Friday, April 18, 2014
Syrian government forces make fresh advances in their battle against foreign-backed militants in the western city of Homs as clashes continue between the two sides in the county’s north. Government forces have tightened their noose around the Old City of Homs in recent days and have captured several buildings, including a church. The so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the army’s achievements. The London-based pro-opposition group also said government troops are shelling the Bab Hud and Wadi al-Sayeh districts to flush militants out of their strongholds. Some 1,200 militants and nearly 200 civilians are believed to be in and around the Old City. Meanwhile, 14 people were killed in the city after a bomb detonated near a mosque in a government-held area after Friday prayers. Security sources said the bomb attack was in retaliation for the Syrian government’s daily advances in the militant-held Old City of Homs. According to government sources, army forces repelled an attack on a military barracks in Hanano, killing a number of militants. Syrian troops have also managed to reopen Aleppo’s international airport. Syria has been experiencing unrelenting militancy since March 2011. The Western powers and their regional allies -- especially Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- are said to be supporting the militants operating inside Syria.
Amnesty International criticized the Bahraini regime for threatening a cleric who was stripped of his nationality in 2012 calling on Manama to “rescind” the decision. On April 15, the Al Khalifa regime gave Ayatollah Sheikh Hussain al-Najati two days to leave his homeland and threatened to harm his family if he failed to do so. “This campaign of threats, harassment and intimidation against Sheikh Hussain al-Najati is unacceptable and must stop immediately,” said AI Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program Said Boumedouha on Thursday.Ayatollah Najati had been among the 31 opposition figures deprived of their Bahraini nationality by the country’s Interior Ministry in 2012. The Amnesty official further criticized the Manama regime’s decision to revoke the nationality of Ayatollah Najati and the other opposition figures as an “arbitrary attempt to silence all government critics,” stressing, “It should be rescinded immediately.” On April 16, Bahrain’s main opposition bloc al-Wefaq National Islamic Society also slammed Manama’s move as “unlawful,” saying, “Targeting national religious figures is meant to target the whole people of Bahrain.” Manama has launched a heavy-handed clampdown on anti-regime protesters since the uprising against the ruling Al Khalifa broke out across the Persian Gulf kingdom in February 2011. Scores of Bahrainis have so far been killed and hundreds of others injured and arrested in the ongoing regime crackdown on peaceful demonstrations.
Russia must not be treated as guilty schoolgirl, language of sanctions is unacceptable - Kremlin spokesman
Russia must not be treated as a guilty schoolgirl, language of sanctions is unacceptable, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. On Western stance on Ukraine Peskov said that "It's not a vanity fair, it's a hypocrisy fair", RIA reports. Though "the very fact that dialogue took place is positive, its productivity has to be carefully analyzed", Peskov added, according to Interfax. Read more: http://voiceofrussia.com/news/2014_04_18/Russia-must-not-be-treated-as-a-guilty-schoolgirl-language-of-sanctions-is-unacceptable-Kremlin-spokesman-8745/
www.washingtonpost.com The Post’s Fritz Hahn takes you inside the exclusive Dram and Grain for one of D.C.’s wildest cocktails, plus Bar Charley for tiki drinks on tap and Quill for author-inspired sips.
Pakistan must break alleged links with any Afghan insurgents if it is to adhere to Article 40 of the Constitution, said an opposition lawmaker in the Senate on Friday. Opposition lawmakers were expressing their views during a debate in the Senate on a motion on foreign policy moved by Senator Raza Rabbani of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Opposition senators called for ending ‘duplicity’ in foreign policy formulation and stressed on the need to retrieve the ground lost by civilians to the security establishment over the past decades. Senators called for a serious rethink of policy formulation in the light of realities emerging as a result of political transitions last year taking place in Pakistan’s neighbouring countries, including China and Iran, and now Afghanistan and India. Senator Farhatullah Babar said that the basis of foreign policy formulation is laid out in Article 40 of the Constitution of Pakistan. Reading out Article 40, he said that if we have to adhere to them we must break alleged links with any Afghan insurgents and stop the ability of Afghan fighters to seek refuge in Pakistan. “A stable and democratic civilian government leading foreign policy formulation would be welcomed by all parties, as compared to the security establishment leading it without any accountability,” he said. “Duplicity in policy making is too obvious. While the prime minister has kept the portfolio of the foreign minister with himself, there is an advisor and a special assistant. Besides, a federal minister and chief minister Punjab articulate independent foreign policy issues without referring to the foreign office,” he said. “CM Punjab even went as far as signing a joint declaration with the chief minister of Indian Punjab,” Babar added. “While there is no issue with promoting people-to-people contacts, it should have been done by the foreign office and not by the chief minister. This will encourage different organs of the state pursuing their own agendas.” “Although the government has said several times that Pakistan will not take sides in the Syrian civil war, suspicion has been lingering that non-state actors are being encouraged to move to Syria and the Middle East with weapons and armaments,” he added. Babar also recalled how a former head of a security agency had publicly claimed clandestinely shipping weapons to Bosnia in violation of the UN ban, earning him the ire of the US. He said that in a recent television talk show, the finance minister said that if people went to Bahrain and Syria then it should be seen an “employee-employer relationship” that has nothing to do with the government. He warned against letting such ‘relationships’ run to such an extent that Pakistan is “sucked into another Afghanistan, this time in the Middle East.” Former Interior Minister Rehman Malik also called for an urgent in-camera briefing by the government on security and foreign policy. Senator Afrasaib Khattak said the security situation in the neighbouring Afghanistan is fragile and Pakistan has to quickly frame its policy keeping in view fluid developments in the region. Senator Hasil Bizenjo cautioned the government over activities of elements hostile to Pakistan trying to disturb relations with Iran. “Iran has a great role in the region therefore Pakistan must maintain good ties with the country,” he said.
Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani says that, if elected, he will do all in his power to promote "genuine reconciliation." In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL on April 17, Ghani indicated that the country's former warlords must accept responsibility for their actions and that the country needed to move on. “We are not going to get bogged down in our past in a way that deprives us of a future," he said. "[We need] to be coming together, accepting responsibility, moving on, and making sure that if there are victims that we tend to them. It’s a process of healing our wounds.” Ghani said "violence is not an answer to violence." Ghani, a former Afghan finance minister, had previously taken a strong stance against the former strongmen, many of whom were involved in the country’s devastating civil war. The 64-year-old pledged a “government of competence” that would strengthen the rule of law, fight corruption, and introduce an economic system that would lessen the country’s dependence on aid. "I had no money and I had no backing from a political party, the government, or had foreign support," he said. "This is a genuine social movement that is going to deliver.” Ghani, among the election front-runners, said he was confident of winning an outright victory in the April 5 vote. Ghani confirmed he had held meetings with President Hamid Karzai and some of his rival candidates since the election. But he said it was not to forge a deal that would avoid a second round runoff, which is likely because no candidate is expected to win an outright majority. He said a second round was necessary to “let the people decide” the country’s next president. Partial results released on April 13 put Ghani is second position behind leading candidate Abdullah Abdullah. Preliminary results for the election are expected on April 24.
For an overwhelming majority of Americans, weary of the longest war in United States history—which has cost trillions in taxpayer dollars and exacted more than 2,300 deaths and 20,000 wounded among U.S. soldiers since Operation Enduring Freedom commenced on Oct. 7, 2001—Afghanistan is a lost cause.
The latest National Intelligence Estimate, the considered analysis of all 16 of the U.S. government’s intelligence agencies, predicts that Afghanistan will eventually descend into chaos, that the central government in Kabul will be increasingly marginalized as the once-ousted Taliban gains power and influence, and that much of the social progress and security improvements will ultimately be reversed. All this will come to pass, even if the United States leaves behind thousands of troops and keeps pouring billions into the hard-scrabble, impoverished country of 30 million souls that borders Pakistan and Iran.Yet that depressingly bleak assessment is not universally shared. During a high-level panel discussion of Afghanistan’s future at New York’s Asia Society on Wednesday, the participants offered a vision of hope and change. “It’s very difficult to predict what will happen if the Americans and the international community completely disengage,” said Afghan media mogul Saad Mohseni, who took part in the discussion moderated by MTV founder and former Viacom chief executive Tom Freston, who lived in Afghanistan as a textile exporter in the 1970s. “What we’re seeing today, and what’s very interesting, is 85 percent of all military operations are conducted by the Afghan forces,” continued Mohseni, whose Moby Group runs the country’s dominant television and radio outlets. “They are capable now. They’re beginning to take a lead role, which they have been for some months now. So things are falling into place.” Mohseni—whose right index fingernail was covered in dark ink to indicate that he’d voted in Afghanistan’s April 5th presidential elections—argued that the United States and other western democracies have a vested interest in continuing to support his homeland. “There’s no doubt that we will require international assistance for some more years,” he said. “The cost of our military is five billion dollars and Afghanistan cannot afford to pay for that. A stable Afghanistan is good for the region…We talk about counterterrorism and Al Qaeda, but even more, a stable Afghanistan will bode well for the future of Pakistan…If you look at predictions for 2050, Pakistan will have a population of almost 400 million people—it will be the fourth largest country in the world—and Afghanistan will have a population of 100 million. It will be the 16th largest country in the world…A stable Afghanistan is very important for the world.” Mohseni was joined in his measured optimism by Afghan women’s rights activist and government reformer Aarya Nijat and Pakistani business advocate Faiysal AliKhan, a Carnegie fellow and a national security expert at the New America Foundation. All three suggested that the fact that 60 percent of eligible Afghan voters lined up for hours at the polling places—displaying courage and determination in the face of Taliban threats of violence (and an estimated 20 deaths and 43 wounded from Election Day attacks on voting centers)—proved that a thriving democracy in Afghanistan is a realistic ambition. Freston noted that the election to replace President Hamid Karzai, who is making good on a promise not to run again, will be the first peaceful transition of power in Afghan history. Millions of ballots are still being counted—with the winner expected to be announced by mid-May—but the three front-runners, Mohseni said, are all highly educated, multi-lingual, sophisticated public servants, “aspirational modernists” who could do a credible job reforming the historically troubled country. “Space and time is very important for us,” he said, mentioning the bloody Soviet invasion of the 1980s. “We have certainly needed these years for the wounds to heal. Afghanistan was basically an instrument of the West in its proxy war against the Soviets. Our population in the late ‘70s was 12 million. We lost a million individuals in that war…and another million were handicapped. Afghanistan sacrificed a lot for the world, and it’s going to take us time to get up again.” AliKhan, who spent a lot of time in Afghanistan during the election campaign interviewing voters and candidates, said rampant corruption remains a problem, with only 38 cents of every foreign-aid dollar making its way into the local economy. As for the Taliban—which has enjoyed protection from Pakistan as well as the respectful attention of other governments in the region—Nijat pointed out that the extreme Islamist and violent group is deeply unpopular in Afghanistan, even in the southern part of the country where its political base resides. Mohseni said a recent survey conducted by his Tolo television network indicated that the Taliban had around 8 percent support overall (even worse than the U.S. Congress!). “Violence attracts attention,” Nijat said, “but it’s not going to go a very long way” to help the Taliban’s bid for power. She added that the Taliban has tried to capitalize on the resentments of Afghans who are “socially alienated” and “disappointed in the lack of public service delivery and the lack of law enforcement” by the Afghan authorities. Mohseni, for his part, warned against naïve efforts to negotiate and compromise with the Taliban, especially recent attempts at constructive engagement by the U.S. state department, lest the violent extremists are “legitimized.” He said the Taliban typically dangle peace talks as a time-buying tactic, and “believe they will win on the battleground.” Only when that proves not to be true by the end of 2016, Mohseni predicted, will the Taliban seriously consider its non-violent options. “By overdoing it, you’re legitimizing the Taliban and also creating the impression that they’re going to become a very important part of the Afghanistan of 2015 and 2016,” Mohseni said, referring to the period when the planned drawdown of U.S. combat troops is scheduled to be completed. “We have to be careful of that, because they don’t deserve to have an equal partnership just because they’re violent.”
Ahead of NATO troops downsizing their presence in Afghanistan, India has firmed up a far-reaching deal with Russia to supply arms to the troubled country under which New Delhi will pay for the military equipment that will be sourced from Moscow. The deal, which had been under intense negotiations for the past few months, was clinched after a high-level Indian team made a quiet trip to Moscow in February and stitched up the loose ends even as Russia was bracing for the challenge in Ukraine. The first order under this deal, sources said, is already being executed. India, through the strategic partnership with Afghanistan, is committed to provide arms and ammunition to strengthen the Afghan National Army. The arrangement with Moscow allows New Delhi to fulfill this commitment, an issue on which Kabul has been sending reminders including detailed lists of its requirements. The issue was debated at length on various occasions in the Cabinet Committee on Security, which eventually arrived at two conclusions — that India will have no troop presence in Afghanistan; and that India will not provide small arms even though some are manufactured domestically. The logic behind the second decision was to avoid a situation where any India-marked small arms make their way into Kashmir or to the hinterland through terrorist outfits. While Russia may separately supply its own range of Kalashnikovs, the Indian financing will largely focus on artillery guns, air support in the form of choppers and even armoured vehicles, including tanks. A range of non-lethal items could also make it to the list depending on the nature of the requirement. Also part of the arrangement is an exercise to refit some old Russian-made equipment lying with Afghanistan for years, sources said, adding that a survey of such equipment has been carried out. As of now, the ANA is a predominantly infantry force as the US, sources said, limited its access to long-range guns largely due to Pakistani concerns. But over the past of couple of years, Afghanistan has been pressuring countries such as India and Russia to properly equip the ANA if it has to repel Taliban offensives on its own.
Not many people in Pakistan expect much from the peace talks between the government and the Taliban, but after months of futile negotiations, they are getting increasingly frustrated.The Pakistani Taliban have refused to extend a ceasefire with the government, which was introduced to facilitate the ongoing peace negotiations. The one-month-long truce, which began on March 1, expired Thursday, April 10. The Islamists, however, insist they are not backing out from talks. The Islamist extremists have been waging a violent insurgency in the South Asian country for around a decade. Their major demand is to impose the strict Islamic law in Pakistan and also in neighboring Afghanistan, where their Afghan counterparts had a government from 1996 to 2001. According to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the ceasefire was not given a further extension because Islamabad had not stopped military operations against them in the troubled northwestern tribal areas. There have been violations of the ceasefire from both sides. The Taliban continued to launch attacks on civilians and the government's security forces. The government responded by targeting militant hideouts in the restive North Waziristan region, which borders Afghanistan.
But the two sides also agreed on certain issues such as the release of the Taliban prisoners from Pakistani jails. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's center-right government released 19 prisoners in South Waziristan earlier this month. The United States has also temporarily halted its controversial drone strikes in Pakistan's semi-governed tribal belt to give Islamabad and the Islamist insurgents a chance to reach a lasting agreement. It carried out the last drone strike on December 26, 2013, in which three suspected militants were killed. So why is it that the Islamabad-Taliban talks are not bearing any result? Not many people had high expectations from the "peace initiative" that Sharif's government took after coming into power in June 2013, but it seems now that people are getting very frustrated with the whole exercise.
"Enough of the hide and seek between the government and the Taliban," Tahir Ahmed, a businessman in Pakistan's southern Karachi city, told DW. "I never had any illusion about the talks. But now I don't even understand what this dialogue is about. I think both parties have no idea what they are actually negotiating about. It is totally futile," the 45-year-old added. Hameed Satti, a psychologist and social activist in the capital Islamabad, agrees that Pakistanis are getting frustrated with the aimlessness of talks with each passing day. The expert, however, is of the opinion that it clearly suits the government. "They want to push people to a place where whatever the government decides they will accept it as a solution," Satti told DW.
Gaining 'time and momentum'
Karachi-based journalist and documentary filmmaker, Sabin Agha, does not agree that the Taliban do not know what they want from the talks, or rather from dragging out the talks. "The Taliban are gaining time and momentum. They have secured the release of their 'non-combatant militants.' But I agree that the government, on the other hand, seems at loss, and does not have a clear-cut policy for peace negotiations," Agha told DW.Siegfried O Wolf, a South Asia expert at Heidelberg University, also thinks that PM Sharif is undecided whether to fight or to appease the Taliban. "Nevertheless, his (Sharif's) policy and certain actions are indicative of him having a sympathy for religious extremists," the analyst added. Observers also say that both Islamists and Islamabad are waiting for matters to unfold in Afghanistan. International troops are scheduled to withdraw from the war-torn country by the end of this year, and it seems the future of Afghanistan will depend on whether there will be a stable government in Kabul or not. "I think the drawdown of NATO forces from Afghanistan will strengthen the Taliban, and that is why they are dragging their feet on the peace deal," Agha commented.
The crackdown optionLiberal Pakistanis demand an outright military operation against the Taliban though. They don't want Islamabad to engage in any kind of talks with the TTP. "Should the people who are responsible for executing more than 40,000 Pakistanis, who bomb schools, who cut throats of people in the name of religion, and who want to send this country back to stone age be considered as stakeholders at all?," asked Agha. "The Taliban have been outlawed by the government, and they should be dealt with strictly." But there are people who believe that going after the Taliban might not be so easy for the government. "The Pakistani Taliban could have been routed out militarily or through police actions," Snehal Shingavi, a South Asia expert at the University of Texas, USA, told DW. "Everything indicates that they are not that sophisticated or large. But the Pakistani Army has used them as part of their strategic game in Afghanistan, and will probably continue to do so."
http://www.rferl.org/Questions over the closure of girls schools in Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province has sparked angry debate in the region's parliament. The province's Education Department informed the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly on April 17 that 159 schools for girls in the province have been shuttered due to a variety of reasons, including threats by the Taliban and a lack of female teachers. But lawmakers accused the Education Department of giving "false information," citing data that shows that 385 schools remain closed in the region, including 295 schools for girls. The provincial minister of primary and secondary education, Atif Khan, dismissed accusations of providing false data, saying that the figures have been changing quickly in recent weeks. The matter has been referred to committee for further discussion.
Express NewsA security officer was killed and two others sustained injuries in an explosion in the outskirts of Peshawar, Express News reported on Friday. A vehicle belonging to the security forces was reportedly the target of the attack. The exact nature of the explosion – which took place near the Frontier Road - is not known at the moment.
http://www.independent.co.uk/Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of former US President Bill Clinton and ex-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, is expecting her first child this autumn.
Three security personnel were injured when a blast targeted their vehicle in Peshawar, SAMAA reported Friday. Police and rescue teams rushed to the site of explosion on Frontier Road in FR area of Peshawar. Sources said the blast left three FC men injured.