Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Vladimir Putin: foreign meddling in Russia's affairs is unacceptable

UN: Over 2 million Afghans at risk this winter

Associated Press
More than 2 million Afghans are at risk from cold, disease and malnutrition this winter as an international appeal for funds to help one of the world's poorest countries has fallen drastically short of its goal, the United Nations and several humanitarian agencies warned on Wednesday. Only 48 percent of $448 million that has been requested to help 8.8 million Afghans had been pledged by the end of November, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Preparations are under way to help Afghans deal with harsh winter conditions, especially 400,000 people who live in some of the most remote mountainous areas of northern and central Afghanistan. Snow has already covered mountaintops and the first snowfall of the year was forecast for later this week in the Afghan capital, Kabul. Last year, Afghanistan experienced its coldest winter and heaviest snowfall in more than 15 years. "People live in remote areas with no access to health facilities," said Mohammad Daim Kakar, director of the Afghan National Disaster Management Authority. "Many people die of pneumonia and measles." According to the U.N. and other humanitarian agencies working here, 20 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces have high-risk areas where emergency food, fuel and medical supplies are needed. "I think the events of last year have meant that we need to be prepared and have a response ready," said Mark Bowen, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan. Heavy snows and avalanches killed dozens of people in parts of the country last winter, including more than 30 — many of them children — who froze to death in Kabul. The Afghan capital is home to 55 makeshift camps that house more than 30,000 people — many of them displaced from elsewhere in Afghanistan because of violence. "If we buy food we will die of the cold. If we don't buy food, we will starve," said Hachilai Khan, a 20-year-old laborer who has made an informal settlement on the outskirts of Kabul his home. The settlement, made up mainly of Afghan refugees who returned from Pakistan, houses 552 people from 90 families. Most live in mud huts covered with plastic sheeting or tarps. The mud floors are covered with plastic or old carpeting. To keep warm, residents burn scrap wood and dried animal dung. There is no running water and toilets are trenches dug near the makeshift homes. "All these residents are vulnerable. They need firewood, clothes, blankets and shelter material," said Rachel Eskrine, who works with the French humanitarian organization Solidarites International. The needs of these people haven't disappeared, but the money has. "There is general donor fatigue," said Bowen, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator. "And more so, there is also Afghan fatigue." The Afghan Consolidated Appeal, which was made on behalf of 63 humanitarian agencies for 171 projects around Afghanistan, received just $214 million — about 48 percent of what it required. Separately, other donors contributed another $270 million for projects outside the appeal, bringing the total humanitarian commitment for Afghanistan to $484 million, or half the $894 million spent in 2011.

Egypt opposition to vote against constitution

Egypt's presidency announces that vote on the controversial constitutional referendum is to take place over two days.
Egypt's presidency has announced that the referendum on the a draft constitution will be held over two days. The announcement, made on Wednesday, stated that the vote will be held on December 15 and 22. It came just hours after the National Salvation Front (NSF) alliance of opposition parties called for citizens to vote "no" on referendum, and has set conditions that, if unmet, would result in a boycott of the poll. The NSF demanded a full judicial supervision of the process, and that international and local NGOs be allowed to monitor the poll. It also called for voting to take place on a single day. Al Jazeera's Mike Hanna, reporting from Cairo, said that the decision to spread the vote out over two days could bring the opposition "back to square one", although the NTS confirmed late on Wednesday that it would not boycott the vote. However, despite the opposition's uncertain path, Hanna said that a constitutional victory for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood is far from certain. "One must look at the figures. If you see that President Morsi, who is a supporter of that constitution - as are his followers - he became president with some 51 per cent of the vote. So clearly, there's not an overwhelming support for President Morsi himself, and by extenuation, the Freedom and Justice Party, and, indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood, of which the Freedom and Justice Party is the political arm," said Hanna. "So there can be no speculation as to which way this particular vote is going to go." Meanwhile, the key opposition politicians said on Wednesday that they were prepared to take part in national unity talks with the army. Amr Moussa, Mohamed ElBaradei, leftist Hamdeen Sabahy and a Wafd party leader Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour said they would attend unity talks hosted by the army, but the army said on Wednesday it had indefinitely postponed the dialogue due to a low level of response for attendance.The draft constitution, approved by the constituent assembly last month, has become the focus of Egypt's worst political crisis since President Mohamed Morsi's election in June. Rival mass rallies held by both supporters and opponents of President Morsi have become almost a daily occurrence in Cairo, and clashes between the two groups killed at least seven people and injured hundreds more last week. The crisis has necessitated a ramping up of security around the presidential palace, which has been the focal point of anti-Morsi protests. Egyptians abroad, meanwhile, have already begun voting in the referendum on the new constitution, state media reported on Wednesday. Voting was taking place at Egyptian embassies abroad, with more than 500,000 Egyptians expected to cast their votes in 150 countries. Wednesday's developments come after rival rallies were held again on Tuesday, with anti-Morsi protesters outside the presidential palace calling for a boycott of the referendum. Pro-government supporters also held a demonstration, expressing their support for Morsi's decision to hold the referendum.

In Cairo’s chic clubs, Egypt’s youth protest to a beat

Egypt’s deep political crisis is not only playing out in street protests, it is pushing its way into all social settings -- including the high-decibel clubland of Cairo’s privileged youth.
In one of the night spots, the Nile Maxim, on a ship moored on an island in the center of the capital, cocktail-sipping patrons loudly voiced their opposition to their Islamist president, who they fear is intent on curbing their cosmopolitan, Western-inspired lives. “Of course I am going to protest” against President Mohamed Mursi, one 23-year-old employee in Egypt's vibrant movie industry, Ines, told AFP above a thumping dance track. “With (ousted leader Hosni) Mubarak, we saw we can change things. We’re no longer afraid,” she said. “We have always resisted, whether against the army or against the Islamists, We will continue to do so,” she said in accentless French learned from her childhood spent in the city’s elite French school. The view from the three-deck club was a world away from the televised images of Egypt’s poorer youth exchanging rock throws and blows in squares and in front of the presidential palace. The lights of Cairo glittered through the smoked windows while the club’s beams and strobes snapped the expensively dressed clientele dancing or scoffing drinks sold at European prices. One night in the Nile Maxim can easily cost the equivalent of the average $60 per week earned by ordinary Egyptians. For the cosmopolitan, educated clubgoers inside, there was no question of the Islamists supporting Mursi being allowed to roll back their jetset pursuits through a new draft constitution being put to referendum on Saturday. “I’d say 90 percent of the constitution doesn’t pose any problem. It’s the other 10 percent that is really worrying,” said Ali el-Shalaqani, a young lawyer sporting a three-day beard and a soft leather jacket. “There is no mention anywhere of social justice. But more than anything, the constitution will let Sharia (fundamentalist Islamic law) have more sway over society,” he said. Like many of his class and generation, Shalaqani took to the streets early last year as part of the uprising that toppled Mubarak. Today, he maintains his rebel inclinations, this time on the side of those opposing Muris’s Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party. Under Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned but tolerated. It only gradually and cautiously joined the 2011 revolt, which was driven by Internet-savvy youths before snowballing. Mursi won a mandate with 51 percent of the vote in elections in June this year, but part of that support came from liberals who simply sought to block his chief rival, Mubarak’s former prime minister Ahmad Shafiq, from winning. Now those same liberals are ranged against Muri’s and the Muslim Brotherhood. “For me, it’s the United States that annoys me. It wants to create a buffer zone against Iran and the Shiites, so it supports the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood. But I don’t want any part of their geopolitical games,” said Karine, a young Egyptian Christian working for the United Nations in Cairo. The organizer of the club’s night, Moez Annabi, flits between the bar and DJ stand in his Pink Floyd T-shirt. “We’re not full tonight because it’s Monday and people are tired. They are keeping energy for the demonstration” on Tuesday called by the opposition against the referendum, he said. Annabi said heated discussions he has had with ultra-orthodox Salafists in the Islamist camp had hardened his opposition. “They think they are the people ordained by God, they say ‘You, you don’t understand anything’,” he said. “You see all this, all these people, this music? I’m afraid that with the Islamists all this will soon be just a memory.”

Two thirds of Pakistan MPs 'dodged income tax'
Two thirds of Pakistan's MPs dodged income taxes last year according to a study of rampant tax evasion among the country's political elite.
The majority of political leaders last year failed to submit any income tax returns despite lecturing citizens on the need to improve revenue collection in a country with a yawning financial deficit. President Asif Ali Zardari and Rehman Malik, interior minister, were among those who did not file in 2011 and many of those who did paid negligible amounts. Pakistan has one of the lowest tax collection rates in the world, according to the World Bank, and the government is largely reliant on loans and foreign aid for funding. "The problem starts at the top. Those who make revenue policies, run the government and collect taxes, have not been able to set good examples for others," the report, called Representation without Taxation, said. Anyone earning more than 500,000 rupees (£3,200) a year must file electronic tax returns, but the report found only 90 of 341 members of the national assembly had done so.The study, published by the Centre for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan, found that only 20 of 55 cabinet ministers had filed returns, while 49 senators of 104 paid income tax. Only 856,000 people pay income taxes in the country of about 200 million people and Hillary Clinton has said Pakistan must tax its elite if it wants to continue to get American aid. The government has said it will launch a tax amnesty for three million people if they agree to pay a one-off fine on undeclared income. "This is our effort to bring the hidden wealth into the tax net," Farhatullah Babar, spokesman for Mr Zardari, told Bloomberg earlier this week. "The government is giving this opportunity to tax evaders before launching a meaningful crackdown." But the report said the poor example set by the country's politicians encouraged tax avoidance. "A cursory glance over the tax practices of top leaders may explain the reason behind non-compliance of tax laws by the common citizen. They urge the masses to pay taxes, but do not become role models for them."

Pakistan politicians engulfed by tax evasion storm

Majority of ministers have not paid into national coffers beyond contribution taken from state salaries, alleges tax report
Nearly 70% of Pakistan's politicians, including some of the country's wealthiest people, did not file tax returns last year, according to a report that shines a light on a longstanding problem that reaches to the top of society. According to an investigation published on Wednesday, the vast majority of MPs, cabinet ministers and Pakistan's famously affluent president, Asif Ali Zardari, have not paid tax owed to the desperately cash-strapped government. The report, by the Centre for Investigative Reporting and the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives, comes at time of deepening economic crisis in a country that collects just 9% of its national wealth in tax – almost matching Afghanistan as one of the lowest rates in the world. Tax dodging is rife among Pakistan's 180 million population; just 2% are registered within the tax system but fewer actually pay it. Critics say the rich and powerful are some of the worst offenders and are effectively subsidised by the poor. "Those who make revenue policies, run the government and collect taxes have not been able to set good examples for others," says the Representation Without Taxation report. It found 69% of national assembly members and 63% of senate members did not file tax returns in 2011. Although they are automatically taxed on their basic state salary, by failing to declare any additional wealth they would have been able to evade paying tax. According to a 2009 study, the average wealth of a member of the national assembly was well over £500,000. Under Pakistani law, tax must be paid on income in excess of £3,200. With little revenue to support the national budget, the government has been forced to borrow huge amounts from its banks. Many analysts fear Pakistan's threadbare public finances are unsustainable and yet another bailout by foreign donors could be imminent. The latest research, led by journalist Umar Cheema, is based on the personal tax numbers politicians must include on their nomination papers when standing for election. The figures were used to track down tax filings, most of which were unofficially divulged by staff within the federal board of revenue. Just two politicians voluntarily replied to researchers asking for their tax details, the report says. According to the report, 73 members of the national assembly did not even have a personal tax number at the time of the last election in 2008. In the current cabinet of 55 ministers, only 21 filed tax returns, the report alleged, and those who were taxed paid very little, with only 9% of national assembly members paying more than $6,400 (£4,000). Mushahid Hussain Sayed, a member of the senate, paid just 82 rupees – about 50p. In an email to Reuters, Sayed disputed the report, saying he had paid $6. "I was not a senator then; my source of support was from my family's agricultural income and lecture honoraria," he said. Zardari did not file a tax return in 2011, according to the database of Pakistan's tax collectors, although the report said his spokesman insisted he had. Many parliamentarians are feudal landlords who own vast estates giving them huge incomes and armies of workers who vote for them. However, income from agricultural production is tax exempt. The government plans to launch an amnesty allowing tax evaders to register their untaxed wealth by paying a flat penalty of up to £380. Although it will cost the state millions of pounds in lost revenue, officials think it will reel more people into the tax net. Pakistan has long struggled with tax evasion by the rich and powerful. In a 1986 speech, Zia-ul-Haq, the former military dictator, said if Islamic law called for the amputation of the hands of thieves, tax evaders should have their entire arm cut off. But, as the report notes, Zia failed to file a tax return between 1960 and 1988.

Afghanistan, Pakistan agree to investigate spy attack

Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed on Wednesday to jointly investigate an assassination attempt last week on Afghanistan's spy chief that has heightened tension between the countries after Kabul said the raid was planned in Pakistan. Leaders of both countries, accompanied by ministers and their army chiefs, met at a trilateral summit hosted by Turkey only days after the head of Afghanistan's intelligence agency was wounded by a suicide bomber in the Afghan capital. "A joint working group comprising relevant agencies of Afghanistan and Pakistan will address the recent attack on the National Security Director of Afghanistan," all three countries said in a statement. With explosives hidden inside his underwear and posing as a peace messenger, a suicide bomber wounded spy chief Asadullah Khalid last Thursday in a brazen attack that threatened to derail a nascent and already fragile reconciliation process. After the attack, Afghan President Hamid Karzai stopped short of directly blaming his neighbor but said he knew "for a fact" the bomber came from Pakistan and that Kabul would seek "clarification" from Islamabad during the meetings in Turkey. Pakistan had said it would assist in any investigation into the bombing, but had also urged Karzai to provide evidence before "leveling charges", and suggested Kabul look into any lapses in its own security plans that may have facilitated the attack. While Karzai and his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari put up a united front on Wednesday, both leaders were scant on details of their talks over the attack, one of several in recent years in which Kabul alleges Pakistani involvement. Asked whether he had received the clarification he had wanted before the meeting, Karzai said: "We had very good conversations and we are not going to divulge details." Zardari declined to comment specifically on Karzai's allegations but said: "It is in the interest of Pakistan that Afghanistan prospers". Speaking to Reuters after the summit, Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said Karzai had assured the Pakistani side he had not specifically accused Pakistan. "President Karzai told us that he made no specific remark which was specific to Pakistan ... because it would be obviously quite undeserved if any such remark was made," Khar said. Both countries needed to have systems in place to protect people from such attacks, Khar said, and that there should be "no question of making allegations on anyone". Ties between Kabul and Islamabad have been strained by cross-border raids by militant groups and accusations that Pakistan's intelligence agency backs Afghan insurgent groups to advance its own interests in the country. Pakistan denies the accusations.
Despite their differences, Pakistan recently has sent strong signals it would back the Afghan government's efforts to draw the Taliban into negotiations after more than a decade of war. Pakistan released 13 mid-level Afghan Taliban officials last month, meeting demands by Kabul, which has repeatedly pushed for access to prominent insurgents. Officials from both countries have said Pakistan would also consider freeing former Afghan Taliban second-in-command Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar if lower-ranking figures who were released advance the peace process. Afghan officials believe he may command enough respect to persuade the Taliban to engage in formal talks with Kabul. Foreign Minister Khar said it was too early to start talking about any possible release of Baradar but that Pakistan would continue to release other Taliban prisoners.

Afghanistan Deadline Pushes Pakistan, US Closer

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Kabul on a previously unannounced visit Wednesday to discuss the U.S. presence in Afghanistan after international combat troops complete their withdrawal in 2014. American, Afghan and Pakistani officials have recently ramped up talks on regional security and agreed to cooperate on defense priorities. Fear of the consequences of failure in Afghanistan appears to be pushing the sides closer together. Faced with the potential of increased violence in Afghanistan after international combat troops leave in 2014, Pakistan and the United States appear to be working more closely to ensure stability in the region. Pakistani Senator Mushahid Hussain said a recent flurry of high level talks between Washington and Islamabad means relations between the two regarding Afghanistan are back on track. "Pakistan is fully in the loop, the United States is now trying to ensure that Pakistan should be part of the process of reconciliation," said Hussain. Pakistan's military, which in the past bet on militant groups to maintain influence in Afghanistan, now also appears to be focusing on its relationship with the United States to strengthen its position vis-a-vis its neighbor. Simbal Khan of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington said there is a clear understanding in Islamabad that if the security situation worsens in Afghanistan, the impact on Pakistan will be significant. "For Pakistanis I think it is a better deal to kind of engage with the U.S., and push forward the agenda," said Khan. "There is no perfect fit, there are divergences, strong divergences on Afghanistan still, but I think there is a middle space in between where the both sides have moved and where they can both cooperate moving forward." The post-2014 U.S. plan for Afghanistan envisions a substantial presence of U.S. personnel there to help Afghanistan's struggling security forces. Analysts believe that presence will include a strong counter-terrorism element led by U.S. special operations forces and the CIA. Many Taliban on the U.S. target list are hiding along the border with Pakistan. Khan said Pakistan fears that failure to bring the Taliban into a peace process prior to the drawdown of international troops could mean increased Taliban attacks. That, in turn, could trigger U.S. retaliation against Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan. "That could lead us again to a point where relations between U.S. and Pakistan become worse and Pakistan actually becomes a target for counter-terror strikes rather than a partner," said Khan. "This is very important, Pakistan - I think what we are worrying about is that we become less of a partner as far as counter-terrorism is concerned and more of a target in a post-14 scenario." According to a December 2012 Pentagon report, the insurgency in Afghanistan continues to benefit from sanctuaries in Pakistan. But U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in the past harshly critical of Islamabad's failure to pursue militants on its soil, said this week the U.S. was encouraged by Pakistan's willingness limit the terrorist threat within the country. Analyst Imtiaz Gul said both the international community and Islamabad have realized they cannot move forward on Afghanistan without each other. "There is no way around Pakistan and Pakistan also has realized it's time to offer the so-called olive branch to U.S. as well as the Afghans because this is the time to hit - the iron is hot and perhaps they can extract some medium to long-term strategic gain out of their partnership, their willingness to work towards reconciliation," Gul said To that end, Pakistan has responded to Afghan requests and released several Taliban militants, and held top-level meetings with the Afghan Foreign Ministry. Lawmakers from both countries are also in bilateral talks. But analysts caution that the relationship between all three countries remains fragile and at any time the cost-benefit calculation could change.

Nearly 3 million 'filthy rich' Pakistanis 'don't pay taxes'

Over 2.38 million people in Pakistan belonging to the wealthy class are tax evaders, revealed statistics compiled by the National Database and Registration Authority. Nearly three million people possess a National Tax Number (NTN), but only 1.4 million of them filed income tax returns last year. Sources identified 2.38 million people who live in palatial houses, own luxury cars, travel abroad frequently, possess arms, hold multiple bank accounts and pay hefty utility bills, but pay no income tax, reports The Dawn. The statistics also revealed that tax officials don't bother to bring these rich people into the tax net, ignoring the fact that one cannot buy a new car without producing their NTN. Although some potential tax evaders have been identified, tax officials posted in 19 regional tax offices across the country did not bother to pursue them, the report said. According to statistics quoted in the report, there are 1.611 million people who frequently embark on international tours but do not pay a single penny as income tax. About 584,730 Pakistanis have multiple accounts in domestic and multinational banks, but do not possess NTNs. There are 66,736 individual consumers who pay large utility bills, over 56,000 people live in posh areas and more than 20,000 people own luxury cars, but pay no income tax. There are also 25,130 people who are engaged in lucrative professions like medicine, engineering, law and chartered accountancy, but they do not pay a single penny as income tax, the paper reported. It is a fact that prices of a plot of land are in millions of rupees in posh areas of Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar, but income tax officers don't bother to trace the buyers of these plots and make them pay income tax, the report said.

Pakistan’s two-third lawmakers don’t pay tax

According to a report, Pakistan’s two-third lawmakers don’t pay tax.
The first-ever report on the taxes of Pakistan parliament members was released on Wednesday, which shows that more than two thirds of country’s lawmakers paid no tax last year. According to the report, of the 104 Senators, only 49 paid income tax in 2011. They included 11 newly elected senators, who did not file tax returns, though they mentioned otherwise in their nomination papers.
Aitzaz Ahsan is top taxpayer among the senators. He paid Rs.12.97 million. Next four Senators in this list are Abbas Khan Afridi (Rs. 11.52 million), Talha Mehmood (Rs. 7.60 million), Dr. Farogh Naseem (Rs. 4.56 million) and Osman Saifullah (Rs. 1.79 million). The former minister and Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed is conspicuous by leading the list of the five lowest taxpaying Senators. “The data shows that he paid Rs. 82 as income tax. The four Senators next to him from the bottom are Karim Ahmad Khawaja (Rs. 3,636), Haji Saifullah Bangash (Rs.4,063), Naseema Ehsan (Rs. 4,280) and Malik Salahuddin Dogar (Rs. 8, 659)”. The party-wise break-up indicates that only 17 ruling PPP Senators out of 44, six PML-N senators out of 14, four MQM senators out of seven, two each of ANP and PML out of 12 and five respectively, and one each of BNP-A, JUI-F, and PML-F filed tax returns in 2011. Pakistan’s National Assembly has 341 sitting members; one seat is vacant. Of them, only 90 members have filed their tax returns. There were 16 lawmakers, whose requisite details for checking the income tax filing status were not available. Among the rest, Jehangir Khan Tareen (who was lawmaker in September 2011 when returns were filed) is top taxpayer (Rs. 17.05 million). Those next to him in descending order are Hamid Yar Hiraj (Rs. 2.44 million), Hamza Shehbaz Sharif (Rs. 2.31 million), Attiya Inayatullah (Rs.1.59 million) and Humayun Saifullah (Rs. 1.44 million). From the other side, Sheikh Rohail Asghar (Rs.16, 893) is at the bottom, surpassed by Ghulam Murtaza Jatoi (Rs. 21, 993), Asim Nazir (Rs. 28, 923) Engineer Amir Muqam (Rs. 29, 324) and Rana Afzal Hussain (Rs. 39, 713).
Pakistan’s President and Interior Minister also did not file tax returns in 2011
The report, which marks the launch of the Centre for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan (CIRP), based its findings on information from the FBR and lawmakers themselves. It urges politicians to disclose their tax returns voluntarily in future. According to Cheema’s findings, President Asif Ali Zardari did not file a tax return in 2011 and neither did 34 of the 55 cabinet members including Interior Minister Rehman Malik. The Pakistan cabinet comprises Prime Minister and his 55 cabinet members. However, only 20 ministers filed their tax returns. Of 28 parliamentary secretaries, only seven filed tax returns. Of are 55 MNAs holding key positions in the National Assembly and its Standing Committees; only 15 filed tax returns.

U.S. defense chief in Kabul for talks on future U.S. presence

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta
arrived on an unannounced visit to Kabul on Wednesday for talks with military commanders ahead of a decision on how large a U.S. military presence to keep in the country after the NATO mission ends in 2014. Panetta has not disclosed how large a force he thinks will be needed, but one U.S. official has told Reuters that figures as low as 6,000 U.S. troops were under consideration. "The size of that enduring presence is something that the president is going to be considering over these next few weeks," Panetta told troops in Kuwait before boarding his flight to Kabul. Panetta told reporters travelling with him that he would meet the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, to discuss options being prepared for Obama's consideration. Obama, he said, would hopefully come to a decision "in the next few weeks". Obama, fresh from a re-election victory, has made clear his intention to end the 11-year-old war and bring the vast majority U.S. forces home by the end of 2014. There are 68,000 U.S. troops in the country, a figure expected to gradually decline over the next two years, despite concerns that the Taliban remains a resilient enemy. A report released by the Pentagon this week noted a slight rise in Taliban attacks between April and September this year, compared with 2011. At the same time, it said the insurgency's refuges in Pakistan, endemic corruption and the limited capacity of the Afghan state were the greatest risks to Afghanistan's long-term stability. Panetta, on his fifth trip to Afghanistan since becoming defense secretary last year, said he would meet President Hamid Karzai. He expressed optimism in the growing capabilities of Afghan security forces, despite concerns in the United States that few units can fully operate without U.S. military support. Panetta also noted that the number of so-called insider attacks against U.S. forces by Afghan security forces had declined, from a high of about 12 in August to two in November. Those attacks, some of which were claimed by the Taliban, were deeply demoralizing and led Allen to revise security protocols and bolster sensitivity training of NATO forces to avoid accidentally provoking their Afghan counterparts. "So the steps that were put in place to try to deal with that threat I believe have been effective in trying to lower the incidents of insider attacks," he told reporters at the start of this week's trip.

Lahore: Death by toxic plastic!

The City District Government Lahore officials sealed four factories that were manufacturing kitchen items from toxic hospital waste, placing a question mark on the hygiene of kitchen items available in the local market, Pakistan Today learnt on Tuesday. Furthermore, experts have said that this incident also sheds light on the efficacy of the Health Department, adding that every day items such as straws, cups, bowls and glasses were also being manufactured from toxic hospital waste. Per details, Sufi Plastic (Shahdra), Aziz Plastic Dana Factory (Bund Road), Aliyas hospital godowns (Bund Road) Hassan Hospital godowns (Bund road) and others were using medical goods like syringes, blood bags, glucose bottles and urine bags in bulk to make plastic items. CDGL officials also confiscated around 50 tonnes of toxic hospital waste from these units which was being brought in from various cities, especially Gujranwala and Peshawar. “These units have been around for a long time and were using syringes and other waste to make plastic utensils while they were also recycling drips and reselling them in the market,” an official asking not to be named told Pakistan Today. “Plastic in and of itself is dangerous and reusing toxic hospital waste is unimaginable,” experts said while talking to Pakistan Today, adding that hospital waste contained extremely dangerous viruses and bacteria that could cause fatal diseases. According to a research, over 500 plastic products available to consumers including baby bottles, containers, sandwich bags and plastic wraps, could contain toxic waste particles that could increase cancer risks among women. According to the Environment Inspector Yasir Gul, “We are on a lookout for more such factories and we will conduct raids all over the province.”

Afghan refugees resist pressure to return

Despite pressure from Islamabad and incentives from the UN, the vast majority of the 1.6 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan are still refusing to return to a country gripped by war and poverty. "Some people think that the security situation has improved in Afghanistan, but they re wrong," said Malak Nader, who represents 500 families in the Jalala refugee camp on the outskirts of Mardan, a farming town in northwestern Pakistan. "If we support the government, the Taliban will come the next day and slit our throats and if we support the Taliban, the coalition forces will come and bomb us," the truck driver told AFP. More than five million Afghans fled their homeland for Pakistan in the early 1980s, soon after Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. Since the 2001 US-led invasion brought down the Taliban regime, 3.8 million have returned, leaving 1.6 million behind, most born and brought up in Pakistan. But as the 2014 deadline nears for NATO combat troops to leave Afghanistan, they are under increasing pressure from Pakistan to leave. Their formal refugee documents are valid only until December 31, and Islamabad has so far declined to confirm publicly that it will renew their residency. "If they don t go in these conditions where every country is present in Afghanistan to provide them peace, when will they leave?" Pakistan s minister for states and frontier regions, Shaukat Ullah, told reporters recently. "Our idea is that they should go and participate in their country s development." At talks with Afghan and UN officials at the weekend, Pakistan said it wanted to make repatriation "faster and better" but reiterated its commitment to a "voluntary process" although saying the deadline remains the same. In late October, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) boosted incentives for Afghans to return -- adding fuel, clothes and tarpaulin to the food package previously given to those looking to repatriate. As a result, around 10,000 Afghans went home from October 23 to November 30 -- more than double the number who were repatriated in the same period last year. Preparing to join them was the elderly Azat Khan, who spent 30 years in exile in northwestern Pakistan but spoke to AFP as he got ready to drive back to Afghanistan. He has always come and gone -- first to fight the Russians, then to conduct business or to visit extended family -- but this time it is for good. "My house is completely destroyed over there, I have to rebuild it," said the father-of-11 from Paktika province in southeastern Afghanistan, upbeat about the future despite fears of a new civil war after 2014. "I am happy to leave, it s costing me less," said Azat referring to the incentives from the United Nations. But there is a catch: Afghans who leave give up their refugee status. If they come back, it will be without the protection of the law like a million other illegal Afghans, regularly accused by the Pakistanis of being criminals. According to the UN, nearly 97 percent of the refugees have no intention of leaving Pakistan, largely due to the insecurity. Faced with the stalemate, charities have suggested that a new permit should be created allowing Afghans and Pakistanis to work on both sides of the border, legally, without risk of being harassed. If their refugee papers are not renewed, UNHCR representative in Pakistan Neill Wright said it was "hazy" what would happen on January 1. "They have never knowingly deported or forced an Afghan registered refugee back," he said, adding that he was "quietly confident" the same situation would continue next year. Back in Jalala, which looks more like a village than a refugee camp, with sugar cane fields and mud-brick homes, Nader said he did not want to risk losing everything in Pakistan for an uncertain future in Afghanistan. "As long as the Pakistani government doesn t expel us, we ll stay here," he said, as a dozen men from the camp nodded in agreement.

Over 60 per cent of Pakistani lawmakers evade taxes: report

More than 60 per cent of Pakistan’s cabinet and two thirds of its federal lawmakers paid no tax last year, according to a report released Wednesday on tax evasion among the country’s political leaders. The study entitled “Representation without Taxation” by investigative journalist Umar Cheema takes Pakistan’s elected leaders to task for paying little or no tax despite an estimated average net wealth of $882,000. “The problem starts at the top. Those who make revenue policies, run the government, and collect taxes have not been able to set good examples for others,” said the report, likely to increase pressure on Pakistan to implement tax reform. There was no immediate reaction from top politicians, although a spokesman for the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N party told AFP it was up to the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) to take action against any evaders. Pakistan has one of the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios in the world, estimated at 9.2 per cent. Only 260,000 out of 180 million citizens have paid tax consecutively for the last three years, according to the FBR. According to the findings, President Asif Ali Zardari did not file a tax return in 2011 and neither did 34 of the 55 cabinet members including Interior Minister Rehman Malik. Information was not available for one cabinet minister. Of the 20 cabinet ministers who did pay, most made only negligible contributions, including Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, with 142,536 rupees ($1,466) and Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar with 69,619 rupees ($716). The cabinet member who paid the most was state minister for commerce, Abbas Khan Afridi, who paid 11.5 million rupees last year ($118,677). Religious Affairs Minister Syed Khurshid Ahmed Shah paid the least with 43,333 rupees ($446). Among all the lawmakers in the upper and lower houses of the federal parliament, 67 per cent failed to file tax returns in 2011; 28 per cent did and five per cent were not possible to verify, according to the report. It also found that 78 members of parliament are still not registered with a national taxation number. Pakistan’s refusal to implement sweeping tax reform was instrumental in the collapse of a $11.3 billion IMF bailout programme in November 2010. The country is one of the biggest recipients of Western aid – payouts that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Prime Minister David Cameron have said are difficult to increase when Pakistan’s own elite pays no tax. But the report also suggested there had been some improvement since the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government was elected in 2008. In 2010, none of the then cabinet, including premier Yousuf Raza Gilani, paid tax, Cheema’s report said. It says Gilani, who was dismissed by the supreme court in June for contempt, registered to pay tax in July 2010 – more than two years after coming to power. The report, which marks the launch of the Centre for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan, based its findings on information from the FBR and lawmakers themselves. It urged politicians to disclose their tax returns voluntarily in future. The report comes after the chairman of the FBR, Ali Arshad Hakeem, offered Pakistani tax evaders the chance to pay around $420 to have the slate wiped clean in return for committing to pay tax regularly from next year. Under a new law, yet to be approved by parliament, those unwilling to sign up for the amnesty and pay their taxes will face having assets seized, cell phone connections frozen and could be barred from leaving Pakistan. “We have standing instructions to our party leaders and officials to pay tax and to uphold the supremacy of law. But you cannot force an individual,” PML-N spokesman Mushahidullah Khan told AFP. “We will bring reforms to our tax system when we come to power,” he added.