and his brother have led for more than five decades.

Fidel said he "liked the idea. I thought long and hard about the subject."

Cuba watchers were meanwhile focused on who would ascend to the party's number two position, which could signal the direction of an eventual transfer of power in the coming years.

Raul has rejected broader market-minded reforms like those adopted by China, saying they would be "in open contradiction to the essence of socialism... because they were calling for allowing the concentration of property."

Cubans have reacted to the reforms with cautious optimism, hoping that the government follows through with its pledges without harming those who depend on the public sector for employment and other basic needs.

Afghanistan should brace for more assassinations: U.S. envoy

Afghanistan's government and foreign troops should prepare for the Taliban to step up urban suicide attacks and assassinations as they shift tactics to "very focused" terrorism, the U.S. ambassador said.

Karl Eikenberry told Reuters in an interview that three insurgent attacks in just four days pointed to a change in strategy following setbacks against international and Afghan security forces.

"Our sense is that in the course of the spring and the summer that we could see continued suicide attacks, perhaps at a higher level than we saw last year," Eikenberry said on his aircraft during a fleeting visit to restive Kandahar province.

"It seems to us now that they can't hold forces in the field and they can't fight head-on. They have shifted and they have begun now a very focused terrorist campaign."

An insurgent strike on Monday killed two people in the Afghan Defense Ministry in the third attack on supposedly high-security installations in just four days.

On Friday, a suicide bomber wearing a police uniform killed Gen. Khan Mohammed Mujahid, the Kandahar police chief, while another uniformed suicide bomber on Saturday killed five NATO service members in one of the worst attacks in months.

Insurgents have long targeted powerful leaders, with Mujahid the third Kandahar police chief assassinated since 2005, but there is widespread concern that in the face of pressure from tough U.S. "surge" troops these killings will increase.

Eikenberry, a former U.S. general, visited Kandahar city on Monday for private talks with provincial governor Tooryalai Wesa in the wake of the police chief's killing, as well as visiting U.S. special forces soldiers and local leaders in the strategically vital district of Khakrez, to the northwest.

The area and its overshadowing Masoud mountain range was once a Taliban stronghold and is still a vital insurgent supply route, or "rat run," but Eikenberry and U.S. commanders say district security has improved sharply in the last year.

Eikenberry went without body armor and jumped on an open special forces buggy with a minimal escort to visit a newly built girls' school and bazaar in Darbishan village, where the turquoise dome of Afghanistan's third holiest shrine glimmered against the crags behind.

But U.S. troops admit the relationship with around 2,500 local people is still fragile, with many having close ties and even extended family bonds with the Taliban.

Much of the area, including shops and the Sufi shrine of Shah Maqsood Agha, was also shattered by U.S. air strikes in 2001 as American troops tried to drive out the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, prompting an intensive rebuild.

"There are no hard-core Taliban here any more. But they are still unsure about us. They are still not sure how long we are going to stay and if the Taliban will come back," said one special forces soldier who could not be named.

To improve the relationship, the special forces command in Kandahar has just extended rotation of elite troops from six months to a year, to better solidify ties with local elders.

"The focus is on relationships. That's the most important counter-intelligence strategy," a senior officer told Reuters in the marble courtyard of the shrine.

Eikenberry, in a flurry of shura meetings with local people in Khakrez and Kandahar, heard pleas for new schools, teachers and health clinics, but also worries about security after a transition to fully Afghan security in 2014.

"There is uncertainty throughout Afghanistan. On one hand there is a sense of pride that goes with transition, but at the same time there is a sense of apprehension," Eikenberry said.

Governor Wesa said Kandahar had been through bad periods before many times, including the January assassination of Deputy Governor Abdul Latif Ashna, and the government was resilient enough to recover from Mujahid's slaying.

"The opposition are trying as hard to disturb the security as we are trying to build security. There will be tough days, but we will be okay," Wesa said.

Eikenberry said the use of uniformed suicide bombers was a tactic that would be hard but not impossible to combat. NATO has said it is training intelligence officers specifically to search out possible infiltrators and Taliban sympathizers.

"That's a tactic that's designed to lower the trust of the Afghan people and their security forces, an effort to break down the trust within the forces themselves," he said.

"It does represent a very serious threat and the Afghan security need to ensure that their vetting processes, their recruiting are rigorous and that their counter-intelligence within the forces is effective."

Karzai challenges US group on civilian deaths

Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday urged a high-level visiting US delegation to scale back night raids and military operations causing civilian casualties.
The call came as he met John Boehner, US House Speaker, who is leading a six-member delegation from the House of Representatives which also visited Pakistan this week.
"The president of Afghanistan said the people of Afghanistan highly appreciate the assistance given by the US in the past 10 years but they want the US military to seriously reconsider arbitrary and night search operations and those operations that cause civilian casualties," a statement from Karzai's office said.
Civilian casualties during military operations and night raids are highly sensitive issues in Afghanistan and are a repeated source of tension between Karzai's administration and its Western backers.
There are around 130,000 international troops, two-thirds of them from the US, fighting an insurgency waged by the Taliban since the Islamist militants were toppled from power by a US-led invasion in 2001.A limited withdrawal of foreign troops is scheduled to begin in July, when Afghan forces will take control of security in a handful of areas ahead of a planned full transition of responsibility to Afghan troops and police by 2014.
Boehner is the most senior Republican in the US Congress and second in line for the country's presidency after Vice President Joe Biden.

Syria abolishes 48-year emergency law

The Syrian government has lifted the 48-year state of emergency after one-month-long pro-reform demonstrations in the Arab country.

The Cabinet passed a bill to end the emergency law, which was declared in 1963, in a session chaired by Prime Minister Adel Safar on Tuesday.

The Cabinet also passed a bill on a legislative decree on abolishing the Higher State Security Court, Syrian Arab News Agency reported.

In addition, another bill which regulates the right to peaceful protest was passed.

Last Saturday, President Bashar al-Assad told the first session of Syria's new government that the emergency law would be lifted by next week.

Assad formed the new government on Thursday after weeks of protests over political and economic reforms.

The demonstrations have been held in several Syrian cities since mid-March.

Tuesday package is part of the political reform program that aims at bolstering democracy, expanding citizens' participation, strengthening national unity, guaranteeing the safety of country and citizens, and confronting various challenges, according to the state news agency.

Pakistani Shi'ites oppose the 'interference of Saudi troops' in Bahrain

Hundreds of Shi'ites took to the streets in Pakistan's biggest city Karachi on Sunday in a demonstration to oppose the presence of Saudi troops in Bahrain. Holding banners, placards and flags of Shi'ite organizations, more than five hundred men, women and children marched several kilometers on one of the main streets in the city. 'Stop supporting dictators', said one placard. 'Stop attacks on civilians in Bahrain', read another. The protest leaders, while addressing the crowd, said Saudi Arabia should not interfere in Bahrain by sending its troops

Saudi Arabia arrests Shiite writer after protests

Saudi authorities have arrested a Shiite Muslim intellectual in the oil-producing eastern province where minority Shi'ites have staged protests in the strict Sunni kingdom, human rights activists said on Tuesday.

Security forces arrested al-Saeed al-Majid, a Shi'ite writer, on Sunday at his workplace in Khobar on the Gulf coast, the independent Human Rights First Society said in a statement. Shi'ite website Rasid.com confirmed the arrest.

Pakistan military strives to secure central Afghan role

The Pakistani military is scrambling to shore up ties with Afghanistan to ensure a central role in a negotiated settlement of the conflict as the beginning of a U.S. military withdrawal draws closer.

Uneasy neighbors Pakistan and Afghanistan took an important step last weekend, agreeing to include Pakistani military and intelligence officials in a commission seeking peace with the Taliban, giving Pakistan's security establishment a formal role in any talks.

Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been fraught for decades largely because Pakistan has seen successive Afghan governments as too close to its main enemy - India.

Pakistan's military has had long-running ties to the Afghan Taliban and has repeatedly said that the road to a settlement of the 10-year conflict in Afghanistan runs through Islamabad.

It has in the past frowned upon efforts by Kabul to independently launch dialogue with the Taliban and is unlikely to countenance a similar outreach by Washington to the insurgent group without its involvement.

In recent months, Pakistan has sought to improve relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai as the United States begins its withdrawal in July, and regional powers including India jostle for influence.

"This is part of General Kayani's relentless outreach to President Karzai ever since the Obama administration announced withdrawal plans," said C. Raja Mohan, a prominent Indian foreign affairs expert, referring to Pakistani army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani.

Mohan said Karzai - who has often blamed Pakistan for fueling the insurgency in his country - had responded to the Pakistani military overtures because he saw Pakistan as his hope for survival once the United States leaves.

"Karzai is looking to his political future after the U.S. withdrawal and he has asked for 'Pindi's help to find a way to work things out with the Taliban," he added, referring to Pakistani army headquarters in the city of Rawalpindi.

Feelers have gone out between the Afghan government and Taliban sympathizers, although no formal peace process has begun.

At the same time, Afghanistan and Pakistan have turned to each other when their own relations with the United States are strained.

U.S. ties with Karzai have soured since his election was called into question and over corruption. Relations with Pakistan have suffered over covert U.S. actions, including missile attacks by drone aircraft that Washington says are necessary to hunt down al Qaeda and the Taliban and which Pakistan sees as a violation of its sovereignty.

Above all, driving the flurry of diplomacy is the worry that the United States will leave Pakistan to clean up the mess after it leaves, just as it did following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.

"As we're coming to the end game, it's created a sense of urgency for an opening for all sides to come back to the table," said Cyril Almeida, a columnist for Pakistan's Dawn newspaper.

But the question, he said, is whether the younger generation of Taliban commanders is war-weary or war-hardened, and how much authority supreme Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar That uncertainty calls into question how much sway Pakistan itself has over the militants, given its ostensible abandonment of them in 2001 after an American ultimatum


Pakistan's once close relationship with the Taliban -- it was one of only three countries to recognize the brutal regime toppled by the United States in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks - has become more complicated.

"The Taliban are not a manageable force anymore. The blowback that has happened in Pakistan, the whole insurgency. They're really worried about the emboldening of characters on their side of the border," said Kamran Bokhari, Middle East and South Asia director for the global intelligence firm STRATFOR.

"They don't want the Talibanization of Afghanistan," he said, referring to Pakistani leaders.

One scenario that Pakistan is working toward is a coalition government - perhaps similar to the one in Iraq - that sees the Taliban embedded in a political process that grants them a major say, but prevents them from taking over entirely, Bokhari said.

It is unclear if the United States would be happy with that, but it may have little choice given that a military victory looks impossible.

"Ultimately, the Americans don't like the idea that there should be some negotiations with the Haqqanis and Mullah Omar," Bokhari said, referring to the most dangerous Afghan Taliban faction.

"But it's in their interest to see a little bit of a load taken off their plate," he said, referring to a Pakistani role in pressing the Taliban to talk peace.

But before Pakistan can play a major role, it must overcome distrust in Afghanistan, and a belief that it will always see the Taliban as its long-term allies in achieving its aims, including keeping India at bay, analysts in Kabul say.

"One thing is clear," said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

"Pakistan needs to play a more constructive role in Afghanistan. I don't see signs that Pakistan has given up its ideas of using the Taliban as an asset for post-2014 Afghanistan."