Saturday, December 15, 2012

Violence flares in Cairo following referendum

Opposition party members say Islamists attacked headquarters in Cairo; two injured; citizens vote on a new constitution.

Group of Christian women banned from voting in Egypt’s referendum

A group of Egypt’s Christian women voters were banned on Saturday in Cairo’s Nasr City from casting their ballot in a disputed constitutional referendum, an Al Arabiya correspondent and AFP reported. Nasr City was the scene of mass rallies last night as Islamists who support President Mohammed Mursi took to the streets. Details of banning Coptic Christians from voting are not immediately available, but earlier the opposition National Salvation Front was quoted by AFP as saying that a judge in Nasr City forbade Christians from casting their vote. On November 30, the draft constitution was passed by an assembly composed mostly of Islamists, in a marathon session, despite a walkout by secular activists and Christians from the 100-member panel. If the constitution is approved by a simple majority of voters, the Islamists who gripped powered after Mubarak’s ouster would gain even more clout in the country. The current upper house of parliament, which is dominated by the Islamists, will be given legislative authority until a new parliament is elected. If the constitution is refuted, elections would be held within three months giving a new panel the right to draft a new constitution. In the meantime, legislative powers would remain with the Egyptian President. The opposition has called on its supporters for a “no” vote, while Mursi’s supporters say the constitution will help put an end to the political instability currently gripping Egypt. On the other hand, Muslim clerics defend the constitution as a document that champions Islam. Mursi’s opponents, however, say minority concerns have been ignored and the charter is full of obscurely worded clauses that could allow the ruling Islamists to restrict civil liberties, ignore women’s rights and undermine labor unions. “At one point in our history, Cleopatra, a woman, ruled Egypt. Now you have a constitution that makes women not even second-class but third-class citizens,” this is that Olivia Ghita a prominent businesswoman declared. Adding, “This constitution is tailored for one specific group (the Muslim Brotherhood). It’s a shame. I am very upset.”

Bangladesh: Nation celebrating Victory Day

The nation is celebrating the 42nd Victory Day Sunday commemorating its cherished triumph in the nine-month bloody war against the Pakistani occupation forces in 1971. Being imbued with the spirit of the Liberation War, people are paying rich tributes to the heroic sons of the soil who sacrificed their lives to attain the independence. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and leader of the opposition Khaleda Zia will also pay tributes to the martyrs of Liberation War by placing floral wreaths at the National Memorial on Sunday morning marking the Victory Day. President M Zillur Rahman would not place wreath at the National Mausoleum this time due to illness. The national flag will be hoisted atop all government, semi-government and other important establishments. Different political, socio-cultural, professional and academic organizations organize elaborate programs to mark the Victory Day. Special prayers will be offered at mosques, temples, churches and other worship places, seeking divine blessings for peace and progress of the country. As part of the day’s programmes, a colourful parade will be held at the National Parade Square at Sher-e-Bangla Nagar in the morning. Freedom fighters, army, navy, air force, BNCC, Border Guard Bangladesh, police, RAB, Ansar-VDP, Coast Guard, jail keepers and Fire Service and Civil Defense will take part in the parade. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will take salute at the Victory Day parade this year as President Zillur Rahman is ill and set to leave for the UK for treatment. Traditionally, the President takes salute at the Victory Day parade and the Prime Minister witnesses it as a guest. Ailing President Zillur Rahman would leave here for the UK at 9:30am on Sunday, said Bangabhaban sources. The President is leaving for London as a routine health checkup. Bangladesh Television (BTV) and Bangladesh Betar will broadcast elaborate programme marking the day. Apart from this, different private television channels will also air special programmes on the occasion. Special security measures are being taken to ensure smooth celebration of the Victory Day across the country. A four-tier security measures have already been taken by deploying thirteen thousand policemen in and around the National Mausoleum in Savar and Central Shaheed Minar in the city. RAB, SWAT (Special Weapon and Tactics) unit and detective branch of police will remain on active on the day. The security measures have been taken apprehending subversive acts on the victory day after recent violence, militant activities and threats of Jamaat-Shibir. Besides, police force was already deployed from Saturday in the important establishments of the country. On this day in 1971, the chief of the Pakistani occupation forces, Gen AAK Niazi, along with 93,000 Pakistani troops, surrendered following a miserable defeat to the joint forces of Mukti Bahini and Mitra Bahini at Ramna Racecourse, now Suhrawardy Udyan, in Dhaka. In one of the heinous acts of genocide in human history, the Pakistan army and their local collaborators launched a barbarous crackdown killing innocent and unarmed people in the erstwhile East Pakistan at midnight past March 25, 1971. The nation, under the leadership of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, finally clinched independence on December 16 after the nine months’ War of Liberation.

An Afghan Mystery: Why Are Large Shipments of Gold Leaving the Country?

Packed into hand luggage and tucked into jacket pockets, roughly hewed bars of gold are being flown out of Kabul with increasing regularity, confounding Afghan and American officials who fear money launderers have found a new way to spirit funds from the country. Most of the gold is being carried on commercial flights destined for Dubai, according to airport security reports and officials. The amounts carried by single couriers are often heavy enough that passengers flying from Kabul to the Persian Gulf emirate would be well advised to heed warnings about the danger of bags falling from overhead compartments. One courier, for instance, carried nearly 60 pounds of gold bars, each about the size of an iPhone, aboard an early morning flight in mid-October, according to an airport security report. The load was worth more than $1.5 million. The gold is fully declared and legal to fly. Some, if not most, is legitimately being sent by gold dealers seeking to have old and damaged jewelry refashioned into new pieces by skilled craftsmen in the Persian Gulf, said Afghan officials and gold dealers. But gold dealers in Kabul and current and former Kabul airport officials say there has been a surge in shipments since early summer. The talk of a growing exodus of gold from Afghanistan has been spreading among the business community here, and in recent weeks has caught the attention of Afghan and American officials. The officials are now puzzling over the origin of the gold — very little is mined in Afghanistan, although larger mines are planned — and why so much appears to be heading for Dubai. “We are investigating it, and if we find this is a way of laundering money, we will intervene,” said Noorullah Delawari, the governor of Afghanistan’s central bank. Yet he acknowledged that there were more questions than answers at this point. “I don’t know where so much gold would come from, unless you can tell me something about it,” he said in an interview. Or, as a European official who tracks the Afghan economy put it, “new mysteries abound” as the war appears to be drawing to a close. Figuring out what precisely is happening in the Afghan economy remains as confounding as ever. Nearly 90 percent of the financial activity takes place outside formal banks. Written contracts are the exception, receipts are rare and statistics are often unreliable. Money laundering is commonplace, say Western and Afghan officials. As a result, with the gold, “right now you’re stuck in that situation we usually are: is there something bad going on here or is this just the Afghan way of commerce?” said a senior American official who tracks illicit financial networks. There is reason to be suspicious: the gold shipments track with the far larger problem of cash smuggling. For years, flights have left Kabul almost every day carrying thick wads of bank notes — dollars, euros, Norwegian kroner, Saudi Arabian riyals and other currencies — stuffed into suitcases, packed into boxes and shrink-wrapped onto pallets. At one point, cash was even being hidden in food trays aboard now-defunct Pamir Airways flights to Dubai. Last year alone, Afghanistan’s central bank says, roughly $4.5 billion in cash was spirited out through the airport. Efforts to stanch the flow have had limited impact, and concerns about money laundering persist, according to a report released last week by the United States Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The unimpeded “bulk cash flows raise the risk of money laundering and bulk cash smuggling — tools often used to finance terrorist, narcotics and other illicit operations,” the report said. The cash, and now the gold, is most often taken to Dubai, where officials are known for asking few questions. Many wealthy Afghans park their money and families in the emirate, and gold dealers say more middle-class Afghans are sending money and gold — seen as a safeguard against economic ruin — to Dubai as talk of a postwar economic collapse grows louder. But given Dubai’s reputation as a haven for laundered money, an Afghan official said that the “obvious suspicion” is that at least some of the apparent growth in gold shipments to Dubai is tied to the myriad illicit activities — opium smuggling, corruption, Taliban taxation schemes — that have come to define Afghanistan’s economy. There are also indications that Iran could be dipping into the Afghan gold trade. It is already buying up dollars and euros here to circumvent American and European sanctions, and it may be using gold for the same purpose. Yahya, a dealer in Kabul, said other gold traders were helping Iran buy the precious metal here. Payment was being made in oil or with Iranian rials, which readily circulate in western Afghanistan. The Afghan dealers are then taking it to Dubai, where the gold is sold for dollars. The money is then moved to China, where it was used to buy needed goods or simply funneled back to Iran, said Yahya, who like many Afghans uses a single name. He declined to name those involved in aiding Iran. But Western officials said his description of how the process worked tracked with their knowledge of money laundering networks that operate in Afghanistan and the surrounding region. Before officials can say whether the gold shipments are part of an illicit financial scheme, though, they first have to figure out how much gold is going out — or, for that matter, coming in. It is a task easier said than done. The Finance Ministry, which is supposed to collect taxes on each shipment, did not have figures, said Wahidullah Tawhidi, a spokesman for the ministry. He suggested that the Commerce Ministry would know. The Commerce Ministry did not, and officials there said it would be best to contact airport customs officials. At the airport, a reluctant customs official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, brushed aside concerns that there had been an uptick in gold shipments out of Afghanistan. He then ended the conversation with the cryptic promise to one day share “the real story of what is happening to the gold.” M.Y. Rassuli, the president of the airport, said shipments had begun increasing over the summer. He said that he could not offer specifics because he deals with operations, not customs. But he expressed frustration about the problem. “If it’s 5 kilograms or 500 kilograms, that’s not a normal thing to transfer,” he said in an interview. “This is why Afghanistan is No. 1 in corruption.” Without knowledge of how much gold is leaving, it is impossible to calculate the value of the trade. But airport security forms that cover the last two weeks of October indicate about 560 pounds, worth about $14 million, were carried by hand out of Afghanistan during that period. That is a princely sum in one of the world’s 10 poorest countries. But it is perhaps a measure of the current state of affairs in Afghanistan that seemingly no one — not Afghan bank regulators, not American investigators of illicit financing, not European economic experts — found it particularly surprising that gold appears to have joined bank notes in the skies over Afghanistan. The addition of gold to the flight of cash from the country, the Afghan official said, only proves that “if it is a thing that has value and we can put it in our pocket, some of us are going to fly away with it.”

Bangladesh faces garment race with Myanmar

Bangladesh, the world’s second largest garment exporter, wants to take over China’s spot as the number one nation in the industry. It has a young workforce, a minimum wage three times lower than China’s, and preferential treatment under European import laws. There are major challenges to overcome, however, including power shortages, poor infrastructure and an ageing sea port. Bangladesh’s neighbor, Myanmar sees an opportunity in those shortcomings. It is investing in a huge new port to lure investors. Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque reports from Teknaf district on the border with Myanmar.

Indian PM adds 26/11 rider to Pakistan visit
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made it plain that his visit to Pakistan would materialize only if there is substantive action against the 26/11 masterminds who planned and executed the terror strikes on Mumbai. Singh put across his views when responding to Pakistan interior minister Rehman Malik's reiteration of a pending invitation, saying that he is answerable to the Indian public on the delay in bringing the 26/11 guilty to justice. Malik called on Singh on Saturday morning and brought up Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's earlier invitation to Singh to visit Pakistan, particularly his native Gah village in Chakwal. Malik quoted the PM as having told him, "My people here ask what you have done for the people who suffered during 26/11 attacks." The Pakistani minister said that he sought to assure Singh that the 26/11 trial would be put on fast track once the second Pakistan judicial commission completes its proposed visit to India to cross-examine 26/11 witnesses here. In fact, he later told news agency ANI in an interview that the 26/11 proceddings could conclude within two to three months of the judicial commission completing its investigation. The Pakistani minister's controversy-hit visit to India saw Singh meeting him for a brief 15 minutes, sufficient to complete courtesies and have tea. The substantial part of Malik's visit was limited to operationalizing the visa agreement with home minister Sushilkumar Shinde. Malik's reputation has preceded him as he is seen to be an inveterate publicity speaker although his outspokenness — like over 26/11, Babri Masjid and Kargil — might unwittingly reveal that the current pro-detente stance of the political and military establishment could in part be driven by Pakistan's unsettled western borders. Pakistan's preoccupations in the West may see it wanting to keep the other "front" with India relativ-ely quiet, although its pr-oxies, like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), have chaffed at having to keep a relativ-ely low profile. Malik said he told the Prime Minister that the "people of Pakistan, especially of Chakwal where he was born, want to see him...They want to see this boy who has grown to become the Prime Minister of India and also a world leader. I said that if you don't visit, the people of Pakistan will be disappointed." The point was also put across quite unequivocally when former external affairs minister S M Krishna went to Pakistan in September and met his counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar. Zardari had earlier invited Singh to visit Pakistan, including a visit to Chakwal, on the occasion of Guru Nanak Jayanti on November 28. The Prime Minister, however, declined the invitation, saying that "the time is not yet right". According to sources, Singh decided against the visit due to the slow pace of the 26/11 probe and trial in Pakistan.

Obama to visit Newtown, meet with school shooting victims' families

President Barack Obama will travel to Newtown, Conn., on Sunday to meet with families of the victims in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and to thank first responders, the White House announced on Saturday night. The president will also speak at an interfaith vigil for families of the victims as well as other families from Sandy Hook Elementary. In his weekly radio and Internet address earlier on Saturday, Obama said it was time to "take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this.'' But he stopped short of specifically calling for tighter gun-control laws.On Friday, an emotional Obama paused to wipe away a tear as he spoke from the White House about the tragedy hours after it unfolded. "The majority of those who died today were children -- beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old," he said. "They had their entire lives ahead of them -- birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own." He added: "Our hearts are broken today, for the parents, grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, as well as the families of the adults who were lost." A gunman authorities identified as Adam Lanza, 20, shot to death 20 children and six adults at the school. He earlier killed his mother at her home, officials have said.

Tora Tyra a Pushtu Poem by Zaitoon Bano

Tora Tyra a Pushtu Poem by Zaitoon Bano conceptualized by Samar Minallah Khan from Ethnomedia on Vimeo.

INDIA: Rs 600/month enough to feed family of 5
They listened to chief minister Sheila Dikshit in silence but couldn't hide their disbelief. Speaking on the occasion of the launch of Delhi government's cash-for-food programme, Annshree Yojana, on Saturday, Dikshit argued that Rs 600 - the cash subsidy - was adequate for buying the monthly "dal, roti and chawal" for a poor family of around five. UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi was on the stage at Thyagaraja Stadium to launch the scheme. Many of the voiceless beneficiaries - who had been herded into the stadium to witness the launch of the scheme which UPA believes will be a game-changer - couldn't swallow this glib remark. As they trooped out of the venue, long after the applause had died down, the women whom the scheme seeks to empower said they didn't need to do any sums to tell you that rations for families with five to seven members would come for Rs 1000-Rs 3000. Asked if Rs 600 was enough, women from a slum in west Delhi said they were under siege - illness, lack of shelter, inflation. The amount of Rs 600 was nothing but a 'sahara' (support), said Maya Devi. 'Cash will give people choice' "Something is better than nothing,"remarked others. Another woman, Ganga Devi, said she spends Rs 3000 on rations every month for a family of seven. "How can I manage it in Rs 600? This is just a support," she agreed. Radha from Rohini showed a bank passbook of her no-frills account and her Aaadhar-UID card to prove that she was indeed a beneficiary. Her husband, Ravi Singh, a daily wager stood next to her. Asked how the couple would use the money, Radha was candid. "I will spend it on the most urgent needs of the family," she said. Experts involved in the planning for the scheme feel that the Rs 600 subsidy will have to be eventually enhanced if one was to be realistic. The scheme seeks to empower the eldest woman of the beneficiary family with a no-frills account where the subsidy will be delivered every month based on the Aadhar-UID number as identity proof. Announcing that Delhi government had set aside Rs 200 crore for funding the Annshree subsidy, the CM said the scheme will ensured that no one goes hungry. "We got a voluntary organization to carry out a study in the target population to see if people wanted cash or ration. We found that 99% people wanted cash as women felt it would give them the freedom to buy what they need. For instance, some women said they could buy medicines if a family member was ill," Dikshit added. About 13,300 people will benefit from the scheme with immediate effect and the government has a target to register a total of 2 lakh beneficiaries. These are being chosen from a state survey of most vulnerable carried out in 2009. The scheme applies only to those who do not get the benefit of subsidized rations under PDS. All beneficiaries will get the subusidy from April 1, 2012 onwards. Cash transfer later in districts not prepared: FM If any of the 51 districts selected by the Centre for the rollout of the direct cash transfer programme from January 1 are not ready with their infrastructure by the end of this year, they will be taken up only later, finance minister P Chidambaram said in Alwar on Saturday. He was addressing concerns that the government seemed to be pushing ahead with a scheme that many local administrations were not ready for.

Counting under way in Egyptian referendum

Counting was under way early Sunday after a first-round referendum on a divisive new constitution pushed through by President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist allies despite weeks of opposition protests. Polling stations in half the country, including the biggest cities of Cairo and Alexandria, were tallying the results from Saturday's voting. The second round of the referendum is to be held next Saturday, after which the official result is to be given. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and main media outlets said that, based on very early unofficial figures, it appeared that the polling was trending towards 70 percent support for the draft charter. But the opposition disputed that, saying its preliminary figures suggested that 66 percent of the voters had rejected the proposed constitution. It claimed the Muslim Brotherhood had sought to "rig" the vote. If those contradictory positions are maintained, Egypt's turmoil of the past three weeks over the draft constitution will not subside. Violent clashes claimed eight lives on December 5 amid a highly polarised political climate. Late Saturday, riot police fired tear gas to disperse dozens of hardline Islamists who attacked the central Cairo headquarters of the opposition liberal Wafd Party with fireworks and stones, officers at the scene told AFP. On Friday, clashes between stone-throwing and sword-wielding Islamists and opposition supporters erupted in Egypt's second city of Alexandria, injuring 23 people according to the official MENA news agency. To ensure security, 120,000 troops were deployed to reinforce 130,000 police. Voting was being staggered, with half the country casting their ballots on Saturday and the other half a week later. The Muslim Brotherhood has thrown its formidable organisational machine behind a campaign in favour of the draft constitution. The proposed charter "offers rights and stability," said one Cairo voter who backed it, Kassem Abdallah. It will help Egypt "return to normal", agreed another, Ibrahim Mahmoud, a teacher. But many opposition voters were especially hostile toward the Brotherhood, which the Front believes wants to usher in strict Islamic sharia laws. Abbas Abdelaziz, a 57-year-old accountant, said he voted against the charter "because I hate the Muslim Brotherhood. It's very simple. They are liars." Sally Rafid, a 28-year-old Christian, said: "There are many things in the constitution people don't agree on, and it's not just the articles on religion." International watchdogs, the UN human rights chief, the United States and the European Union have expressed reservations about the draft because of loopholes that could be used to weaken human rights, including those of women, and the independence of the judiciary. Analysts said it was likely - but not certain - that the draft constitution would be adopted. Whatever the outcome, "lasting damage to the civility of Egyptian politics will be the main outcome of the current path Morsi has set Egypt on," one analyst, Issandr El Amrani, wrote for his think tank, the European Council on Foreign Relations. "If the 'no' vote wins, the Morsi presidency will have been fully discredited and the pressure for his resignation will only increase," he said. "If 'yes' wins, the protest movement is unlikely to die down, (and) may radicalise."

Number of atheists around the world is rising
According to the latest global poll released by RedC Opinion Poll, part of WIN-Gallup International, a world-wide network of leading opinion pollsters, the number of self-declared atheists in the world has risen by 9% since the measure was last taken in 2005. The massive poll, conducted in 57 countries (not, apparently, including Britain) among 51,000 people asked a single question “Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person or a convinced atheist?” It shows that on average 59% of the world said that they think of themselves as religious, whereas 23% think of themselves as not religious and 13% think of themselves as convinced atheists. Naturally there are enormous variations from country to country. The countries with most self-described atheists are China (47%); Japan (31%), Czech Republic (30%), France (29%), South Korea (15%), Germany (15%), Netherlands (14%), Austria (10%), Iceland (10%), Australia (10%) and Ireland (10%). The most religious countries are: Ghana (where 96% of people define themselves as religious), Nigeria (93%), Armenia (92%), Fiji (92%), Macedonia (90%), Romania (89%), Iraq (88%), Kenya (88%), Peru (86%) and Brazil (85%). One of the most dramatic reductions in the proportion of the population considering themselves religious occurred in Ireland: from 69% in 2005 to 47% in 2012, placing Ireland on the index of religious belief at position 43 out of 57 countries. The poll also showed that the poorer people were, the more likely they were to be religious. One anomaly that the pollsters have themselves questioned is in Turkey, where those who say they are religious is only 23% while those defining themselves as non-religious is 73% (self-defined atheists 2%). Editor’s Note: Americans will be interested to note that in the United States, the “religious” percentage dropped from 73% in 2005 to 60% in 2012, while 5% of Americans now declare themselves atheist. (In the 2008 ARIS survey, fewer than 2% described themselves as either atheist or agnostic.)

Growing presence of extremists in Syria sends chills down Syrians' spines

With the growing presence of radical Islamists affiliated with al-Qaida in Syria, fear and apprehension have crept up among the moderate Syrians, sending chills down their spines about the vague and uncertain future of their country. As the crisis in the country is nearing to enter its third year, its complications and repercussions are also growing larger; especially now that the armed rebels' ranks are overwhelmed with radicals from al-Nusra Front, an offshoot of al-Qaida terror network in Iraq. Even the international community, who has for long blamed the Syrian administration for the bulk of the violence in Syria, admitted now the threats of al-Qaida-linked groups in Syria. The U. S. branded al-Nusra Front last week as a terror network, after the group has claimed responsibility for almost all explosions that rocked the government and army forces' installations over the past year. Watching what happened in Iraq over the past 10 years, what is going on in Yemen now and on the top of that the footages that emerge on daily bases from places in Syria that witness a thick presence of al-Qaida fighters, Syrians started to mutter about what indeed happened and how did they get this far? Some people repeat the government's line that a big foreign- backed conspiracy has been plotted against Syria since long time ago, with the aim to destroy Syria as a country in favor of the Zionist entity next door; while others who oppose the administration say that the government's harsh crackdown on opposition activists and freedom advocates has plunged the country into this swamp and drawn in radical fighters who claim that they have come to Syria to wage jihad against the "infidel" administration of President Bashar al-Assad and to protect their fellow Sunni people. Furthermore, some rebel battalions, especially in the northern province of Aleppo, said they want neither freedom nor democracy; they want to establish an Islamic emirate on the wreckage of the current government whose high ranks are dominated by members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shitte Islam. But the government has pushed for a secular identity to Syria over the past 40-year- rule of the Assad family. With all of this going on, the Damascenes, at least, have started to feel the heat and their discomfort grow higher amid reports raging battles at the outskirts of the capital between the rebels and the government forces. Some rumors that make the rounds recently said that most of the wealthy people and those who do not want to think of further suffering of what may come have already left the country to neighboring ones. "Why would I stay here now that I can afford a living in a neighboring country? I could save my family some avoidable consequences," Maher, a 46-year-old engineer, said. "I don't want to see another Iraq or Afghanistan here," he said, wishing for a miracle to save Syria. Some other Syrians firmly believe that a more serious chaos would be the title of a post-Assad era in case he decided to go. Resentment among the Damascenes has also become on the upswing with daily reports about robbery and kidnapping. Some believe that the armed militias are lurking for wealthy Syrians for ransoms, as they are running short of funds to buy weapons and ammunition. Others suggest that gangs and thieves are capitalizing on the current chaos to make money by kidnapping rich Damascenes to demand ransom; while some people think that some pro- government armed militias are also carrying out some kidnappings to tarnish the opposition. "Some people have become traumatized by the losses of loved ones," Asma said, trying to gather her composure and wipe away tears. She said a relative of hers had been kidnapped and the captors called his family two days after his disappearance for ransom. "We paid one million Syrian pound and he didn't show up," she said while choking back tears. "Two years ago," she said, "we didn't even think or imagine that something like this would ever happen in Syria ... we are in a real nightmare." With the growing complicity of the crisis, Syrian officials still confirm that Assad still keeps a tight rein on the country and downplay rebels' accounts of achieving gains on ground. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad told the BBC recently that "The government is strong. The Syrian army is strong, and the Syrian people are still rallying behind President Assad. That's why President Assad and the political system are still surviving and they will still survive."

Hillary Clinton suffers concussion

A State Department spokesman said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who became sick with a stomach virus a week ago, is recovering at home after fainting due to dehydration and sustaining a concussion. Sarah Irwin reports.

Peshawar: Militants attack airport in NW Pakistan; 9 killed

Suicide bombers armed with rockets attacked the military side of a Pakistani airport in the northwestern city of Peshawar Saturday, killing four civilians and wounding more than 30, officials said. Five militants also were killed.
Peshawar is on the edge of Pakistan's tribal region, the main sanctuary for al-Qaida and Taliban militants in the country. The city has frequently been attacked in the past few years, but Saturday was the first strike against the airport, which is jointly used by the air force and civilian authorities. The militants fired three rockets at the airport, two of which hit a wall ringing the premises, said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where Peshawar is the capital. The third landed near a government building outside the wall, Hussain said. The militants also set off a car bomb outside the wall around the airport, causing civilian casualties, said the military. The dead and wounded civilians from the attack came from neighborhoods located near the airport, said Umar Ayub, a local hospital official. The 36 wounded included six women and three children, and several people were in critical condition, said Ayub. Five militants were killed in a gunbattle with security forces during the attack, said the military. However, Zahid Khan, a police explosives expert, said it appeared that three of the militants were accidentally killed when the car bomb they used to try to break through the airport wall exploded. Four of the attackers who were killed were wearing suicide vests that have been defused, said the air force. The air force side of the airport was the target of the attack and authorities were searching the area for any remaining attackers, said Defense Minister Naveed Qamar. No air force personnel were wounded in the attack and none of the service's equipment was damaged, the air force said. Local TV footage showed people in the neighborhoods near the airport rushing for safety as the attack occurred. One car was damaged in the attack and another was set on fire. A house was also damaged. The airport was closed, and flights were diverted to other cities, said Pervez George, a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but suspicion will likely fall on the Pakistani Taliban. The militant group has been waging a bloody insurgency against the government for the past several years and has attacked Peshawar many times in the past. Also Saturday, police said a judge freed a couple on bail who confessed to killing their 15-year-old daughter in October by pouring acid on her after their other children pardoned them. The girl's parents, Mohammad Zafar and his wife Zaheen, said in a televised interview that they killed her because she sullied the family's honor by looking at a boy. They were freed from a jail in Pakistan-administered Kashmir on Friday after their other children, who are minors, said they forgave their parents, said police officer Tahir Ayub. The children spoke through their guardian, who is also a relative, said Ayub. The police officer said authorities had evidence to prove the murder charge against the parents, but by law, their children had the right to forgive them. The murder charge will likely be dropped, said Ayub. The girl's death underlined the problem of so-called "honor killings" in Pakistan, where women are often killed for marrying or having relationships not approved by their families or because they are perceived to have somehow dishonored their family. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, at least 943 women were killed in the name of honor last year. The real toll is believed to be higher because many of the crimes go unreported.

President Obama Announces More Key Administration Posts
Today, President Barack Obama announced his intent to nominate the following individuals to key Administration posts:
Richard J. Engler – Member, Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board
Linda A. Puchala – Member, National Mediation Board President Obama said, “Our nation will be greatly served by the talent and expertise these individuals bring to their new roles. I am grateful they have agreed to serve in this Administration, and I look forward to working with them in the months and years ahead.”
President Obama announced his intent to nominate the following individuals to key Administration posts:
Richard J. Engler, Nominee for Member, Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board
Richard J. Engler is the Founder and Director of the New Jersey Work Environment Council, a role he has held since 1997. From 1986 to 1996, he was Legislative Director and Vice President for the New Jersey Industrial Union Council, AFL-CIO. From 1975 to 1985, Mr. Engler was Founder and Co-Director of the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health. Mr. Engler also worked at the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union, AFL-CIO, from 1973 to 1974. He received a B.A. in Political Science and Environmental Studies from Antioch College.
Linda A. Puchala, Nominee for Member, National Mediation Board
Linda A. Puchala currently serves as a Member of the National Mediation Board, a position she has held since 2009. Ms. Puchala served as Chairman of the National Mediation Board from July 2011 to June 2012. Previously, she served as a Senior Mediator and Associate Director of Alternative Dispute Resolution Services at the National Mediation Board from 2002 to 2009, having served as a Mediator from 1999 to 2002. In addition, Ms. Puchala served as the Staff Director of the Michigan State Employees Association from 1990 to 1999. From 1970 to 1986, she held various roles with the Association of Flight Attendants, including International President, Master Executive Council President, Local Council President, and Member of the Negotiating Committee. She received a B.A. in Business Administration from Cleary University.

Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban

A RUSH of diplomatic activity in the capitals of Pakistan, Afghanistan and beyond brings hopes that the Afghan Taliban may yet be brought into peace talks. Years of manoeuvring and diplomatic platitudes appear, in the past few weeks, to be giving way to something more encouraging. Only in March, an effort in Qatar to begin dialogue between the United States and the Taliban collapsed before it had started. Suddenly, however, there is new optimism. The first sign of change came when Pakistan freed 18 low-ranking Taliban prisoners in November, apparently to encourage the Afghan insurgents to join talks. Authorities in Islamabad, Kabul, Washington and London all appear to want this. Pakistan is central to developments in Afghanistan because insurgents use its border areas as havens. The leaders of the Taliban and the Haqqani network, its ally, have been holed up in Pakistan since fleeing Afghanistan in 2001. As striking is evidence that outsiders are changing their views of Pakistan. For years the American-led coalition force inside Afghanistan, and President Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul, saw Pakistan almost as an enemy. Officials in Islamabad had long argued that Afghanistan’s war would end only when the Taliban were accommodated politically. But the Americans preferred to chase military victory, blaming failure on the insurgents’ sanctuaries in Pakistan.ow America’s ties with Pakistan have started to improve, just as outsiders are ready to give Pakistan a chance to foster a deal with the Taliban. Relations between the Pakistani and Afghan governments are also improving. Even last week’s attempted murder of Afghanistan’s intelligence chief, which Kabul officials blamed on a bomber from Pakistan, has not been allowed to strain ties. Minds are being focused because of the looming 2014 deadline for coalition forces to end combat operations in Afghanistan. After that, the likeliest outcome is a fragile state with an anaemic economy, a corrupt government, deep ethnic divisions and an army of limited strength. No government wants outright chaos, or civil war, so the urge to co-operate is growing. Take, for example, a plan produced by Mr Karzai’s High Peace Council, a body which is supposed to get insurgents to negotiate. It sets out how Pakistan will have to “facilitate direct contact” of the warring parties. The “Peace Process Roadmap to 2015” also foresees negotiations late next year between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Contentiously, too, it proposes that the Taliban should share power by getting “non-elected positions”, such as provincial governorships and other regional posts. The effect, in theory, would be to cede control of the south and the east of Afghanistan. The Taliban could also get ministerial positions in Kabul without winning any election. A Pakistani official says that while his government would try to persuade the Taliban, it “cannot force” it to negotiate. “They have to be convinced by the Afghan side,” he says, adding that Pakistan’s influence over the insurgents is exaggerated. Pakistan would also push for a ceasefire before any talks. On its side, the Taliban says it only wants direct talks with the United States, calling Mr Karzai’s government “puppets”. A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, told The Economist this week that “our problem is with the United States, and we do not see a role for any other country.” Yet the movement craves international respectability and understands it lacks the military clout simply to impose its rule on Afghanistan, even after 2014. Mr Mujahid said his group would attend an Afghanistan conference in Paris next week, “to convey our demands to the world, explain our policies and share our sentiments with the delegates”. These will include the Taliban’s old enemies, the Northern Alliance. The Pakistani push has come from a rare joint effort between the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, and the foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar. The diplomats’ role, in particular, has been to reach out to the Northern Alliance, seen as close to India. Pakistan is accused of treating the Taliban as its proxies in Afghanistan, as a bulwark against Indian influence there. But Afghan officials claim that the Pakistanis are less paranoid about India these days. Perhaps Pakistan’s greater concern now is to find ways to deal with the extremist menace at home. Chaos over the border in Afghanistan would make that harder. For the Americans, the priority is to get the Taliban at last to cut its loose ties to al-Qaeda. That would make a compromise with the Afghan group more palatable, and could perhaps lead to concessions over the Western-style Afghan constitution. What may come next is an attempt to revive the Qatar negotiations, perhaps involving the controversial release of Taliban inmates from Guantánamo Bay. An effort is under way to alter a United Nations blacklist of Taliban members, to allow the movement’s negotiators to travel. The diplomatic frenzy is based mostly on hope. Some, notably Afghan northerners, will fear a sell-out. Within the Taliban some commanders are also sure to object. Thus promises of a deal could easily turn to dust. But at least a political end to the war is being seriously explored.

Egypt: The Next India or the Next Pakistan?

I WANT to discuss Egypt today, but first a small news item that you may have missed. Three weeks ago, the prime minister of India appointed Syed Asif Ibrahim as the new director of India’s Intelligence Bureau, its domestic intelligence-gathering agency. Ibrahim is a Muslim. India is a predominantly Hindu country, but it is also the world’s third-largest Muslim nation. India’s greatest security threat today comes from violent Muslim extremists. For India to appoint a Muslim to be the chief of the country’s intelligence service is a big, big deal. But it’s also part of an evolution of empowering minorities. India’s prime minister and its army chief of staff today are both Sikhs, and India’s foreign minister and chief justice of the Supreme Court are both Muslims. It would be like Egypt appointing a Coptic Christian to be its army chief of staff. “Preposterous,” you say. Well, yes, that’s true today. But if it is still true in a decade or two, then we’ll know that democracy in Egypt failed. We will know that Egypt went the route of Pakistan and not India. That is, rather than becoming a democratic country where its citizens could realize their full potential, instead it became a Muslim country where the military and the Muslim Brotherhood fed off each other so both could remain in power indefinitely and “the people” were again spectators. Whether Egypt turns out more like Pakistan or India will impact the future of democracy in the whole Arab world. Sure, India still has its governance problems and its Muslims still face discrimination. Nevertheless, “democracy matters,” argues Tufail Ahmad, the Indian Muslim who directs the South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, because “it is democracy in India that has, over six decades, gradually broken down primordial barriers — such as caste, tribe and religion — and in doing so opened the way for all different sectors of Indian society to rise through their own merits, which is exactly what Ibrahim did.” And it is six decades of tyranny in Egypt that has left it a deeply divided country, where large segments do not know or trust one another, and where conspiracy theories abound. All of Egypt today needs to go on a weekend retreat with a facilitator and reflect on one question: How did India, another former British colony, get to be the way it is (Hindu culture aside)? The first answer is time. India has had decades of operating democracy, and, before independence, struggling for democracy. Egypt has had less than two years. Egypt’s political terrain was frozen and monopolized for decades — the same decades that political leaders from Mahatma Gandhi to Jawaharlal Nehru to Manmohan Singh “were building an exceptionally diverse, cacophonous, but impressively flexible and accommodating system,” notes the Stanford University democracy expert Larry Diamond, the author of “The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World.” Also, the dominant political party in India when it overthrew its colonial overlord “was probably the most multiethnic, inclusive and democratically minded political party to fight for independence in any 20th-century colony — the Indian National Congress,” said Diamond. While the dominant party when Egypt overthrew Hosni Mubarak’s tyranny, the Muslim Brotherhood, “was a religiously exclusivist party with deeply authoritarian roots that had only recently been evolving toward something more open and pluralistic.” Moreover, adds Diamond, compare the philosophies and political heirs of Mahatma Gandhi and Sayyid Qutb, the guiding light of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Nehru was not a saint, but he sought to preserve a spirit of tolerance and consensus, and to respect the rules,” notes Diamond. He also prized education. By contrast, added Diamond, “the hard-line Muslim Brotherhood leaders, who have been in the driver’s seat since Egypt started moving toward elections, have driven away the moderates from within their party, seized emergency powers, beaten their rivals in the streets, and now are seeking to ram a constitution that lacks consensus down the throats of a large segment of Egyptian society that feels excluded and aggrieved.” Then there is the military. Unlike in Pakistan, India’s postindependence leaders separated the military from politics. Unfortunately, in Egypt after the 1952 coup, Gamel Abdel Nasser brought the military into politics and all of his successors, right up to Mubarak, kept it there and were sustained by both the military and its intelligence services. Once Mubarak fell, and the new Brotherhood leaders pushed the army back to its barracks, Egypt’s generals clearly felt that they had to cut a deal to protect the huge web of economic interests they had built. “Their deep complicity in the old order led them to be compromised by the new order,” said Diamond. “Now they are not able to act as a restraining influence.” Yes, democracy matters. But the ruling Muslim Brotherhood needs to understand that democracy is so much more than just winning an election. It is nurturing a culture of inclusion, and of peaceful dialogue, where respect for leaders is earned by surprising opponents with compromises rather than dictates. The Noble Prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Sen has long argued that it was India’s civilizational history of dialogue and argumentation that disposed it well to the formal institutions of democracy. More than anything, Egypt now needs to develop that kind of culture of dialogue, of peaceful and respectful arguing — it was totally suppressed under Mubarak — rather than rock-throwing, boycotting, conspiracy-mongering and waiting for America to denounce one side or the other, which has characterized too much of the postrevolutionary political scene. Elections without that culture are like a computer without software. It just doesn’t work.

Rockets fired at airport in Peshawar, six killed

Militants fired three rockets at an airport in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar on Saturday night, killing six people and wounding more than 40 others, DawnNews reported. Peshawar is located on the edge of Pakistan’s tribal region, the main sanctuary for al Qaeda and Taliban militants in the country. The city has been hit by repeated attacks in the past few years, but an attack on the airport is rare. None of the rockets landed inside the main airport area, which is jointly used by civilian authorities and the air force, said Pervez George, a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Two of the rockets damaged a wall that surrounds the airport, and a third landed near a government building outside the premises, said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where Peshawar is the capital. A gunbattle broke out between security forces and militants after the rocket attack, said Hussain. No militants were able to enter the airport, said the air force in a statement sent to reporters. No air force personnel were injured and none of their planes were damaged, it said. The dead and wounded from the attack came from the neighborhoods located near the airport, said Umar Ayub, a local hospital official. The wounded included women and children, and several people were in critical condition, said Ayub. Local TV footage showed people in the neighborhoods near the airport rushing for safety as the attack occurred. One car was damaged by the rocket fire and another was set on fire. A house was also damaged. The airport has been closed, and flights are being diverted to other cities, said George, the civil aviation spokesman.

Video News: Rocket attack near Peshawar airport leaves 5 dead, 21 injured

Peshawar AirPort under attack:Five killed, 40 hurt in rocket attacks

Unknown miscreants fired three rockets intermittently at the Peshawar airport. The explosions were so horrible that their voice was heard in far-flung areas while the windows of nearby buildings were broken as well. The site of occurrence caught fire after the explosion. Security forces reached the site of occurrence and cordoned off the related area for in order to avoid any untoward mishap. Terror and horror gripped the area and people preferred to remain within the limits of their homes. Police official told that they were searching to determine the main point. According to the eye witnesses, two rockets also fell at the runway of the Peshawar Airport. They said the target of the terrorist was airport. The clouds of smoke and fireflames have also been seen in the locality. There are reports of counter aerial firing from the Airport Security Forces (ASF) and the law enforcing agencies have blocked the roads around the airport. Pakistan Army squad has reached the site of occurrence and undertook control of the Airport. The bodies and injured were rushed to different hospitals where emergency has been declared. Provincial minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain while talking to Dunya News told that the rockets were fired from outside the airport, yet airport is completely secured. The minister also said yet law and order situation is not fully clear.

Egyptians discuss constitution at polling stations

As people queued to vote in a referendum on a draft constitution on Saturday, debates on voting “Yes” or “No” continued. In Cairo’s Manial area voters started queuing since 8am, while other stations were relatively empty. “I voted ‘Yes’ because I’m tired of all the protests. I want the country to be stable and this won’t happen without a constitution,” said Ahmed, a civil engineer. “The constitution is distorted by the media. I’ll vote ‘Yes’ because it limits the president’s authority, even the prime minister is accountable to the People’s Assembly,” said voter Ahmed Anwar. Another voter disagreed with Anwar: “This constitution offers the president unprecedented powers and impunity, it creates a new pharaoh,” he said. Nadia Saad, 32, a housewife said, “I salute the Constituent Assembly for their work. This is the best constitution that could have ever been made in Egyptian history.” “I read the constitution four times, took notes and talked to lawyers. I debated with them for five days and my vote is ‘No.’ Egypt deserves a better constitution,” Heba Ali, an English teacher said. In Nasr City and Heliopolis the voting public, mainly women, filled up the almost all of the polling stations. “No. I won’t accept a constitution dictated by the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. It clearly serves their every interest. This should be named the Brotherhood’s constitution not Egypt’s,” said Mariam, 21, a college student. “We all have to vote ‘Yes.’ We have to stand against those who are raping girls in Tahrir [Square], why else would they set up tents?” said Omneya, a law student. Sanaa’, a doorman’s wife in her sixties, said, “I will definitely vote “No.” Look where trusting the Brotherhood has gotten us; they did nothing but work for their personal interests and try to control everything in the country.” The woman standing behind her agreed: “The only thing Morsy did since he got in power was make our lives harder. Prices are rising; our youth are being killed every day, no justice, no freedom and all his promises are empty. Nobody trusts him anymore.” Mohamed Omar, a worker in a ceramic factory, said that he read the constitution and he thought it was really good; “there are some controversial articles but we elect the People’s Assembly that drafts laws so the power is in our hands.” Myriam Victor, a mass communication student said she went to the voting station after reading on Twitter that Copts were prevented from voting in her area, “there was no such thing, the station was well organised; people were discussing their views on the constitution in groups without any clashes or violations.” Fatma Abdel Hady, a retired teacher, offered a different view, “here’s how I thought about it, if we voted ‘Yes’ the majority of people would be angry which will lead to more clashes and blood, but if we voted ‘No’ only the Brotherhood would be angry. That’s why ‘No’ makes more sense to me.” “This constitution is for today’s youth and future generations; they are already struggling; let’s not add to their hardships in the name of religion,” Abdel Hady added. Hala, 43, a doctor said, “I read the constitution and didn’t understand most of it. I’m unsure and that’s why I’ll vote ‘No.’ If you’re not sure you shouldn’t risk the country’s future.” At the Ain Shams Faculty for Girls, one of the biggest stations in Heliopolis, a man was kicked out by voters after he talked to people about how all Muslims should vote “Yes.” “We’re fed up with people who use religion to persuade people,” said Omar Hafez, 37, an engineer. Youssef, 20, a political science student said “you can’t build a country on false bases. I’m ready to wait for as long as it takes to have an acceptable constitution that preserves our rights and defines our duties. This is what we rebelled for and that’s what we will get eventually, no matter what the Brotherhood thinks.”

Afghanistan: Foreign troops should leave villages

Associated Press
Afghanistan's president said Saturday that the U.S. and NATO troops transferring security to local forces should leave the country's villages as soon as possible and pull back to their bases. The U.S. has already said that from mid-2013 on, the United States and its allies would operate from fewer bases and that the withdrawal of military supplies and equipment from Afghanistan would accelerate. But the comments from the Afghan leader suggest he would like to see that process gain some momentum. "There will be a change in our relations with the world in 2013," President Hamid Karzai said at the opening of a conference on Afghan foreign policy strategy. "The U.S. and NATO forces are going to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but before that — in 2013 — the transition of security is going to be completed and there will be no military activity of foreign forces in Afghanistan." "We are working to make this transition of security happen sooner. We want all the foreign forces to come out of the villages and go to their bases so the Afghan forces can carry out the security," Karzai said, adding that that after the international forces pull back to their bases, they can gradually return home from there, completing the withdrawal by the end of 2014. International forces have been fighting for more than a decade against the Taliban and other militants who allowed al-Qaida to operate in Afghanistan and plot the 9/11 attacks. Karzai has long stressed that terrorism is not rooted in Afghan villages, but resides in other sanctuaries outside the country — a veiled reference to neighboring Pakistan. "From our vision, the fight against terrorism is not in Afghanistan," he said. "That is why we do not want military operations in our villages, in our houses." Karzai discounted fears that Afghanistan would descend into a civil war of ethnic factions after the foreign combat troops complete their withdrawal. He said he was confident that Afghan soldiers and police can handle security. "I'm completely sure that the withdrawal of international forces in 2014 will give us more opportunity to provide more security," Karzai said. "We are the owners of this country. We should really show that we are the owners of this country." Karzai reiterated his call for national unity and instructed the Afghan diplomats at the conference to return to their assigned countries and present Afghanistan as a proud, sovereign and unified nation. "We are poor, but we are lord of this region," Karzai said. "Our history has proven that we are the lord of this region. ... So wherever you are based, you should act as a lord — a poor lord, but a lord." When they meet during the week of Jan. 7, Karzai and President Barack Obama will discuss the pace of coalition troop withdrawals, efforts to pursue peace with the Taliban as well as the role and size of U.S. military presence in his country beginning in 2015. During a trip to Afghanistan this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta offered no clues about what Obama will decide. Other officials have indicated that the White House is considering plans that call for between 6,000 and 10,000 U.S. troops to stay for several years after 2014 in order to keep Afghanistan on a path toward stability and to prevent al-Qaida and affiliated terrorist groups from re-emerging as a significant force in the country. The U.S. now has about 66,000 troops here, along with about 35,000 from allied nations. No decision on 2013 U.S. troop withdrawals is likely to be announced until after Karzai meets Obama in Washington in early January. The U.S. withdrew 10,000 troops last year and another 23,000 this year. There have been calls in Congress for Obama to accelerate the withdrawal next year, and from commanders' own optimistic assessments of progress, it appears such a speedup could be coming. Some U.S. military officials, however, warn that pulling out too many troops too fast could squander hard-won sacrifices.

US commanders are upbeat on Afghan war progress

U.S. commanders are offering glowing reviews of their 2012 war campaign, upbeat assessments that could be interpreted as leeway for President Barack Obama to order another round of troop withdrawals next summer. Obama faces a tension between calls by Democrats and even some Republicans to wind down the war more quickly and the military's desire to avoid a too-fast pullout that might squander hard-won sacrifices. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has not yet recommended to Obama a specific pace of withdrawals for 2013. But during the Pentagon chief's two-day visit to the war zone this past week, commanders suggested that things are going better than is generally believed by an American public weary of war after 11 years. Maj. Gen. Robert Abrams, for example, cited "astounding" progress in the Zaray district of Kandahar province, where the Taliban once held sway. Abrams, the top coalition commander in southern Afghanistan, said Afghan forces are now "dominating" in that district. He told reporters he foresees a smaller coalition force by next summer, but he was not recommending or predicting any U.S. reductions. He was arguing that Afghan forces are performing so well that they should be able to hold their ground in 2013 with less coalition combat power. No decision on 2013 U.S. troop withdrawals is likely to be announced until after Afghan President Hamid Karzai meets with Obama in Washington in early January. The U.S. now has 66,000 troops in Afghanistan. Panetta announced in Kabul on Thursday that Karzai had agreed to go to Washington the week of Jan. 7 to discuss the pace of coalition troop withdrawals as well as a U.S. military role in his country after December 2014, when the international coalition's combat mission is to end. Obama withdrew 23,000 U.S. troops this year, following a drawdown of 10,000 in 2011. There have been calls in Congress for Obama to accelerate the withdrawal next year, and from commanders' own assessments of progress, it appears such a speedup could be coming. Commanders portrayed the Taliban as fraying and failing, though not defeated. Maj. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the international coalition's deputy chief of staff for operations, said the Taliban had aspired to pull off a series of high-level assassinations in 2012 and regain territory they lost in 2011. "They have failed at every one" of those objectives, Nicholson told reporters. Nicholson also said, by way of illustrating how much things have changed in Afghanistan in recent years, that in the former Taliban stronghold of Helmand province, U.S. Marines are now complaining of boredom because there is so little fighting for them to do. He was not arguing for further U.S. troop reductions in 2013 but observing that if Helmand is a model for Afghanistan, it may show that coalition forces can step back and give Afghan forces the lead role without sacrificing security and giving the Taliban new hope for a revival. Col. Christopher Boyle, the operations chief on Abrams' staff in Kandahar, said the Taliban are facing financial and other pressures. "More and more we are seeing fracturing" in Taliban leadership circles, Boyle said, with factions fighting each other for territory and resources. Abrams did acknowledge that the Taliban will keep "coming back" until there is some sort of reconciliation with the Afghan government. Panetta has not telegraphed his recommendations to Obama on future troop levels. The main message of his visit to Afghanistan, possibly his last as defense secretary, was one of reassurance to Afghans that they will not be abandoned after 2014. And he made a pitch for patience among Americans tired of war. "For the first time since 9/11, we have a chance to achieve the mission that we are embarked upon," Panetta said, alluding to the defeat of al-Qaida and the stabilization of Afghanistan. "To achieve that mission will require a continued commitment, continued perseverance, continued partnership and continued sacrifice on the part of our nations."

Pakistan: The corruption furore

A furore has broken out about corruption charges against politicians across the board. The NAB chief, Admiral (retd) Fasih Bokhari, has exploded a bombshell by endorsing the figure for daily corruption first put forward by Transparency International (TI) of Rs seven billion per day. Whereas the TI figure was based more on surveys of perceptions than any concrete facts, the good Admiral seems to have a little more wind in his sails when he claims the country is losing Rs seven billion per day due to tax evasion and another Rs 6-7 billion because of direct corruption at both the federal and provincial levels, based he says, on the TI surveys, government and regulators’ reports, proceedings of the Public Accounts Committee, tax collection departments’ input and NAB’s own assessment of mega projects. None of the data that could back up such sweeping generalisations has so far been presented by the Admiral, whose initial estimate has now almost doubled, casting a shadow of doubt about the findings. Irrespective of the government and the opposition’s reactions to the allegations, a number of questions have arisen because of the Admiral’s actions. First and foremost, is it the NAB’s mandate to be indulging in such kite-flying? NAB is charged with going after specific corruption cases, not indulging in dubious ‘research’. Second, as a department of the government, should the NAB chief not have gone to the government with his ‘findings’ instead of creating a controversy by going public on shaky foundations? Last but not least, the timing of his assertions on the eve of the general elections leaves one scratching one’s head as to the purpose or intent behind this ‘bombshell’. Irrespective of the Admiral’s fulminations or his intent, all he has managed to do is feed into a general perception that corruption exists, the quantity remaining difficult to pin down by the very nature of the phenomenon, which afflicts all tiers and levels of the state, from the lowest rung to the highest. However, perception is not proof. It has to be substantiated by concrete evidence. Sweeping statements are no substitute for what is arguably a serious affliction state and society are suffering from. Feeling targeted, the political class has felt more affronted than responded responsibly. If the political class has been put in the dock on the issue of not filing income tax returns, although some of the names being touted have refuted the allegation, the response expected from our elected representatives is that they behave like responsible holders of elected office and plug any gaps that exist in this regard. There are other issues with the current furore. It appears on the surface that the various authors of the corruption reports see ‘evil’ only in the political class. Their omissions are even more significant than those they name. Have they ‘declared’ the military and bureaucracy squeaky clean in focusing only on politicians? Anyone even superficially acquainted with Pakistan’s history will find it difficult to deny the role these institutions have played in siphoning off state resources, in the case of the military, involving big ticket defence purchases paid for by the sweat and labour of the citizen. About the bureaucracy and the lower judiciary, the less said the better. All the surveyors and purveyors of this pseudo-science needed to do was talk to a representative sample of the citizenry and they would have come away better educated about the phenomenon of corruption and the spread of its tentacles through the entire governance structures of the country. Last but by no means the least, some probing questions need to be asked before we get swept away in a frenzy in another dubious controversy. Is corruption universal or confined? Increasingly, the answer may well be that it is tending towards the former. Did corruption begin only now? This is patently a false and ahistorical perception. Corruption has been around a long time, arguably since independence, and the fact that it has grown in depth and reach suggests it is not about to go away any time soon. The tendency of the military to use its periods in power or even in between as license to manoeuvre benefits, the bureaucracy to permanently have its hand in the till, the political class to incrementally treat public office as a means of private gain, all these have acquired unstoppable traction over time. Adding to this sorry picture is the ethos of unbridled capitalism, which glorifies getting rich by any and all means, including the crooked. Unfortunately, the mud-slinging over corruption, past victimisation of political opponents in the name of accountability, and the lack of any meaningful measures to halt the growing trend means that, especially at this juncture when the country stands poised on the brink of a historic democratic transition, the whole furore is unlikely to turn out to be more than a red herring when juxtaposed against the even more serious challenges facing the country.

Pakistan: Poverty, food insecurity rise

Editorial:The Frontier Post
That the party which committed to itself to establish an egalitarian society, is conceding in its fourth government that poverty and food insecurity have risen in the tenure of its fourth government, must be seen with a agonizing eye. This candid admission came in a Senate session on Thursday when the Ministry of Food Security accepted that poverty has been increasing in the country since the PPP-led coalition entered the corridors of power. Although not much of data was provided, the World Bank and the UNDP have said that 17.2 per cent of Pakistanis were living below the poverty line in 2007-08. This means that the monthly income of a family rests around $100 a month and this is abysmally low when considered in the backdrop that a few hundred Pakistanis have their money in foreign banks said to be more than $100 billion and affluent people do not pay their taxes. As for food insecurity, the ministry said the number of people falling under the poverty line had been increasing constantly and more than 58 per cent population was food insecure by 2011.The ministry said that the National Nutrition Survey, 2011, conducted by the Benazir Income Support Program, showed that 58 per cent of Pakistanis were food insecure and 29.6 percent of them were suffering with hunger or severe hunger. Both the questions relate to fundamental human rights which comes to low priority in this land the pure. This points out to the failure of the country’s poverty alleviation plan under the World Bank-sponsored Benazir Income Support Programme that is hardly seen helping the needy. The BISP initiated a National Zero Hunger Plan and the prime minister made announcement on March 21 this year. But the plan has no far stepped beyond the announcement stage.Coming to food security plans, the government cannot hopefully succeed when agriculture, that contributes 24 per cent of the GDP, employs 48 per cent of the country’s labour force and contributes about 60 per cent to export earnings, remains a losing activity with mounting prices of fertilizers and other inputs whose cost is much higher that actual yield. Although the government raised the wheat support price from Rs1050 to Rs1,200 per 40 KG, farming activity is not likely to pick up because land holdings, among other factors, are highly unjustified because it is the big landlord who ultimately benefits at the cost of about 90 per cent peasantry. In short, this is only one aspect of an exploitative class-ridden society which leans heavily on the side of the high and mighty and forsakes the weak and the poor, no less than 95 per cent of the population.

PRESIDENT ZARDARI: Eradication of Polio is foremost priority of government

Radio Pakistan
President Asif Ali Zardari has reiterated that eradication of Polio is the foremost priority of the government. He was talking to a delegation comprising representatives of international partners against polio eradication which called on him in Islamabad on Saturday. The President said we have made polio eradication campaign a cross party issue and all the political parties and societal forces are now supporting the cause. Referring to situation in tribal areas and some parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa‚ the President said that the Government was making efforts with the support of political and religious leaders and other notables of the areas to reach out even in those areas where inaccessibility and security issues had hampered polio campaigns in the past. The President thanked the international community for complementing the government's efforts to save our children from the menace of polio. He said that the government‚ the people and the children of Pakistan are also thankful to all our international partners who were providing every assistance in complete elimination of the disease. Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said they discussed steps taken for polio eradication during the meeting. The delegation lauded the personal interest of the President towards efforts for eradicating the menace of Polio from the country. The delegation assured their continued support in the cause of eradicating Polio from the country. During the meeting‚ the President also telephoned Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman and requested him to meet the delegation to discuss issues related to resistance in Polio campaign by some on ideological grounds. Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman said that the delegation is welcome to meet him.

Rocket attack near Peshawar airport kills at least two

At least two people were killed and dozens sustained injuries in Peshawar when at least three rockets, fired from unknown location, landed near the city’s airport, DawnNews reported. Initial reports suggest that two rockets were landed near the airport while the third landed on Bara Road. There are reports of counter aerial firing from the Airport Security Forces (ASF) and the law enforcing agencies have blocked the roads around the airport. The incident has spread fear among the residents. An emergency has been imposed and the agencies have sealed the airport.

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VIDEO: Eyewitnesses describe Alexandria clashes

Clashes erupted following Friday prayers at the Qaed Ibrahim mosque in Alexandria, where prominent preacher Ahmed El-Mahalawy had urged worshipers to vote 'yes' in the constitutional referendum scheduled for Saturday.

Fotouh urges no vote against Egypts draft constitution

Videos against the Egyptian draft constitution surface social media

A group of Egyptian youth designed a series of video clips on YouTube campaigning against the draft constitution to be put to vote on Saturday. The clips come along a series of videos called in Arabic “Fahmni” or “Explain to Me,” tackling political and legal concepts and terms. The clips discussed some articles of the constitution in a very simple manner, while pointing out what they consider as ‘legal flaws.’ The videos start by the question, “why are we voting ‘no’ to the constitution?” followed by simplified explanations of the reasons behind rejecting some articles. One clip discussed Article 14 which limits the stipulation on a maximum national wage by stating that exemptions would be regulated by the law. The clip criticizes this article saying it does not set a standard relation between minimum and maximum wage. In another clip, the youth criticized Article 149 which states that the president may issue a pardon or mitigate a sentence. This article, the clip says, will grant President Mohamed Mursi the right to intervene in judicial affairs. The country heads to referendum after weeks of protests and violent clashes between rival camps that left eight people dead last week. Egyptians are to start deciding Saturday whether to adopt a new constitution backed by Islamists, or reject it as urged by the opposition, which claims the new charter does not represent all Egyptians. Recent protests have failed to dissuade Mursi from holding the referendum, which will be staggered over a week.

Divided Egypt votes on draft constitution