Saturday, March 21, 2015

Music Video - Michael Jackson - Beat It

Video - Western powers stress unity in Iran talks, "won't do bad deal"

Video - Anti-War Protesters March in DC

Video - First Lady Michelle Obama Gives Remarks at a Peace Corps Training

President Obama's Weekly Address: It’s Time to Confirm Loretta Lynch

U.S. May Stay in Afghanistan After '16

A White House official on Friday appeared to leave open the possibility that American troops could remain in Afghanistan after President Obama leaves office, in what would be a marked shift from the administration’s insistence that only a small force based at the embassy in Kabul would remain after 2016.
With the Taliban insurgency still raging, the administration has been weighing options to slow the pullout of the roughly 10,000 American troops and thousands of contractors in Afghanistan. The number of troops was supposed to be cut by almost half at the end of this year, but officials have said in recent days that Mr. Obama was nearing a decision to keep much of the current force in place well into next year to continue training and advising Afghan forces.
While most officials have said that the 2016 deadline for a pullout remains firm, Jeff Eggers, a senior National Security Council official, said Friday that discussions about what to do in the next year or so would lead to a decision about what to do in 2017, “given the intent to maintain this ongoing dialogue” with the Afghan government.
However, he added, “it still remains the intent to consolidate and complete the retrograde down to a Kabul-based security cooperation office mission in 2017.” Retrograde is a military term for the withdrawal of troops and matériel.
Separately, Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the council, said, “President Obama has not opened the door to anything larger than an embassy force after 2016.”
Mr. Eggers’s comments are in line with what other officials say is being debated within the administration, even if Mr. Obama’s focus is currently on what to do next year, not afterward.
Like so many of the plans for Afghanistan laid out in Washington since the war’s outset in 2001, realities on the ground appear to again be forcing American officials to consider revamping their strategy for ending the war.
Peace talks appear to be a far-off possibility after a stretch in February and early March in which it appeared that the Taliban might be willing to meet with the Afghan government. So instead of talking about how to end the war, Afghan and American officials are preparing for violence to intensify as the snow melts in the high passes that separate the insurgents from their safe havens in Pakistan and what is known as the fighting season gets underway.
Afghan forces, which have done the bulk of the fighting and dying over the past two years, are still very much a work in progress. They managed to keep the Taliban from making significant gains last summer only with help from the American-led coalition.
The resilience of the remaining fighters from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan has also surprised the Obama administration. Officials say that many of the roughly 2,000 troops currently dedicated to counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan are going to be needed well into next year, and that a larger force will allow for bases crucial to combating Al Qaeda and collecting intelligence in southern and eastern Afghanistan to remain open.
The decision to slow the withdrawal in 2016 — and the debate about what to do in 2017 — is not being driven solely by grim battlefield assessments. Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, has proved to be a far more willing partner with the United States since he took over from Hamid Karzai in September, and American officials say they want to give him as much help as they can.
Mr. Ghani is making his first trip to Washington as president next week, and plans for the coming years are expected to be the focus of his meetings with Mr. Obama and other officials.
There is “a clearly positive vision now for Afghanistan that President Ghani holds,” Mr. Eggers said Friday. American officials are determined to “seize the qualitatively different relationship and that more positive vision,” he said.
Mr. Eggers added that Mr. Obama and Mr. Ghani have begun discussing Afghanistan’s desire for more “flexibility” in the American drawdown plans for 2016.
“It’s a wise move not to be boxed into a corner and commit to leaving,” said Seth Jones, an Afghanistan expert at the RAND Corporation.
Still, former officials close to the Obama administration have sought to portray any residual presence in Afghanistan as in line with the president’s desire to leave office having ended the two wars he inherited in 2009.
“The president wants his legacy to be ending overly long, overly costly and inadequately effective wars,” Vikram Singh, a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration.
Mr. Singh said that having a longer-term troop presence in the country does not necessarily mean that the United States would be “at war” in Afghanistan, citing American military training missions in Uganda and the Philippines that have gone on for years.

Pakistan's selective hangings: A means to harass opponents?

Shamil Shams
Pakistan has hanged 21 people in the past two days, taking the toll to 48 since a moratorium on the death penalty was lifted in December. Experts say the government is executing opponents in the garb of fighting terror.
When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government decided to resume capital punishment four months ago, it justified the move by claiming it was a much-needed step to curb terrorism in the country. The government officials argued that fast-track executions were necessary to combat extremist attacks. There was also considerable support among the public for the lifting of the unofficial moratorium, which had lasted between 2008 and 2014.
The decision followed the Taliban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar on December 16 which shocked and horrified the nation. The militants' assault and siege of the school left more than 130 children dead. The people demanded the strictest action from the government and the resumption of executions was claimed to be one of the many actions required to punish the terrorists.
However, most of the people whom the government hanged in the first months of this year were not involved in the Peshawar massacre. Instead, they carried out failed assassination attempts on former president and army chief, Pervez Musharraf, who is currently detained on treason charges. At the same time, a number of incarcerated militants, including Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, a key suspect in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, are still alive and are yet to stand trial.
On Tuesday, March 10, the government went a step further and lifted the moratorium on the death penalty in all capital cases, thus strengthening criticism that Islamabad was not serious in punishing the Taliban and other jihadists.
'A knee-jerk reaction'
More than 8,000 Pakistanis, including juveniles, are currently on death row, according to rights group Amnesty International (AI), which has sharply condemned the recent executions.
"Amongst those executed was Muhammad Afzal, who was 16 years old when he was sentenced to death," AI said in a press release on March 17. "Pakistan is turning itself into one of the world's top executioners – a shameful club no country should aspire to join. The government must immediately re-impose the moratorium on the death penalty with a view to its eventual abolition," it added.
Shafqat Hussain, a minor, was to be hanged on March 19 for a crime he allegedly committed when he was 14 years old, however, after an aggressive civil society campaign the government decided to put his execution on hold.
In a DW interview, Amnesty International's Deputy Asia Pacific Director, David Griffiths, says that by expanding the scope of the death penalty further and opening up for executions of non-terror convicts, Pakistan is using the death penalty as a quick-fix solution to tackling crime, when in reality there is no evidence to support that it works as a deterrent.
"Lifting the full moratorium on the death penalty is a highly regressive move by the Pakistani government, which could potentially put thousands of death row inmates' lives at risk. Sadly, the authorities have since turned to the death penalty in a knee-jerk reaction to try to combat 'terrorism.'
By expanding the scope of the death penalty further and opening up for executions of non-terror convicts, Pakistan is making the same mistake we see many governments repeating - using the death penalty as a quick-fix solution to tackling crime, when in reality there is no evidence to support this claim," said Griffiths.
Political victimization?

He also said that the decision to lift the moratorium was imposed on the civilian government by the military leadership: "The proof is that the people who have been hanged so far are those who attacked the military headquarters in Rawalpindi, Pervez Musharraf, or other military officials. So the hanging is controlled by the military and not the civilian government," Shah told DW.Islamabad-based civil society activist and researcher, Salim Shah, fears that after hanging a few criminals the government will go after political opponents.
On the other hand, the analyst argues that the authorities are reluctant to execute Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated the former governor of the Punjab province, Salman Taseer, in 2011. "His hanging would actually go against the Islamic ideology of the state. Qadri, who should have been sent to the gallows by now, is getting all privileges in prison and the media is silent about it," Shah said, adding that not a single Taliban commander had been hanged so far.
"My worry is that they (the authorities) will hang or use the hanging as a means to harass political opponents such as the nationalists in the western Balochistan province, or other political parties that are disliked by the military," he added.
Some activists point out to the case of Saulat Mirza, an alleged activist of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party, which has a strong hold on Pakistan's economic hub, Karachi. Mirza was convicted in murder cases in the late 1990s and has been in jail for the past 15 years. He was scheduled to be put to death on Thursday, March 19, but his hanging has now been postponed after he accused MQM chief Altaf Hussain of ordering him to assassinate political rivals – a confession he made on a video.
Observers say the government is using Mirza's execution to intimidate the MQM and to pave the way for an all-out military operation against the party.

Balochistan - Urgent Steps Required To Tackle Drought Crisis

Balochistan is home to several problems and the most recent problem to have surfaced is a drought. Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) has stated that 29 out of 32 districts of Balochistan are facing drought conditions due to fewer rainfalls last year. The scale of the impact of this drought can be catastrophic for people living in rural areas of the province. Unfortunately, neither Balochistan government nor Pakistani media has given due attention to this grave problem.
According to statistics provided by the irrigational department of Balochistan, 80% of the farmland in Balochistan is rain-fed. When less rainfall takes place during a season then it reduces the quantity of agriculture production. These products include food items such as corn, wheat and hay which is consumed by livestock. Reduction in growth of these items not only results in food shortage for Humans but livestock also starves to death. This has been the case in Noshki district of Balochistan where approximately 25 percent of the livestock has died due to lack of sufficient fodder.
Balochistan experienced a severe drought from 1997 to 2005. That drought proved to be calamity and resulted in deaths of 1.76 million livestock. According to PDMA, Rs. 25 billion was the amount of estimated damages caused by the previous drought. People of the affected areas became victims of acute malnutrition and it resulted in several deaths.
Interestingly, Agriculture is the source of livelihood for 80% people in the province. A drought would effectively destroy the economic backbone of the province. The prices of important food items would soar up and there would be a shortage of food, especially in rural areas. Death of livestock would result in increasing the prices of meat and milk multifold and that in turn will generate an excessive inflation in the province. Economically, people of Balochistan general are not doing well at the moment but after this drought poverty will further rise and so would the social evils and violence. In short, if relief operations are not conducted on time, Balochistan is all set to drift into a major catastrophic crisis of mythical proportions.
Unfortunately, disaster management and planning bodies of the Balochistan didn’t make any preparations for a new drought. As a result, PDMA is ill-equipped and under-prepared to conduct a timely need-assessment of the possible damage let alone conducting relief operations. Government of Balochistan announced Rs. 1 billion for Need assessment and emergency relief for drought victims. So far, not a single penny has been used for helping the drought victims of Balochistan. Negligence of PDMA and indifference of Balochistan government is compounding the problem that people face in the form of forthcoming devastating drought.
This issue is extremely critical in nature and requires the foremost attention of the provincial and federal governments. Balochistan government in aid with federal government should immediately release funds for the drought victims. Need assessment of the Drought affected areas should be completed on war footings and relief activities started right away. Government should provide subsidized fodder to the cattle owners so that livestock in millions can be prevented from perishing. Medical teams should be sent to the affected regions for treatment of humans as well as cattle. These steps to some extent can minimize the impact of possible damage that would be caused by this drought.
The aforementioned steps can be useful in reducing the impact of drought but it’s only a short term solution. Next year if there are fewer rainfalls again, then all problems will re-emerge. There needs to be a permanent solution for this problem. Firstly, government needs to build dams where rain water can be stored. This will help in raising the water table and preventing a drought like situation. Federal government has announced to allocate Rs. 30 Billion for dams in Balochistan. Based on past experience, it’s less likely that dams would be constructed on time and in proper way. Construction would be delayed by years and poor quality construction material would be used due to commission mafia prevalent in Balochistan. Therefore, a separate oversight mechanism should be developed before commencement of work on these dams. These dams should be treated as extraordinary projects due to the purpose that they will serve.
Improvement in the capacity of disaster management setup of Balochistan is the second thing that should be done. PDMA should be restructured and given the status of semi-autonomous institute. This can help in getting out of the shackles of corrupt bureaucratic structure of the province. Apart from that PDMA needs to improve its capacity to conduct need assessment and carry out relief operations. These steps can’t be done overnights and therefore require political commitment and priority.
Unfortunately, Dr. Malik government has proved its inability more than once to show political resolve. Rather than wasting precious resources on publicity stunts such as sports festivals, government needs to prioritize the issue of drought. Any minor negligence on the part of provincial government will result in severe humanitarian crisis that will have repercussions for entire region.

Pakistan - Protecting Minorities

The attack on the Bohra community mosque is a stark reminder of the cost we have to pay for the struggle against extremism. The fact that a counter-attack was expected is no consolation to the grieving relatives of the victims, nor should it be presented as such. The state should be doing all it can to mitigate the fallout of their actions, especially since the militants have clearly displayed their mode of reprisal; attacks on minorities. In 2015 alone, a church and three imambargahs have been bombed, while the second half of the previous year saw attacks on Hindus, Ahmedis and Sikhs. 
Admittedly, the government can’t be expected to stop every possible attack, but it can be expected to focus its resources once it has discovered the enemy’s intentions. So far the security given to minority places of worship has been increased from before, but that is part of the overall beefing up of security around sensitive buildings under NAP. The government has taken no special precautions such as the ones it took to secure schools after the APS attack. Much more so than this, the government’s failure to contain and pre-empt the fallout of such sectarian violence is a cause for serious concern; one that if not addressed, can lead to greater instability. 
The Taliban counter-attack was expected, but the Talban’s conflict is with the military and it makes strategic sense to target the other combatant’s military installations. Yet, the majority of the attacks target minority civilians. Although this kind of violence may satisfy ideological motivations, at a time when the Taliban factions are coming under pressure, their actions must be motivated by survival.  Once one considers the Youhanabad riots, a glimpse of the desired result, and how it helps them survive can be seen. If the minorities are constantly targeted, at one point they will take up arms to defend themselves on their own, be it in the form of the Youhanabad riots, an outpouring of mob violence, or the assassinations of ASWJ members as an organised group. More importantly, it forces minorities to retreat within their own communities and further isolates them from the majority. These fault lines are being used by extremists to push their agendas. It may have escaped the attention of the mainstream media, but the Youhanabad riots have prompted a stream of extremist propaganda by sectarian groups inciting majority Sunnis against Christian communities. The state needs to check the build-up of such sectarian atmospheres if it wants to turn this war against terrorism into a sustainable peace.

Pakistan - Operation Karachi

How things have changed in the country’s biggest metropolis, commercial and industrial hub and the stronghold of the MQM. Starting with the Rangers raid on Nine Zero, the powers that be seem to be gathering force and strength to cut the MQM down to size. But unlike the operations against the party in the 1990s, this time the orchestrated strategy seems more subtle, defendable and far more effective. Basically, through the exposure of Nine Zero as a safe haven for criminals and wanted elements and a reservoir of illegal weapons, and the ‘confessions’ of Saulat Mirza, the MQM has been put badly on the defensive, struggling to hold its head above water, and probably desperately seeking remedies and damage control. Hit man Saulat Mirza’s allegations in particular have wounded MQM and its leadership to the quick. The MQM’s legal eagles have attempted to discredit Saulat Mirza’s confession as ‘a mockery of justice’ (given that it emerged hours before his execution and long after his appeals process had been exhausted) and inadmissible as evidence. That may be so, but there is no indication that the authorities seek to use his confession in a court of law. It is possible that their purpose is entirely different: to so sully the reputation of the MQM and its leadership that the party is laid open to further actions against it without the defence of ‘victimisation’ to hide behind. The events of the past few days have certainly put the cat among the pigeons as far as the clouds gathering over Karachi’s shoreline are concerned. The ground appears to have been cut from under the feet of the MQM, leaving it vulnerable and unable to deploy its usual ‘weapon’ of bringing Karachi to a shuddering halt. Of course the risk in this conjuncture is that the party, or its militant wing, may seek to ‘defend’ itself by force of arms. If any elements in the MQM are thinking along these lines, they would be advised not to contemplate going down what may be a disastrous path for the future of the party.

Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar is the soul of reticence in his public statements (including on the floor of the National Assembly) regarding the whole affair. He hints at giving the British High Commissioner proofs in the Imran Farooq murder case but discreetly refrains from indicating what those proofs are or what they show. It cannot be a mere coincidence that the High Commissioner, Philip Barton, has chosen to travel to London for consultations soon after his lengthy meeting with Chaudhry Nisar. At the same time, the minister is careful to make clear that no formal request regarding action against Altaf Hussain in London has been made. Perhaps this is wise because of the perception that the British authorities may not readily agree to any extraordinary measures against British citizen Altaf Hussain that go against the grain of British laws and traditions. Meanwhile reports say the government is contemplating reopening investigations into the murder of KESC MD Shahid Hamid after Saulat Mirza’s pointing the finger of accusation at no les than Altaf Hussain and Babar Ghauri. Saulat Mirza’s family house in Karachi has been ‘protected’ by police security soon after his video saw the light of day. And the exact circumstances, place and time the video was recorded has itself become a mystery after Balochistan Home Minister Mir Sarfaraz Ahmed Bugti said the video was not recorded in Macch Jail where Saulat Mirza is on death row. MQM Governor Sindh Ishratul Ibad has been at pains to deny the swirling rumours that he may resign (or be removed?). The MQM is boycotting the National Assembly and in a sulk while licking its wounds.

If Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and COAS General Raheel Sharif’s meeting on Thursday is tied to events in Karachi, as is being speculated, it spells on the one hand the determination of the authorities to finally grasp firmly the nettle of the MQM’s hold on Karachi, and on the other arguably the gravest crisis in the party’s colourful history.