Sunday, February 23, 2014

Tribesman murderer beheaded in Saudi Arabia
A Saudi citizen convicted of murder was beheaded on Sunday, the interior ministry announced, bringing the number of executions in the kingdom this year to 10. Salem Al Jahdali beat fellow tribesman Abdullah Al Jahdali to death following a dispute, the ministry said in a statement published by the official SPA news agency. The execution took place in the holy western city of Makkah. The ultra-conservative kingdom beheaded 78 people in 2013, according to an AFP count.
Last year, the UN High Commission for Human Rights denounced a “sharp increase in the use of capital punishment” since 2011 in Saudi Arabia. According to figures from Amnesty International, the number of executions in the country rose from 27 in 2010, of whom five were foreigners, to 82 in 2011, including 28 foreigners. In 2012, the number of executions slipped slightly to 79 people, among them 27 foreigners. Rape, murder, apostasy, armed robbery and drug trafficking are all punishable by death under Saudi Arabia’s strict version of Sharia.

Venezuela: Maduro supporters took part in ‘March of Seniors’

Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro have taken to the streets of the capital Caracas amid continuing political tension in the South American country. On Sunday, hundreds of people took part in a rally called the "March of Seniors" in downtown Caracas to show their support for the government. The rally came a day after 25 people were injured during the largest anti-government demonstrations in the capital. Meanwhile, Maduro has welcomed a meeting with opposition leader Henrique Capriles in attempt to ease the tension in the country. The two will meet on Monday during a routine gathering of governors and mayors in the Presidential Palace. Venezuela has been the scene of pro, anti-government protests for nearly two weeks now, and at least eight people have died in the related violence. President Maduro has accused the US-backed opposition of seeking to topple his government by igniting violent clashes that erupted during protests since February 12. The Venezuelan government has already expelled three US Embassy staff members for attempting to infiltrate universities and provoke unrest across the country. Maduro has also dismissed US President Barack Obama’s calls for releasing prisoners as an act of interference in his country’s internal affairs and an attempt to mislead the world’s public opinion. The Venezuelan president described his government’s efforts to restore calm in the country as a struggle against violent criminals who are trying to overthrow the Bolivarian government with the support of Washington.

President Obama Speaks to National Governors Association

Video: Fireworks Farewell: Sochi closing ceremony ends in spectacular show

Olympics closing ceremony is trip through Russian culture

The closing ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics on Sunday night took viewers through what organizers called an artistic look at Russian culture before International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach closed what he called the "Athletes' Games."
In his closing remarks, Bach focused on how the athletes have promoted unity throughout the world.
"By living together under one roof, you have sent a message from Sochi. The message is of a society of peace, tolerance and respect," he said.
The sublime ceremony began with organizers poking fun at themselves and an opening ceremony malfunction. As hundreds of silvery "fish" swam in the "Black Sea" on the floor of the stadium, they began to form the five Olympic rings. But like in the opening ceremony, one of the dots of white light failed to open -- at first. Eventually, it sprang into form, to much laughter and cheers.
There also were two final medal ceremonies, including the crowd-pleasing awards for the top three -- all Russians -- in the men's 50-kilometer cross-country ski race.
The closing ceremony featured 62 classical pianists playing at one time, members of the Bolshoi and Kirov ballets performing moments from some of their most famous productions, and a tribute to Russian literary heroes like Leo Tolstoy and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. "We arrived with great respect for the rich and varied history of Russia. We leave as friends of the Russian people," Bach said. The Olympic flag was lowered and given to representatives of Pyeongchang, South Korea, the host city for the Winter Olympics in four years.
The closing ceremony brings to an end 16 days of competition during which a record 98 sets of medals were awarded. The host nation finished atop the medal standings, with 13 golds among its 33 medals.

Will Turkey become the new Pakistan?

By Dr. Can Erimtan
As Turkey is now slowly approaching the first centenary of the Republic's foundation on 29 October 1923, some critics appear to fear that the country has assumed an outlook most incongruous with the legacy of Atatürk. And it is true that ever since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) assumed the reins of power in the country, Turkey has moved into a distinct post-Kemalist era. Following decades of Kemalist indoctrination and a seeming hostility towards Islam, the nation is now going through a "process of completing its normalization," as voiced by Taha Özhan, the Director General of the Ankara-based non-profit research institute SETA (or Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research).
Özhan sees the overtly Islamic AKP as a political power that is forcibly taking Turkey into new waters, where a pious population is made to feel at ease with the government machinery that had previously appeared to be in direct opposition to the population's deep and heartfelt attachment to Islam and its values. As such, throughout the 1920s and 30s "the ideological position of Turkish nationalism in the guise of the political doctrine of Kemalism was meant to replace the religion of Islam as the binding force fashioning a unitary and homogeneous state."
Turkey’s Westward road
The many ethnic groups making up Anatolia's Muslim population – according to the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Turkey's population consists of "36 ethnic elements" – are all united under the banner of Turkish nationalism in the Kemalist nation state. The late 19th and early 20th century Ottoman state, the Turkish Republic's direct precursor, had attempted to accommodate the many Muslim refugees fleeing persecution from the Russian Empire and the Balkans on Anatolian soil, the Ottoman heartland. This exercise in social engineering saw the dispersal of the Christian minorities living in Anatolia only to be replaced by Muslim newcomers. The ideological stance of Ottomanism provided a new identity to the newly arrived settlers, who were united in their allegiance to the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph, the nominal head of all (Sunni) Muslims worldwide. Following the end of the Great War (1918) and the successful War of Resistance (1922), Mustafa Kemal Pasha sent a delegation to Lausanne to conduct peace negotiations. The subsequent treaty, signed on 24 July 1923, led to the formation of the state of Turkey on Anatolian soil – the name Turkey having been in use throughout the 19th century to refer to the Ottoman Empire. And the earlier results of the Ottoman-directed exercises in social engineering were all but confirmed by the treaty and the population exchange between Greece and Turkey, forcibly evicting and relocating Christians and Muslims and leading to the fact that by 1927 a staggering 97.4 percent of Turkey's population was Muslim (the statistic today proclaims 99.9 percent of Turks are Muslim).
As a result, the population of Anatolia emerged as an almost completely Islamic entity. But rather than identify themselves as Anatolian Muslims, Kemalist indoctrination and social engineering turned these Republican inhabitants into Turks, with their allegiance to Islam actually constituting their common bond.
The stipulations of the Treaty of Lausanne, in conjunction with the abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate (1922) and Caliphate (1924), meant that the Republic of Turkey developed into a modern nation state oriented towards the West. The Kemalist reform policies cut off modernized Turkey from its erstwhile Ottoman hinterland and Muslim neighbors. The Kemalist experiment transformed the Anatolian population, the Turkish citizens in other words, into a people cut off from their Islamic past, with access only granted to academic historians able to read the Arabic alphabet.
The new westward orientation of the country was made visible by means of the so-called Language Reform (1928), which saw the introduction of a new Latin-based script. The new Republic ensured that the traditional Islamic power class no longer wielded any power – creating the Directorate of Religious Affairs (1924), as an aggregate to the office of the Prime Minister, to control the religious institutions of the country. As a nation state, deprived of its erstwhile Islamic provinces and dependencies, the Islam practiced in Turkey became focused on the population of the territories granted in the Treaty of Lausanne. Whereas previously, the Ottoman sultans wielded nominal power over all (Sunni) Muslim peoples, the Republic's government only held sway over Turkey and the Directorate of Religious Affairs, in turn, only provided for the needs of the Turkish believers.
‘Reapplying Islam’ in the 21st century At the moment, the AKP-led government appears to be pursuing a policy which all but strengthens the Anatolian population's Muslim identity at the expense of their "common" Turkish character. Efforts to solve the Kurdish Issue appear to underline this development. The fact that Tayyip Erdogan's AKP-led government is currently developing policies that would strengthen the Turks' rediscovery of their Islamic heritage is illustrated by the budget passed for the fiscal year 2014. The money allocated to the Directorate of Religious Affairs has increased by 18.2 percent; the Directorate of Religious Affairs will receive around $2.5 billion, compared to the Ministry of the Interior with $1.6 billion and the Ministry of Health with $1.1 billion. The budget passed for the year 2014 does seem to stress that Erdogan's government is at pains to provide for the spiritual and physical health of the Turkish citizenry, as befits the Muslim nanny state I talked about earlier.
When the Kemalist regime abolished the Caliphate, it also ended the office of the Chief Mufti and replaced the Shariah with the new Turkish Civil Code (Türk Medeni Kanunu) in 1926, which was adopted from the Swiss Civil Code of 1907. Many in Turkey now fear a creeping return to a more Islamic approach to law and civil rights.
On a purely academic level, the current government, employing the offices of the Committee for Higher Education, ensured in August 2013 that theology faculties will in future only teach Islam and Islamic scholarship to their students. Whereas previously, Turkish theology students also became well-versed in religious studies and even philosophy, psychology and sociology; new candidates will only receive a strict Islamic education – one that even excludes the beliefs and teachings of the Alevi minority in Turkey.
Recently, Hayrettin Karaman, a highly respected theology professor known for his close ties to the Prime Minister, published a telling article in the pro-government paper, Yeni Safak, somewhat reflecting the government's thinking. Karaman writes that pious believers in Turkey do not want full "integration with the EU," nor do they wish to "replace" their "own pure and high civilization" with that of the "West," regarding this as an "issue of faith."
These words appear as a clear challenge to the Kemalist credo, which sees the Muslim Turk as an integral part of the civilization of Europe and the West. As such, Karaman even takes his anti-nationalist stance a whole lot further, declaring that these unnamed pious believers regard the "human element [living] within the national borders [of Turkey, in other words, Turkish citizens or Turks] as an indispensable part of the great Islamic ummah [or community of believers]."
The Islamic thinker, Hayrettin Karaman, should not be understood as an obscurantist advocating the return to some kind of idealized Islamic past. Instead Karaman is a person totally at ease with today's world and enjoying the benefits of 21st-century science and technology. On the internet, for instance, he has a very distinct presence. His personal website contains over 3,500 individual webpages and provides online access to 15 of his books. In addition, his website also provides access to his articles published in various newspapers and periodicals.
Karaman does not promote a return to the past; instead he lives and works in the here and now. As such, Karaman resembles the Pakistani writer Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi (1903-79). As a Muslim who witnessed the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the abject failure of the Indian Khilafat Movement, in his writings, Mawdudi "provided Islamic responses, ideological and organizational, to modern society," as worded by American professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies, John Esposito. In his analysis of the Pakistani thinker, Esposito explains further that Mawdudi saw "the West ... [as] a political and economic but also a cultural threat to Muslim societies," that Abul Ala Mawdudi was a thinker who "self-consciously reapplied Islamic sources and beliefs, reinterpreting them to address modern realities."
He put his thoughts into practice in 1941, founding the Jamaat-e-Islami in Lahore, in then-British India. Following independence and partition, Mawdudi and his Jamaat moved to West Pakistan. As an organization, the Jamaat maintains close ties with international Muslim activist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Mawdudi's organization aims at the establishment of an Islamic state, governed by the Shariah, but maintains that democracy is understood as an integral part of Islamic political ideals. When General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq organized a coup in Pakistan on 5 July 1977, Mawdudi's ideals arguably provided the basis for the general's subsequent thorough Islamization of Pakistani society. Still, the left-liberal Pakistani journalist, Nadeem Paracha, maintains that General Zia actually "exploited" what he calls 'Maududi-ism' "as a way to deflect, deflate and denounce any other form of Islamic reformism."
The parallels outlined above could very well lead some critics of the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to assume that the future of Turkey appears predicated upon earlier events in Pakistan. Could it be that Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs and certain trusted faculties of theology are now in the process of formulating a Turkish form of Maududi-ism? Thinkers like Hayrettin Karaman are able to provide Turkey's current government with academic and legalistic ammunition to enact a wholesale shift in Turkish policy-making, thus paving the way for the Republic of Turkey to look like another version of Pakistan transported to the western edge of Asia.

What is really happening in Ukraine?

It is anger at this grotesque corruption and inequality, Ukraine’s economic stagnation and poverty that has brought many ordinary Ukrainians to join the protests
With more than 25 killed and hundreds wounded on Wednesday, February 19, 2014, the violence in Kiev and other cities of Ukraine seems to be unravelling into a bloody civil war. While this mayhem has been raging in Ukraine, the western imperialist media had a field day with a well rehearsed script just like during the Arab revolutions, twisting and distorting the issues according to their vested interests and objectives, and almost completely turning a blind eye to neo-fascists’ involvement in the Euromaidan vigilantes with their far right slogans, incidents of torture, lynchings and beatings of the homeless. This is a story we have heard in one form or another again and again, particularly during Ukraine’s western-backed Orange Revolution a decade ago, but it bears only the sketchiest relationship to reality.
In normal times, there is a tendency amongst ordinary people to accept reports at face value without making an effort for deeper understanding or analysis of what is really happening with all its complexities. In a recent article in The Independent, Patrick Cockburn wrote, “A difference in the struggle between protesters and the government in Ukraine compared to those in Turkey and Thailand is that in Kiev they can expect backing from the United States and the European Union as can the government from Russia. The opposition has received an overwhelmingly good press from western television and newspapers, portraying the struggle as one between ordinary Ukrainians and a repressive government. The television-friendly version of the protests has little time for complicated stuff about the role of outside powers or the competition between oligarchs and the ruling family. Understandably it is the phrase ‘F*** the EU’ in the leaked phone call between Victoria Nuland the top US diplomat for Europe and Geoff Pyatt, US Ambassador to Ukraine, that has attracted attention...these senior US officials saw themselves as determining who should form a future Ukrainian government.”
The new turn of events in Ukraine came on January 16, after the Rada (the Ukrainian parliament) introduced anti-protest laws aimed at criminalising protesters, which were supported by President Viktor Yanukovich and his Party of Regions, as well as by the Communist Party of Ukraine. They were passed without any debate. The demand for Ukraine to join the EU is in fact a distorted reflection of a desire for change amongst the masses — a desire to escape the desperate conditions faced by the masses over the last 25-year rule of the oligarchs, ex-bureaucrats and criminals running the country with devastating effects like mass factory closures, sale of public utilities to the EU, the US and Russia. It is anger at this grotesque corruption and inequality, Ukraine’s economic stagnation and poverty that has brought many ordinary Ukrainians to join the protests. As in Russia, Ukraine was destroyed by neoliberal shock therapy and mass privatisation of the post-Soviet years. More than half the country’s national income was lost in five years and it has yet to recover. Since the 1990s, the west has been trying to exploit the historic fault between the largely Russian-speaking east and south (where the Communist party still commands significant support), and traditionally nationalist western Ukraine.
The hypocrisy of the European bourgeoisie is typical. They were trying to reach a deal with Yanukovich and his premier Azarov, offering loans for austerity, as part of a German-led drive to open up Ukraine for western companies. It was Viktor Yanukovich’s rejection of the EU option and acceptance of Putin’s offer of a $ 15 billion bailout that triggered the protests. Within Russia, this generous offer from Putin will lead to attacks on healthcare, education, workers’ rights, further privatisation and dismantling all that remains of the social gains of the Soviet era. However, are EU leaders really prepared to break with the Kremlin and with Gazprom? Germany’s dependence on Russian raw materials is vital for its economy. European capitalists want Russian gas and oil, access to the Ukrainian market and workers for exploitation, while the Russian elite has its own designs on Ukraine.
In Ukraine, imperialist interference is part of a much bigger game. The Obama administration has stated quite categorically that its strategic interests are centred elsewhere in the world, and it has made Bush’s planned Eastern European missile defence system less of a priority. At the same time, Putin is aiming to play a bigger role, taking advantage of the decline in US influence and the divisions that have emerged within the West European powers. Yanukovich is a representative of the eastern oligarchs, the owners of the coalmines in the Donbass region. He is looking for the best offer; the problem now is that the EU has very little to offer. When “pro-western” leaders took office after 2004, the economic policy they implemented was not very different from that of Yanukovich. There are no principles involved here, only different interests. That is why a compromise between Yanukovich and the more ‘reasonable’ opposition leaders is still a possibility, which would leave the extreme reactionary right-wingers freezing on the streets. However, it would remain a fragile deal, as Ukraine would still be a battleground between the proxies of different powers vying for their vested interests. Is Ukraine on the road to Balkanisation? The idea of a breakup between the east and west of the country is hyped. The balkanisation of Ukraine would be a criminal, reactionary move that will devastate the living standards of the masses. Ukrainian workers are in a state of permanent poverty and destitution, with the only escape being emigration to another country. Wages are in free fall and the industrial crisis is spreading to the eastern regions. Agriculture has practically been destroyed in the provinces of Galicia and Volhynia. Industry in the east is dependent on Russian markets and would be crushed by EU competition. A deal with the EU would further destroy the internal market of the country, with German and Polish goods flooding into it, while a Customs Union with Russia would promote Russian goods. The masses have already experienced the disastrous effects of close economic ties with Russia. A Ukraine inside the European Union would equally be a nightmare for the masses, as the current situation in Romania, Poland and all the other countries of the former Soviet bloc clearly demonstrates.
On the other hand, Ukrainian Communist Party leaders, who have collaborated in the crimes of Yanukovich over the years, have done an immense disservice to the working class by identifying communism as a political force that has no alternative to pose to the present regime and simply backs one wing of the mafia elite. The working class will learn through experience that it must pose itself the task of emerging as an independent political force and struggle against the capitalist regimes devastating Ukraine and plunging its people into destitution.

U.S. warns Putin against Ukraine grab

Ukraine's interim leadership pledged to put the country back on course for European integration now Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich had been ousted from the presidency, while the United States warned Russia against sending in its forces.
As rival neighbors east and west of the former Soviet republic said a power vacuum in Kiev must not lead to the country breaking apart, acting president Oleksander Turchinov said late on Sunday that Ukraine's new leaders wanted relations with Russia on a "new, equal and good-neighborly footing that recognizes and takes into account Ukraine's European choice".
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will travel to Ukraine on Monday, where she is expected to discuss measures to shore up the ailing economy.
Russia said late on Sunday it had recalled to Moscow its ambassador in Ukraine for consultations on the "deteriorating situation" in Kiev.
A day after Yanukovich fled to the Russian-speaking east following dozens of deaths during street protests aimed at toppling him, parliament named new speaker Turchinov as interim head of state. An ally of the ousted leader's long-jailed rival Yulia Tymoshenko, he aims to swear in a government by Tuesday that can provide authority until a presidential election on May 25. With battle-hardened, pro-Western protesters in control of central Kiev and determined to hold their leaders to account, lawmakers rushed through decisions to cement their power, display their rejection of rampant corruption and bring to book officials who ordered police to fire on Independence Square. But whoever takes charge as interim prime minister faces a huge challenge to satisfy popular expectations and will find an economy in deep crisis.
Scuffles in Russian-speaking Crimea and some eastern cities between supporters of the new order in Kiev and those anxious to stay close to Moscow revived fears of separatism that a week earlier were focused on the west, where Ukrainian nationalists had disowned Yanukovich and proclaimed self-rule. President Barack Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, was asked on U.S. television about the possibility of Russia sending troops to Ukraine, which President Vladimir Putin had hoped Yanukovich would keep closely allied to Moscow. "That would be a grave mistake," Rice said. "It's not in the interests of Ukraine or of Russia or of Europe or the United States to see a country split. It's in nobody's interest to see violence return and the situation escalate." Yanukovich's flight into hiding left Putin's Ukraine policy in tatters, on a day he had hoped eyes would be on the grand finale to the Sochi Olympics. The Kremlin leader spoke on Sunday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose foreign minister had brokered a short-lived truce in Kiev on Friday.
They agreed Ukraine's "territorial integrity" must be maintained, Merkel's spokesman said in a statement.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague was asked if Russia might "send in the tanks" to defend its interests among ethnic Russians in the east and on the Crimea peninsula, where Moscow bases its Black Sea Fleet: "It would really not be in the interests of Russia to do any such thing," he told the BBC. Earlier this month, a Kremlin aide had warned that Moscow could intervene. It is unlikely the United States and its allies in NATO would risk an outright military confrontation with Russia but such echoes of the Cold War underline the high stakes in Ukraine, whose 46 million people and sprawling territory are caught in a geopolitical tug of war.
EU officials offered financial aid to a new government and to revive a trade deal that Yanukovich spurned under Russian pressure in November, sparking the protests that drove him from office after 82 deaths last week, many from police sniper fire.
In addition to any economic assistance the EU might offer, the U.S. has also promised help. Budgets are tight on both sides of the Atlantic, and international creditors may be wary of Yanukovich's opponents, whose previous spell in government was no economic success, but a desire to avoid instability and back what looks to Western voters like a democratic movement menaced by Russian diktat may loosen purse strings, at least to tide Ukraine over until elections.
In Russia, where Putin had wanted Ukraine as a key part in a union of ex-Soviet states, the finance minister said the next tranche of a $15-billion loan package agreed in December would not be paid, at least before a new government is formed.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, according to his office, told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry the opposition had "seized power" by force by ignoring an EU-brokered truce that would have left Yanukovich in office for the time being. But even lawmakers from Yanukovich's own party voted for his removal on Saturday and blamed him and his entourage for the crisis. Business "oligarchs" also distanced themselves from a man long seen as their representative in the presidency. In a mark of passions dividing Ukrainians along a historic faultline between Russian and Ukrainian cultures, local television in Kerch, in eastern Crimea, showed a crowd hauling down the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag in front of the town hall and hoisting the white, blue and red Russian tricolor.
In a hectic round of voting in parliament, lawmakers rushed in some crowd-pleasing measures against the old administration, conscious that those still occupying Independence Square - or the Maidan - remain deeply suspicious of the political class. They stripped Yanukovich of his abandoned country home near Kiev, complete with ostrich farm and hot tubs, its brash opulence fuelling demands that he be held to account for stealing taxpayer billions. Turchinov said a government should be in place by Tuesday.
His ally, Tymoshenko, defeated by Yanukovich in a 2010 presidential election and later jailed for corruption, ruled herself out as interim premier. Freed from a prison hospital on Saturday after more than two years in jail, she may want time to recover and build support before running for the presidency.
As prime minister following the largely peaceful Orange Revolution of 2004-05, which overturned a first presidential victory by Yanukovich, Tymoshenko disappointed many in Ukraine who had hoped for an end to the corruption and failed economic policies that marked the aftermath of Soviet communism.
"In these days the most important thing is to form a functioning government," said Vitaly Klitschko, a former world boxing champion and also a possible presidential contender.
On Independence Square, men were still wandering around with clubs and wearing home-made body armor, helmets and in some cases ski masks and camouflage fatigues. "We'll stay here to the very end," said one, Bohdan Zakharchenko, 23, from Cherkasy, south of Kiev. "We will be here till there's a new president."

A young girl was stoned to death by Wahabi Terrorist groups in Syria for operating Facebook account. Fatoum Al-Jassem was taken to One of a Self Made Sharia court after she was caught using the social networking website, in Rakka, Syria. The Sharia court declared that using a Facebook account amounts to adultery and the girl should be punished by stoning, according to a news report published in Iran’s FARS news agency which quoted a report published in Arabic-language Al-Rai Al-Youm. The members of the Al-Qaeda group in Iraq, also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were behind the incident. The ISIS, or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is an Pure Wahabi / Salafi group based in Iraq. They have been fighting an active war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the government forces in Iraq. The group’s ideology is based on extremely strict Ale Saud’s interpretation of Islam. Ironically, the Al-Nusra Front operates a Facebook account of its own. A Girl Strangled to Death as per the Punishment Declared by the Wahabi Terrorist , who rule some parts of War Torn Syria . But War in Syria has so far claimed over 1,40,000 lives and forced millions of people to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. Historians have described the war as one of the most tragic in recent times. Few days ago, a video was uploaded by Syrian Observatory of Human Rights showing execution of young girl. In the video, a hooded executioner can be seen strangling a girl with a metal wire. The news report published in Iran’s Press TV claims that the girl was put to death because she refused to recognize the beliefs and diktats of the group. This is the second incident in which ISIS has been caught exercising excess on innocent civilians. Few days ago, a girl was allegedly stoned to death for operating a Facebook account. The stoning was ordered by the Sharia Court in Syria’s Rakka. The veracity of the video could not be verified by the Independent sources , but Syrian Observatory of Human Rights claim that execution was carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL).

Fresh plans are being drawn up to erect a modern complex on the site of what scholars of Islam contend is the birthplace of Prophet Mohammad as part of a sweeping multi-billion-dollar redevelopment of the pilgrimage city of Mecca that has already ravaged many sacred sites and structures. If approved, the project, details of which have been obtained by The Independent, would entail the demolition of a small library steps away from the Masjid al-Haram, or Grand Mosque, which sits directly on top of what are believed to be the remains of the house of the Prophet’s birth. According to IRIB World Service, the rush to transform Mecca at a cost of tens of billions of dollars into a shiny metropolis of skyscrapers and hotels, and the giant expansion of the mosque itself to accommodate ever greater numbers of pilgrims continues pell-mell with scant regard for archaeological preservation of any kind. According to the Independent, the Ottoman-era columns in the mosque bearing inscriptions pertaining to the Prophet have been toppled, while the house of his wife, steps from the library, is the site of a giant toilet block. Dr. Irfan al-Alawi, a historian and executive director of the UK-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation said that for critics, the destruction of the Mawlid House would be the final straw. He added that the last remaining historical site in the kingdom is the birthplace of Prophet Mohammad, probably the most important site to the Muslim and Shia community around the world and most people are not even aware there are plans now to destroy it.

U.S. examines Afghanistan option that would leave 3,000 troops in Kabul

One of the four options President Obama is considering for a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan beyond this year would leave behind 3,000 troops, based in Kabul and at the existing U.S. installation at Bagram, U.S. officials said. Military commanders have recommended a far more expansive 10,000 troops, with more installations across the country. But the military has spent the past several months studying what kind of reduced counterterrorism and training operations it could conduct under the smaller option, which is favored by some in the White House.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel plans to brief NATO defense ministers in Brussels this week on the status of U.S. decision making. A senior administration official said that no announcement of specific troop numbers was planned but added that “we’ll have to tell people where we stand in our thinking and planning.”
During a December visit to Kabul, Hagel suggested the late-February NATO meeting was a “cutoff point” for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign the bilateral security agreement that sets out the terms for an ongoing U.S. presence. Although the accord was finalized in the fall, Karzai has since refused to sign it, leaving the administration to delay its decision on numbers while threatening a complete pullout when the last combat troops leave at the end of 2014.
“Nothing’s changed about our desire to get . . . [an] agreement, because without one, we’re going to have to start planning for a complete withdrawal,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John F. Kirby said Thursday.
Conversations with Karzai over the agreement have largely ceased, one U.S. official said. “We’ve taken the position that we shouldn’t harass him anymore, because it doesn’t get us anywhere,” the official said. Instead, administration officials are in close contact with leading candidates for Afghanistan’s April elections to replace Karzai, all of whom have said they would sign the agreement.
Under the 10,000-troop option, U.S. forces would remain in Kabul, Kandahar, Bagram and Jalalabad until the end of 2015, with 5,000 NATO and other international troops based in the northern and western parts of the country as part of a combined NATO mission called Resolute Support.
A second option would base a somewhat smaller number of U.S. troops in Kabul and Bagram until 2016, with authorization to travel across the country to train and advise Afghan forces as needed. Under the proposals, Option 1 could also merge into Option 2, with the entire force scheduled to leave by the end of Obama’s term in office. The 3,000 troops under Option 3 would be restricted to Kabul and Bagram, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity about administration decision making. A portion of the existing Bagram air base ideally would be available for military use to operate drone aircraft, but troops would not travel across the country. It could not be determined how long the troops would remain.
The fourth and final option calls for a complete U.S. withdrawal, a prospect for which the White House sees little immediate political fallout. Washington Post polls have shown that a majority of Americans believe the war was not worth fighting — 66 percent in a December survey. A Gallup poll this month indicated that for the first time since the conflict began in 2001, the number of Americans who believe U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan was a mistake is equal to the number who say it was not.
One of the issues to be discussed with NATO is whether countries that have agreed to contribute troops to an ongoing Afghanistan mission — primarily Italy and Germany — would be willing to do so with a more numerically and geographically restricted U.S. force. They have already said that they have no interest in staying with no U.S. presence at all. The Pentagon, the State Department and the intelligence community have told the White House that anything short of Option 1 will severely circumscribe their plans for post-2014 operations in Afghanistan. “The only people interested in the low numbers are in the White House,” a U.S. official said. Without U.S. and NATO troops based outside Kabul, the State Department has said security conditions will probably not allow them to monitor aid projects and track other non-military assistance programs. The military also provides security for CIA operations on the ground outside the capital, particularly in the eastern part of the country where al-Qaeda and other militant groups circulate and cross the border from bases in Pakistan. The CIA handles all human intelligence sources for its operations in Afghanistan and those related to its drone attack program in Pakistan, and some of those operations would have to be turned over to the military or discontinued under all but Option 1, officials said.
The continuation of the drone campaign in Pakistan, already significantly reduced from recent years, is also awaiting decision. Under guidelines signed by Obama in May, attacks on Pakistan-based Afghan militants such as the Haqqani network were authorized as a force protection measure for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Once the troops are gone, it is unclear whether non-al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan will continue to be targeted — assuming airstrips are available for U.S. drone use. In a Congress-commissioned study released Thursday, the Center for Naval Analyses concluded that “international enabler support will be essential” until at least 2018 if Afghan security forces are to hold their own against an anticipated Taliban resurgence.
Even with strong U.S. and other support, the study said, “the Taliban insurgency will become a greater threat to Afghanistan’s stability in the 2015-2018 timeframe than it is now.”
The study advocates keeping the size of Afghan forces at a level only slightly less than their current 382,000, rather than the 228,500 proposed by NATO. The larger force, it said, would cost up to $6 billion a year at least through 2018, far more than the $4.1 billion NATO has agreed to finance, assuming the security agreement is signed.
If all of its recommendations were followed, the study concluded, “a negotiated political settlement to end the war would become much more likely in the 2019-2023 timeframe.” Retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen, who commanded U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan until last February, compared the danger of U.S. withdrawal to what happened when the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in 1989.
The Soviets initially left advisers and funded the Afghan military, Allen said in remarks at the Stimson Center on Friday. But the dissolution of the Soviet Union soon afterward led to the end of assistance, the Taliban takeover of the its assistance ended soon after, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he said, which led to the Taliban takeover of the Afghan government and “resulted directly” in al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11 2001 attacks, Allen said.

Afghanistan's Sikhs face an uncertain future

The religious minority faces discrimination, lack of political power, and obstacles to cremating their dead.
Awtar Singh Khalsa still remembers the sounds of stones and insults being hurled at the funeral procession.
It was meant to be a somber remembrance of a deceased woman in Kabul's Sikh community. Instead, with police flanking them on both sides, the funeral procession became another stark reminder of the discrimination and harassment that have become a part of everyday life for many Afghan Sikhs.
That was more than a year and a half ago. Sikhs speaking to Al Jazeera said that since then, things have only become worse for the 306-family community in the Afghan capital. "We can't even hold our funerals in peace," Khalsa said.
The most recent blow to the religious minority came in December, when the Afghan parliament rejected a decree issued by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the nation's Hindu and Sikh communities be reserved a seat in the lower house of the legislature. Khalsa said Sikh history in Afghanistan, which dates back 200 years, has been marred by two "dark periods". She added that the strict Islamic rule of the Taliban - during which Sikhs were made to wear identifying yellow arm bands, hang yellow flags over their homes and businesses and barred from government posts - was not one of them.
Disrespect and marginalisation
Like many Afghans, the Sikh community considers the civil war of the early 1990s as a particularly difficult time. Jihadi leaders fresh from the fight against Soviet occupation turned against one another in a battle for control of the capital, leading to the deaths of 40,000 people and widespread destruction. During that time, seven Sikh temples and a primary school were destroyed by rocket fire.
Under the Karzai administration, which has governed Afghanistan since late 2001, Sikhs say they feel more ostracised than ever. The numbers, they say, prove this. Before the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, Hindu and Sikh leaders estimated their combined population at more than 100,000 nationwide. In 1992, more than 15,000 Hindu families fled to neighbouring India, leaving only about 3,000 Hindu and Sikh families in Kabul. Today, just more than 300 Sikh families remain in the capital.
"There is no respect. People will say 'they are kafirs [unbelievers], we won't buy from them'," said 25-year-old Avinder Singh. To make matters worse, a series of land grabs in Kabul's Taimani and Kartei Parwan neighbourhoods, where Sikhs have historically lived, have limited their economic prospects. "We have nowhere to go, especially if we aren't making money," Singh told Al Jazeera.
Singh, who hails from Afghanistan's eastern province of Nangarhar, was one of many youth at a gurdwara - a Sikh temple - in Kabul who complained of physical and verbal harassment when out on the streets. Kabul was once home to eight gurdwaras, but only one remains today. One young man named Awtar told of a Sikh man in his twenties who was recently taken to the hospital after being taunted and beaten by a group in Kartei Parwan. Another had his iPhone stolen. "We had few problems during the Taliban. At least then we knew where to go," Awtar said.
Sikhs say the difficulty they face in holding funerals exemplifies their deteriorating position in Afghan society. Now, Awtar said, "We have to let police know every time we hold a funeral." For decades, most Sikh cremations - a practice forbidden by Islam - were held in Qalacha in eastern Kabul. But residents began to complain of the smell.
In 2003, delegations went directly to President Karzai, Second Vice President Karim Khalili and Kabul Mayor Mohammad Nawandish to plead their case. Speaking in the Indian capital last summer, Karzai promised to do more to make Afghanistan safe for the Hindus and Sikhs taking refuge in India to return. But the government has done little to deter the abuse. In the past decade, the government has provided 10 different locations for Sikhs to hold cremations, but each time Sikhs said they faced abuse. This led the community to erect high walls around the gurdwara - constructed 45 years ago under the rule of King Zahir Shah - so they could perform cremations in peace. Along with a proper location to hold their cremation ceremonies, Hindus and Sikhs have been asking for exclusive schools. Though primary schools for Sikhs have now been established in Kabul and Jalalabad, many youth reported being excluded or taunted while attending government-run schools in the capital. The community had hoped that Karzai's Septmeber decree calling for a parliamentary seat reserved for Hindus and Sikhs would provide them with much-needed political representation. But even that fell flat when the parliament rejected the measure last December by a vote of 73 to 51. Those opposing the measure cited Article 22 of Afghanistan's constitution, which prohibits discrimination or special privileges for any single group.
'Send us anywhere'
Still, some in the community wonder why Afghanistan's two-million-strong nomad community, called the kochi, are entitled to 10 seats in parliament.
In a statement issued 10 days after the parliament rejected the allocation of a seat for Hindus and Sikhs, a consortium of representatives from both communities demanded that the government take "serious actions in connection with the elimination of all forms of discrimination against Hindus and Sikh people". Among other things, the statement called for the "restitution of their confiscated property, access to education, freedom to hold religious rites".
Fabrizio Foschini of the Afghanistan Analysts Network said that without political power, Hindus and Sikhs have found themselves "in a competition for space and jobs at a time when new arrivals [from the provinces] to Kabul bring with them religious intolerance".
In a statement to Al Jazeera, the government said Karzai "instructed the relevant authorities including the Minister of Interior, the Minister of Religious affairs and Kabul mayor present in the meeting to carry out an assessment of the problems the Hindu and Sikh community are currently facing". But many religious minorities in Afghanistan are already disenchanted with their homeland, and say they will leave the country if their conditions don't improve.
Though neighbouring India and Pakistan - which both have considerably larger Sikh and Hindu populations - may seem like a natural choice for relocation, Ranjit Singh, who left Jalalabad for Kabul three years ago, said they would still face economic hardship there, too. "Send us to France, send us to Germany, send us anywhere - but we can't stay where we are not respected anymore," he said.
Mansour, a Muslim man who works at the Kabul gurdwara, said he would be sad to see Afghan Hindus and Sikhs leave the country. Unable to understand the hate lodged against his fellow Afghans, Mansour described them as "good, nice people. If we can work with the Americans, why can't we work with and accept the Sikhs and Hindus?"

What’s next for Afghanistan?

Chaos and civil war. The spectre of both hang over Afghanistan as international troops leave and Afghans take full control of their country and their future for the first time in more than a decade.
In a few weeks, the last of Canada’s soldiers will come home. The rest of the foreign soldiers are expected out by the end of the year.
The pullout is behind the sense of foreboding among some Afghans and those in the international community about the country’s prospects, though skepticism about Afghanistan’s ability to make it on its own began to gnaw long ago.
A 2012 NATO report noted the Taliban were increasingly confident they could seize power once foreign troops left. The year before, Denmark’s Defence Intelligence Service warned the country could slip into anarchy, with the Taliban firmly in control of some provinces in the south. Last year, U.S. intelligence agencies reported that the gains made by coalition forces will significantly erode in the coming years — and that’s even if a smaller force of international troops stays in the country and billions of dollars continue to be pumped into the impoverished nation.
“I think people are genuinely worried,” says Ziggy Garewal, Afghan director of the French charity group, ACTED. “Because of course we got used to a status quo the last 10 years. International troops have managed overall to prevent any real skirmish for power.” There are concerns the country’s former warlords will carve up Afghanistan into fiefdoms, as they did before the Taliban took over. Some strongmen are already talking about recruiting and rearming and large caches of weapons are said to be hidden northern Afghanistan where resistance to the Taliban was strongest. Already some Afghans are aligning with militias or other armed groups, Garewal said.
Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities are worried about a proposed peace deal with their longtime enemy, the Taliban. Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s former top spymaster, has warned that any such deal could lead to the eventual partition of Afghanistan along ethnic lines. What is viewed as the key to holding this potential powder keg together is a continued flow of billions of dollars from the international community to pay for Afghan security forces and the Afghan government. Even then, the likelihood is that Afghanistan will continue for years in a perpetual state of conflict between warring factions. “I think there will be a lot of uncertainly, there will certainly be a lot of skirmishes but I don’t think Afghanistan will explode into an all out civil war,” said Garewal. “I’m not saying it won’t happen. But it will be slow.” Nurjehan Mawani, the diplomatic representative of the Aga Khan Development Network in Afghanistan, is cautiously optimistic a civil war won’t erupt.
“I don’t think we’re looking at this type of scenario,” said Mawani, a former senior Canadian federal bureaucrat. “People see how much they have to lose.” She said while there is much concern about what will happen after the pullout, if stability continues then there are companies and individuals who want to invest in Afghanistan. “There’s a lot of wait and see,” Mawani said.
As the withdrawal deadline approaches, prosperous Afghans are sending their money to banks in other countries, says James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan. He told Congress in December there is a growing exodus; those Afghans who can leave the country are doing so.
For those who can’t afford to go, here’s a look at what the future could hold.
What are the chances of outside help?
There are about 36,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan as well as another 19,000 soldiers from various countries. Canada has fewer than 100 soldiers left and they are to leave Kabul in mid-March. Most foreign military personnel are to be out by the end of the year. The international community wants to carry out a follow-on mission, called Resolute Support, which would provide training and assistance to the Afghan military. The number of soldiers for Resolute Support has not been announced, but U.S. commanders are said to want an international force of between 8,000 and 12,000 soldiers, two-thirds American. The U.S. contingent would also include about 2,000 special forces soldiers to hunt down insurgent leaders and conduct other counter-terrorism missions.
The British military, which wants to contribute to Resolute Support, is looking at keeping up to 200 of its soldiers in the volatile Helmand province in the south. Germany is talking about committing about 800 soldiers, likely for service in the north. But the continued presence of international troops hinges on what is called the Bilateral Security Agreement, which Afghan President Hamid Karzai has so far refused to sign, even though a national assembly of Afghan elders asked him to ink the agreement last year. He refuses to do so until the U.S. agrees to end what he says are attacks on civilians and their homes. (He is referring to ongoing U.S. special forces raids to kill or capture insurgent leaders, a number of which have resulted in civilian deaths.)
If the agreement is not signed, the U.S. and NATO might consider the “zero option.” Under it, no international troops would remain in Afghanistan. If that takes place there are concerns the Afghan military will not be able to continue effectively on its own and the insurgency will make further gains in the country.
Can democracy take hold?
Helping Afghanistan become a free and democratic country was one of the reasons Canadian troops were sent to the nation. Since the appointment of Karzai as interim president in 2002, Afghanistan has had two elections, in 2004 and 2009. Karzai won both, but the results were controversial and the polls were plagued with allegations of fraud and other irregularities. In particular, there was low voter turnout and reports of ballot stuffing in the last election. Another election will be held in April, although Karzai can’t run because he has already served two terms. Many Afghans question whether the country has a true democratic system, given that a large number of members of Parliament and cabinet ministers are former warlords or war criminals. MP Ramazan Bashardost points out that the warlords have the money to win support and the weapons to coerce it. Instead of bringing war criminals to justice, Karzai brought them into government, he says. “We don’t have true democracy in Afghanistan,” added Ubaid, a spokesman for the small left wing National Solidarity Party, who like many Afghans uses only one name. “Just by having a vote, doesn’t mean you can bring democracy to a country.” Former warlord Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf is among those running for president in the April election. Sayyaf invited Osama bin Laden to move to Afghanistan and the U.S. government commission investigating the 9/11 attacks called him the “mentor” of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the main planner behind the strikes on New York and Washington. Sayyaf says he now embraces democracy and women’s rights. Kandahar Governor Tooryalai Wesa says the West is making the same mistake the Russians did in the late 1970s and 1980s. The Russians, he said, tried to impose communism on a tribal society and failed. The West is trying to do the same thing with democracy. He questions whether democracy will work in Afghanistan, but says if it does, it will take another two or three elections to establish it. Will Afghanistan turn into a narco-state? When Prime Minister Stephen Harper travelled to Kandahar in March 2006 he said the reason Canadian troops were in Afghanistan was to make sure the country had a stable future. “An unstable Afghanistan represents easy pickings for drug lords who would use the country as a safe haven for the production of heroin, which wreaks its own destruction on the streets of our country,” Harper warned. The U.S. government has spent about $7 billion to try to eradicate poppy cultivation and opium production, but despite those efforts some security analysts warn that Afghanistan is on its way to becoming a narco-state. In 2013, the country harvested its largest crop of opium poppies, which will produce an estimated $3 billion worth of heroin when processed. John Sopko, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, last month presented American senators with details about illegal drug production. His figures were similar to those from other U.S. government agencies; an estimated 290,000 hectares of land were used in Afghanistan in 2013 to cultivate poppies, compared to 8,000 hectares in 2001 when international forces arrived to overthrow the Taliban. The country now produces around 90 per cent of the world’s heroin. “The situation in Afghanistan is dire with little prospect for improvement in 2014 or beyond,” Sopko told a Senate committee. “Afghan farmers are growing more opium poppies today than at any time in their modern history.” In addition, the Taliban makes an estimated $100 million to $150 million a year by demanding a cut from poppy farmers and drug dealers. Sopko also noted that some of that money goes to corrupt government officials. During the mission, the Canadian government supported poppy eradication efforts but military commanders were not keen to see their soldiers directly involved. They were concerned that using Canadian soldiers to destroy crops would turn Afghans — many of whom earn their living from poppy cultivation — against Canada’s development efforts in Kandahar and push farmers into the ranks of the Taliban. Canada instead focused on efforts to find alternative crops for the farmers to grow but that met with limited success. Is al-Qaida still a threat? U.S. and coalition soldiers, along with their Afghan allies, pushed al-Qaida operatives out of Afghanistan in late 2001 and early 2002. Terrorist training bases were overrun by coalition troops and some leaders were captured, although most fled to Pakistan. The continued presence of international troops has prevented the terrorist group from re-establishing training camps in Afghanistan. The U.S. has also continued its pressure on the group’s leadership with drone attacks and commando raids like the one that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. In the aftermath of that killing, then U.S. defence secretary Leon Panetta boasted the U.S. was “within reach of strategically defeating” al-Qaida. Two years later, U.S. President Barack Obama noted that the core group that formed al-Qaida was on the verge of being defeated. “Operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us,” he said. In addition, a Pentagon report in November 2013 estimated that there were only a few dozen al-Qaida members left near the Afghan-Pakistan border. But in the U.S. capital today, intelligence specialists talk about the terror network “metastasizing.” It has grown in other parts of the world, with affiliates active on battlefields in the Middle East, such as in Iraq. And while al-Qaida no longer uses Afghanistan as a training base, it and affiliated groups have moved to Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Mali. During testimony to a Senate committee earlier this month, national intelligence director James Clapper told lawmakers al-Qaida’s ability to attack the U.S. has degraded and its standing in the global Islamic extremist community has suffered. But he added: “It probably hopes for a resurgence following the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2014.” Will there be a peace deal with the Taliban? In 2006, Peter MacKay, then the minister of foreign affairs, called Jack Layton “Taliban Jack” after the NDP leader suggested peace negotiations with the Taliban were needed to end the war. MacKay’s personal attack on Layton was successful from the Conservative government’s point of view as the derogatory label stuck with him until his death. But critics have pointed out that it was more of a reflection of MacKay’s lack of understanding of Afghanistan, as negotiations had been going on for years with lower level Taliban commanders and individual groups had laid down their arms. In addition, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the U.S. government have supported negotiations with the group’s leadership for a larger peace settlement. Last summer, U.S. media reported the American government was involved in talks with the Taliban in Doha. Earlier this month, Karzai’s office confirmed Afghan officials have had secret discussions with the group, though the Taliban denied any discussions were underway. Since MacKay’s “Taliban Jack” comment, the Canadian government has indicated it would support reconciliation provided insurgents put down their weapons first. It is unclear whether the Taliban is serious about a peace agreement or are stringing the Karzai government along. The group has said it would not lay down its arms until all foreign soldiers leave Afghanistan. If no peace deal is reached, will the Taliban keep fighting? Yes. NATO military officers in Kabul say that Afghan security forces successfully countered efforts last summer by the Taliban to wrest control of more territory and that the insurgency is tired and desperate. But they have claimed that many times before. In 2004, U.S. Gen. James Jones, NATO’s top military commander at the time, said the insurgents “were running out of energy” and their numbers had dwindled to below 1,000. In 2006, then-chief of the defence staff Gen. Rick Hillier said the Taliban were on their “back foot” and Canadian military efforts in Kandahar were preventing them from expanding elsewhere in the country. In 2007 the United Nations put the core size of the Taliban at around 3,000 but also noted they had access to 7,000 more fighters on an occasional basis. In early 2008 the insurgents expanded operations and started to re-establish themselves in provinces in the northern part of the country. That same year, NATO intelligence estimated there were between 5,000 and 20,000 Taliban fighters. In November 2013, a UN report stated that as many as 12,000 Taliban were killed, captured or wounded in Afghanistan in that year alone. But no matter how many of its ranks have been killed or wounded over the last 12 years, the Taliban continues to fight on, using tactics ranging from suicide bombings to assassinations of government officials. What does Afghanistan’s economic future look like? The injection of billions of foreign dollars has made some Afghans better off. A middle class has developed and new businesses have opened, mainly in the cities. One of the most prosperous is Afghanistan’s mobile phone industry. There are about 20 million mobile phone subscriptions in a nation of 30 million people. The sector has become one of the largest non-governmental employers and a key driver of the economy. Still, with limited sources of revenue, Afghanistan will be in trouble when most international troops leave and international aid is reduced later this year. The war helped create an artificial economy that cannot be sustained over the long term. Last March, James Clapper, America’s director of national intelligence, outlined for a U.S. Senate committee the challenge: “Afghanistan’s economy, which has been expanding at a steady rate, is likely to slow after 2014,” he said. “Kabul has little hope of offsetting the coming drop in Western aid and military spending, which have fuelled growth in the construction and services sectors. Its licit agricultural sector and small businesses have also benefited from development projects and assistance from non-governmental organizations, but the country faces high rates of poverty, unemployment, food insecurity, and poppy cultivation.” What will happen to women’s rights? The overthrow of the Taliban changed the lives of many Afghan women. Today women are members of parliament, bureaucrats, police officers, judges, teachers, doctors, lawyers and journalists. “There has been a significant change (in the) number of women active” in society, said Nurjehan Mawani, the diplomatic representative of the Aga Khan Development Network in Afghanistan. “This is particularly true of women in urban areas.” But Afghanistan remains a conservative, patriarchal Islamic society. Millions of women, following the wishes of their families, still wear the burka. And even with the Taliban no longer in power, women struggle to assert their rights. Strong conservative Islamic politicians are in parliament and religious leaders are generally opposed to a greater role for women, Samina Ahmed, the South Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, has noted. Samira Amiri, an Afghan woman who works for the French charity ACTED, said the lives of women have improved in cities like Kabul but in the rural areas not much has changed. “The families are very poor so they need women (to work), but the men have very tight minds,” and do not allow that, she said. Violence against women is on the rise, with the number of incidents increasing by 25 per cent in 2013 from the previous year, according to Afghanistan’s Human Rights Commission. In July 2012, the Reuters news agency obtained a video of a 22-year-old woman being publicly executed after she was accused of adultery. The incident took place in a village just an hour’s drive from Kabul. The community leaders as well as the woman’s family supported the execution and the video of her being shot in the head hearkened back to similar public executions staged by the Taliban. Insurgents have also specifically targeted female leaders. In July 2013, Lt. Islam Bibi, the top female police officer in Helmand province, was assassinated. Hanifa Safi, the regional head of women’s affairs for the eastern part of the country, was killed in July 2012 when a bomb planted in her car exploded. The commitment of the Afghan government to women’s rights has also been suspect. In February 2012 the government decreed that female journalists reading the news on TV must wear head scarves and avoid heavy makeup. A month later the Karzai government backed a “voluntary” code of conduct for women, recommending they not travel without a male guardian and refrain from mingling with strange men. The code also allows husbands to beat their wives under certain situations. Norway announced in October that it would reduce its aid to Afghanistan, slightly, because of what it said was a failure by the government to deal with corruption and protect women’s rights. Human Rights Watch has urged that international funding be tied to the government’s commitments to human rights and the treatment of women. But there is concern that as the foreign troops leave and less aid money is provided, the international community will have less sway over the Afghan government. As a result, gains made by Afghan women could be rolled back. There is also worry that any peace deal with the Taliban that allows them to have a say in the political process would mark a significant setback for women. Will international aid continue? In 2012 the international community promised Afghanistan as much as $16 billion in development aid in the years following the pullout. Some Afghans, however, have raised concerns about that: mainly will the international community follow through on their promises and how much of the funds will actually reach the people? Afghans have warned that large amounts of aid money have been, and will continue to be, siphoned off by corrupt officials. Others point out that the real beneficiaries of development aid are the international consultants and contractors who provide expertise or services.
“The money came to Afghanistan but the major portion went back to where it was coming from,” Kandahar’s Governor Tooryalai Wesa said about previous aid commitments. The impact of that financial drain was outlined in a March 2008 report from the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, an alliance of 94 international aid agencies that looked at $15 billion in aid that various nations have delivered to Afghanistan since 2001.
Of that, around 40 per cent — about $6 billion — went back to donor nations in the form of corporate profits and consultant salaries, the report’s authors discovered. “A vast amount of aid is absorbed by high salaries, living, security, transport and accommodation costs for expatriates working for consulting firms or contractors,” they noted. A full-time expatriate consultant was paid about $250,000 a year, about 200 times the average salary of an Afghan government worker, the authors estimated.
Others, such as Afghan parliamentarian Ramazan Bashardost, have raised concerns that aid money isn’t getting where it needs to go.
In 2010 the U.S. government sounded the alarm about the billions of dollars smuggled out of the country, the result of money stolen from aid projects or the proceeds of Afghanistan’s illegal drug trade. U.S. Treasury officials reported that well-connected Afghan businessmen and politicians were carrying out the cash in suitcases and heading to offshore banks. The figure taken out of the country in 2011, mainly through the Kabul airport, was estimated to be $4.5 billion. That year the U.S. government provided the Afghans with two cash-counting machines to be used at the airport to monitor money leaving the country. U.S. officials later found the machines covered in dust in a closet. In fact, Afghan VIPs carrying suitcases of cash were not only able to continue bypassing searches by customs officials they were given their own private lounge at the Kabul airport so they weren’t disturbed.
The Afghan government, however, has said it hopes to crack down on corruption in the future.

Terrorism devastates Pakistani gemstone business

Terrorism in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) has devastated the region's once-booming gemstone industry, depriving the country of a substantial amount of revenue from exports.
"Despite our having vast deposits of gemstones in KP and FATA, the export of precious stones has fallen at an alarming rate, plummeting from Rs. 5.4 billion (US $52m) in 2001 to just Rs. 157m (US $1.5m) in the last financial year," All Pakistan Commercial Exporters Association (APCEA) Chairman Rashid Qadeer Mir said.
The relentless decline of business in the past 12 or 13 years has created hardship for thousands of workers, he said, noting that about 30,000 workers are associated with the sector and that 1,800 are registered as exporters, while the remaining work in mining, cutting and labour.
Scaring businessmen away from Pakistan
Customers don't want to come to Peshawar because they fear for their lives, Rashid told Central Asia Online. "The major reason behind this abnormal slump in business … is terrorism," he said.
KP has about 60 varieties of gemstones, both precious and semi-precious, and has the potential for further exploration, according to KP's Mineral Department. "The gemstone business is export oriented, and our main customers are foreigners who visited our province and placed orders after physically examining the stones," Rashid said. "Gone are the days when foreigners frequently visited gemstone bazaars of Peshawar and the business was booming."
It is ironic that Peshawar, which is considered a hub for the gemstone market, has no potential customer ready to visit the city because of the security situation, he added.
"The security concern has become so serious in KP that over the last six years we are unable to hold an international gem show, which we hosted annually in Peshawar since 1998," Manzoor Elahi, a gemstone exporter since 1979, said.
After the most recent gem show in 2007, the government refused to hold the event again because of security reasons, Manzoor added. Generally, during those shows, 50 to 70 foreign gemstone dealers would visit Peshawar and place orders amounting from Rs. 1-1.6 billion (US $10m-15m). Even in the last show in 2007, 25 to 30 foreigners participated. Trade Development Authority of Pakistan Director-General for Mines and Minerals Nusrat Iqbal Jamshed also attributed the decline in business to terrorism. "To attract foreign businessmen, you have to ensure fool-proof security," he said.
Innovative ways to market gemstones
To deal with the decline, some have explored alternative ideas. Some exporters tried marketing their products abroad, Manzoor said. But only a handful of them succeeded because the majority of them lacked the education needed to interact internationally. Newcomers, especially students, have traded on the internet. Still, the business volume is very low. Industry insiders are lobbying for government help in rekindling their once-booming trade.
For example, Rashid has asked the KP government to subsidise housing, travel and other expenses that traders incur during their trips abroad and to offer courses on selling gemstones online.
KP officials say they're aware of the problem. Security concerns have forced a temporary end to international gem shows, Nusrat said. The KP government will soon implement a plan for promoting gem exports, he added.
"The [KP] government is well aware of the gemstone sector's potential and … is contemplating practical measures to revive the lost business," Rifaqat Ullah Babar, economic co-ordinator of the Investment Promotion Cell in the Chief Minister Secretariat, said.
The government is planning to hold an international gem show but will make a final decision after evaluating the security situation, he said.

Kashmala Munawar Victim of Peshawar Church Blast Fly to Australia

Few Hours ago Kashmala Munawar the victim of Peshawar Church blast fly to Australia for further treatment.
Kashmala Munawar was one of the victim of the Peshawar Blast who had multiple pellets in her legs . Doctors amputated her one leg and rod was fixed in her second leg. But doctors are not sure for saving her second leg. WVIP, Requested our Australian friends jeannette wells and her husband Ron for her treatment in Australia . They requested Children First foundation.

Former President condemns Kohat attack by terrorists
Former President Asif Ali Zardari has strongly condemned terror attack on a vehicle on Sunday in Kohat police lines which reportedly killed 10 people and injured many more and called for effective measures to stop continuing bloodshed of innocent men, women and children. In a statement former President said that the attacks on citizens and the bloodletting of innocent people cannot and must not be allowed to go on with impunity. He called for immediate, decisive and credible measures to stop this barbarism. The former President said that Pakistan People’s Party will not leave the people on the mercy of terrorists and will fight the militants with the help of the people. In times like these we need to have a unified and firm national narrative against militancy that no one should be allowed to distort it. He prayed to Almighty Allah for eternal peace to the departed souls and early recovery for the injured. He also sympathized with the bereaved families.

Bilawal Bhutto condemns Kohat blast

Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Patron-in-Chief, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has strongly condemned the bomb blast near Police Line at Peshawar Chowk in Kohat Sunday, killing several innocent people and injuring many others. In a statement, Bilawal Bhutto said that elements involved in such heinous activities were anti-human. "We must unite against these elements," he added. PPP Patron expressed his profound grief over the loss of precious human lives and extended condolences to the bereaved families.

Pakistan's harsh blasphemy law under scrutiny
Mohammad Asghar, a 69-year-old paranoid schizophrenic, faces a death sentence in Pakistan for claiming to be the Prophet Mohammed in letters written to officials and police in 2010. The retired British national of Pakistani descent is partially paralyzed after a stroke, but Pakistani courts have so far refused to acknowledge his physical and mental limitations.
The charges against Asghar recall the case of Rimsha Masih, a teenage girl who was alleged to have dumped torn and burnt pages of the Quran into a garbage heap nearly two years ago. Rimsha, who is Christian, was also arrested under Pakistan's blasphemy law, which stipulates a life sentence for defiling the Quran.
Later, it emerged that the torn and burnt pages were from an Arabic primer. Rimsha, whose lawyers claim she is developmentally disabled, was granted bail and whisked away in a helicopter amid tight security. The Pakistan Penal Code prohibits blasphemy against any recognized religion, providing penalties ranging from life imprisonment to death.
The law has been widely abused in Pakistan, where about 247 blasphemy cases have been registered, affecting the lives of 435 people since 1987, according to a 2013 report from the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), an independent think tank based in Islamabad.
Though the courts have not sentenced anyone to death for blasphemy, 52 Pakistanis have fallen prey to extrajudicial killings as a result of blasphemy charges. According to the CRSS research, 25 were Muslims, 15 Christians, five Ahmadis, one Buddhist and one Hindu.

Bombing kills 14 at northwest Pakistan bus station

A bomb planted at a busy bus terminal near a police station in northwest Pakistan exploded Sunday, killing 14 people and wounding 15 near the country's lawless tribal region, authorities said. The explosion targeted passengers in a motorized rickshaw and those on a mini-bus in Kohat, some 150 kilometers (100 miles) west of the capital, Islamabad, police official Iqbal Khan said. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, though Kohat has seen past attacks by local Taliban fighters and allied sectarian groups against its minority Shiite population, which has a presence in the city and its outskirts. Khan and police official Fazal Naeem said the vehicles targeted were bound for a Shiite-majority area, and suspected that the minority Muslims could have been the target of the attack. Northwestern provincial police chief Nasir Durrani said security forces have been conducting counterinsurgency operations in the area. Local Taliban militants have killed tens of thousands of Pakistanis in a bloody war against the state in a bid to overthrow the government and enforce their own harsh brand of Islamic Shariah law. Pakistan's government recently started peace talks with the Taliban, but negotiations were suspended after the killing of 23 soldiers by a faction of the militant group and a militant-claimed bombing in southern port city of Karachi that killed 13 police officers. Air force jets have been pounding militants' hideouts in various tribal regions near the Afghan border since the peace talks collapsed last week. Both the Pakistani government and the local Taliban are demanding each other to initiate a cease-fire first to resume the talks. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif long has favored peace talks over military action to end the bloodshed in the northwest, but he is also under pressure from critics to retaliate for any Taliban violence. One of the critics is an ethnic political party based in Karachi called the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. The party on Sunday held an anti-Taliban rally to express solidarity with Pakistan's security forces. Thousands of people demonstrated and were addressed by the party leader Altaf Hussain by phone from London. "Taliban are cancer for Pakistan. Taliban are cancer for the humanity," he said.
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Saudi Arabia 'seeking Pakistani arms for Syrian rebels'

Saudi Arabia is in talks with Pakistan to provide anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets to Syrian rebels to try to tip the balance in the war to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, a Saudi source said Sunday. The United States has long opposed arming the rebels with such weapons, fearing they might end up in the hands of extremists, but Syrian opposition figures say the failure of Geneva peace talks seems to have led Washington to soften its opposition. Pakistan makes its own version of Chinese shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, known as Anza, and anti-tank rockets -- both of which Riyadh is trying to get for the rebels, said the source, who is close to Saudi decision-makers, requesting anonymity. The source pointed to a visit to Riyadh earlier this month by Pakistan's army chief of staff, General Raheel Sharif, who met Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz. Prince Salman himself last week led a large delegation to Pakistan, shortly after Saudi's chief diplomat Prince Saud al-Faisal visited the kingdom's key ally. Jordan will be providing facilities to store the weapons before they are delivered to rebels within Syria, the same source said. AFP could not obtain confirmation from officials in Saudi, Pakistan or Jordan. The head of the Syrian opposition, Ahmad Jarba, promised during a flying visit to northern Syria last week that "powerful arms will be arriving soon." "The United States could allow their allies provide the rebels with anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons following the failure of Geneva talks and the renewed tension with Russia," said the head of the Gulf Research Centre, Abdel Aziz al-Sager. Providing those weapons to the rebels "relieves pressure on the US in the short-term," said Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Programme at the Washington Institue for Near East Policy. "But the long-term political worry is that Manpads (Man-portable air-defence systems) will leak and be used to bring down a civilian airliner somewhere in the world." Rebels have long said that anti-aircraft rockets would help them defend themselves against Syrian warplanes, which regularly bomb rebel-held areas with barrels loaded with TNT and other ordinance. The nearly-three-year conflict in Syria has torn the country apart, killing more than 140,000 people, including some 50,000 civilians, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Rising Saudi influence Saudi Arabia has a strong influence on Syria's southern front, where it coordinates with Jordan, and has helped unite the rebel fighters in the area, according to Syrian opposition sources. On the other hand, Qatar and Turkey are responsible for coordinating with the rebels on the northern front, said an official of the Syrian opposition, requesting anonymity. Saudi Arabia has come to eclipse Qatar as the main supporter of the Syrian rebels, a development illustrated by the election last July of Ahmad Jarba, who has strong Saudi links, to lead the Syrian National Coalition, the main umbrella opposition group. The trend appeared to continue with the dismissal last week of General Selim Idriss, the top commander of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, who was considered close to Qatar, according to an opposition source. The main criticism of Idriss was "bad distribution of weapons" and "errors in battle," said another opposition source. Idriss, who has refused his dismissal, has been replaced by Brigadier General Abdel Ilah al-Bashir, the leader of the rebel military council for the region of Quneitra in southern Syria. On its internal front, Saudi Arabia has sidelined intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who had been leading Riyadh's efforts concerning Syria, according to a Western diplomat. Diplomats have said that the file has been passed to the interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, known for his successful crackdown on Al-Qaeda following a wave of deadly attacks in the kingdom between 2003 and 2006. Bandar's management had triggered American criticism, diplomats said. The Saudi royal himself has reproached Washington for its decision not to intervene militarily in Syria, and for preventing its allies from providing rebels with much-needed weapons, diplomats added.

Multi pronged assault on the sources of terror is needed not negotiations or operations

The theater of talks with the Taliban has already given them a vantage point, the government treating them as an equal partner, they have never had before. They are all over the media as an equal to the State of Pakistan. The recent air strike on North Waziristan by Pakistan’s armed forces is indeed a positive step. However, it does show Pakistan up as a free for all country. The Army has the might and the resolve to avenge itself when it is directly attacked. However, the civilian government is utterly toothless to protect its subjects, including its own policemen, let alone taking revenge when they are mercilessly slaughtered. Also sporadic attacks like this will not do the trick. Unfortunately, peace in Pakistan cannot be achieved without declaring a complete war on the terrorists. Attacks confined to FATA are like assailing the head office of a company while letting its branches and franchises operate totally unhindered.
These franchises are mainly the banned organizations like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Sipah-e-Sahaba, long tolerated or even sponsored by Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence establishment. But now they have joined the Taliban to turn on Pakistan. We know that many of these factions (like the SSP and the LeJ) have a sectarian bent that far outstrips ideological ambitions, if any. If these outfits are not being targeted then that simply means that the government does not care about the blood of Shias, Barelvis, Christians and Ahmedis that is being ruthlessly spilled across the national territory. That does not even seem to figure among the cards that the government has dealt itself to play poker with the Taliban. It also means that all the federal government cares about is to ensure peace in Punjab – especially its fiefdom in the centre and north of the province.
Any operation against the Taliban cannot achieve peace, let alone a victory, unless it undertakes a fully-fledged and multipronged assault on the sources of terror in the country. The entire country needs to be roused and put on a war footing. The government is fully aware of the Taliban’s catchment area and operating bases in Southern Punjab and their fast growing influence in Karachi. So much so that the militants remain free to wipe out the entire families of those opposing them. Unless the civilian intelligence and law enforcement agencies and the Armed Forces wholeheartedly collaborate in a stretched wholesale attack against the militants of all ilks, we cannot have peace in this country. In the absence of a wholesale approach in attacking it, the TTP will step up its attacks in the urban centers, as we have witnessed in the recent weeks. They are well entrenched in all urban areas outside of Punjab, whereas the largely rural Southern Punjab provides the militant groups a haven to train and reconnoiter. The recent news-articles in WSJ and other international publications have amply described how the Taliban are tightening their noose around the country’s economic jugular – Karachi. The much-touted current operation –largely targeted at the anti-fundamentalism MQM- has made Taliban’s entrenchment in the city deeper and their advances easier. WSJ explains how the Taliban now control one-third of the Megapolis. It seems there was a secret agreement between the government and Taliban as both the MQM and the ANP stress that during the five-months of this operation the banned outfits have emerged as better organized, more entrenched, and stronger.
This whole thing has turned into a mockery of Pakistan, with the Taliban running circles round the country’s government. The Taliban accept the responsibility of various terror attacks with a disdain that pours scorn on our government’s and politicians’ eagerness to placate the Taliban. The longer we shun this fight, the higher the cost for the country and its hapless people, especially those being targeted by the TTP and its cohorts. Sooner or later, this war will be upon or else the Taliban will control the country.
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Pakistan: Islamabad a safe place?

By Wednesday, the capital city Islamabad had become as dangerous a place to live as Mogadishu or Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic. 'The capital city was at a high risk... It has sleeper cells of members of banned organisations including al Qaeda, TTP and LeJ', said the director general of National Crisis Management Cell of the Interior Ministry as he briefed a committee of the National Assembly. Not those other places in the country were less dangerous and relatively secure against terrorism, they too are unsafe and dangerous to live in given the looming threat of terrorism all over the country, he added as he dished out graphic detail on the ubiquitous presence of the terrorist outfits. No surprise the otherwise self-assured residents of Islamabad enjoying a relatively longer terror-free ambience felt fear passing down their spines, setting off frantic phone calls to each other over the deceptive calm the city guardians had obtained for some time. In some cases, the foreigners living outside of the Red Zone asked the private security agencies to increase the strength of guards on their gates.
There was the painful hark to the past when terrorists attacked a five-star hotel, blasted the city markets and carried out assassinations of a federal minister and a provincial governor. But then something happened; the very next day the same city was declared the most secure and safe city in the country - by none else but Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali. No foreign agency was at works in Islamabad, nor there are so-called sleeper cells of terrorists in the city, he told reporters. But he did concede having received a number of calls from foreigners who were 'scared by the impression of the threat to the city'. As to why all this panic was created by his ministry, because 'the threat perceptions concept could only be comprehended by people having an understanding of the technical language'. May be so, if one were to believe that the residents of Islamabad live on another planet where there are no terrorists and what does the expression 'sleeper cells' mean. Give us a break Mr Minister, it is you who owes an explanation as what happened that the same Islamabad which a day before was under thick shadow of terrorism had come out in the sunlight of peace and tranquillity in just 24 hours. Is it that the interior minister and his team are not on the same page and speak from two different tongues on an issue as critical as the menace of terrorism? Of course, Chaudhry Nisar needs to put his own house in order. And also there the work cut out for the members of the National Assembly committee who were fed his blatantly contradictory perspective on national security. If the minister is correct and the National Crisis Management Cell head was incorrect the parliament is supposed to move against the person who led its committee up the garden path.
Lies could not be and should not be told by the government functionaries to the members of parliament. Maybe - there is this minority point of view - the interior ministry had acted the way it did to mentally prepare the general public for the military action against the terrorist hideouts in the restive tribal region. And once the action was over the minister thought it proper that he should dispel the fears the report to the NA committee had generated. But irrespective of the design and intention behind this quick somersault the impression begins to form that even today, almost after a decade of suffering at the hands of terrorists, what we have at hands in terms of a national security policy is nothing but a few time-serving gimmicks. What an irony; the government remains confused and tentative while its nemesis the terrorists are dead on spot. Certainly this is that crucial aspect of psychological warfare where the government is always on the back foot. And this got to change and change without losing a day more. The upcoming sessions of the National Assembly and the Senate we hope the government would pass the long-delayed national security policy.