Monday, October 22, 2012
Fourteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai continues to recover in the UK. Doctors say that the young activist is now able to stand up with help and can communicate by writing. Malala was shot in the head and shoulder earlier this month by the Taliban in Pakistan for speaking out against them. Malala was flown to the UK last Monday to receive specialized medical care and protection from further attacks.
Pakistan Director of Human Rights Watch, Ali Dayan Hasan spoke to The Express Tribune on the state's appeasement of sectarian violence, lack of transparency in military's involvement in alleged extrajudicial killings and crisis of criminal justice system in the country.
Malala continues to make steady progress and is in a stable condition at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham. She has now been in the hospital for one week, under the care of a specialist team from both the Queen Elizabeth and Birmingham Children’s hospitals.
http://www.rferl.orgThe UN says that civilian casualties from roadside bombs in Afghanistan have increased by almost a third in the first nine months of this year. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a statement on October 20 that improvised explosive devices (IEDs) "killed 340 civilians and injured a further 599 over the past nine months, an increase of almost 30 per cent compared to the same period last year." It added that "IEDs are by far the biggest killer of civilians in Afghanistan's armed conflict." The agency called on the Taliban leadership "to publicly reiterate a ban on these weapons and to stop their use."
http://www.rferl.orgAfghan President Hamid Karzai has met in Kabul with U.S. President Barack Obama’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman.
PESHAWAR: Minister for Finance and PPP Provincial General Secretary, Engr Humayun Khan said Sunday that European Union (EU) will provide 80 million euros for restoration/repair of infrastructure in militancy affected Malakand division and capacity building of health and education institutions. "In this regard, an agreement between Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Government and EU would hopefully be reached this month," he told APP during an interview. He said the confidence of EU and other donors have been enhanced on the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Government referring to the assistance received in the past comprises 84 percent loan and only 16 percent grant while at present it is more than 80 percent grant. This reflects the confidence of the donor agencies in our growth oriented policies, relief programms and good performance, he added. He said the government has constructed and repaired schools, additional class rooms besides providing medicines and machines to hospitals in DI Khan and Buner districts by utilising the conditional funds received from donors. This year, he said, development work would be carried out in six districts of the province under the conditional fund and later would be expended to others districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The minister said the donor agencies and friends of Pakistan during Donors Conference held in Islamabad under the aegis of KP Government, had hinted investment in relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation projects in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which is welcome and good omen. He highly commended the assistance and support of international donor's organisations and expressed optimism that they would honour their aid pledges and will continue assistance for socio-economic emancipation of people affected by militancy and terrorism. Humayun said that financial position of KP Government is strong and stable and a record three percent increase has been made in the total outlay of Annual Development Programme 2012-13 of the province. Despite the grave challenges of terrorism and militancy, he said the total ADP outlay of KP Government that was only Rs. 33 billion in first year has jumped to record Rs. 97billion. He said increasing the share of province from 43 percent to 57.5 percent in federal divisible pool was highly commendable effort of the present government and a major step towards provincial autonomy. He said the government has presented growth oriented and friendly budget for current fiscal year with no new tax which was appreciated by opponents as well. He said relief is being provided to people affected by terrorism and militancy referring to Bacha Khan Alleviation Programme, waving of small loans in Malakand Division, stars of Khyber Pakthunkhwa programme etc. He said that annual installment of capped amount of Rs. 6 billion under the net hydel profits of Rs. 110 billion is being regularly received while negotiation with the provincial and federal governments are underway for increasing the annual profit under electricity head to KP government and the people would soon hear good news, adding interest of the province would be protected at all cost. Regarding load-shedding, the minister said work on several hydropower projects including Darar Khwar, Khan Khwar and Mataltan have been started to address this issue are permanent basis and increase the province income. He said development and peace are interlinked and the government was spending maximum amount for improving law and order and strengthening of law enforcement agency. He said law and order situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in general and Malakand in particular improved.
The Express TribuneIf the Asghar Khan case is pursued to its logical end, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leadership will vanish from politics, claims Punjab Governor Sardar Latif Khosa. Addressing a ceremony at Chand Rai village near Chongi Amar Sidhu on Sunday, Khosa said that the distributers and recipients of cash handouts have committed treason. He was referring to the then-ISI and army chiefs and the politicians who formed the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) at their behest in the run-up to the 1990 general elections. Khosa added that those who “usurped the rights of the people” should be tried for treason under Article 6 of the Constitution. In a veiled reference to the PML-N chief, Khosa alleged that some politicians were groomed during [Gen Ziaul Haq] martial law and rose to power through undemocratic means. “Such politicians have been unmasked – they are not interested in the democratic process,” he alleged. In an indirect criticism of the judiciary, Khosa said while the apex court decided cases involving the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) it should also ensure a speedy trial of the case against Shahbaz Sharif who “took over the province unconstitutionally, four years back”. Khosa urged the Supreme Court to decide the judicial murder of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) so that “character assassination of the creator of the country’s Constitution” could be stopped once and for all. For the PPP, politics is like a religious obligation (ibaadat),” Khosa said. “It is a party of martyrs like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir Bhutto.” Later, Governor Khosa also visited the residence of late advocate Shakir Ali Rizvi to offer condolences to his family. Rizvi was shot dead by unidentified gunmen last week in Lahore.
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) General Secretary Senator Jahangir Badr has said that his party was fully satisfied and also appreciates the Supreme Court’s (SC) short decision in the Asghar Khan case. Addressing a press conference at the Lahore Press Club on Sunday, Badr termed the SC decision as historical, saying it would give a new direction to make things better. Badr said that the PPP-led coalition government would not intervene in the court matter in the Asghar Khan case. However, he appealed to the court that it should not only uncover the names of responsible persons in its detailed decision but also order them to return with interest the actual amount they received as bribe. The PPP leader also asked the SC to impose fines on those who took money and ask them to compensate the direct victims of the (IJI) case. Explaining the compensation for politicians who faced defeat due to manipulation in the 1990 elections, he said that these “defeated-cum-victimised politicians” of PPP should be declared winners along with some monetary compensation.
By ruling against an Army-ISI-Nawaz Sharif nexus in 1990, the pitch has been raised for greater political transparencyA landmark verdict by Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Friday may have cleared a historical grey area, but has not left the country’s present-day ruling structure unscathed. The ruling in question relates to allegations surrounding Pakistan’s elections in 1990, suggesting that general Aslam Beg, the army’s chief-of-staff at the time, along with lieutenant general Asad Durrani, head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had teamed up with a group of politicians. As a result of this partnership, the parliamentary elections were allegedly rigged. Those elections had brought former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to power in Islamabad for the first time, while conclusively defeating former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, just months after her government’s dismissal on allegations of corruption. More than two decades later, Pakistan has fortunately reconciled itself with one of the many dark chapters in its political history. Though belatedly for the late Benazir, the Supreme Court’s verdict marks a much needed vindication of her oft-repeated claim that she had been unjustly dismissed from office, just 20 months after becoming the Muslim world’s first woman to head a government. The verdict now also sets the pace for a more restrained role in politics by the army and/or intelligence services. Not unexpectedly, the verdict has been widely hailed by leaders of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), now led by President Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir’s widower. However, the verdict also sets in motion a series of challenging questions for Pakistan’s ruling class. On the one hand, there are profoundly difficult questions for Sharif who, according to Supreme Court documents, received a hefty sum of money as leader of his ‘Islami Jamhoori Ittehad’ or Islamic Democratic Alliance. He went on to replace Benazir as the prime minister and now continues as the leader of Pakistan’s main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N). Aspiring to become Pakistan’s prime minister for a third time, following his two terms of office in the 1990s, Sharif must be confronted with extremely uneasy questions over his past conduct. The Supreme Court ruling sets in motion some difficult and challenging questions for Sharif’s ability to continue claiming a high moral ground unless he can first clear his own past. While Pakistan’s main federal investigation body, known as the Federal Investigation Agency or FIA, has been assigned to investigate the matter, the issue is more political than legal. Going forward, the outcome of this investigation will only underscore a vital point which is essentially that Pakistan’s democracy deserves to progress freely without any curbs. At the same time, the verdict must also be an important eye-opener for the way Pakistan’s politics seems to be progressing under President Zardari. His decision to carry on as the head-of-state, while also effectively running the PPP from the well-protected environment of Islamabad’s presidential high palace, needs to be scrutinised aggressively. For years, critics have argued that Zardari’s position as Pakistan’s head-of-state — a neutral office — has been badly compromised through his choice of turning his official residence into effectively the highest office of the PPP. At the heart of the Supreme Court’s verdict lies the powerfully argued case against the use of the highest office for partisan purposes and thereby compromising its integrity and neutrality. Going forward, while the FIA investigates individuals named in the Supreme Court’s ruling, the move must also underscore the degree to which there needs to be an aggressive scrutiny too of the use of Pakistan’s presidency for political purposes. While a historical wrong may have been rectified by the Supreme Court’s verdict, the matter will fail to rest there conclusively unless it is immediately related to Pakistan’s present-day environment. Following the Supreme Court’s verdict, it is now essential for Pakistan’s PPP led ruling structure to work aggressively towards reviewing a full range of vital political questions. A new page must be turned in Pakistan’s politics, where the Supreme Court has indeed allowed the opportunity for the first vital step to be taken. However, to ensure that a sorry tale in Pakistan’s past politics must never be repeated, there is an urgent need to ensure that political choices for the future are devoid of controversy. Though the PPP and Zardari in the first instance may have celebrated the Supreme Court’s verdict, the burden of responsibility falls as much on their shoulders as on other players across the board, in overseeing a badly needed maturity in Pakistan’s politics.
Addressing a reception arranged in honour of visiting Indian lawyers in Islamabad, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said that Pakistani judicial commission not allowed to cross examine accused involved in Mumbai attacks. He once again said that Pakistan was not behind these attacks. Talking to media after the reception, Rahman Malik came hard on Nawaz Sharif and asked him to respect court’s verdict. He said that why the PML-N leader not accepting court verdictHe also challenged opposition leader in the National Assembly for a debate on Asghar Khan case. He said that Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has committed court contempt by expressing no trust in FIA.
The apex court's landmark verdict on Asghar Khan's 16-year-old petition against abuse of constitutional high offices has finally come, and as it comes it brings in its train not only possibility of ushering in Pakistan a new political culture but also poses serious challenges to political actors now on the national stage. It's a broad, inclusive verdict on how the so-called Establishment had been subverting the people's will expressed through the ballot, earning over time a bad name for the country and impeding growth of truly democratic culture and forces. Had the predecessors of the present Supreme Court acted courageously in defence of the laws and constitution of the day, by now Pakistan would have a strong vibrant democracy, envy of others in the region and beyond. But the apex court judges can do only as much; it's for others in government, politics, civil society and general public to see that this historic judgement is implemented in letter and in spirit. This certainly was the noble mission of a noble air marshal. What looked like a shot in the dark by a lonely man tends to turn the page on the lingering saga of palace intrigues, misuse of authority and power of money in politics. How this verdict will play out we would know in the light of the detailed judgement that is expected anytime soon because without that in the field, a follow-up action cannot be initiated in earnest. What an irony of time that president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, one man who had earned the reputation of being a man of the book and a constitutional stickler to forbidding limits, has been declared a violator of his oath of office by the Supreme Court. He dismissed two successive governments because he had no other choice after he concluded they violated Article 58 2(b), then an integral but highly controversial part of the constitution. He 'played' into the hands of military top brass, perhaps he had no choice as he had been ushered into the high office at their behest. What constituted national security is always a preserve of the GHQ. To think he could have refused to go along it would be a crass naivety; after all how often others who followed him in elected offices had succeeded in putting across and implementing their contrasting security perspectives, one would like to know. Had Ghulam Ishaq Khan been really enthused by the touted good of military take-overs and generals' peccadilloes he would not have pre-empted General Beg's political ambitions by nominating the next army chief well ahead of expected time. The undeniable fact is that the civilian outfits including the apex courts of the day had always condoned military interventions, sometimes under the dubious cover of doctrine of necessity. That the Supreme Court has put its foot down, saying no more misuse of high military offices in pursuance of crooked objectives is indeed a great moment in our history. But that was in the past, and history cannot be rewritten. Looking to the future, the court verdict poses two critical challenges, one each to civilian and military set-ups. For the government the challenge is to ensure that President Asif Ali Zardari stays clear of his political activities, as envisaged under Article 41 of the constitution. The court expects of him to quit the political office as PPP co-chairman - which he may not, given the Attorney General's insistence that the apex court is 'not mandated to regulate political functions which the president as of right can pursue', a position drawing substance from 18th Constitutional Amendment which permits the president to remain party head. For the military set-up the challenge is trial of its former army chief and ex-MI-ISI bosses. May be the detailed judgement offers some guidance on both these challenges, but we do not see anything really happening given the recent track records of both the setups. Then, the Chief Executive, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, too is not very clear on how to go about the implementation of the court order. Of course, in his welcoming speech he was quite categorical about bring the rigging culprits to book, but is there any organisation under him which can do it. The political opposition has already questioned the integrity and competence of the FIA, entrusted by the court to investigate and fix responsibility. But that said, the fact cannot be denied that a historical wrong has been righted, vindicating the PPP's longstanding stance on the 1990 election. And in larger context the court has set a crucial precedent by declaring military intervention in civilian affairs illegal, unconstitutional and high treason, a heroic performance and a huge step towards obtaining ambience of rule of law in Pakistan. Last but not least. A leaf out of acclaimed European historian Norman Davies (an excerpt from his talk with Financial Times carried by it on October 19, 2012): "Historical change is like an avalanche. The starting point is snow-covered mountainside that looks solid. All the changes take place under the surface and are rather invisible. But something is coming. What is impossible is to say when."
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan said on Sunday that after the decision of Supreme Court (SC) in Asghar Khan case, the president has the “opportunity to take strict action against the Sharif brothers who had taken money to establish IJI”. “In light of SC’s verdict, neutral investigation should be launched against those who had taken money from secret agencies so that malign, corrupted elements could be eliminated,” Imran said in a statement. The PTI chief said that it has been proved that money was given to establish IJI and it is also “clear that so-called politicians had received the amount”. He said that the government should implement decision of the SC “at once” and disqualify those people who had received money. “Today, corruption is common in all over the country. Punjab has become defaulter because of corruption and worst performance of its leaders,” Imran said. “Zardari should take strict action against these people so that no body could dare to change the decision of public in the future,” he said. “Corrupt Sharif brothers should not only be disqualified, they should also be held accountable,” the PTI chief said.
DAILY TIMESThe Supreme Court’s (SC’s) long delayed verdict in the Asghar Khan case has put the cat among the pigeons in terms of its fallout for the politics of the country, now and in the future. The former COAS General (retd) Aslam Beg, former head of ISI Lieutenant-General (retd) Asad Durrani, some prominent politicians alleged to have received funds from the Rs 60 million out of the Rs 140 million given by former Habib Bank and Mehran Bank head Younis Habib, have all been put in the dock by the verdict. Although the detailed judgement is to follow, the short order of the SC has directed the government to take action against the generals and the politicians, as also Younis Habib for manipulating the 1990 elections through the formation of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) with the help of these secretly distributed funds, which were also aimed at helping anti-PPP politicians and parties to win the 1990 elections. Late president Ghulam Ishaq Khan has been found to be the main culprit in this shoddy business. An election cell operating within his presidency ordered the COAS and ISI chief to distribute these funds, facilitate the formation of the anti-PPP IJI and ensure the mandate of the electorate did not go in favour of the PPP, then led by Benazir Bhutto. Certain questions have arisen in the wake of the court judgement, a judgement that cannot be considered anything but historic, given the history of manipulated elections in the country, and arguably a game-changer, provided the investigations ordered by the court are conducted thoroughly and no one, no matter how prominent, spared the long arm of the law. As far as the errant generals are concerned, the question of what law or legal regime to try them under remains unresolved. One view is that they should be court martialled. Recently, in a case of embezzlement of funds, retired generals have been ‘reinstated’ in order to be court martialled. Although that has set a new precedent, it is not clear whether the present military leadership would be wiling to extend this precedent to two such prominent past generals. The other view is that the two have attracted the provisions of Article 6 of the constitution, dealing with treason and violations of the constitution. That would be an explosive departure, given the continuing dominance of the military in national affairs and the high profile of the two accused generals. This could prove a ticklish matter for both the army high command as well as the government. As far as the politicians named as beneficiaries of the ‘largesse’ of the ISI/military establishment in General Durrani’s affidavit in the SC are concerned, the court has ordered the FIA to investigate the charges and take legal action against all those found guilty of accepting these ‘gifts’. How long such an investigation might take is another concern. The FIA thinks it can complete it within two months, Federal Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira thinks it can be done fairly quickly and before the caretaker setup takes over to conduct the general elections after the PPP-led government’s tenure expires on March 18, 2013. It certainly looks, despite these confident assertions, that this might be a race against time. If the investigation is not completed before the present government departs, it would remain a matter of conjecture what might transpire in the tenure of the caretaker government: continuation without break of the investigation, or its getting lost in a cloud of uncertainty amidst the political changes taking place then. Another cloud of uncertainty kicked up by the verdict are the strictures in the verdict against the president’s office transcending its constitutional role to intervene in politics, that too in a malign manner. The SC has ordered all election cells in the presidency and the intelligence agencies abolished, and reiterated the politically neutral role of the presidency according to the constitutional construct. That inevitably has implications for the present incumbent, who is both president and co-chairperson of the ruling PPP. Mr Qaira has manfully risen to the defence of the president’s political role, arguing that the president’s office is inherently political, part of parliament, and therefore inherently allowed to conduct politics, albeit in a neutral manner. This is a questionable line of argument, if measured against the conventions of parliamentary democracy in mature democracies. The head of state in a parliamentary democracy is by convention supposed to abjure involvement in politics, except at moments when after elections governments are to be formed, and then too, he or she is supposed to exercise their minds by reference to guidance from the party claiming a majority in parliament. Only if no party enjoys a clear majority does the president ask the party enjoying a plurality or the next largest party in parliament whether it is in a position to form the government in coalition with other parties. Other than that, parliamentary conventions enjoin the president to refrain from intervention in politics. Pakistan’s peculiar history of dictatorial or autocratic regimes, with intermittent and weak bouts of ‘democracy’ has meant that such well established parliamentary democratic norms and conventions have not taken root. An added complication is the co-chairpersonship of President Zardari. How these two roles are to be reconciled in the light of the SC verdict (and the case in the Lahore High Court on this very issue) will test the political acumen of the ruling party in days to come. Those politicians named as beneficiaries of the illegal funds in the SC’s verdict, particularly the leaders of the PML-N, are trying to kick up as much dust as possible to obfuscate the implications of the judgement. If a transparent and thorough investigation is undertaken by the FIA on a war footing, time being short, no amount of ‘dust storms’ can obscure the fact that past misdemeanours have to be accounted for (including the generals) and a clean break made with this sordid past, that continued up to and including the rigged 2002 elections under Musharraf. This is a test of political will, one that will determine for years to come the shape and character of the democratic system and help roll back the malign influence of any person or institution interfering in the genuine exercise of the people’s will to elect the representatives they want, not GHQ, ISI, or an overbearing president, as happened in the past all too often. This could be a genuine turning point in the political history of the country, provided the thrust of the SC judgement is implemented in its true sprit and without shrinking in the face of the admitted difficulties in its path.
Editorial: THE FRONTIER POSTShahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab, says that education in the province on his watch has acquired international standards. Really? We didn’t know. But do those standards include state-run schools functioning in graveyards and on city streets, as in Punjab? And do they also have schools in the countryside in Britain that have no buildings at all and where classes are held under the shade of trees and students sit on the bare ground? Do they have schools in France, too, with not even a boundary wall? Do they have schools also in Italy where separate teachers take two or three classes simultaneously in a single room with not even a dividing screen? And in Germany do they too have schools where there is no teacher to teach science and no science laboratory for the students for practical exercises? Do they have schools in the Scandinavian countries as well with no toilets, not even drinking-water facility? In Norway, do they also have schools where the teachers in battalions do not turn up to teach? And in the United States, do they have colleges that function in vacated jails where classes are held in the prisoners’ cells and the students throng on the doors and the corridors to attend the lectures, as in Punjab? And which banana republic as it where not even a single secondary board could produce undisputed results as in Punjab? What kind of mendacity indeed is it that this chief minister has so funnily blurted out? So exasperating it is. And so untruthful too. It only demonstrates that he is absolutely ignorant of the stinking thick rot the state-run schooling is in Punjab. Nor does he seem to know in what a dismal shape is the college education in his domain on his watch. By building a clutch of daanish schools, he appears thinking he has done an education miracle to Punjab, which in reality it is not. With this ostentatious adventure, he may have enlivened the hope for the better of a few thousands of “talented” poor students. But by letting the vast network of state-run schools to rot, he has darkened the future of millions of poor students, many innately talented, on the rolls of this system which alone is accessible to the deprived and denied classes of the citizenry in his province too. With his populist laptop contrivance, he may have added a bit of fat to his vote-bank and may even garner a few votes in the other province where too he now plans to distribute laptops. But he has done a great disservice to the cause of education in the province by taking to this patently politically-motivated but prohibitively exorbitant trick. The precious billions of the taxpayer’s money he has squandered on this political venture so recklessly, he could have utilised for promotion of science education in the state-run schools, particularly in the countryside. And that predictably would have been quite profitable to him politically as well. An indebted public for his uplift of the rotting sate-run school system would have possibly returned the compliment by rallying behind him in strength at the ballot box. But such things could hardly come to him, so swayed is he by his populist daanish schools and laptops forays. He wouldn’t even know that the people in Punjab would do without the international standards and be quite content if what they already have is built up into a delivering system where the state-run schools are run competently and professionally. Where the schools have their proper buildings with boundary walls, adequate furniture and electric fittings, and amenities like toilets and drinking water. Where the teachers turn up regularly and punctually to teach. Where the facilities for science teaching, including teachers and laboratories, are all available readily. Where the inspectors visit the schools regularly as well as in surprise to inspect their upkeep and keep an eye on their educational standards. Where the secondary education boards produce correct and credible results. And where the colleges maintain full teaching faculties and ask not the students to hire out a private tuition in the subject they have no lecturer on payrolls to teach and they would send up their admission forms to the university for examination in the subject. Shahbaz must know that Punjab too suffers from deficiencies in almost every department of education, which instead of diminishing have only increased on his watch. And the people of the province are crying for no education miracles. They are screaming for an education system fit enough for their children to send to for learning and education. This he has spectacularly failed to give them.
RADIO PAKISTANInterior Minsiter says PML-N should accept the Supreme Court verdict in Asghar Khan case. Minister for Interior Rehman Malik has said Pakistan Muslim League-N should give up hypocritical attitude and accept the Supreme Court verdict in Asghar Khan case instead of terming the verdict as "injustice". Talking to newsmen in Islamabad at a dinner he hosted for the visitng delegation of Indian Supreme Court Bar Association‚ he said whenever there is a court decision against Pakistan Peoples Party‚ PML-N leaders praise and talk about independence of judiciary‚ but they do not accept any decision if it is against them. While commenting on the statement of PML-N leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan‚ Rehman Malik said it exposes the double standards being pursued by the PML-N. He expressed the hope that the Supreme Court would take sou moto notice and issue contempt notice to Ch. Nisar Ali Khan. Earlier‚ addressing the dinner‚ he said basic problem of both India and Pakistan is poverty and called for more efforts from both sides to ensure development and prosperity of the two peoples. The Minister said at the same time that the other core issues such as Kashmir and water should also be addressed to establish a lasting friendship between the two South Asian neighbours.
With turmoil increasing in world hot spots, foreign policy and national security have become major presidential campaign issues. From China to Israel, Iran to Syria, stateless terrorists to struggling alliances, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will have plenty to debate Monday night.How important is Monday night’s foreign policy debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney? The way things stand right now, it could determine the outcome on Election Day. Nobody would have predicted that just a few weeks ago. But with Mr. Romney’s late-in-the-day insurgency in the polls, the race has become dead even. And momentum – what George H. W. Bush called “the Big Mo” – seems to be on Romney’s side. Two main reasons: First, Romney clearly won the first debate against President Obama, who even jokes now about “the nice long nap I had in the first debate.” In their second set-to, Obama was much more engaged, even animated. But aside from Romney’s gaffe about “binders full of women,” the challenger pretty much held his own against the incumbent president. Second, most voting Americans may worry about the economy first, but foreign policy and national security have become much more important as well. Israel’s security, Iran’s nuclear program, China’s currency, violent revolution in Syria, and certainly Libya since the US ambassador was killed in a terrorist attack there – all have become major campaign issues and therefore debating points. Also, while Romney and his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan have no foreign policy experience, and that can be seen as a weakness in the GOP ticket, Obama has a mixed record to defend. Think you know the Middle East? Take our geography quiz. You can be sure Romney will try to paint that as adding up to weakness and indecision – “leading from behind” is sure to be brought up – not to mention what he claims is a certain distancing from Israel. “Unfortunately, this president’s policies have not been equal to our best examples of world leadership. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East,” Romney said in his speech at the Virginia Military Institute earlier this month. “When we look at the Middle East today, with Iran closer than ever to nuclear weapons capability, with the conflict in Syria threatening to destabilize the region and with violent extremists on the march, and with an American ambassador and three others dead – likely at the hands of al-Qaida affiliates – it’s clear that the risk of conflict in the region is higher now than when the president took office.” The terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya – which came on the anniversary of 9/11 at a time when much of the region was in turmoil over a crude anti-Islam YouTube video made in the United States – is particularly troublesome for Obama. Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius reports that initial CIA “talking points,” provided by a senior US intelligence official, supported UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s early contention that the attack in Benghazi was tied to protests against the YouTube video. But Republicans in Congress (and Romney) have jumped all over the Obama administration’s subsequent remarks on the episode, particularly statements regarding “terrorism” and “terrorists.” It’s all of a piece, Romney charges. “Our country seems to be at the mercy of events rather than shaping them,” he wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed column. Still, Obama can rightly claim to have decimated Al Qaeda’s leadership, including Osama bin Laden. And it’s unlikely that Romney as president – despite his buddy-buddy relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – could do any more than Obama has done to tighten the economic screws on Iran. Meanwhile, the debate over who’s toughest on Iran took a new twist when the New York Times (citing “administration officials”) reported Saturday that the United States and Iran “have agreed in principle for the first time to one-on-one negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program … setting the stage for what could be a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran.” Was this some sort of “October surprise?” Not so, insisted administration officials, who denied the report. But the Romney camp was quick to label it “another example of a national security leak from the White House,” as Sen. Rob Portman, who played Obama in Romney's debate preparations, did Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Obama spokesmen were just as quick to defend administration policy on Iran. "For two years, the president traveled the world putting together a withering international coalition. And now the sanctions that they agreed on are bringing the Iranian economy to its knees," said David Axelrod, a senior Obama adviser, also speaking on NBC. "They're feeling the heat. And that's what the sanctions were meant to do." Both Obama and Romney are preparing to the hilt for Monday night’s encounter. The last thing either wants to do is have the post-debate discussion focus on a “binders” kind of gaffe – the kind that helped deny Gerald Ford re-election in 1976 when he declared in a debate with Jimmy Carter, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” "I think the stakes are pretty high for both candidates," Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday. "If we are lucky, we, the voters, we will come out of it at the end thinking, 'I actually know something of Mitt Romney's philosophy as he looks at the world and America's place in it. I understand better what President Obama wants to do and how he sees things.'"