Sunday, March 1, 2009

Gates calls Pakistan 'most worrisome'

WASHINGTON-- The "most worrisome" part of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan has become the havens the Taliban and other insurgents have carved out in neighboring Pakistan, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.

Gates said the United States had a similar perch in Pakistan when U.S. and Pakistani officials supported Afghanistan's mujahedeen rebels against the Soviet Union in the 1980s -- "and let me tell you, it made a big difference."

"I think as long as they have a safe haven to operate there, it's going to be a problem for us in Afghanistan," he told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

The Pentagon is in the process of sending an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, the original front in the "war on terrorism" sparked by the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. They will be tasked primarily with clamping down on that border, a military official with specific knowledge of the deployment told CNN earlier this month.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN's "State of the Union" the troops will also be there to safeguard the country's upcoming presidential election. But that mission could be jeopardized by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's recent call to move that vote up from August to April, Mullen said.

"I'm on a pretty tight timeline, right now, to get security forces there in order to provide the kind of security for the elections," he said. "And so moving those dates to the left certainly generates a higher level of risk with respect to security for those elections, which we want to be free and fair as well as secure."

Karzai was named the head of an interim Afghan government after the U.S.-led invasion that dislodged the Taliban, which ruled most of Afghanistan before the attacks and allowed al Qaeda to operate from its territory. He was elected to an interim term in 2002 and to a full term in 2004. That term ends in late May.

Karzai is the country's first popularly elected president and has said he intends to run for a second term. He argues that the Afghan constitution requires an election at least 30 days before the end of his term, but opposition groups are crying foul.

But Karzai may not have the authority to move up that vote, which an international commission set, Mullen said. He said the Karzai government's inability to improve security and public services have contributed to "the situation that we're in right now" -- where the Taliban and its allies, including al Qaeda, are on the offensive.

Meanwhile, the war is spilling over into Pakistan, where the Taliban have long had a foothold in the tribal areas along the mountainous border. Its supporters have been battling Pakistani troops in the region for more than two years, and the United States is believed to be responsible for periodic airstrikes that target suspected militant leaders.

Neither Gates nor Mullen would discuss those strikes, which Pakistani officials say are mostly conducted by armed surveillance drones. But Gates said Pakistan now believes the border area "is as big a risk to the stability of Pakistan as it is a problem for us in Afghanistan."

European, Pakistani and Afghan officials are taking part in the administration's strategy review, and the process could be done in "a few weeks," Gates said.

U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said the administration is "buying political time" by sending additional units to Afghanistan while it completes a new plan.

President Barack Obama was highly critical of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which he called a "strategic blunder" during the 2008 campaign. Because of that, Abercrombie said, "He's very, very wary of committing the same kind of tragic move in Afghanistan."

Obama can't afford to ignore immigration

Sunday, March 1, 2009
President Barack Obama, in his speech to Congress last week, painted a canvas of issues breathtaking in scope: creating jobs, rescuing banks, overhauling the health care system, reforming education, fixing Social Security and reversing the nation's direction on energy - all this year.In the 6,134-word speech, which briefly touched on Afghanistan and the Middle East, one crucial issue wasn't mentioned: immigration.
The agenda is so full that the political circuits may be overloaded. Some argue the urgency of the issue is eroding with the deteriorating economy. The number of illegal immigrants entering the United States has plunged - down to as few as 300,000 last year, or less than half of what it was several years ago - with more leaving now than arriving.And the politics are even tougher than in the last Congress, when the bipartisan effort of Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain and President George W. Bush exploded in emotional recriminations by Republicans and crass calculations by some Democrats. With joblessness having soared since then, it is tougher to argue that the economy needs these workers.Still, the notion that immigration can be finessed is a mirage. The problem will only get worse, and so will the politics. Obama, 47, a Democrat, would have to renege on his campaign promise to push a major immigration overhaul along the lines of the Kennedy-McCain measure in his first year.
The agriculture, food service and construction industries rely on immigrants. They are going through down times, but they'll need more immigrants when they bounce back.
That's true of the overall economy, says Tamar Jacoby, a scholar who favors an overhaul of the immigration system."Immigration reform may be harder in the middle of a recession, to make the case that we need more workers," Jacoby says. "But the only way out of a recession is to grow out of it, and we need workers to do that."
Even with the drop in the number of illegal immigrants - there are still an estimated 11.5 million in the country, or about 4 percent of the population - the social tensions are worsening. Highly publicized raids are disrupting communities and generating furious resentment among Hispanics.
The new Homeland Security secretary, Janet Napolitano, wasn't even notified of a raid in Washington State last week.
And 40 percent of inmates in federal prisons are Hispanic; half of them are in for committing immigration crimes, not because they are violent criminals, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, which is based in Washington. That's a huge cost to society
Given the full agenda, some say the White House should wait on immigration until after the next congressional elections in 2010. Doing so, Jacoby warns, would be a mistake. "Bush waited too long, and then he didn't have the juice."
Ironically, two Democrats who are now among the most critically situated on the issue, former Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois and Senator Charles Schumer of New York, were impediments in the last Congress, although both are advocates of immigration reform.
Emanuel worried that the issue would hurt House Democratic candidates in conservative districts, and Schumer clashed with Kennedy, the architect of the Senate bill, over strategy.Emanuel is now White House chief of staff, and Schumer has taken over the Senate's immigration subcommittee from Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who is focusing all his political efforts on health care.
Those two smart politicians no doubt appreciate a changed political landscape, with a bigger-than-expected Latino turnout last November."Both Schumer and Emanuel understand the 2008 election was a game-changer," says Frank Sharry, founder and director of the pro-immigration group America's Voice.Earlier fears that immigration had hurt Democrats in 2006 in an Illinois House race and a special election in Massachusetts were trumped by several dozen races in which immigration-bashing failed and advocates of Kennedy-McCain-type measures succeeded.Dramatic illustrations came in the heavily Hispanic states of New Mexico and Arizona. Three years ago, 9 of the 11 House members from those states were Republicans; today 8 of the 11 are Democrats, in large part because of Hispanic voters.The impact wasn't only in Western states. In places like Virginia and North Carolina, a smaller number of Hispanic voters provided winning margins.One incumbent Democrat whom House Republicans were confident of defeating last November was Representative Paul Kanjorski of Scranton, Pennsylvania. The Republican candidate was the mayor of Hazleton, whose local crackdown included fining landlords for renting to illegal immigrants and inspired a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. Yet on Election Day, Kanjorski survived.In the presidential race, McCain unfairly suffered, because the Republicans became identified as the anti-immigration party. Obama carried the Latino vote by better than 2-to-1, with a big turnout.
As an issue that divides constituencies, immigration is more of a problem for Republicans. Still, there are tensions among Democrats. Major elements in organized labor - mainly the AFL-CIO - are hostile to permitting more liberal procedures for future immigrants; deals will have to be struck.
It's instructive, however, that a driving force for action may be the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, who was lukewarm on the issue in the last Congress. Reid faces re-election in 2010 in Nevada, a state where Hispanics now account for almost a quarter of the total population. Those voters helped Obama win the state last November.
While the agenda that Obama laid out is stunning in its scope, the president and his politically astute chief of staff are likely to conclude that stalling isn't an option on immigration.
If so, advocates of immigration policy reform insist that they're ready. "I expect we'll have a come-to-Jesus moment in June, and Rahm will check on how many Republicans there are for the bill," says Sharry. "If there's any sign of economic stabilization, we'll be ready to go."

Girls being force-fed for marriage as junta revives fattening farms

Mauritanian women wait to vote, but since a coup last year their rights are being eroded and old customs such as fattening for marriage are back.Fears are growing for the fate of thousands of young girls in rural Mauritania, where campaigners say the cruel practice of force-feeding young girls for marriage is making a significant comeback since a military junta took over the West African country.Aminetou Mint Ely, a women's rights campaigner, said girls as young as five were still being subjected to the tradition of leblouh every year. The practice sees them tortured into swallowing gargantuan amounts of food and liquid - and consuming their vomit if they reject it."In Mauritania, a woman's size indicates the amount of space she occupies in her husband's heart," said Mint Ely, head of the Association of Women Heads of Households. ''We have gone backwards. We had a Ministry of Women's Affairs. We had achieved a parliamentary quota of 20% of seats. We had female diplomats and governors. The military have set us back by decades, sending us back to our traditional roles. We no longer even have a ministry to talk to." Mauritania has suffered a series of coups since independence from France in 1960. The latest, in August last year, saw General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz seize power after the elected president tried to sack him.A children's rights lawyer, Fatimata M'baye, echoed Ely's pessimism. "I have never managed to bring a case in defence of a force-fed child. The politicians are scared of questioning their own traditions. Rural marriages usually take place under customary law or are overseen by a marabou (a Muslim preacher). No state official gets involved, so there is no arbiter to check on the age of the bride." Yet, she said, Mauritania had signed both international and African treaties protecting the rights of the child.Leblouh is intimately linked to early marriage and often involves a girl of five, seven or nine being obliged to eat excessively to achieve female roundness and corpulence, so that she can be married off as young as possible. Girls from rural families are taken for leblouh at special "fattening farms" where older women, or the children's aunts or grandmothers, will administer pounded millet, camel's milk and water in quantities that make them ill. A typical daily diet for a six-year-old will include two kilos of pounded millet, mixed with two cups of butter, as well as 20 litres of camel's milk. "The fattening is done during the school holidays or in the rainy season when milk is plentiful," said M'baye. "The girl is sent away from home without understanding why. She suffers but is told that being fat will bring her happiness. Matrons use sticks which they roll on the girl's thighs, to break down tissue and hasten the process."Other leblouh practices include a subtle form of torture - zayar - using two sticks inserted each side of a toe. When a child refuses to drink or eat, the matron squeezes the sticks together, causing great pain. A successful fattening process will see a 12-year-old weigh 80kg. "If she vomits she must drink it. By the age of 15 she will look 30," said M'baye.Historians say the practice dates back to pre-colonial times when all Mauritania's white Moor Arabs were nomads. The richer the man, the less his wife would do - the preference being for her to sit still all day in her tent while her black slaves saw to household chores. Ancient Berber quatrains laud tebtath (stretchmarks) as jewels. Even today lekhwassar (fat around the waist) is given lyrical pride of place and girls sent for fattening gain the stature of mbelha. They are taught to sit in the lotus position, speak softly, use utensils and to emulate the exemplary lives of the Prophet Muhammad's wives. Fattening of girls is practised beyond Mauritania, in northern Mali and rural Niger - areas conquered, along with half of present-day Spain and Portugal, by the Almoravid dynasty in the 11th century. The practice of fattening also continues in Nigeria's Calabar state and north Cameroon.The resurgence of the practice in rural Mauritania is a depressing setback for campaigners after previous education and awareness campaigns were apparently having a tangible effect. "The challenge we face is that these girls live in rural areas and do not have access to information," said Ely. "Until the military coup last year, we had made strides. Ten years ago we ran information campaigns about the dangers of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The government even commissioned ballads condemning fattening." Many middle-class Mauritanians, among a population estimated at three million, claim the practice of force-feeding no longer exists.
Political scientist Mohamed el-Mounir, 38, claimed western influence had wiped out the allure of feminine fat. "Fattening is something from the 1950s. These days girls watch fashion shows on television. Their role models are American actresses or Lebanese singers in sexy dresses. Girls do sport. Yes, Mauritanian men like slightly round women. But there is no way we want them obese."Health and development consultant Mounina Mint Abdellah, 51, said she was force-fed as a child by her mother's family. "Things have changed tremendously. When I left school in 1980 it would have been unthinkable for me to go abroad to study. But now, 30 years later, my daughter is doing her master's degree in France. We owe a great deal to the fact that all girls are now expected to go to school. These changes have had a tremendous impact on ancestral practices. Fattening just seems out of date to a large part of Mauritanian society."But Ely and M'baye insist the fat "ideal" is back. Ely cites the life-threatening weight-gain practices of some grown women. "To remain fat, as adults, they take animal hormones or buy prescription drugs with appetite-enhancing side-effects. A woman died in hospital in Nouakchott last week. I'm afraid this problem is still very much with us."

US resists Karzai poll date call

The US has reiterated it prefers an August date for presidential elections in Afghanistan, despite President Hamid Karzai's call for polls on 21 April.
The US state department said elections in August would best ensure a free vote in a secure environment.On Saturday, Mr Karzai called for polls before his term ends in May. The Afghan Independent Elections Commission says elections should be held by 20 August.The president has no power to unilaterally choose election dates.
But his term of office ends on 21 May, potentially creating a constitutional crisis if polls are held much later.According to Article 61 of Afghanistan's constitution, elections should be held 30 to 60 days before 22 May, the end of Mr Karzai's five-year term.The Independent Election Commission (IEC) says there is a contradiction between the constitution and electoral law which meant the president could stay in power until October - five years after he won the last election - or December, five years after he took his oath of office, Reuters news agency reported.International monitors have said it would be difficult to hold a fair election by April because of security concerns, bad weather and the logistical challenges of getting ballots.
'Orderly process'
In Washington, state department spokesman Robert Wood said the US supports the "underlying principles articulated by President Karzai" for the elections to be held in April.However, Mr Wood said the US "reiterates" its view that elections in August, as proposed by the Independent Elections Commission, "is the best means to assure every Afghan citizen would be able to express his or her political preference in a secure environment".Afghanistan requires "an orderly, open and democratic process that ensures continuity of government through the election period to maintain political stability," he added.Mr Karzai has been under considerable pressure over the delay and has been accused of using it to illegally extend his rule in breach of the constitution, says the BBC's Ian Pannell in Kabul.Now he has put the onus for deciding when the vote should be held, and ultimately who runs the country in the event of a delay, back at the feet of the commission and his opponents, our correspondent says.The US and other members of the international community supported the IEC's recommendation for an August poll, as the 17,000 foreign troops expected to bolster peacekeeping forces can be used to secure voting stations from the Taleban, reports say.IEC chief Azizullah Ludin said that 20 August was chosen for the presidential polls after consultations with Afghan and international security forces.
"They told us there will be new security forces here... and they will guarantee security," Mr Ludin told a news conference in Kabul in January.Afghanistan continues to experience militant attacks and suicide bombings by the Taleban, who were ousted from power in the US-led invasion of 2001.

ANP to support PPP in Senate elections in Balochistan

QUETTA: The Awami National Party (ANP) on Sunday announced its ‘unconditional support’ for the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in the upcoming Senate election in Balochistan by withdrawing two of its candidates from the polls.Senior provincial leadership of both parties publicised the decision in a press conference in Quetta on Sunday.PPP Balochistan President Lashkari Raisani, ANP provincial President Commander Khuda Dad and Federal Health Minister Ejaz Ahmed Jikrani were present during the press conference.Raisani said his party believed in politics of reconciliation and taking all coalition partners on board while running the coalition government in Balochistan.