Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Afghanistan, NATO agree on troops leaving key province

Afghanistan and NATO-led forces have reached a deal on foreign troops leaving a key strategic district near Kabul, coalition forces said, but a controversial expulsion order against U.S. special forces from the entire province remained unclear. An Afghan defense ministry spokesman told reporters in Kabul that the elite American force would quit the whole province of Wardak within a few days, despite U.S. concerns that their departure would leave a security vacuum. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), however, said that Afghan forces would only take over from foreign troops in the small restive district of Nerkh, and that "the remainder of the province will transition in time". Afghan officials have expressed fears that insurgents might use Wardak, just a 40-minute drive from Kabul, as a launch pad for attacks on the capital. Afghan President Hamid Karzai expelled the elite American force from Wardak and Logar provinces last month, after villagers accused them of torturing and killing civilians, an allegation the U.S. special forces denied. Despite the deadline for their departure expiring over a week ago, U.S. special forces tasked with fighting the Taliban are still operating there, U.S. and Afghan officials say. Their continued deployment has angered Karzai, who has become increasingly critical of his Western allies operating in the country ahead of the departure of most foreign combat troops by the end of next year. Karzai and NATO commander Joseph Dunford reached an agreement on Wardak on Wednesday, the two sides said, although the extent of the foreign troop withdrawal and the timeframe was vague. ISAF said in a statement that under the agreement, Afghan forces would soon take over security from foreign forces in Nerkh, a known hiding place for Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami militants. The district comprises about 10 percent of Wardak, and borders Kabul and Logar provinces. The statement made no mention of U.S. special forces. "I am pleased to announce that following a very constructive series of talks with the president ... we have come to agreement on a plan for Wardak that continues the transition of this critical province and meets the security needs of the people and the requirements of our mission," Dunford said. "This solution is what success looks like as we continue the transition to overall Afghan security lead." ISAF said the Afghan government would determine the timeline for the takeover. The Wardak issue, along a series of inflammatory remarks by Karzai deriding the United States and other foreign forces, has strained already fraught ties between the president and Western allies. Opposition politicians say Karzai's order to expel the U.S. special forces was a political move intended to bolster his party's support base ahead of a presidential election next year. Karzai is not allowed to stand again. Some in Wardak however are furious U.S. special forces are still operating in the province, and about 1,000 residents converged on the capital on Saturday demanding they leave. U.S. special forces are expected to play a major role in Afghanistan after most NATO combat troops withdraw by the end of next year, and Karzai's decision to expel them was seen as complicating talks between the United States and Afghanistan over the scope of U.S. operations after the pull-out.

Imran accuses Sharif brothers of hurdles in Pindi

Accusing Sharif brothers of misusing Punjab Police to shut Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf’s (PTI) polling stations in Rawalpindi, PTI Chairman Imran Khan said that the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) was threatened by his party as it was promoting true democracy. He made these remarks while addressing the media in Islamabad on Tuesday. He added that the Punjab Police could not be blamed alone for the closure as they were just following orders.

Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws Continue to be Toxic

Last week, a Pakistani Christian, Sawan Masih, was accused of blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad. The following days,a Muslim crowd of several thousand, gathered in mobs and attacked a Christian neighborhood in Lahore, setting fire to over 150 houses, 18 shops, and two churches. This case of blasphemy is, tragically, representativeand follows a clear and well-established pattern. As is often the case, allegations of blasphemy cause outbreaks of violence; it has become commonplace for mobs to take the law into their own hands. Following blasphemy allegations, angry crowds descend on towns and burn places of worship and homes, injuring residents. Secondly, blasphemy laws in Pakistan are known to be used as a weapon to settle private disputes. Accusations of blasphemy are often the by-product of disputes between neighbors, colleagues, political opponents, religious and academic leaders, and business associates whose dealings have become adversarial. In this case, the police believe the blasphemy allegations stemmed from a private dispute between Masih and another man, Shahid Imran. Given the severity of the punishment provided under Pakistan’s penal code, the ease with which one may initiate a proceeding raises serious concerns of due process and the right to a fair trial. Finally, this case underscores how the Christian minority in Pakistan is frequently targeted. As soon as a member of the Christian community is accused of blasphemy, it has become the norm for the whole community to flee the neighborhood out of fear of a backlash. That’s because the laws perpetuate prejudice and promote religious intolerance. And yet, despite the pattern, something this time was different. During this round of violence, the Pakistanis have been more vocal than usual. Authorities sent signals to Pakistanis that they cannot resort to violence and riot against a religious minority, in the name of the blasphemy law. Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf ordered an immediate inquiry into the attack and an investigation into the violence. The police arrested about 150 people accused of burning dozens of homes of Christians. The provincial law minister Rana Sanullah said that the government would not spare those involved in the attack. Most importantly, it is promising that Christian groups are starting to speak out, in refusal to be intimidated by the mobs. Members of the Christian community publicly protested and called on the government to help rebuild destroyed houses. It’s courageous to rally this way when their lives are threatened. Their demands must be addressed if the government wants to act beyond its condemnations.

Pakistan: Religious Intolerance Mounts with Christian Home Burnings
More than 3,000 Muslims stormed a Christian enclave in the city of Lahore, Pakistan, and proceeded to burn down an estimated 100 to 160 homes, marking a peak in violence toward religious groups. The Muslim group was looking for a 28-year-old Christian man who is accused of blaspheming the Islamic prophet Mohammed, a criminal offense under Pakistani blasphemy laws. This latest bout of violence may not lead Pakistan to reconsider its blasphemy laws, but it will certainly draw the international community’s attention to religious persecution in the region. In Pakistan, blasphemy can result in the death penalty or several years in prison. Blasphemous acts include desecrating a place of worship, burning pages of the Quran, and defaming the Islamic prophet Mohammed. Pakistan’s blasphemy law is leveled only at those blaspheming Islam, and does not provide protection for any other religious group. An estimated 1,274 people have been accused of violating the blasphemy laws. At present, there are an estimated 16 Pakistanis on death row and another 20 individuals serving life imprisonment for blasphemy against Islam. Thirteen percent of the accused were Christian, 50 percent were Muslim, and the remaining comprise other minority religious groups. The alleged precise statements of the Christian man in this latest incident are largely unknown. Some observers say that a Muslim man made the accusations of blasphemy against the Christian man in order to seek revenge the morning after the two men had been involved in a drunken brawl. After the police arrested the accused, many Christians fled the region fearing persecution for his alleged statements. The minority Christian community had reason to fear backlash. Vigilantism is not uncommon in Pakistan, where rioters often take matters into their own hands to settle personal disputes. And just last year, a 14-year-old mentally challenged Christian Pakistani girl was put on trial for burning pages of the Quran. While the charges were ultimately dropped, the trial was representative of Pakistan’s repressive political culture on matters of religion. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and other senior officials have ordered an investigation into this latest string of events. The Pakistani government has pledged the equivalent of $2,000 in assistance for each family affected. While a few of the Muslim rioters are now in custody, charges are unlikely to be levied. The fate of the Christian man in custody is still unknown. Two years ago, Pakistan’s Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti were assassinated by religious extremists because of their efforts to roll back the controversial blasphemy laws. The current Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S., Sherry Rehman, has also been under threat from extremists due to her support for re-examining the legislation and removing the death penalty as punishment. In January the Supreme Court of Pakistan approved admission of a blasphemy case against Ambassador Rehman for remarks she made on a television program in November 2010. The latest rampage against the Christian community in Pakistan is significant, says Heritage’s Lisa Curtis:
This is yet another example of the growing influence of extremist ideologies that are endangering minority communities and jeopardizing democracy, and will ultimately, if left unchallenged, turn Pakistan into a failed state. Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, supported the idea of Islam serving as a unifying force in Pakistan and envisioned the country functioning as a multiethnic, multi-religious democracy. Unless and until Pakistan’s leaders recommit to these ideals that helped form Pakistan as a nation state, the country will become engulfed in escalating lawlessness and sectarianism. It is time for Pakistan to draw the line on extremism and protect its minority populations by amending the blasphemy legislation.

Will Balochistan Vote in Pakistan's Next Elections?

In a televised address to the nation on Sunday, Pakistan's outgoing Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf congratulated his fellow citizens for the "historic" completion of five years of uninterrupted democracy. While the Pakistanis know that they will be voting in mid-May to elect a new government, they were still undecided who would head the caretaker administration for the next 90 days at the time of the prime minister's speech. According to Pakistan's constitution, which was written in 1973 and amended 20 times since then, leaders from the government and the opposition should reach a consensus to form an acceptable neutral interim government ahead of the next elections. The failure of the government and the opposition to agree upon one caretaker prime minister reflects the broader problems of Pakistan's fledgling democracy. While the outgoing members of the parliament posed for a historic group photograph in Islamabad, authorities in the country's largest province of Balochistan continued to debate among themselves whether or not they would even be able to hold peaceful elections. On March 12, 2013, armed activists of the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), a sub-nationalist separatist group, gunned down Muhammad Ziaullah Qasimi, the District Commissioner of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) in Quetta, Balochistan's capital. The BLA was not apologetic and unambiguous about the assault. "We will not let Pakistan hold elections in Balochistan," warned the BLA's spokesperson. The Express Tribune reported on February 9, 2013 that two more armed Baloch groups, the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) and the Baloch Republican Army (BRA) had also threatened to disrupt the elections. Sardar Akhtar Mengal, president of the Balochistan National Party (BNP), told BBC Urdu that discontent among the Baloch was caused by unabated illegal arrest, torture and murder of the political leaders for which Pakistan's security forces are blamed. If these extra-judicial killings do not stop, he warned, elections would be too difficult to hold. Pakistan currently faces extraordinary challenges of law and order. The chilling wave of violence employed by the Taliban, sectarian groups, ethnic nationalists, armed wings of political parties and death squads believed to be linked with the Pakistani secret services are coercing various political parties to limit their election campaigns to avoid deadly assaults. The March 12 assassination of the prominent election officer, for instance, has compelled politicians to reconsider their campaign strategies. Political parties fear deadly attacks on their election rallies, candidates and voters. This year's security threats are alarming across Pakistan, particularly in volatile Balochistan, which remains the focus of political observers' interest. Balochistan, Pakistan's poorest of four provinces, has remained the center of an ethnic nationalist insurgency against the central government for nearly one decade. Balochistan's ethnic majority, the Balochs, who constitute only 5 percent of the country's total population, complain against discrimination by the federal government dominated by the ethnic Punjabis. According to Asma Jhangir, a former president of Pakistan's Supreme Court Bar Association, the Baloch people believe the 2008 elections meant nothing for them because the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies, not the civilian government, control their province. The Balochs do not benefit from their own mineral wealth, such as gas, gold and copper, nor are they provided any representation in the country's civil, armed and foreign services. Groups like the BLA, insist that Pakistan engineers what they describe as "shame elections" in order to divert attention from the actual Baloch demand for statehood. In 2008, major political parties in Balochistan boycotted the general elections because they opposed General Pervez Musharraf, a military dictator, as Pakistan's president. Hence, the boycotted elections brought into power one such underrepresented, unpopular and corrupt government in Balochistan that even the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in the center was forced to dismiss it on January 14, 2013 although the PPP also headed the Balochistan government. Sections of the Pakistani ruling establishment are believed to be covertly communicating with enraged but moderate Baloch nationalist parties in order to persuade them to end their isolation and participate in the next general elections. Moderate nationalists are those who seek maximum internal autonomy for Balochistan while remaining a part of Pakistan. If the Baloch nationalist parties participate in the elections, they can at least assist Islamabad with a process of reconciliation with some sections of the Baloch nationalists. However, the likelihood of peaceful elections is in jeopardy considering the prevalence of widespread violence across Balochistan. The central government in Islamabad has done too little to build the Baloch confidence. Secret services, which have been blamed for colluding with extremist Sunni groups to kill Shias Muslims and sponsoring underground death squads to eliminate Baloch political activists, have not abandoned their counterproductive tactics which have significantly undermined democracy in Pakistan. Pakistan should recover all the disappeared political activists and punish civil and military officers responsible for widespread human rights abuses in Balochistan in order to encourage the nationalists to participate in the elections. In addition, the government has to establish peace to the extent that all political parties and their voters feel safe enough to participate in the elections. If the elections fail again to improve the relations between Pakistan and its largest province, Islamabad should prepare for more internal instability and chaos in the future.

Pakistan to hold nationwide elections May 11

Associated Press
Pakistan will hold nationwide parliamentary elections on May 11, said a presidential spokesman on Wednesday. The vote is expected to produce the country's first transition from one civilian government to another. The president approved a proposal finalizing the May date for the upcoming election, said Farhatullah Babar. The Pakistani parliament completed its term Saturday, making it the first democratically chosen body to finish a full five-year term in a country that has seen three military coups and persistent political turmoil since its 1947 independence from Britain. The ruling Pakistan People's Party has been dogged by rumors that it would be deposed or forced to call early elections ever since it assumed office in March 2008. Its five-year term in office has been marked by near-constant political crises and a rocky relationship with the country's powerful military. But President Asif Ali Zardari has shown a remarkable ability to hold together a warring coalition government whose members threaten to quit every few months or so. Zardari is the widow of Benazir Bhutto, the iconic PPP leader who returned from exile in 2007 only to be killed later that year during a campaign rally. Zardari has managed a balance between the need for U.S. assistance amid a deteriorating relationship between the two countries and rising anti-American sentiment. Washington needs Pakistan's help fighting al-Qaida and stabilizing neighboring Afghanistan, but a series of recent scandals have severely damaged ties. CIA contractor Raymond Davis shot and killed two Pakistani men in Lahore in early 2011, the U.S. unilaterally killed Osama bin Laden in the city of Abbottabad later that year and American forces accidentally killed 24 Pakistani troops along the Afghan border in 2012. The Zardari-led coalition government has had some success fighting Islamist militants along several fronts in Pakistan's northwest but it has been under tremendous pressure domestically due to rising inflation, a faltering economy and an acute energy crises. Now that the parliament and government are dissolved, a caretaker government will run the country and oversee elections. But so far the ruling PPP and the main opposition party headed by Nawaz Sharif, who served as prime minister twice, have failed to come up with a consensus candidate for prime minister. An eight-member committee consisting of equal members from both parties is meeting Wednesday to come up with a candidate they each agree on. If the committee fails, the responsibility will then fall to the Pakistan Election Commission. The caretaker government is designed to ensure impartiality in the upcoming vote.

Malala Yousafzai: 'I achieved my dream'

Obama heads to Jerusalem after warm speech at airport ceremony

Obama has been welcomed to Israel on his first visit as president. Netanyahu thanked him in the name of all Israelis for his steadfast support of the Jewish homeland. The president tried some Hebrew, and had some advice from Michelle for Yair Lapid. Now he’s heading to the capital.

Obama lands at Ben-Gurion for historic Israel visit

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Obama makes first trip to Israel as president