Thursday, January 17, 2013

Pakistan: The ‘game’ is over

Daily Times
The five-day long ‘million march’ melodrama came to an end on Thursday, in a win-win situation for both government and Dr Tahirul Qadri. The hours-long successful negotiations between a 10-member committee comprising representatives from Pakistan People’s Party and its coalition partners and Tehreek-e-Minhajul Quran chief in a bullet-proof container in the heart of federal capital not only gave a breathing space to a fragile government in its last days in the office, but also gave a face-saving to Dr Tahirul Qadri, who had been virtually pushed into a blind ally, thanks to an unprecedented unity among all the democracy-loving political forces in Pakistan. Dr Qadri told his followers to pack their bags as he read aloud the three-page ‘Islamabad Long March Declaration’ duly signed by him and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf. Elections: According to the declaration, the National Assembly will be dissolved at any time before March 16 (the due date), so that the elections may take place within 90 days. One month will be given for scrutiny of nomination papers for the purpose of pre-clearance of the candidates under articles 62 and 63 of the constitution so that the eligibility of the candidates is determined by the Election Commission of Pakistan. No candidate will be allowed to start the election campaign until pre-clearance on his eligibility is given by the Election Commission of Pakistan. Election Commission of Pakistan: The issue of composition of the Election Commission of Pakistan will be discussed at a meeting on Sunday, at 12 in the noon at the Minhajul Quran Secretariat in Lahore. Subsequent meetings, if any in this regard, will also be held at the secretariat. Law Minister Farooq H Naek will convene a meeting of lawyers comprising SM Zafar, Waseem Sajjad, Aitizaz Ahsan, Farough Naseem, Latif Afridi, Dr Khalid Ranjha and Hamayoun Ahsan to legally and constitutionally analyse the issue of reconstitution of the Election Commission of Pakistan. The law minister will report the results of this legal consultation to the January 27 meeting. Electoral Reforms: Both sides agreed to focus on the enforcement of electoral reforms prior to the elections through: a) Article 62, 63 and 218 (3) of the constitution; b) Section 77 to 82 of the Representation of Peoples’ Act 1976 and other provisions relating to holding of free, fair, just and honest elections guarded against all corrupt practices; c) The Supreme Court’s June 8, 2012 judgement will be implemented in toto and in true letter and spirit. Cases registered: All cases registered against each other will be withdrawn immediately and there will be no acts of victimisation and vendetta against either party or the participants and the organiser of the march. Caretaker prime minister: The treasury in complete consensus with Pakistan Awami Tehreek will propose names of two honest and impartial persons for appointment as caretaker prime minister. However, there was no mention in the declaration of Dr Qadri’s earlier demand regarding consultation with armed forces of Pakistan and the judiciary on appointing a caretaker set-up prior to the elections. Addressing the rally after the agreement, Qadri lauded the participants for their struggle. “The peaceful march that started on Sunday and continued till today has become a great model for the world to see,” he said. “It is a day of victory for the participants as well as the whole nation,” he added. All members of the negotiating team also hailed the success of dialogue and termed it a victory of democracy. The crowd, which braved cold weather and heavy rain, broke into cheers and danced on the road at the news of success of dialogue. Earlier, a delegation comprising Afrasiab Khattak, Farooq Naek, Qamar Zaman Kaira, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, Farooq Sattar, Babar Ghauri, Khurshid Shah, Amin Faheem and Mushahid Hussain entered the container at around 4pm. Hours before the meeting began, Qadri issued a ‘final’ warning to the government. “Now I give an ultimatum that the president and his team come for talks by 3 and it’s the last peaceful offer to them,” said Qadri. “Today is the last day of our sit-in. Tomorrow, we will act with a new strategy.” He asked his supporters not to leave the protest site until a written agreement was hammered out. Qadri gave the government a 90-minute deadline to act on his demands by 3pm, but later said he had now given government time till 3.45 pm. He said government had contacted him and sought more time so that a delegation could meet him at the site of his protest. He also told his followers that he had set only one condition for talks: Interior Minister Rehman Malik should not be part of delegation. In his address in the day, Qadri said the attitude of country’s rulers had proven that there was no space for peace in the country. He had although he had given the government three weeks for negotiations, the rulers had failed to budge. He had said government does not believe in a peaceful resolution of issues confronting. He said that hundreds of thousands had been staging a protest for days without any government security, adding that the participants were only counting on Almighty Allah’s mercy. He said the country was not being governed under a democratic system and instead barbarity was the order of the day. He criticised Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf for travelling to Balochistan four days after the bombings in Quetta. He questioned as to how were the ‘Uzbek terrorists’ entering Pakistan, adding that brutality was at its extreme in the country.

President Zardari summons Senate, NA sessions for Jan 21

President Asif Ali Zardari has summoned sessions of both the lower and upper houses of Parliament to convene on Monday, Jan 21. According to a press releases issued by the President House on Thursday, the President summoned the National Assembly on the advice of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf to on Monday at 4 pm. The President Asif also summoned a session of the Senate on the same day, according to Spokesperson to the President Senator Farhatullah Babar.

Not enough proof to arrest Pakistan's PM
Pakistan's anti-graft body NAB's chief on Thursday told the Supreme Court that the evidence in a corruption case involving Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf was weak and unlikely to lead to conviction, a statement that irked the top court which directed him to submit to it all records of the investigation. National Accountability Bureau (NAB) chairman Fasih Bokhari's statement came two days after the apex court directed the anti-corruption agency to arrest the Prime Minister and more than 20 other suspects in connection with alleged graft in the rental power projects. Appearing before a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, Bokhari said an investigation report on alleged corruption in rental power projects, submitted earlier to the apex court, was inaccurate. Bokhari said the evidence gathered so far by NAB investigators was weak and that the allegation about the power projects causing losses to the national exchequer had not been proved. The investigation officers had worked in a hurry and did not provide adequate proof in their reports, he said. If a case is filed on the basis of the investigations done so far, the suspects will be acquitted, he added. Bokhari's remarks angered the bench, which said the stand taken by the NAB did not reflect the reality. The Chief Justice directed Bokhari and other NAB officials to submit all records of their investigation so far to the Supreme Court. NAB prosecutor K K Agha argued that the apex court could not see the agency's investigation records, but the bench maintained that the records should be submitted on Thursday. NAB officials said the records were with an official in Rawalpindi and would be submitted to the Supreme Court's Registrar. Chief Justice Chaudhry remarked that some persons involved in the rental power projects case seemed to think they were "above the law" and made it clear that the apex court was determined to take action in the matter. Officials and federal ministers have already said that premier Ashraf is unlikely to be arrested soon as several procedures will have to be completed before an arrest warrant can be issued. Legal experts have said Ashraf can continue to perform his duties as the chief executive even if he is arrested. The graft charges against Ashraf date back to his tenure as power minister, when contracts were signed for several rental power projects as part of the PPP-led government's strategy to overcome a crippling energy shortage. Though Ashraf was dropped during a cabinet reshuffle in 2011, he remained close to President Asif Ali Zardari. Ashraf became Prime Minister after the exit of Yousuf Raza Gilani, who was convicted of contempt by the Supreme Court last year for refusing to write to Swiss authorities to reopen graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari. The apex court began investigating the rental power plants in 2009 following a complaint of corruption from PML-Q parliamentarian Makhdoom Faisal Saleh Hayat. The court had directed NAB to take action against all government functionaries involved in clearing the power projects, including ministers who held the power portfolio since 2006 and officials of state-run power utilities who derived financial benefits from the contracts.

India unlikely to agree to Foreign Minister-level talks with Pak: Sources

India is unlikely to agree to Pakistan's offer for Foreign-Minister-level talks between the two countries any time soon, sources have said. Pakistan's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar had on Wednesday night suggested holding talks with her Indian counterpart to defuse tension along the Line of Control in Kashmir. India is yet to formally respond to Pakistan's offer. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid briefed the Cabinet today and, sources said, told his fellow ministers that sustained pressure from India had made Pakistan shift its stance from trying to internationalise the issue to seeking bilateral dialogue. Islamabad had earlier suggested a United Nations investigation into the killing of two Indian soldiers and mutilation of their bodies along the Line of Control last week. India had flatly rejected that suggestion. Mr Khurshid also reportedly pointed out that Pakistan had only spoken through the media so far and India would decide on any dialogue only after a formal offer from Pakistan's diplomatic channels. "These are things which you should anaylse, reflect on and take a decision. When we take a decision, we will let you know. Let's just take things a step at a time. We have been through difficult moments. The government will take everything into account. The PM has given a clear indication that we will move step by step. Let's see what is necessary to do and say, there's no hurry," Mr Khurshid told the media today. Sources said that while India favours engagement, talks might not happen at the ministerial level at all for now. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made it clear to Pakistan that those who mutilated the bodies of Indian soldiers killed in Pakistani firing last week, beheading one of them, must be brought to book first. That, sources say, will remain India's focus. Ms Khar, who had earlier accused India of "war mongering", suggested late on Wednesday night that "Instead of issuing belligerent statements by the military and political leaders from across the border and ratcheting up tension, it is advisable for the two countries to discuss all concerns related to the LoC with a view to reinforcing respect for the ceasefire, may be at the level of the foreign ministers." In New York on Tuesday, Ms Khar had said, "We see is deeply disturbing to hear statements that are upping the ante, where one politician is competing with the other to give a more hostile statement." She said this soon after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said there "cannot be business as usual" with Pakistan following the brutal killing of the two Indian soldiers, Lance Naik Hemraj Singh and Lance Naik Sudhakar Singh along the LoC in Kashmir.

Pakistan: The facade of long marches

by Lal Khan
Islamabad has been witnessing “anti-corruption” protests led by Tahir ul Qadri recently returned from his long residence in Canada. He leads a reactionary movement that is actually being fomented by a section of the Pakistani ruling elite. Here we publish a comment on this phenomenon by Lal Khan that was first published in the Pakistan Daily Times.Yet another facade of a movement has been unleashed by sections of the state, imperialist interests and factions of the ruling classes to undermine and cut across a genuine revolutionary upheaval of the toiling masses from below. Billions not millions are being squandered on the so-called “long march” called by the right-wing demagogue Maulana Tahir ul Qadri. The bourgeois media, pumped with colossal amounts of cash, is overwhelmed and an enormous campaign has been launched that has panicked the already shaky incumbent rulers in Lahore and Islamabad. Society is rife with conspiracy theories and wild speculations about the meteoric rise of this televangelist. One theory doing the rounds in the commentators’ circles is rather intriguing, involving his Canadian citizenship and his links with the imperialists. Qadri’s connections are being linked to the Canadian gold mining giant Barrick Gold, the largest gold producing firm in the world, whose stakes in the Reko Diq gold mine in Baluchistan are in jeopardy due to the cancellation by the Supreme Court of a contract, signed in 1993 under another caretaker government. Imperialist plunder is one of the main causes of the revolt in Baluchistan and this strife has plunged the region into mayhem and conflagration. Although there was a big crowd at the December 23 meeting of Maulana, the numbers have been deliberately and grossly exaggerated by the disciples of Qadri and the media. If anything, the gathering was small compared to the obscene amounts of money spent on promoting it, the arrangements made and the huge publicity campaign launched to haul the people to the venue. One can safely bet that this was the most expensive political rally in the history of the country. The jumping of the MQM onto Qadri’s bandwagon didn’t surprise anyone either. It is their characteristic ploy of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. [Note: Muttahida Quami Movement, United National Movement, a reactionary, chauvinist party mainly based in Sind]. The attempts to compare Constitution Avenue in Islamabad with ‘Tahrir Square’ are also farfetched. The truth is that the prolonged sit-in at the Cairo square was not the decisive factor that deposed Mubarak. It was when the workers of the Suez Canal went on strike and the threat of the closure of this crucial waterway became imminent, along with the general strike of the Egyptian proletariat that pushed the despot out of power There is another chimera here: that long marches lead to revolutions. Even in the Chinese revolution of 1949 capitalism was overthrown not by the long march of the mainly peasant red army but by the general strikes of the Chinese proletariat in Shanghai, Nanjing, Peking, Canton and other industrial heartlands of china. The workers of Karachi don’t have to march to Islamabad for a revolutionary insurrection. What they have to do is seize the factories and the economy to bring down the state. With a revolutionary party leading the working masses a general strike of the workers and peasants of Pakistan could achieve a socialist victory with relative ease and little bloodshed. Mass mobilisations of millions or even tens of millions are not always of a revolutionary character. There can be huge rallies of the forces of counter-revolution, reaction and even fascism. After all fascist despots like Hitler, Mussolini, L. K. Advani and innumerable other reactionaries did mobilise millions to their rallies and movements. The main difference between a revolutionary and a reactionary mobilisation is that in a revolution the masses enter the political arena on a voluntary basis with an honest and genuine quest to transform the system and change their destiny. In the case of the vanguard, of the proletariat there is a thorough understanding of the aims and objectives of the revolution that makes their participation a conscious act and a subjective element in the equation. Reactionary mobilisations are based upon mythological demagogues and attract rather primitive sections of society. Mostly these are a desperate expression of the social malaise, stagnation and despair that prevails in those moments in time. If we are to seriously analyse the present situation and the mood of the masses in Pakistan, it is one which has been affected by betrayals and deceit by those in whom they had developed so many illusions. Their social and economic suffering has been exacerbated by the terrorist bloodshed of Islamic fundamentalists, imperialist aggression and plunder. Capitalist exploitation and coercion has never been so grave. The army and the judiciary, the political elite and the mullahs, the drug barons and the media bosses are knotted in an evil nexus that it is almost impossible to differentiate between them in this orgy of loot and plunder. The only thing that exudes from the elite is a callous social indifference. The MQM has been in power for more than two decades and Qadri is no novice to the establishment and the imposed political setup. The prevalent conditions of the ruling political elite are analogous to what Karl Marx described about the nineteenth century French elite. He wrote, “The party of Order proved... that it neither knew how to rule nor to serve; neither how to live nor how to die; neither how to suffer the republic nor how to over throw it; neither how to uphold the Constitution nor how to throw it overboard.” However, one is perplexed by Maulana’s contradictory and distractive programme and objectives. The crux of it is that he wants to change the system without changing it. Like everyone else in this moneyed politics he is an ardent supporter of the capitalist system that is the real cause of this misery, poverty, mayhem and deprivation. These charlatans evade the reality expressed in Lenin’s dictum, “politics is but concentrated economics.” Qadri accentuates politics but not economics, form and not the content, effect and not cause, mythology and not reality. He talks about the abolition of feudalism but not a word about the overthrow of capitalism. When in reality there are only remnants of feudalism in Pakistan and even in the remotest areas of the country there is a crushing domination of capitalist relations and exploitation. Then there is the relentless din of revolution. Most of the right-wing politicians are chanting revolution when it is actually these preposterously rich parasites that the revolution has to target and expropriate their wealth. But the imperialists, the drugs cartels that lord it over two thirds of Pakistan’s economy – the informal or black economy – and the capitalist exploiters are Qadri’s main sponsors and backers. It is a universal law that in periods of stagnations all kinds of rabble-rousers and peculiar phenomena keep on appearing suddenly and then rapidly vanishing into oblivion before a revolution of the workers and the oppressed masses breaks out. The fact is that Qadri and such reactionary characters are actually nurtured and created to confuse the masses, subvert and deprecate the revolution. The petit bourgeoisie as an instable class, with its erratic nature and whimsical, impatient temperament rushes to foist such chicanery. But sooner rather than later its delusions evaporate. Qadri has come and will fade away with the same rapidity. Nothing is going to change neither does he have any intentions, policies, programme, methodology, tactics or strategy to change. However, the crisis is worsening with the convulsive downward spiral of capitalism. But real change has to come. It is a question of life and death for the teeming millions doomed by this cruel system into a living hell. They are yearning for an end to this pain and agony. Their time is not far off. The proletariat will transform from a class in itself to a class for itself. And once that takes place it will realise its power and move as a class with its gigantic strength into the arena of history to change its course. Only then will the system be changed, and that can only come about by overthrowing it through a socialist revolution.

Pakistan Criticizes Obama’s Plan for Turning Over Military Command in Afghanistan

Pakistan’s foreign minister on Wednesday issued a biting critique of President Obama’s plan to accelerate the handover of military command in Afghanistan to Afghan forces, declaring that the border with Pakistan has become “less well managed” and that the United States is leaving “without determining whether you have accomplished your objectives.” The minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, who became the country’s first female foreign minister in 2011, said she would not offer her own preferred timetable for an American departure. But in a wide-ranging interview at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, she argued that the United States was being driven more by its determination to leave Afghanistan quickly than by a set of minimal objectives. “ ‘Afghan good enough’ was the right strategy,” she said, referring to the informal name for a White House committee, set up in 2010, that reduced, then reduced again, the American objectives in Afghanistan. But she expressed doubts that the Afghan forces would be able to step up to the job of operating independently across the country, and said that the number of refugees from Afghanistan coming into Pakistan had increased considerably. Ms. Khar also defended Pakistan’s prosecution of Shakil Afridi, the physician who ran a vaccination program in Abbottabad that was started by the Central Intelligence Agency and intended to extract DNA from the occupants of the house where Osama bin Laden was believed to be hiding. He was arrested after Bin Laden was killed by an American SEAL team, and the United States government has repeatedly tried, and failed, to get him freed. “To me he is a villain, not a hero,” said Ms. Khar, arguing that he had “contracted himself to terror groups.” He was sentenced to 33 years in prison — ostensibly not for his role in the Bin Laden hunt, but for his ties to an Islamic extremist, Pakistani officials say. She argued that his action, and the C.I.A. program, had now made it all but impossible to conduct vaccination programs. Several Pakistani workers trying to give polio vaccines have been killed by Islamic extremists, who have argued the vaccines are part of an American plot. Ms. Khar also defended the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, at a time American officials are increasingly concerned about new, mobile tactical nuclear weapons — which Pakistan can roll out to the Indian border. The weapons are considered easier to steal than larger weapons kept on Pakistani bases. “We are very confident” that Pakistan can protect its entire arsenal, she said, without referring directly to the new generation of weapons. She repeated her insistence that the United States should end all drone strikes on Pakistani territory, which has been a longtime Pakistani demand. But she argued that for the first time, “I sense that here in America” there is also a sense that “the strikes are counterproductive in the long term.”

Bara killings: Police, protesters clash outside Peshawar Press Club

The Express Tribune
Bara protesters and police clashed outside the Peshawar Press club after officials attempted to disperse the crowd on the second day of the protest, Express News reported. The police fired shells at the protesters and resorted to aerial firing. The protesters, responding in kind, pelted them with stones. The ensuing chaos resulted in aerial firing from both sides which injured a few among the crowd. The protesters, however, dispersed from outside the press club after a another contingent of police reached the scene. Police, earlier today, fired tear gas shells to disperse coffin-carrying protesters who refused to bury 14 people allegedly killed in a raid by security forces, officials said. The pre-dawn operation was launched about 13 hours after around 300 people staged a sit-in outside the governor’s house in Peshawar along with bodies of those killed in the raid on Tuesday night. The protesters blamed security forces and refused to bury the bodies until they get justice. “We used tear gas and dispersed the protesters because they were creating a law and order situation in Peshawar,” senior police officer Kamal Hussain said. The bodies were taken to their home town of Bara and handed to the local administration for burial, he said. Local police station chief Shabih Hussain confirmed the tear gas shelling, adding that 17 people were arrested and later released. Residents said armed men attacked five homes in Bara and killed 14 people on Tuesday night. “They entered our houses and killed our relatives to avenge the killing of six security personnel in the same area of Bara on Monday night,” said local resident Muhammad Shabbir, a former member of the Frontier Corps (FC), told AFP. Security and military officials denied that security forces were involved and said it was militants who attacked the homes. Shabbir said his father, five brothers and two cousins were among the dead. The government ordered a judicial enquiry into the incident and decided to pay 400,000 rupees ($4,000) each to the families of the deceased, Hussain said. Wednesday’s protest was the second of its type in a week. In Quetta, thousands of Shias demonstrated for four days after the worst-ever bomb attack on their minority community in Pakistan killed 92 people. They refused to bury the dead, demanding the army take over security in Quetta. The protest mainly by ethnic Hazara Shias ended after Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf sacked the provincial government. Last month, Amnesty International said both the Pakistan military and the Taliban were guilty of rights abuses in the tribal belt. The military rejected the allegations as a “pack of lies”.

Pakistan: Crisis and response

The political crisis triggered by Maulana Tahirul Qadri’s long march, continuing rally in Islamabad and set of demands, and the suspiciously coincidental order of the Supreme Court ordering the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and others in the RPPs case has revealed the divide in the polity and society. On the one hand stand Qadri and his supporters within the political parties, chief amongst them MQM and PTI. On the other side can be counted almost all the parties represented in parliament, government and opposition, civil society, the lawyers community, and concerned citizens. The former camp has come out through Qadri’s rantings and Imran Khan’s so-called charter of seven demands with ideas that stripped of their verbiage, amount in essence to a return to the affliction of anti-democratic forces putting the cart before the horse, or more accurately, red herrings to sabotage the historic elections due soon. The other camp is agreed on the historic nature of this conjuncture, when Pakistan is poised for the first time in its history to witness a consensual convergence of almost all shades of political opinion on the way forward: fair and free transparent elections through a consensus-based Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) under a consensual caretaker setup whose neutrality will be beyond doubt because it will enjoy the confidence of both government and opposition. It is strange then that the anti-democratic camp is still railing on about rejecting just these consensual rules of the game framed after a great deal of thought and discussion in parliament, and enshrined in the 18th Amendment. The qualified criticisms being levelled at the CEC of being too old to ‘resist’ the machinations of the parties in government and the opposition make no sense when these governments will cease to be in power once the Assemblies are dissolved and the caretaker setup takes over. If the caretaker setup to come is being criticised as some kind of underhand deal (muk-muka) amongst the parties in parliament, surely this is an illogical stance given that inherently the government and opposition are rivals in the elections and have framed these rules of the game to avoid the usual accusations of election rigging that have bedevilled every such exercise in the past. On the touchstone of the constitution, best democratic practice and intent, therefore, the critics are making no sense. The people of Pakistan may or may not be happy with the performance of the incumbent governments during the last five years, but only uninformed and foolhardy elements without an iota of understanding of our past want to throw the baby of democracy out with the bathwater of these governments. The ‘crisis’ engendered by these sinister simultaneous moves aside, the demands of Qadri have exposed his hand. He wants, as in the past, the military and judiciary to settle the fate of the country. Powerful as these institutions are, this is neither their remit nor in accordance with any constitutional or democratic principle. The days of imposed governments manipulated into power by hook or by crook by the establishment may or may not be over (the jury is still out), but the situation and the conspiratorial moves to deny the people the right to bring in another elected government for the first time in the country’s history through fair elections cannot and should not be denied them, especially when the moment is tantalisingly close (this very closeness may well explain the frantic efforts to sabotage the electoral exercise). It is the interests of all political parties, arguably even those supporting Qadri for whatever misconceived reasons, that the electoral exercise is allowed to proceed on time and without putting obstacles in its path. Authoritarian, military, imposed governments are littered through Pakistan’s passage through time, but each one has left a bigger mess in its wake than when it started. The lesson is inescapable: our discontents with democracy and its failings notwithstanding, there is no way forward in the foreseeable firmament other than letting the democratic political process play itself out in what promises to be an increasingly credible manner since it enjoys across the board consensus, and using the space and freedoms only democracy allows to tackle the very serious problems confronting the country and our society.

Victory in Afghanistan? Not without U.S. troops

During the Vietnam War, Sen. George Aiken, a Vermont Republican, was famous for suggesting that we declare victory and go home. (What he actually said is a little more nuanced, but that was the popular perception.) President Obama seems to be pursuing a version of this strategy in Afghanistan. At least that is the inference one can draw from his claims of success at a news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Friday in which the two leaders unveiled an acceleration of the timetable for U.S. troops to step back from combat. While Obama conceded that we had "probably not ... achieved everything that some might have imagined us achieving in the best of scenarios," he nevertheless tried to put a smiley face on the war effort. "Did we achieve our central goal? And have we been able, I think, to shape a strong relationship with a responsible Afghan government that is willing to cooperate with us to make sure that it is not a launching pad for future attacks against the United States? We have achieved that goal. We are in the process of achieving that goal." There is actually an important difference between the last two sentences. Which is it: Have we achieved the goal or are we in the process? If the latter, then that would argue for a continued U.S. commitment to Afghanistan; if the former, then it suggests our mission is complete. The reality is that, though the U.S. is arguably making progress, we are a long way from our ultimate objective defined in the U.S.-Afghan security partnership agreement signed by Obama and Karzai in May: "sustainable self-reliance in security, governance, economic and social development." Yes, there has been substantial success in routing the Taliban out of its strongholds in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, as I have seen for myself on repeated trips to southern Afghanistan. After years of increased violence , enemy-initiated attacks fell 7% from January to November 2012 compared with the same period a year earlier. And as Obama said, the Afghan government is more or less cooperating with us, despite considerable friction over the handling of detainees, government corruption and other difficult issues. But recent security gains remain incomplete. Commanders have never had the resources to launch a "clear and hold" campaign in the east as they did in the south. As a result, Haqqani sanctuaries remain intact an hour's drive from Kabul. And even maintaining the incomplete and tenuous gains of the last few years will be impossible unless Afghanistan continues to receive substantial U.S. assistance. The Defense Department's Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan concedes that only one of 23 Afghan army brigades is able to operate on its own. The Afghan forces, though fighting hard and taking considerable casualties, still need American "enablers" such as artillery, air support, medevac, logistics and intelligence. Afghanistan will not even have a functioning air force until 2017 at the earliest. Delivering all that support, and maintaining a separate special operations capacity to hit top-level terrorist targets, will require a substantial presence of American troops. Afghanistan is a big country. Personnel based in Kabul cannot effectively assist Afghan units in Kandahar or Khost or hit terrorist targets there. There must be at least a handful of bases outside the capital area, and each one will need to be defended and supplied. Quick-reaction forces and medical facilities must be on call in the event of trouble. How substantial a presence? Retired Lt. Gen. Jim Dubik, a former commander of the training mission in Iraq, estimates in a recent report for the Institute for the Study of War that 23,000 to 28,000 troops would be needed. Retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, a former commander in Afghanistan, estimated in a December 2010 report for the Center for a New American Security that 25,000 to 35,000 troops would be needed. (Barno has since said that we could get by with substantially fewer, but he has given no reasons why his earlier analysis doesn't hold.) That is a far cry from the figures now leaking out of the Obama administration. Rumor has it that the administration would like to pull out perhaps half of the 66,000 troops this year and almost all the rest in 2014, leaving behind as few as 3,000 personnel. Or maybe none at all: Talk of a "zero option" has been getting louder from the White House. Obama has a perfect right to decide that the costs of victory in Afghanistan are too high. But if so, he should level with us instead of insulting our intelligence by claiming that we have already won a war that shows no sign of ending any time soon.

Afghanistan’s improving ways

By David Ignatius
For Americans weary of nearly a dozen years of war, Afghanistan often seems like a country where nothing ever changes and the same story of ethnic and tribal struggle repeats itself in an endless loop. But Afghanistan’s demographics have changed in significant ways over the past decade. Rather than being mired in a perpetual feudal twilight, Afghanistan is actually becoming a modern country. The statistical evidence of change, gathered from sources including data from the U.S. Agency for International Development, is overwhelming. Even discounting for the upbeat tone of the USAID summary of “Achievements in Afghanistan,” there still appear to be important demographic improvements on the ground. The urbanization and economic development that have reshaped Afghanistan do not mean that the country will have a bright political future or that the Taliban won’t regain a measure of power after U.S. troops leave in 2014. But the future won’t simply be a replay of the past. The Afghanistan movie won’t just restart where it left off when the Taliban were driven from power. “The Taliban won’t have a free run,” says a senior Indian official in a conversation here about Afghanistan’s future after U.S. troops leave. “This is not 1990 again. Afghanistan is a changed place.” The most obvious change is urbanization. Close to half the population now lives in cities and towns. Kabul is a city of 5 million people, and the populations of Herat, Jalalabad and Kandahar have all tripled in the past decade. This urbanization weakens ethnic and tribal affiliations and helps women get access to jobs and education. While still primitive in some rural areas, the country is also getting plugged into the global grid. More than 20 million people, or two-thirds of the country, now have access to mobile phones, up from zero a decade ago. Saad Mohseni, who runs MOBY Group, the country’s biggest media company, estimates that 60 percent of the population watches some television each week, and nearly 95 percent has access to radio. The billions that America pumped into the country helped foster corruption, to be sure, but the money didn’t all vanish into bank accounts in Dubai. Gross domestic product per capita has increased nearly fivefold since 2002, with an annual growth rate of about 9 percent. Only 18 percent of the population has access to reliable electrical power, but that’s triple what it was a decade ago. The improvements in health are striking, even after a decade of war. Access to basic health services is available to more than 60 percent of Afghans today, up from 9 percent in 2001. Life expectancy has increased from 44 years to 60 in the past decade; the maternal mortality rate has declined 80 percent; the under-5 mortality rate has dropped 44 percent. The number of primary health-care facilities has increased nearly fourfold. Afghanistan has rebuilt an education system that had nearly stopped functioning. In 2002, only 900,000 students were in primary school, nearly all boys. Today, 8 million students are in school, more than a third of them girls. University enrollment jumped from 8,000 in 2001 to 77,000 in 2011, and about 20 percent of these higher-education students are women. Literacy is currently about 35 percent, but it’s expected to grow to 55 percent in 10 years and 80 percent in 20, unless disaster strikes. The gains women have made are an especially visible index of change, but they are also a reminder that progress is fragile and could be reversed by the Taliban. In addition to the vastly larger number of female students, women now hold 27 percent of the seats in parliament, three Cabinet posts and 120 judicial positions. By the end of this year, at least 30 percent of government employees will be women. Afghanistan is a democracy, too — corrupt and capricious, but for now it’s probably the freest country in the neighborhood, compared to Pakistan, Iran and the central Asian nations. It has a free and independent media, producing everything from an Afghan knockoff of “American Idol” to situation comedies to versions of “Sesame Street” dubbed into Dari and Pashto. For many Americans, the Afghan War feels like defeat — a painful waste of money and lives. Many people felt that way when the Vietnam War ended, little imagining the economic boom that would eventually come to that country after so many decades of brutal suffering. History is mysterious that way; sometimes the deeper transformations are invisible at the time. Who can say what the future holds for Afghanistan? Surely, the country’s turmoil and suffering won’t end when U.S. troops depart; the situation may get much worse. But it’s a mistake to assume that nothing changed during America’s years of struggle there, or that many of those changes weren’t for the good.

Obama's plan to stem gun violence

President Barack Obama on Wednesday proposed background checks on all gun sales and bans on military style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines as part of a package of steps to reduce gun violence in the wake of the Newtown school massacre last month. With relatives of some of the 20 children killed in the Connecticut rampage looking on, Obama signed 23 executive actions -- which don't require congressional approval -- to strengthen existing gun laws and take related steps on mental health and school safety. He also called on Congress to reinstate an assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, to restrict ammunition magazines to no more than 10 rounds, and to expand background checks to anyone buying a gun, whether at a store or in a private sale at an auction or convention.