Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Afghan finance minister slams IMF

Afghanistan's finance minister accused the International Monetary Fund of "playing games" and said the country was "running out of patience" amid a crisis linked to the collapse of a top bank.

Hundreds of millions of dollars of aid have been withheld from Afghanistan, one of the world's poorest countries, in recent months as it currently does not have an IMF support program, which donors see as a sign of good governance.

This is due to disagreements between the Afghan government and the IMF, particularly over how to resolve the crisis surrounding Kabul Bank, once Afghanistan's biggest.

The troubled lender was split into a "good" and "bad" bank in April in a bid to save it from collapse after former executives granted themselves off-the-books loans worth a reported $900 million.

Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal lashed out at the IMF over its handling of the affair during a press conference in Kabul, hinting that Afghanistan could pull out of negotiations.

"If the IMF or some other donors want to play games, we are running out of patience," said Zakhilwal.

"We have been in negotiation with the IMF for nine to 10 months. We have fulfilled almost all their conditions, in particular on the Kabul Bank issue, but every time we meet their conditions, they bring new ones."

He added: "When there is a confrontation which cannot give a result and when it is more a political game, we cannot continue."

Afghanistan says it has now met 10 out of 12 conditions set by the IMF for reviving its programme.

It insists that the two remaining measures must be agreed by parliament and that lawmakers will address the issue after their summer break, which lasts for more than a month and has yet to start.

Zakhilwal has said that 40 percent of Afghanistan's ordinary budget is financed by the international community.

Kabul Bank was founded in 2004 by Sherkhan Farnood, a leading international poker player, and other co-owners included Mahmood Karzai, a brother of the president.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad grants amnesty, supporters rally

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a general amnesty on Tuesday, a day after he promised wide-ranging but vague reforms to counter a three-month popular revolt against his autocratic rule.
Activists and analysts had dismissed Assad's promises on Monday, saying they failed to engage the demands of protesters who for three months have defied a fierce military crackdown in rallying for greater freedoms, posing the gravest challenge to his 11-year tenure.
The pardon, the second of its kind in three weeks, includes anyone who committed crimes until June 20, the state news agency SANA said. After the first amnesty, Syrian authorities freed hundreds of political prisoners but rights groups say there are still thousands languishing in Syrian jails.
Assad said on Monday he would ask the Justice Ministry to look into issuing a wider amnesty because, according to meetings he held with local leaders, he "felt that the (first) amnesty was not satisfactory for many...and there is a desire that this (second) amnesty be more inclusive."
Rights groups say the crackdown against protesters has intensified since the first amnesty was announced on May 31 and hundreds of people have been arrested.
On Tuesday tens of thousands of Syrians

turned out for pro-Assad rallies across the country in support of Assad's address in which he promised reforms that were immediately dismissed by protesters.
State television showed rallies in Aleppo, Damascus, and the southern city of Deraa, where protests against Assad first erupted in mid-March. People waved the country's tri-color flag, carried pictures of the president and flew red, white and black balloons in the air.
Witnesses in Deraa said security forces opened fire to disperse several thousand protesters in the city's old quarter.
They took to the streets in reaction to a pro-government rally in the Mahatta area which they said employees and army forces in civilian clothes had been ordered to attend.

Saudi women’s activism accelerates

In the past few days, some Saudi women have been answering a Facebook-organized campaign that encouraged them to flout their country’s female driving ban and get behind the wheel to do everyday chores. It’s hardly the pretext for the sort of bloody uprising seen in other Arab countries, but the question of whether women should be allowed to drive goes to the very heart of Saudi society’s values.

It’s not clear how many women have been driving. The number runs to dozens at most – hardly enough to sweep away the restrictive gender-based laws. But nearly all those who have been sharing their experiences on social media or have spoken to the press are professional, well-educated women, and this, perhaps, is the most compelling aspect of the protest.

Forget the driving ban for a moment. It captures international attention because Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women can’t drive. Saudi feminists and their male supporters are, in fact, quietly laying the groundwork for massive social change by focusing on education.

Private women’s colleges are springing up all over the kingdom. Indeed, 60 per cent of all college or university graduates are women. These girls are motivated and driven probably because they’ve had to fight for everything in a way their indulged brothers who occupy an exulted place in the family never have.

The enrolment of girls in primary and higher education grew by an average of 8.3 per cent a year, compared with 4.2 per cent for boys between 1975 and 2000, according to United Nations figures.

The latest school to open is Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University, a women-only institution in Riyadh built to accommodate 50,000 students. So far, 28,000 are enrolled. Among the degrees offered are those in medicine, dentistry, information technology and languages.

The most respected is Dar Al-Hekma College, a private women’s school in Jeddah that’s financially backed by the business community. Dar Al-Hekma opened in 1999, has 1,500 students and offers one of the few Saudi degrees recognized internationally.

The government also pays tuition and board for the thousands of women who travel to the West – particularly Britain and the United States – every year to study.

This is already having an impact. An American-educated teacher was appointed vice-minister for women’s education in 2009, becoming the first female Saudi minister.

Manal al-Sharif, who was jailed for 10 days in May because she drove, is an IT specialist. So is Maha al-Qahtani, who got behind the wheel of her SUV on Friday in Riyadh with her husband, a human-rights activist. Women who have previously violated the driving ban included dentists and university lecturers.

The potential is huge. Saudi women own 40 per cent of the country’s private wealth, and, according to Amnesty International, there are 16,390 women-owned businesses, although laws on segregating the sexes in the workplace make it difficult for them to pursue capitalism as freely as their male counterparts.

Saudi women, unfortunately, still make up only 15 per cent of the labour force, and of those who do work, 95 per cent are in the public sector. These jobs are socially acceptable because working in the service of your nation is considered patriotic.

Yet, it’s hard to believe that the next generation of such highly educated women and their daughters will submissively stay at home or accept personal status laws that force them to seek permission from a male guardian before travelling or undergoing medical procedures.

It may be Saudi men who are left behind as women are propelled to the forefront of social change.

Hamida Ghafour is an author and journalist who has reported extensively from the Muslim world. She is currently based in the Netherlands.

Peshawar's 60 per cent people are nearing to become psychological patients

The drone attacks by US spy planes and acts of terrorism have not only affected the mental health of tribesmen but also the people of settled areas.

“About 80 per cent residents of South and North Waziristan agencies have been affected mentally while 60 per cent people of Peshawar are nearing to become psychological patients if these problems are not addressed immediately,” according to a survey conducted by an NGO, Horizon.

Conducted under the supervision of noted psychologist Dr Khalid Mufti, the survey said that seven to nine per cent children became victims of phobia owing to consistent telecast of terrorism related scenes by TV channels.

The skyrocketing price hike, energy crisis, lawlessness and untidiness had also made many people mentally retarded, it added.

It would be very difficult to save future of youth if the existing situation remained unchanged, said Dr Mufti. He urged TV channels to avoid telecasting footage of terrorism related incidents to improve mental health of people and children exposed to phobia and other disorders.

Underling the need for creating jobs opportunities and recreational activities to improve lives of people in restive areas, Dr Mufti said that owing to economic disparity, torture and domestic disputes, people of the affected areas were inclining to use of narcotics.

During the last one decade, he said, youths were confronted with mental and economic pressure while children and women were exposed to depression owing to uncertain situation.

“These problems need to be addressed for survival of our young generation and improving lifestyle of people,” he added.

Dr Mufti appealed to people to work for establishment of a peaceful society to get rid of mental worries, problems and use of drugs. “For this purpose every segment of the society has to play a positive and constructive role,” he said.

Pakistani Prime Minister.....So what?

The prime minister says his ruling party PPP has implemented 80 percent of the so-called charter of democracy. So what? Has that thrown out terrorism, extremism and militancy from the country and brought peace, security and tranquility to the people? Has that led up to a booming national economy, generating jobs and opportunities aplenty for the citizens to advance and prosper? Has that wiped out power load-shedding, gas shortages, and petrol CNG scarcities from the country? Has that curbed spiraling cost of living, making the people’s lives bit easier and livable? Has that that spawned abundance of facilities worth the name for the masses for their children’s schooling and their families’ healthcare? And has that given them a tidy and efficient administration to serve them dedicatedly and do their jobs competently without their having to grease some palms? And what if his party implements the rest 20 percent of this “miraculous” charter in his term’s remaining two years, as he says it would? Will then become an El Dorado of Pakistan, with canals of honey and rivers of milk flowing all over it? Will ever indeed the prime minister understand what are the people’s real needs and how a gigantic failure has he been in living up to their expectations so far? Had he had any sense of the public pulse, he would have known it was not a change in power equations but a change to their lives the people had been craving for, on which account he has been such a huge disappointment to them. Never ever had they had such an inept, incompetent and corrupt government as is his, is the people’s shrill resonating from corner to corner of the country. Never ever had the citizens been dealt as raw a deal as on his watch is the deafening public outcry. Discontent, despondency, frustration and disgust are reigning supreme in every niche of the land. And yet the prime minister is gloating of a feat that has no taker at all on any street. From day one, the mass of the people had had no infatuation for this spurious charter. Nothing it had in it for them; no recipe it contained for the biting problems besieging their miserable lives. It was all about the ambitions, yearnings and grouses of the elites. Even though funnily labeled as “democracy” charter, that was a mere chicanery, a big hoax. In reality, nothing had it do with democracy, when we are no democracy at all but a plutocracy in essence, substance and content. No rule of the people, for the people and by the people we are. A rule of the elites, for the elites and by the elites we in reality are, verifiably. Our being a democracy is patently a big lie, churned out by the blue-blood and promoted equally deceitfully by their cheerleaders in the media, commentariat and chattering classes. Both lie, blandly and hypocritically. How democracy could we be when 70 percent of our citizens are still in these contemporary times living in the oppressive thralldom of feudal lords in our sprawling countryside, with no right even to their lives, honour and dignity, what to speak of freedom to vote as they will? Come election, the same overbearing aristocracy or its favoured henchmen will always return to the governments and legislatures. Only faces may change; but change would not the blood or the pedigree. Still, the prime minister could have spared the masses he has ignored throughout so callously the torture of sprinkling salt on their anguished hearts and wounded souls with this audacious democracy charter talk. Even the toadying cheerleaders of the blue-blood have lately become much less talkers of it. Not that a people showing no pluck to stand up for their rights and harbouring among their ranks a spineless younger generation deserve such mercies. They get what they deserve rightly: ignominy, humiliation and neglect. Still, the prime minister can afford to be magnanimous. Rub he should not again this democracy charter perfidy on the gored bodies of the prostrate masses. If he gives them their needs, they would do without a democracy charter.

Pakistani girl forced to wear suicide vest

Cruel,ignorant,muslim taliban fanatic militants kidnapped a 9-year-old girl on her way to school and forced her to wear a suicide bomb vest. The girl and police said she managed to escape her captors as they directed her to attack a paramilitary checkpoint in northwest Pakistan.

Sohana Jawed, who is in third grade, said she was abducted near her home in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Saturday and taken to Lower Dir district, a four hours' drive away, where she was found Monday.

Police in Lower Dir presented Jawed at a news conference, where she told her story dressed in her blue and white school uniform. But police in Peshawar said they haven't received a complaint of a missing girl and haven't identified a resident with her name.

Initial police reports of security incidents in Pakistan are sometimes wrong.

Militants in the country have often used young boys to carry out attacks, but the use of young girls is rare.

Jawed said during the news conference that she was grabbed by two women while on her way to school and forced into a car carrying two men.

One of the kidnappers put a handkerchief over her mouth that knocked her unconscious, Jawed said in a separate interview with a local TV station.

When she woke up and started crying, one of the women gave her cookies laced with something that again knocked her out, Jawed said. The next time she woke up she found herself in a strange home, she said.

"This morning, the women and men forced me to put on the heavy jacket and put me in the car again," said Jawed.

The suicide vest contained nearly 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of explosives and seemed to be designed to be set off remotely, Lower Dir police chief Salim Marwat told The Associated Press.

"Most likely it had to be detonated through a remote control since a minor was wearing it," he said.

The kidnappers brought her to a checkpoint run by the paramilitary Frontier Corps located about 6 miles (10 kilometers) outside Timergarah, the main town in Lower Dir district. When they got out of the car, she sprinted toward the paramilitary soldiers to show them what she was wearing, said Marwat.

"I got the chance to release my hand from the woman and run," said Jawed.

By the time the paramilitary soldiers realized what was happening, the kidnappers had escaped, said Marwat. Police have launched a search operation to find them, he said.

It's unclear why the kidnappers didn't detonate the suicide bomb vest after Jawed ran away. Marwat suggested they may have simply panicked and fled.

Asif Khan, the police chief in the area of Peshawar where Jawed said she lived and was kidnapped, Hashtnagri, said they haven't received a complaint of a missing girl and haven't identified a resident with her name.

Police in Lower Dir plan to ask Jawed additional questions after she is examined by a psychiatrist, who is helping her cope with the trauma of her ordeal.

"Police will try to get more information from her once she gets normalized," said Marwat.

US troops coming home? Obama to say on Wednesday

President Barack Obama

will announce the critical next steps in America's decade-long war in Afghanistan on Wednesday, outlining both a plan to start bringing thousands of U.S. troops home next month and a broader withdrawal blueprint aimed at giving Afghans control of their own security in 2014.

But even as Obama finalizes those plans, there are divisions in his administration, with military leaders favoring only a gradual reduction in troops but other advisers advocating a significant decrease in the coming months.

Administration officials say Obama is still working through the details on how many troops will start leaving Afghanistan in July, his self-imposed deadline for beginning the drawdown. He is considering a range of options presented to him last week by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.

"He's finalizing his decision. He's reviewing his options," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday.

Obama is expected to make Wednesday's announcement in Washington. On Thursday, he will visit troops at Fort Drum, the upstate New York military base that is home to the 10th Mountain Division, one of the most frequently deployed divisions to Afghanistan and Iraq.

While much of the attention is focused on how many troops will leave Afghanistan next month, the more telling aspects of Obama's decision center on what happens after July, particularly how long the president plans to keep the 30,000 surge forces he sent in 2009 in the country.

There is a growing belief that the president must at least map out the initial withdrawal of the surge troops when he addresses the public. But whether those forces should come out over the next eight to 12 months or slowly trickle out over a longer time is hotly debated.

Military commanders want to keep as many of those forces in Afghanistan for as long as possible, arguing that too fast a withdrawal could undermine the fragile security gains in the fight against the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, the al-Qaida training ground for the Sept. 11 attacks. There are also concerns about pulling out a substantial number of U.S. forces as the heightened summer fighting season gets under way.

Retiring Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he believes the initial drawdown should be "modest".

But other advisers are backing a more significant withdrawal that starts in July and proceeds steadily through the following months. That camp believes the slow, yet steady, security gains in Afghanistan, combined with the death of Osama bin Laden and U.S. success in dismantling much of the al-Qaida network in the country give the president an opportunity to make larger reductions this year.

There is also growing political pressure on Capitol Hill for a more significant withdrawal. Twenty-seven senators, Democrats as well as Republicans, sent Obama a letter last week pressing for a shift in Afghanistan strategy and major troop cuts.

"Given our successes, it is the right moment to initiate a sizable and sustained reduction in forces, with the goal of steadily redeploying all regular combat troops," the senators wrote. "The costs of prolonging the war far outweigh the benefits."

There is broad public support for starting to withdraw U.S. troops. According to an Associated Press-GfK poll last month, 80 percent of Americans say they approve of Obama's decision to begin withdrawal of combat troops in July and end U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan by 2014. Just 15 percent disapprove.

Obama has tripled the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan since taking office, bringing the total there to about 100,000. The 30,000 troop surge he announced at the end of 2009 came with the condition that he would start bringing forces home in July 2011.

The president took months to settle on the surge strategy. This time around, aides say the process is far less formal and Obama is far more knowledgeable about the situation in Afghanistan than he was in 2009, his first year in office.

Obama has said the July withdrawal will be "significant," though aides haven't quantified that. They do say Obama sees the initial drawdown in July as part of a larger strategy aimed at ending the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and turning security responsibility over to the Afghans.

On a trip to Afghanistan earlier this month, Gates advocated for a comprehensive decision from the president.

"I think to make a decision on July in complete isolation from anything else has no strategic meaning," Gates said. "And so part of that has to be kind of, what's the book end? Where are we headed? What's the ramp look like?"

Gates is retiring from the Pentagon June 30.

There are also indications that the administration, having learned from the U.S. experience in Iraq, will set deadline dates for the drawdown as it progresses, in order to keep pressure on the Afghans and give Congress mileposts.

With Iraq as a blueprint, commanders will need time to figure out what they call "battlefield geometry" — what types of troops are needed where. Those could include trainers, intelligence officers, special operations forces, various support units — from medical and construction to air transport — as well as combat troops.

Much of that will depend on where the Afghan security forces are able to take the lead, as well as the state of the insurgency. Part of the debate will also require commanders to determine the appropriate ratio of trainers versus combat troops.