Wednesday, March 18, 2015

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UN: IS Appears To Have Presence In Afghanistan

The top UN envoy in Afghanistan says recent reports indicate the Islamic State (IS) extremist group has moved into Afghanistan.
Nicholas Haysom was speaking to the UN Security Council on March 16.
He said the UN mission's assessment is that IS has not stuck "firm roots" in Afghanistan.
However, Haysom said IS had the potential "to offer an alternative flagpole to which otherwise isolated insurgent splinter groups can rally."
Haysom's view was echoed by Russia, which urged the Security Council to stop the militant group's expansion.
Russian Deputy UN Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov said Moscow is worried about what he said was an increased terrorist threat in Afghanistan, especially in the formerly quiet north bordering former Soviet republics in Central Asia that he called Russia's friends and allies.
The two were speaking on March 16 at the start of a meeting during which the Security Council voted unanimously to extend the mandate of the UN mission in Afghanistan until March 17, 2016.
Afghanistan's UN Ambassador Zahir Tanin agreed that there are reports of Islamic State militants group penetrating more areas including Afghanistan, "but the main enemy we face is the Taliban that continue to fight against us."
He added that there may also be "some splinter groups with more extreme orientations."
Safronkov said extremists in the north are actively engaging in propaganda activities and recruiting, and were setting up camp.
The resolution adopted by the council calls on the Afghan government, with help from the international community, to continue to tackle threats from the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, other extremist groups, and drug traders. It does not mention the Islamic State militant group by name.
In its resolution extending the UN mission in Afghanistan, the Security Council stressed the importance of an "Afghan led and Afghan-owned" political process to support reconciliation for all those who renounce violence, have no link to terrorist groups, and respect the constitution including the rights of women.
Tanin said the peace and reconciliation process was the government's first priority, especially "when violence affects increasing numbers of civilians and when the crippling triple threat of terrorism, extremism, and criminality threatens to undermine the future of the Afghan people and the wider region."

The Uncertain Fight Ahead for Afghanistan

Ghani’s Gambit - Can Afghanistan and Pakistan Ever Get Along?

President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan is taking a risk most leaders would shun: He is proposing to improve Afghanistan’s contentious relations with Pakistan in the hope of paving the way toward both peace with the Taliban and regional economic cooperation. Much of the Afghan public is skeptical, because Pakistan has long treated Afghanistan like a client state. Mr. Ghani will need to show results fast.
The U.S. government should do its utmost to support him when he comes to Washington on an official visit next week. For the United States, the stakes are greater than whether President Obama can extract American troops by the end of his term without destabilizing Afghanistan.
Mr. Ghani is hoping the Pakistani government will respond to his efforts by curtailing the military capacity of the Afghan Taliban, whose leaders have sought refuge in Pakistan, and pressing them into entering negotiations with the Afghan government and eventually giving up their armed struggle. The objective is to make the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan more open and more secure and then help “connect South Asia to Central Asia,” as Mr. Ghani put it during his first trip to Pakistan last fall.
“Alone we can strive,” he said, addressing a group of Afghan and Pakistani business leaders, “Together we will thrive, and let’s thrive together.”
Afghanistan and Pakistan have been at odds over borders and other issues since the creation of Pakistan in 1947. But Mr. Ghani’s recent overtures try to address some of Pakistan’s concerns. He has suspended a request by the Afghan government to purchase heavy arms from India, of which Pakistan has long been wary. He has sent Afghan cadets to study at the Pakistani military academy. He has offered Pakistan unprecedented cooperation on military and intelligence matters.
Mr. Ghani has also offered Pakistani investors generous access to Afghanistan, including free industrial zones. In November, the Afghan and Pakistani governments agreed to a detailed list of proposals to promote trade, including the opening of 15 new crossing points along their shared border, even though Afghanistan has long disputed its legitimacy.

When I visited Pakistan last month, I was amazed at the change of attitude expressed by Afghan and Pakistani officials alike. I have worked on the region for over three decades — including as adviser to the U.N. special representative of the secretary general for Afghanistan in 2001 and as adviser to the U.S. State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009-2013 — and it was the first time I heard both sides describe the relationship in hopeful terms. The officials said the Pakistani military had told the senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban living in Pakistan that they had to talk to the Afghan government or lose their freedom to operate in Pakistan.
What’s more, these changes in Afghan-Pakistani relations are occurring against the background of a more favorable regional environment than ever before. The withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan combined with the international community’s continued commitment to assisting the Afghan government, the possibility that tensions between the United States and Iran may ease if a nuclear deal succeeds, and China’s increased engagement with the region all offer the promise of concrete benefits if Afghanistan and Pakistan cooperate with each other.
China, after decades of developing exports from its coastal regions, is investing in its interior and western parts. Linking this landlocked area to foreign markets requires massive investment in infrastructure beyond China. President Xi Jinping is seeking to create a Silk Road Economic Belt through Central Asia, an economic corridor through Pakistan and a maritime Silk Road through the Indian Ocean.
To support this new growth strategy, Beijing is encouraging ethnic Chinese workers and professionals to resettle in western China. This has created tensions between the government and the indigenous Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang, and generated inter-ethnic clashes and terrorist incidents. Uighur militants have gone to fight in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria, and the Chinese government has grown increasingly concerned that militancy in Afghanistan threatens its internal security.
As a result, China has made clear to its close friend and ally Pakistan that it opposes seeing the Taliban rule Afghanistan again and instead favors a political settlement under which the Taliban would demobilize and integrate into the political mainstream. Since last fall the Chinese government has held several meetings with Taliban officials urging them to negotiate, and has reportedly offered China as a venue for talks.
The U.S. government, for its part, has already taken steps to facilitate negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. In addition to announcing the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, it has removed the names of some Taliban leaders from a Bush administration-era blacklist. It has supported differentiating the U.N. sanctions that apply to Al Qaeda from those that apply to the Taliban, so as to allow the lifting of travel bans on members of the Taliban. Washington has also transferred some Taliban leaders from the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar.
The U.S. government must further strengthen Mr. Ghani’s negotiating position. For example, it could transfer to the Afghan government the Afghan detainees still held at Guantánamo. Mr. Ghani has asked the Chinese and U.S. governments to cooperate on Afghanistan, and they have started to do so through embryonic joint assistance programs and increased diplomatic coordination. Washington should do more still, including publicly committing to take account of China’s plans in the region as it develops its own regional infrastructure project, the New Silk Road initiative, to better connect Afghanistan to Central Asia, Pakistan and India.
Mr. Ghani’s recent diplomatic overtures — toward the Taliban, Pakistan and China — are a chance for Washington finally to engage with Afghanistan not just as a source of threats, but also as a land of opportunities.

Pakistan - Left with no choice: APS students to sit for exams despite doctors’ warnings

Ninety-three days on, the wounds of Army Public School (APS) victims are still fresh. Flashbacks still haunt the survivors and rehabilitation is still under way. Yet in the middle of perhaps the most challenging times of their lives, the affected APS students confront another hurdle in shape of the looming board examinations. At the moment, the Secondary School Certificate (SSC) exams are scheduled for March 25 and 27 for grade nine and grade ten students respectively. There is no official or unofficial indication that APS students will be allowed to give these exams at a later date.
Perhaps not enough has been written and said about the post-traumatic stress disorder which students who witnessed the horrific ordeal of 16/12 are expected to suffer from – one way or the other. While some survivors of the horrific massacre have been able to recover from their physical injuries, others continue to battle both physical and psychological distress. Signs of both were quite visible with the 30 odd students who were brought to Aga Khan University Hospital (AKUH) in Karachi for medical assistance. Parents of some survivors who are still in Peshawar have reported symptoms of PTSD.
“Trauma of such nature affects the hippocampus (an area in the brain responsible for recollection of facts and knowledge)… which can lead to academic difficulties and poor performance in exams,” says the letter signed by AKUH Assistant Professor Dr Tania Nadeem from the psychiatry department. This document which has been given to the students under treatment at AKUH is addressed to the federal board of education, Peshawar Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education, the chief of army staff and the APS administration.
“Appearing for board exams in the near future will be extremely stressful to them and may even be detrimental to their coping and long-term recovery,” added the letter, a copy of which is available with The Express Tribune. The psychiatrist has further recommended a change of learning regimes, assessment based on previous performance rather than coercing the victims to compete with children who prepared for their board examinations under normal circumstances.
Tenth grader Maaz Irfan is one of the fortunate students who managed to escape alive from the hell that struck the school auditorium. His right hand and arm are yet to recover fully and he worries his health is deteriorating by the day. With fresh check-ups scheduled at AKUH for the week of March 23, he does not know how he will appear for the exams in Peshawar.
Twelfth grader Aamir Mehboob has been discharged and has returned to Peshawar and will continue his treatment at Combined Military Hospital. “I don’t know what will come of my exams. My college applications are also due,” Mehboob told The Express Tribune over the telephone.
The evident psychological duress of these students appears rather too trivial to authorities who, according to insiders, refuse to “disrupt the entire system” in order to facilitate schoolboys who suffered at the hands of terrorism. According to clinical psychologist Nida Khan, a lack of legislation has resulted in the marginalisation of psychological care in Pakistan.
A copy of the letter issued by AKUH Psychiatry Department.
APS exam cell in charge Waqarullah Khattak said the only concern at this point is the students who wish to withdraw and not appear for board exams voluntarily. He said students Sartaj Aziz, Obaid Sajid, Sadat Siraj, Hasan bin Qaiser and Irteza Bakhmal in SSC and Aamir Mehboob and Waheed Anjum in FSc, will have replacements write for them while they dictate the answers.
However, Khattak disagreed with the recommendations of AKUH and said the students are “quite capable” of appearing for the exams. “SSC exams are scheduled to begin from March while FSc exams are expected to start in April,” he said.
Lack of will
While talking to The Express Tribune, former K-P minister for education and ANP parliamentary leader Sardar Hussain Babak said the entire issue is based on trivial bureaucratic procedures and a lack of political will. “The problem can be resolved with a mere stroke of a pen,” he maintained.
‘Ball is in their court’
Federal Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education, Islamabad Controller Examinations Qasim Ali Kazmi said the board has facilitated the school administration with whatever they have requested. “Any medical reports or doctors’ recommendations are not in my knowledge. If the school sends a request, we will take it up with the federal ministry and act accordingly,” he said.
K-P Minister for Education Muhammad Atif could not be reached despite repeated attempts.

Pakistan - Polio enigma

Despite a major ongoing offensive against the Taliban, there is no end to attacks on polio vaccination workers who pluck up courage to carry out this risky mission. Since December 2012, a total of 71 such casualties have been reported across the country. The death toll rose further on Tuesday, March 17, when a two-member team of polio workers escorted by a policeman came under fire by militants from a nearby mountaintop in Mansehra. The two lady health workers and policeman were killed in the ambush. This killing spree has been going on in the country since the Taliban launched a revenge campaign against Dr Shakil Afridi, who was allegedly hired by the CIA to trace out al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden through a fake vaccination campaign. In another unfortunate incident, the Taliban also killed the lawyer who had defended Afridi in court. “Samiullah Afridi had represented his case that is why we decided to eliminate him when we cannot approach Dr Shakil.” This was the statement accepting responsibility for the murder by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Jamaatul Ahrar spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan. Although the victim lawyer had abandoned the case almost one year ago and gone abroad because of threats to his life and that of his family, yet the terrorists shot him dead after his return. The terrorists are not only killing innocent health workers but also spreading negative propaganda against the polio vaccination campaign. Rumours were spread that polio vaccination drops were part of a western plot to sterilise Muslims. Uninformed people easily became a prey to such conspiracy theories. Resultantly, many have been hesitant about administering polio drops to their children.

This situation has led to Pakistan becoming the largest reservoir of the polio virus while India, which has a population seven times larger, has been successful in completely eradicating this disease. The government has failed to protect health workers and refute the rubbishy theories about the polio vaccination. Some serious efforts are required to avert this horrible phenomenon that threatens the future of our children. The government needs to take stringent measures to ensure the security of health workers and polio vaccinators. Some positive steps were taken in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, especially when the government issued hundreds of arrest warrants for parents who refused to allow their children to be vaccinated. Along with measures to ensure the safety of health workers during polio vaccination campaigns, there is a need to give them more incentives because they do their jobs at the risk of their lives. If the situation is not controlled now, the chances are rife that Pakistan will be declared a pariah country and suffer extreme isolation in the international community. 

Christians in Pakistan are 'sitting ducks' for terrorist attacks

The former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, has called on the Pakistani government to send in the army to root out terrorists and said the United Nations must address the plight of persecuted Christians in the Islamic world.
Dr Michael Nazir-Ali's spoke to Christian Today in response to the bombings in Lahore at the weekend, in which 17 people were killed and nearly 80 injured.
Born in Pakistan, Nazir-Ali was Britain's first non-white diocesan bishop. Since stepping down from Rochester in 2009, he has served as president of the organisation Oxtrad, building up church leadership in countries where Christians are persecuted such as Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Nigeria, as well as working in advocacy and human rights.
He is visiting Pakistan this Friday to teach at the Forman Christian College in Lahore, a theological college attended by equal numbers of Muslims as Christians.
Before leaving, he made an urgent plea for immediate protection for churches, communities, schools and hospitals: "There is such a lot that the Christian community does in Pakistan, in spite of the terrible persecution and discrimination that it suffers. All of these are sitting ducks for any kind of terrorist to do whatever they like. All of these places are used by large numbers of people."
Protection had to go beyond the police and to involve the military and even the army, he added. "It is a daunting task. It is easier to say than to do."
Nazir-Ali, who was ordained in 1976, worked in Lahore in the community where Sunday's bombings took place, as well as in Karachi. He was the first Bishop of Raiwind in West Punjab, and the youngest bishop in the Anglican Communion, when he was granted refuge in England in 1986 when his life was at risk, thanks to the intervention of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie.
Just 2 per cent of Pakistan's population is Christian but large numbers live in Lahore.
"There are scores of churches there of every kind and a very large Christian population," he said. "The government of Pakistan really needs to deal decisively with terrorism, not with one hand tied behind its back, not with qualifications or distinguishing between one extremist group or another. This has to be done decisively, once and for all, not just for the sake of the Christians but for everyone in the country."
Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslim minorities are also persecuted in Pakistan.
The roots are political, he said. Sunday's bombings were by a Taliban offshoot, and the Taliban were tolerated in Pakistan for a long time because they were seen as an insurance policy against an India-friendly government in Afghanistan. Extremists have also been tolerated because of their role in furthering the Kashmiri separatist movement.
Nazir-Ali said: "I can see the government's interest in having a friendly government in Afghanistan but this cannot be in any way at the expense of the security of the nation itself." The government now has no choice but to deal decisively with all extremists, he said.
The problems were exacerbated by a background of the teaching of "hate" in madrassas and sometimes even in mosques, the bishop added. "This must be stopped. These text books must be revised." They were already being phased out in many places, but this needed to be accelerated, he said. "There has to be reform of religious education as a whole. If people grow up with a teaching of hate, not everyone will carry out terrorist attacks but it makes them more likely."
Finally, he called for the United Nations Security Council and the United Nations Human Rights Council to address formally the plight of Christians in the Islamic world.
"Persecution of Christians is now systemic. There are large numbers involved. What is happening to them is horrific. If this had happened to any other group, it would have caused international intervention many times over."

Pakistan's Christian community - Not Just Another Mob

The violent reaction from the Christian community following the twin church bombings in Lahore cannot be justified or excused, but it can certainly be explained and most importantly, understood. This was not the first time the minority community came under attack. Terrorist organisations, spontaneous mobs, religious groups and individuals from the majority faith have targeted them in a series of incidents spread over decades. But never before has any assault on the minority community led to lynching and riots as witnessed in Lahore and other parts of Punjab. This is the same community that cancelled Christmas celebrations in the wake of the APS Peshawar incident. Why has this community, which has historically refrained from violence despite consistent persecution, reacted in such uncharacteristic fashion this time? Why do the victims seem to be behaving like their aggressors when they remain on the receiving end?
It is a clear indication of the erosion of trust between the Christian community and the state. It seems they are convinced that the government is unwilling and to an extent, incapable of providing security or holding culprits accountable. They have learnt this from experience. The latest attack has proven to be a test of their patience, and they’re lashing out in frustration. This is different from a neighbourhood cleric riling up a crowd of protestors on a matter of religious principle that presents the aggrieved party with no bodily harm. The Christian community has dead bodies and amputated limbs to show for its outrage. It is not a matter of perceived offences or ideological disagreements, but that of direct victimisation and injustice. While it is necessary to hold those involved in lynching and rioting accountable under law, it is important to understand that it is lawlessness and impunity for their aggressors, which has created the current scenario. Unless the government doesn’t fulfill its responsibility, it will only have more victims-turned-aggressors to deal with.
The government can of course always be expected to make the worst of a bad situation. It is unwise of Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan and others to rile up the issue of lynching, even though it is a heinous crime, because it allows an intolerant majority greater arsenal for justifying its own violence. When a clash between a Christian mob and a Muslim mob appeared imminent, the Punjab government had to call in Rangers to control law and order. This shows that they understand the gravity of the situation. But their statements reveal that they really don’t, and the decision had more to do with their lack of faith in the police. The government is advised to maintain presence of law enforcement agencies in Youhanabad and other sensitive areas until tensions go down. Certain people and groups may instigate violence and attempt to lead mobs to Christian neighbourhoods. The government must prevent further clashes and choose its words wisely.

Pakistan - PPP delegation visits victims of Youhanabad bomb blasts, expresses solidarity with Christians

As per direction of the Mian Manzoor Ahmed Wattoo, President PPP Central Punjab, a representative delegation of the PPP Punjab visited General Hospital, Lahore, today to convey the best wishes of Chairman Bilawal Bhutto, Co-Chairman Asef Ali Zardari and Mian Manzoor Ahmed Wattoo, for the persons of the Christian community who were injured in the abhorrent terrorist attack on Youhannabad Churches the other day.
The members of the delegation presented bouquets to the wounded persons on behalf of the Party top leadership and prayed for their early recovery.
The delegation also enquired about the health of the injured police constable and paid rich tributes to the bravery of him and his martyred colleagues who successfully prevented the entry of suicide bombers into the Churches and thus saved hundreds of precious lives of Christian community.
The PPP delegation included, Jahanara M Wattoo, Head S Media Punjab, Raja Amir Khan Information Secretary Punjab, Haider Zaman Qureshi Senior Vice President South Punjab, Dewan Ghulam Mohiuddin Dy Gen Sec, Sohial Malik Vice President Punjab, Allama Yousaf Awan President Ulma Wing, Mian Abdul Waheed, Junaid Qaiser, Ahsan Abbas Rizvi, Ali Asghar Awan, Aamir Sohail Butt, Mujtaba Subhani, Dr Ajmal Khan, Giffson Sabir, Usman Awan and representatives of the PPP minorities wing visited General Hospital today and inquired about the health of victims of Youhanabad incident and presented them bouquets. Haider Zaman Qureshi represented Makhdoom Ahmed Mehmood president South Punjab.
The delegation strongly condemned the twin suicide attacks on churches at Youhanabad, which claimed 15 innocents lives and injured scores of people on Sunday. And expressed grief and sorrow over the lost of innocent lives as well as expressed solidarity with the deceased families and prayed for the early recovery of the injured. The delegation maintained that the Pakistani nation is standing with its Christian brethren in their hour of difficulty.
Talking to media after inquiring about health of the injured, Jahanara M Wattoo said that the religious minorities in Punjab was victim of terrorism because of the anti-minorities policies of the PMLN. She said that the PPP was with their Christian brethrens in the time of grief and sorrow and was standing with the Christian brethrens over this tragic incident. She has demanded the Punjab government to take immediate action against those responsible for this dastardly attack against vulnerable Pakistani citizens in their places of worship.