Sunday, June 12, 2011

Lawmakers push for new Afghan strategy

Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill are applying fresh pressure on the Obama administration to draw down U.S. troops in Afghanistan faster than many military leaders say is responsible, forcing the president to balance his party’s demands with his generals’ on-the-ground assessment as he nears another milestone in the war.

When he announced his war strategy 18 months ago, President Obama set July as the point when he would begin bringing home the approximately 100,000 U.S. service members in Afghanistan. Administration officials have portrayed the reduction as just another planned step in the president’s strategy.

But Sen. John F. Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is among a growing number of congressional leaders urging Obama to take full advantage of progress achieved over the past 18 months by narrowing the mission’s focus.

These lawmakers argue that, at a time of fiscal stress at home, the administration should concentrate on targeting al-Qaeda and protecting other U.S. security interests in the region, rather than on maintaining the broad military deployments across much of southern and eastern Afghanistan and the costly nation-building elements of the counter-insurgency strategy.

This political push could force the White House to revisit a contentious internal debate that unfolded in fall 2009, when Obama’s civilian advisers challenged the uniformed military over how best to change the course of a flagging war effort. But Obama is now making his decision amid a difficult reelection effort and when the killing of Osama bin Laden has made some lawmakers argue that the time is ripe to dramatically scale back the U.S. war effort.

“The president ought to take advantage of that success and push us in a direction that accelerates the ability of the Afghans” to take over operations, said Kerry (D-Mass.).

Obama is awaiting a set of recommendations from his military commanders on how many troops to bring home in July and the pace of withdrawal over the months ahead. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who on Friday concluded an 11-day trip that took him to Afghanistan, could deliver Gen. David H. Petraeus’s proposed options to Obama in the next week.

“The president obviously is very mindful of how we use our resources and setting priorities for how we use our resources,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Thursday. “The fact is that we believe we are making progress. . . . And when he announces the decision he makes in terms of the drawdown, I’m sure he will also put it in the context of the implementation of the strategy he put in place in December 2009.”

That month Obama announced his decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, largely adopting a surge strategy recommended by the military leadership.

For his civilian advisers worried about the scope of the escalation, Obama also set next month as the beginning of the end of the surge. As that deadline approaches, the argument over how quickly or slowly to leave a nearly decade-old war is intensifying.

When he adopted the strategy in 2009, Obama was a relatively new commander in chief still working out his relationship with his commanders. Obama has more experience as a wartime leader today, and his risky decision to authorize the raid deep inside Pakistan that killed bin Laden last month has burnished his reputation as a president who has faith in his military. Outside analysts say he may feel more able to turn down his generals’ advice.

The debate over how many troops to pull out next month has been far more muted than that months-long, leak-filled 2009 strategy review. White House officials say Obama, who receives a weekly Afghanistan update from the State Department and runs a monthly session on the war with his senior national security team, does not need an extensive internal debate or review to make this decision.

“The debates are going to be about the specifics of implementing the strategy we have embarked on. I don’t really see why we’d be focusing on revising it,” said a senior administration official who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal White House discussions.

The official said that there is “huge pressure on the Taliban” and that an “Afghan-led political process that didn’t exist before is taking some shape. Al-Qaeda is on its heels; bin Laden is dead.”

“Right now, when we do these discussions, we’re looking at how do you sustain these gains and do the transition in a way that maximizes the chances of keeping the American people safe,” the official said.

But in recent weeks, a pair of high-profile proxies have emerged representing the two sides of the administration’s internal discussion over the pace of the troop withdrawal — Kerry and Gates.

Kerry has called the war’s $10 billion-a-month cost “unsustainable,” and on Wednesday, his committee issued a report critical of the economic assistance program that is a key part of the counterinsurgency strategy’s goal of bringing stability and government to parts of the country once controlled by the Taliban.

Kerry is a longtime friend and former Senate colleague of Vice President Biden, who in the 2009 war strategy review argued for a smaller U.S. military mission in Afghanistan that would focus on weakening a-Qaeda, rather than on defeating the indigenous Taliban insurgency.

With bin Laden’s death, the civilian advisers who favor that approach, led by national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon, have a fresh argument for a more targeted — and less expensive — military mission at a time of severe fiscal strain at home. A second senior administration official said, “Kerry is obviously someone who is respected here, and he would be heard,” adding that others would be as well.

In an interview, Kerry said that “part of the struggle here is to get people here, my colleagues included,” to focus on “what is the objective.”

“What I would urge, and what the president needs to think about here, is what is the best way now to take advantage of that so that you don’t go backwards, but that you also don’t necessarily stick with the kind of reach that you had because you don’t need to,” he said. “I don’t see this as changing the current strategy because it’s somehow not working.”

But Gates has said that Obama should move cautiously in removing troops from a battlefield where the gains, in the White House’s own assessment, remain “fragile and reversible.” Obama has relied on Gates as a trusted liaison to the uniformed military, and he ends his five-year tenure this month.

“I can tell you there will be no rush to the exits,” Gates said Friday in a speech in Brussels.

He went on to say that “the vast majority of the surge forces that arrived over the past two years will remain through the summer fighting season.”

“Far too much has been accomplished, at far too great a cost, to let the momentum slip away just as the enemy is on its back foot,” he said.

While White House officials say electoral politics is not a factor in the decision, Obama is campaigning for reelection next year at the head of a party deeply opposed to the Afghanistan war.

Bringing home the surge troops by the end of the year would allow Obama to demonstrate to his party, particularly its liberal grass roots, that he is winding down the war in Afghanistan, just as he has in Iraq.

Advisers say he will probably use his commanders’ recommendations as a base line to draw from, adopting some elements and coming up with others of his own, as he did in 2009. They say there is no timeline for the decision or for his speech outlining the path ahead, other than his commitment to withdraw the first surge troops before the end of July.

“He knows this is the longest war we’ve been in and there’s war weariness in the country,” the second senior administration official said. “This isn’t about people getting his ear and persuading him. He understands. And he wants the strategy he put in place to succeed.”

Afghanistan upbeat after Pakistan talks on Taliban

Pakistan is more willing than before to play a role in Afghanistan's tentative peace process with the Taliban, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's top officials said Sunday after a visit to Islamabad.
Taliban havens in Pakistan and Islamabad's reputed ties to insurgent leaders in the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network make neighbouring Pakistan's involvement vital in any sustainable peace deal.
Karzai, who met Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, called on the Pakistani government to help Taliban rebels take part in any peace negotiations, said Mohammad Masoom Stanikzai, secretary of a peace council set up by Karzai.
"During the talks, the message of the Afghan government was very clear," he said.
"The message was that those (rebels) who want to join the peace process and reconcile should be facilitated and the means should be prepared for them in order to enable them to join the negotiations," he added.
But those who do not want to join the reconciliation process "must be dropped... No room should be left (for them to) arrange and organise and encourage people to fight and continue the war."
In response, Pakistan was "much more welcoming than at any other time", said Karzai's spokesman Waheed Omer.
"The acceptance was better and (Pakistan) made some promises about practical actions and we are hopeful that (the promises) are practised in action," he added, although he did not disclose what those promises were.
The upbeat comments came after Karzai and a raft of top aides held two days of meetings in Islamabad, just weeks after US Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, heightening calls within the United States for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan.
But relations between Kabul and Islamabad are often shrouded in distrust and mutual recrimination over the violence plaguing both countries.
The Taliban have rejected peace overtures in public. But some experts believe the death of bin Laden, whom Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar refused to surrender after the September 11, 2001 attacks, could be a spur.
Pakistan was a main ally of the Taliban until joining the US-led "war on terror" following the attacks on New York and Washington and subsequently started fighting a homegrown Taliban insurgency along the Afghan border.
But Pakistan's feared intelligence services are thought to maintain links to Afghan insurgents with strongholds on its territory, namely the Haqqani network, one of the staunchest US enemies in Afghanistan, and Taliban leaders.

Afghanistan-Pakistan peace commission meets

Afghanistan and Pakistan on Saturday held the first meeting of a joint peace commission, vowing to fight terrorism and cooperate towards establishing peace in the violence-wracked region.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai was in Islamabad for a second day of talks, just weeks after US Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, heightening calls within the United States for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan.

Relations between Kabul and Islamabad are often shrouded in distrust and mutual recriminations over the violence plaguing both their countries.
But the presence of Taliban havens in Pakistan and Pakistan's reputed ties to insurgent leaders in the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network make its involvement vital in any sustainable peace deal in Afghanistan, experts say.

The Pakistani military said CIA chief Leon Panetta, who has been nominated to replace US Defense Secretary Robert Gates on July 1, was also in town, although there was no immediate word on whether he met Karzai.

The army said he held talks with Pakistani military and intelligence officials on ways to strengthen intelligence sharing in the fallout of the bin Laden raid, which severely strained the already troubled US-Pakistani alliance.

The Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan is now into a 10th year with violence at record levels. Pakistan is also fighting a homegrown Taliban insurgency in its northwest and there are near daily militant bomb attacks.

Karzai and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani led the first meeting of a joint commission for reconciliation and peace, pledging that the body would meet again in Kabul but without announcing a date.

They committed to an Afghan-led process of reconciliation and peace, and called for the support of all Afghanistan?s international allies, the Pakistani foreign ministry said.
Both sides committed to work "closely together" for reconciliation and peace in a "holistic and comprehensive manner", and to intensify intelligence and military cooperation, it added.
"We are fighting our own war," Zardari told reporters with Karzai on Friday.
"We support the people and the government of Afghanistan. We support them. We cannot expect peace in the region without peace in Afghanistan," he added.

Karzai said the relationship between the "twin" countries had improved. "The struggle (to fight terror) is the struggle of all and the victory will be in the interests of all," he said.

Former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who heads Karzai's High Council for Peace, urged Pakistan to help end the conflict in Afghanistan after talks with pro-Taliban cleric Fazlur Rehman, who heads a prominent Islamic party.
Karzai set up the council last year to seek talks with the Taliban in return for them laying down their arms and accepting the constitution.

The Taliban have rejected peace overtures in public, although some experts believe the death of bin Laden, whom Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar refused to surrender after the September 11, 2001 attacks, could be a spur.

Pakistan was a main ally of the Taliban until it joined the US-led "war on terror" following the attacks on New York and Washington and subsequently started fighting a homegrown Taliban insurgency along the Afghan border.

But its feared intelligence services are thought to maintain links to Afghan insurgents with strongholds on its territory, namely the Haqqani network, one of the staunchest US enemies in Afghanistan, and Afghan Taliban leaders.

Fighting between the Taliban and US-led NATO troops in Afghanistan has become deadlier each year since the 2001 invasion, with Washington sending an extra 30,000 American troops last year in order to deliver a decisive blow.

The 130,000 international troops today in the country are due to start limited withdrawals from July with the Afghan police and army scheduled to take control of security gradually before the end of 2014.

In Pakistan, more than 4,400 people have been killed in attacks blamed on Taliban and other Islamist extremist networks based in the tribal belt since government troops stormed a radical mosque in Islamabad in 2007.

Shahbaz Sharif,s election’ Budget

Daily Times
The ruling PML-N in Punjab led by Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif clearly had an eye on the next elections when framing its Budget for 2011-12. That explains the attempt to include ‘populist’ measures intended to consolidate and hopefully expand its electoral outreach. In this political endeavour that may or may not make economic and financial sense, the PML-N has been immeasurably helped by the increased allocations to the provinces after the 18th Amendment and the National Finance Award. But flush coffers should not blind anyone to the need for prudent financial and economic management, particularly in the current recessionary situation. As it is, there is a lot of criticism concerning some populist measures of the Punjab government that have badly backfired and disappeared without a trace.
But first things first. The Budget 2011-12 envisages an outlay of Rs 655 billion, of which Rs 220 billion is for development. This is even more ambitious than the allocation for last year of Rs 193 billion, of which not more than Rs 123 bullion could actually be spent in the outgoing financial year. Apart from the inherent bottleneck in all the provinces, and Punjab is no exception, of lacking the capacity to absorb larger and larger development budgets and actually implement them by spending the allocations, Shahbaz Sharif’s province has an additional quirk. That is the hands-on, one-man show style of governance of the younger Sharif. This involves ignoring his own party ministers, MPAs and workers and relying only on serving and retired favourite bureaucrats. Such a non-political, highly centralised decision-making and implementation regime cannot but add to the implementation bottleneck. The current budget is miserly in allocations for the social sector, partly perhaps because of the Punjab’s ‘declaration’ of foregoing US aid.
Punjab hopes to receive Rs 531 billion from the federal divisible pool, Rs 86 billion from the provincial tax revenues and Rs 22 billion from non-tax revenues. While this means no additional taxes have had to be imposed, marginal increases in certain taxes/levies have been proposed that may have more to do with wanting to cash in on popular sentiment rather than making any significant difference to the province’s coffers. For example, taxes are to be imposed on large farmhouses (a fashion that has become one of the favourite retreats of the elite), private swimming pools, elite club members’ fees, increased token tax on cars of 1300 cc and above, and there is a proposal to tax luxury vehicles that requires the consensus of the other provinces. None of these promises huge returns.
On the other hand, the ‘populist’ measures include 15 percent increase in provincial government employees’ salaries, and a 15-20 percent increase in pensions. Also, a 20 percent increase in conveyance allowance for grades 1-15. Entertainment tax is being brought down from 65 percent to 20 percent for theatres and circuses, and a three year exemption from the tax for cinemas is proposed. The Punjab Rozgar (Employment) Scheme envisages a revival of Nawaz Sharif’s Yellow Cabs plus interest-free loans of Rs 20,000-100,000 for skilled educated persons. Rs 30 billion is marked for various subsidies like cheap roti (bread), etc. There is an attempt to tilt such employment-generating measures in favour of the deprived southern Punjab, lately restive with calls for the carving out of a Seraiki and/or Bahawalpur province.
Electoral considerations aside, the Punjab government needs seriously to revisit the failed populist measures of the recent and not so recent past. The Yellow Cabs scheme came a cropper on recoveries. The Sasti Roti (Cheap Bread) scheme swallowed billions without trace. The Food Stamps handouts are heard of no more. Unless the design of the revived or new measures is seriously examined in the light of the flaws and failures of the past, they are likely to end up like their predecessors or even worse, given the changed negative economic climate. In its own interest, the Punjab government must not shut its eyes to the pitfalls of seemingly popular measures that end up causing more harm than good in the long run.

Saudi Arabia executions on the rise, Amnesty International says

Saudi Arabia must halt the death penalty, as state-sanctioned beheadings increased exponentially in the past six weeks, the London based Amnesty International said Saturday.
"The Saudi Arabian authorities must halt this disturbing pattern, which puts the country at odds with the worldwide trend against the death penalty," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, in a press release.
About 27 people were executed in Saudi Arabia this year so far, the same as the total number of people executed in 2010. Fifteen were executed in May, AI announced.
Five of those executed this year are foreign nationals. Amnesty International has previously documented the disproportionately high number of executions of foreign nationals from developing countries.
About 100 prisoners, many foreigners, are on death row, Luther said.
Prisoners are not allowed legal resources that would allow them due process, AI claims.
"The Saudi authorities must immediately stop executions and commute all death sentences, with a view to abolishing the death penalty completely," he said.
CNN has tried to reach Saudi Arabian officials with no response. CNN cannot independently verify AI's reports and claims.

In Saudi Arabia, Comedy Cautiously Pushes Limits

You know you are attending a Saudi Arabian comedy night when the sprawling performance tent is pitched 50 miles out into the desert to avoid the morals police and, astonishingly, the ushers are women, even if they remain shrouded by the standard-issue black garments.

Then the swirling disco lights and giant speakers thumping out “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas go still for evening prayer. And sex determines the seating — bachelors on the right, families including women on the left.

“I love Riyadh!” the master of ceremonies starts in Arabic, eliciting a tepid response from the audience of about 1,000 people with his next line: “When you walk on the streets, you don’t see any women!”

Stand-up comedy in Saudi Arabia remains a somewhat clandestine affair, emerging from the raw local performers hired as warm-up acts for the mostly Arab-Americans who began touring the Middle East a few years ago. But Saudi comics are now coming into their own.

Two have established wildly popular shows on YouTube — not least because the Web has emerged as the one public space in the kingdom where it is O.K. to endorse the Arab uprisings. Comedy nights have just switched to Arabic from English, broadening their appeal, and comedians have even been asked to entertain at Koran conferences.

“It is really convenient for Saudi society because it is one person on stage; there is no acting, no women on stage, no men dressed as women,” said Ahmad Fathaldin, a 25-year-old medical student and one of six twentysomethings who write and perform the hit series “On the Fly” on YouTube. “Socially it is accepted.”

It helps that comedy’s main competition for evening entertainment basically consists of cruising the gargantuan Saudi malls — movie theaters or places that might encourage the mingling of the sexes are all banned.

Another factor that helped spawn the comedy phenomenon, and pushed it onto YouTube in the first place, is the stifling sameness of most Arab television networks.

“TV is dying a slow and painful death in this region,” said Fahad Albutairi, 26, a geophysicist and self-described skinny nerd who graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, where he first tried comedy at open-mike nights. Last November he started the other hit Saudi show on YouTube, “La Yekthar,” or “Zip It.”

Among the nearly 19 million Saudis, about 70 percent are under 30. They cannot abide yet another 200 episodes of some Turkish soap opera, Mr. Albutairi said.

“The programs don’t reflect things that matter to the average Saudi,” he said. “We broadcast out of Saudi for Saudi people by Saudi people.”

Omar Hussein, a wiry 25-year-old, supervises a diaper production line for an American conglomerate and uses his free time to star as the main mocking newscaster in “On the Fly.” Last year he and the other founders sought to create “socially responsible comedy” that riffs on the news and national chatter.

Both shows exude a Comedy Central feel and have rejected television, fearful of being censored to avoid offending advertisers. Online, they can push the limits, although not too far.

The shows avoid mentioning the royal family and the absence of the Arab Spring in the kingdom. Nor have they noted that the deposed Tunisian president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, received asylum here; and they rarely touch on the judiciary system or other bastions of Islamic puritanism.

It is a measure of the freer speech available on YouTube that they can go even as far as they do. The popular revolts rocking the Arab world have horrified the Saudi monarchy, to the point that Saudi Arabia deployed troops to smother the uprising in Bahrain.

Of the two shows, “On the Fly” skates a little closer to the precipice on political and social taboos. It ran with a sardonic news report, which the writers described as a gift, of a judge’s defending himself publicly against accusations of graft by saying that the devil possessed him. It also reported the news that a member of the religious police stabbed a man, possibly with nail clippers, after the two fought over a remark that the man’s wife should cover her face.

The most popular episode, released in February amid the upheaval in Egypt and elsewhere, received more than 635,000 hits. “We took a very clear position on the events,” said Dima Ikhwan, 23. She and Lama Sabri, a 22-year-old psychology major, are the two female writers on the show — another departure from the Saudi norm.

The episode cleverly took the form of an Arabic grammar lesson to express the popular mood. The model sentences went from “I understand, your excellency the president” to “Irhal!” or “Leave!” — a sign often brandished by protesters — to “Uff, you’re still here!”

The show also mocked a private Saudi-owned satellite channel for sticking with programs like “Arabs Got Talent” while most other networks broadcast live from the uprisings. It also ridiculed state television for showing a cooking show while devastating flash floods inundated Jidda in late January, leaving 13 people dead.

“What, are we supposed to starve because it’s raining?” Mr. Hussein deadpanned.

The show is not overtly political, however, and tries to take on all sides, particularly since Jidda, where the writers live, has a reputation among Saudis for verging on the decadent.

“On the Fly” has escaped the ire of the country’s powerful religious lobby, perhaps in part because Mr. Hussein subtly telegraphs his own faith through vocabulary and subject matter. One religious viewer commented online, “This show is great, but I wish you did it without the music and the women.”

The show exudes wit — creating short vignettes, for example, to explain the elastic uses of the word “Inshallah,” or “God willing,” including “be patient,” “scram” and “dream on.” And it endears itself by skewering reviled state institutions like Saudia, the national airline, for having 29 vice presidents, including “vice president for making sure people praying in the aisles don’t dawdle.”

Fans love that Mr. Hussein cuts to the chase while the mainstream media dances around issues. “He captures the culture, he captures the attitude and he really highlights the ridiculous on issues that are blocking us,” said Fatin Yousef Bundagji, a business consultant and activist.

The YouTube shows use humor to treat sensitive issues that result in riots elsewhere. When Terry Jones, the Florida pastor, burned Korans, Mr. Albutairi joked on “Zip It” that Mr. Jones had mistakenly ignited a few Bibles and children’s books because they were in Arabic, and he suggested that Saudi high school students send the pastor their biology textbooks.

His most popular episode, with more than 800,000 hits, was mostly about the ill-starred Saudi soccer team. “The majority of Saudis are not political, and you have to take that into account,” Mr. Albutairi said.

At the stand-up comedy show outside Riyadh, the jokes concentrated on foreign laborers and the differences between the sexes — almost none referred to the regional turmoil.

Young Saudis said they enjoyed the show. “They were not cracking me up, but you can see the potential,” said Hassan Mansouri, 27, a banker who frequented comedy clubs while studying in Boulder, Colo. “It was nice to see a Saudi flavor.”

In Saudi Arabia, both religious tradition and political suppression hinder public gatherings. So, with comedy suddenly all the rage, performers are bombarded with requests, many they consider oddly inappropriate.

“Everybody wants to do stand-up comedy everywhere and anywhere and they find any excuse,” Mr. Hussein said. He added, imitating a caller, “ ‘We have this workshop about the Koran, Omar, come do some stand-up comedy.’ I get invites like that.”

Driving While Female: More Saudi Women Stopped On The Road

Six women said they were briefly detained in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, after they drove two cars in the northwestern part of city.

As we've reported before, the ability for women to drive legally gained international attention after Manal al-Sharif was arrested twice for getting behind the wheel. Her story has inspired a movement.

The six women arrested Thursday say they met each other on Twitter a few weeks ago, and for some of them it wasn't the first time challenging government and social restrictions. As NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported, in an effort to champion women's voting rights, some in the group decided to go to registration centers and demand voting cards even though the government prohibits it.

Rasha Alduwaisi, a woman rights activist, told us this time around, they decided to drive around so one woman in the group could teach others how to drive. They chose an empty block with no traffic, a spot they used the week before to do the same thing.

"I love driving," said one of the women, who asked we not use her name because she feared for her safety. "I used to dress like a man and drive in the streets of Riyadh."

On Thursday morning she tweeted: "I gotta feeling that this afternoon will be a great afternoon."

She said they managed to drive for roughly 15 minutes before they found themselves surrounded by six police cars. She and the other five women were then taken to the police station where they were held for two hours in what seemed like a storage room, she said. The women were asked to call their male guardians to come and bail them out. The women and their guardians had to sign an affidavit saying they will not drive or even attempt to learn to drive again.

In Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, women are subject to a male guardianship system, which requires they show proof of permission from their guardian — father, brother or husband — to travel, work, or sometimes receive medical treatment at a hospital.

Senior Saudi officials have said in the past that whether women are allowed to drive is a social issue and it is society who should decide when women can drive. But society remains divided around the issue. After traffic laws were updated in 2008, Fahad al-Bishr, director of the Traffic Department in the Kingdom, said there is nothing in the law that bans women from driving.But Prince Ahmad bin Abdulaziz, deputy minister of interior, recently said in a press conference that for women, driving is against the law.

"A statement was issued in 1990 prohibiting women from driving cars in the Kingdom. The Ministry of Interior's task is to implement an order. It is not our job to say something is right or wrong," he said.

Alduwaisi, 30, a stay-at-home mother who has been actively involved with an online effort to promote women's rights in the country, was one of the six women detained on Thursday. "We're waiting in a tiny dirty dusty room!" she posted on Twitter. Waiting in that room for her husband to come bail her out, she was nervous, thinking about her two children.

The 23-year-old woman who requested anonymity said a feeling of injustice started to sink inside her while in detention.

"Why are we being dragged like drug dealers over something that is not big of a deal?" she asked. Women cannot simply wait for the government to give them the right to drive cars, she said. "We have to fight for driving."

A Facebook group created in May is calling for Saudi women to take to the streets in their cars en masse on June 17. Al-Sharif, one of the leaders behind the Facebook group, was arrested on May 22, after she drove and posted a video on YouTube of herself while driving. Al-Sharif was detained for nine days before being released. After her release, al-Sharif announced she will no longer take part in the campaign. But a statement published on the Facebook group said the campaign is still on track and that "June 17 will be the day when women start driving their own cars."

However, several women activists that we spoke to said they remain pessimistic about the prospects of the campaign. The detention of Manal al-Sharif in addition to the arrest of the six girls on Thursday would be enough to intimidate most women, they said.

"I don't think anything will happen," Alduwaisi said, "but I want to be surprised."

Pakistan got $30b from US after 1948

As the US lawmakers are contemplating the feasibility of massive aid to Pakistan in the aftermath of bin Laden’s killing, a congressional report has informed them that since 1948 Islamabad has got over $30 billion aid from America, two-thirds of which came after 9/11 attacks.
“Some question the gains from the aid, saying there is a lack of accountability and reform by the Pakistani government, and any goodwill generated by it is offset by widespread anti-American sentiment among the Pakistani people,” Congressional Research Service (CRS) informed the Congress in a 47-page internal report this week. The report says that Pakistan has been among the leading recipients of US foreign assistance both historically and in FY2010.

PML (N) legislators .....Put them on mat

Haven’t the people sent up lawmakers to legislate and address their problems, not to stage comedy shows? Then how comes the PML (N) legislators were putting up such a vulgar display of catcalls and rowdyism during the finance minister’s budget speech? Is this for what the hard-pressed taxpayer is paying through his nose for their royal upkeep and lifestyle? Not that the people ever have had any high expectations of so-called people’s representatives.

Never ever have they harboured any illusions about their caliber or faculties. They know for sure intellectual bankruptcy, mental superficiality and political immaturity are the dominant traits of the nobility gracing the nation’s elected chambers in the garb of people’s chosen representatives.
Still, they had hoped the legislators would give a patient hearing to the minister’s speech and then rip into it and tear it apart for its speciousness during the budget debate. For, never ever have had this nation such harrowing times as is it having under the incumbent rulers presently. On their watch, their economic woes are multiplying by leaps and bounds on daily-basis. And they had hoped the opposition legislators would show the rulers the mirror to look into and spit at their ugly images for being so apathetic to the people’s ravaging miseries. Not that the PML (N) mob would be braying like wild asses and behaving even worse than street urchins, with an eye not on the budget books, but on the gallery.
Indeed, the street behaved at once honourably and respectably. For the most part, it ignored the speech but broke no windowpanes and indulged in no such bunkum show as offering a piece of bread to anybody or throwing bangles at anyone. It just took no notice of the speech, thus registering its protest against the raw deal the incumbent rulers have dealt it and its distrust in them of delivering anything good.

Those who had listened were measured in their responses, saying they were not impressed though, but would await fuller details to make an informed view. But the PML (N) mob rejected the budget out of hand without even turning a page of bulky budget documents resting untouched on its tables.
What? Are the PML (N) eminences some kind of little emperors and this country their sultanate and its people their slaves? Or, are they some sort of colonial rulers and this land their colony and its residents their subjects? Or, is this country their mama-papas’ real state and its 170 million people their serfs? Why did they create that uncalled-for abominable rumpus? Since they discharged no duty to the electorate on the day, if they have some sense of morality and shame, will they surrender their day’s emoluments?

The educated urban youths, at least, must rise up and demand this and get this. They must show themselves up no lesser than those admirable Arab youths shaking up entrenched autocracies and embedded parasitic elitist gentries from the roots.

Budgets of Punjab and Sindh...Budgets of expediency

The most conspicuous of a number of commonalities in the budgets of Punjab and Sindh, is that neither ruling party has ventured to tax the farm income and once again let feudal barons continue to evade tax that they have been doing since the creation of Pakistan. Very obviously, the ruling parties — the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-N – have their eyes focused on the next general election due in 2013 and can ill-afford to annoy the powerful feudal class that has a decisive political clout. Conspicuously, the MQM also failed to make their output to Sindh budget. Both provinces do not either seem eager to mobilize their internal resources. They rather depended heavily on the federation giving them their due under the Seventh NFC Award. Both the provinces have not either given indication of holding the next local government elections.
Punjab presented Rs654.7 billion budget earmarking Rs220 billion for the annual development programme (ADP). But taxation schemes seem poor as it envisages additional levies on motor vehicle (token) tax on engines greater than 1,000CC in power, swimming pools and farmhouses of more than four kanals in area. This scheme appears like a half-hearted taxation measure in not likely to give the government of the largest province a revenue more than Rs2 billion. The claimants of breaking the “begging bowl” will also get an American financial assistance of $200 million for development schemes. Punjab also hopes it would obtain a Rs48.61 billion loan to replenish its fiscal management from multilateral and lenders.
However, the most cruel joke junior Sharif’s administration has cut is that it would provide Rs20,000 one-time interest-free loan to 100,000 educated unemployed youth to start their small business. The budget revived the controversial yellow cab scheme that in 1992 robbed banks of Rs17 billion. The yellow cab scheme saw PML-N middle hierarchy cartels booking hundreds of the taxi cabs and later selling them in market at much a higher price. Both are said to be self-employment schemes but will Mr Shahbaz Sharif please tell the “small” business that can be started with Rs20,000.
However, what excels Punjab is its bid to generate some 500 MW of hydroelectric, thermal and solar power in public-private partnership for which a handsome amount of Rs9.4 billion has been earmarked and an energy department established that will also be responsible for small dams. A Chinese firm is coordinating in 120MW Taunsa Barrage hydroelectric power. Five more similar projects are also on the cards in addition to solar tube wells.
Sindh presented Rs457 billion budget with revenue receipts of Rs458.4 showing a surplus of Rs882 million. The annual development outlay is Rs161 billion while revenue from federal divisible pool is estimated at Rs251.9 billion, up by 21 per cent over the ongoing fiscal.
The largest and the second largest provinces of the country which have a population of more than 75 per cent, have shown no special initiative for education, health, safe drinking water, rural development and mitigating the sufferings of the people. They have also not given any scheme for poverty alleviation either, rather considering the Benazir Income Support Programme as a sufficient safety net for the poorest of the poor.

Rs249bn budget for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

Keeping in view the next general election, the coalition government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa presented on Saturday a Rs249.151 billion balanced budget for 2011-12, one-third of which is to be spent on the Annual Development Programme (ADP).

Finance Minister Mohammad Humayun Khan presented the budget in the provincial assembly amid an unusual calm as the opposition did not cause any problem.

The budget proposed no new levy, but an increase in the rates of taxes and water cess and bringing private professional colleges into the tax net will increase the cost of different services.

Relief in penalties on late registration of vehicles and reduction in sales tax on services from 17 to 16 per cent in line with the federal budget are part of the budgetary proposals.

Apart from an all-time high Rs85.141 billion ADP, the provincial government announced self-employment schemes for skilled people, stipend for outstanding students, technical education programmes and continuation of some ‘pro-poor’ plans. The schemes will cost Rs4.5 billion.

Discretionary funds of MPAs have been doubled to Rs20 million to let them undertake maximum development schemes.

A new provincial department for rehabilitation and reconstruction will be set up and 6,992 posts created.

In line with the federal government’s announcement, salary and pension of government servants has been raised by 15 to 20 per cent. Conveyance allowance has been extended to employees of grades 1 to 15 across the province. Earlier, only employees serving in Peshawar district were entitled to the allowance.

The budget outlay is almost 16 per cent lower than the current year’s budget mainly because borrowings from commercial banks for procurement of wheat and grains have not been made part of the estimates.

According to budget documents, the provincial government intends to generate Rs87.706 billion against the head. The size of the budget including this figure is Rs336.857 billion.

It envisages revenue receipts of Rs232.788 billion, compared to Rs200.7 billion revised estimates for the current financial year — an increase of 14 per cent.

Of the general revenue receipts, a major chunk of Rs149.988 billion is to be received from the federal divisible pool under the National Finance Commission award.

The province’s share in funds specified for offsetting the impact of the war on terror has grown by almost Rs4 billion to Rs18.022 billion.

According to the revised estimates for 2010-11, the province has secured the second Rs25 billion instalment of net hydel profit arrears in accordance with a commitment by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

A similar projection has also been made for the next financial year in addition to the provinces royalty on hydroelectric power generation capped at Rs6 billion.

Straight transfers (royalty on oil and gas) appear to be a growing source of income as the province estimated the receipt of Rs14.649 billion by the end of this month against an initial estimate of Rs9.368 billion.

An amount of Rs13.806 billion has been projected in the budget and officials expect the figure to rise after an expected increase in gas tariff.

The budget proposals envisage Rs7.349 billion as the province’s own receipts through tax and non-tax measures against this year’s revised estimate of Rs6.937 billion.

This indicates that the province’s own contribution to its budget has plummeted to less than three per cent, raising serious questions about the abilities of both tax and non-tax collecting agencies.

The budget envisages a current revenue expenditure of Rs149 billion —almost seven per cent higher than the revised estimates for this year.
Of the expenditures, the police budget tops all the sectors at Rs18.81 billion.

Education and health jointly get Rs13.12 billion, irrigation Rs2.34 billion, technical education Rs1.23 billion, housing and communications Rs2.32 billion, pension and insurance Rs16 billion and district salaries Rs50.82 billion.

The province will spend Rs10.6 billion on debt serving and Rs2.5 billion as subsidy on wheat. The size of the ADP is 19 per cent larger than the development budget for 2010-11.

Of the Rs85.141 billion, Rs69.028 billion will be generated from the provinces’ own resources and Rs16.112 billion foreign component. The programme comprises 1,035 projects — 632 ongoing and 403 new.

A major portion of the funds has been earmarked for ongoing schemes to ensure the completing of maximum projects during the year.

The pro-poor schemes to the launched include the Pakhtunkhwa Hunermand Scheme which envisages provision of small loans of Rs50,000 to Rs300,000 to skilled people through the Bank of Khyber.

The Satoori da Pakhtunkhwa (stars of Pakhtunkhwa) scheme aims at giving a monthly stipend of Rs10,000 to Rs15,000 to outstanding students of matriculation and intermediate for two years.

A special capacity building programme for nurses of public sector hospitals will cost Rs500 million.

Two blasts hit Peshawar market; 34 killed


Twin bomb blasts minutes apart ripped through a crowded supermarket complex killing 34 people and injuring more than 80 in Peshawar late Saturday.

The attack hit the Khyber Super Market area, which includes residential flats for students, shops, a fruit juices kiosk and a hotel.

A first explosion lured in onlookers and emergency services before a second more powerful blast, believed to be from a suicide strike, went off.

“At least 34 people were killed and more than 80 injured in the blasts,”senior local police official Ijaz Khan told AFP, saying the blasts were only four minutes apart.

Those killed included two journalists working for local English-language newspapers Pakistan Today and The News.

“The first blast was quite small but as people gathered close to the site of the explosion, the second one, which was real big one, went off,” he said.

Another senior local police official, Kalam Khan, confirmed the death toll. There were no immediate claims of responsibility.

“The first blast was triggered by a timed device planted in the bathroom of the hotel while a suicide bomber riding a motorbike blew himself up near the hotel,” bomb disposal chief Shafqat Malik told AFP.

“We have found head and some other body parts of the bomber from the attack site,” Malik added.

Peshawar borders the tribal region and has been repeatedly hit by bombings over the past few years.

Peshawar: 5 killed in two blasts

At least 5 people were killed and 31 others injured in two blasts on Sunday in Peshawar.The blasts occurred near Khyber Super Markeet in Peshawar, as a result 5 people were killed and 31 were injured.
Injured were rushed to local hospitals while security forces cordoned off the area after the incident.