Tuesday, December 2, 2014

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Rise of Islamic schooling in Turkey upsets secular parents

turkey school istanbul
Turkish girls in an Istanbul school. (photo credit:REUTERS)

Turkey has seen a sharp rise in religious schooling under reforms which President Tayyip Erdogan casts as a defense against moral decay, but which opponents see as an unwanted drive to shape a more Islamic nation.

Almost a million students are enrolled in "imam hatip" schools this year, up from just 65,000 in 2002 when Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party first came to power, he told the opening of one of the schools in Ankara last month.

The schools teach boys and girls separately, and give around 13 hours a week of Islamic instruction on top of the regular curriculum, including study of Arabic, the Koran and the life of the Prophet Mohammad.

"When there is no such thing as religious culture and moral education, serious social problems such as drug addiction and racism fill the gap," Erdogan told a symposium on drug policy and public health earlier this year.

But in the drive to create more imam hatip places, parts of schools have been requisitioned, prompting protests from parents who want secular education for their children.

"We are against the governance of education by religious rules," said Ilknur Birol, spokeswoman for the "Don't Touch My School" initiative, an umbrella grouping for angry parents. "This system is not rooted in youth with a forward-looking perspective enlightened by science, but in a generation that values obedience."

Filiz Gurlu, a parent at the Kadir Rezan Has school in Istanbul where two buildings were converted to imam hatip facilities, said primary students were now cramped in a single building.

"The library, laboratory, computer and music rooms were in the confiscated part, so the kids don't have access anymore," she said. "Some classrooms have barely enough space ... This is an unplanned move, kids just can't simply fit in."


The debate over education straddles a faultline in Turkish society dating back to the 1920s, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk forged a secular republic from the ruins of an Ottoman theocracy, banishing Islam from public life, replacing Arabic with Latin script and promoting Western dress.

Erdogan, who won Turkey's first popular presidential election in August with 52 percent of the vote, has cast himself as a champion of the rights of the pious, redressing the balance after decades of Kemalism. Opponents say his style of rule, giving supremacy to what he believes is the will of the majority, means their wishes are ignored.

Huseyin Korkut, head of the imam hatip alumni association, said there was strong demand for imam hatip schools, but his assertion was based on surveys in just three regions, the broadly conservative Kayseri, Konya and Erzurum provinces.

He said the body had urged the government in vain to conduct a nationwide survey.

"Changes in school types were decided by local bureaucrats in a rather arbitrary manner," said Isik Tuzun, a coordinator at the Education Reform Initiative, a think-tank at Istanbul's Sabanci University. "(It) has definitely been rushed."

The Education Ministry did not respond to requests for comment, but the government maintains the changes are driven by demand. Education Minister Nabi Avci said in November that demand for imam hatip places rose this school year and last.

US strategy on ISIS suffers series of weaknesses, study finds

The US strategy against Islamic State “suffers from a series of weaknesses,” a study by the Tel Aviv-based Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center found recently.
The center is a part of the Israeli Intelligence and Heritage Commemoration Center, which was founded in the 1980s by leading members of the Israeli intelligence community.

The report described goals in the American strategy as unrealistic.

“It is extremely difficult to destroy an organization with a Salafist-jihadi ideology such as ISIS [Islamic State].

There are limits to what military force can achieve against jihadi organizations in general and ISIS in particular. The local forces in Syria and Iraq that America is counting on are weak, and the coalition is heterogeneous, composed of countries with different interests and internal constraints that are liable to make it difficult for them to provide the United States with effective support,” the document said.

The situation is made more complex by the fluctuating societal and political situations in Syria and Iraq, the authors added.

“They [such organizations] cannot be fundamentally changed through military action, limited or even extensive.

That is because ISIS and other Salafist-jihadi terrorist organizations arose from the chaos in security and the societal and political disintegration of Syria and Iraq, and because of the drastic changes caused by the regional upheaval.

“Iraq and Syria are a swamp in which ISIS and other jihadi organizations thrive. Rooting out ISIS will be impossible until the swamp has been drained, and that is currently not on the horizon,” the study stated.

Dr. Reuven Erlich, head of the Meir Amit Center, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that US President Barack Obama’s objective of destroying Islamic State has raised expectations to a point that is “very high. ISIS is a terrorist organization with an ideology and capabilities that exists in an area where political systems have crashed. It can’t be destroyed through air power.”

Similarly, he added, Israel, too, cannot destroy Hezbollah or Hamas through air power alone.

“It’s not enough to bomb. In order to destroy Hamas, which exists in a narrow strip, Israel would have to go in and rule for years, carrying out a fundamental thwarting of the organization. That would produce results, but only until the day forces leave.”

The center’s study also highlighted several weaknesses that afflict Islamic State, which, if exploited by the US, could yield positive results, “although perhaps less far-reaching than expected by President Obama.”

Washington’s military, economic and political campaign could eventually weaken – but not destroy – Islamic State and halt its rapid spread through Syria and Iraq. The Iraqi Army and local militias within Syria and Iraq that are hostile to Islamic State can be strengthened.

The report stressed several threats and dangers posed to Israel by the establishment and growth of Islamic State and other jihadi organizations.

Foremost among these is their likely targeting of the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula.

“As of today, the [Syrian] Golan Heights are controlled by rebel organizations, the most prominent of which is the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s branch in Syria. While ISIS does not currently have a significant presence there, the dynamics can easily change the Golan Heights from a relatively quiet area into an active terrorist front where the al-Nusra Front may be dominant.

“In the Sinai Peninsula, Islamic State-affiliated Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (which has become the Sinai province of the Islamic State) is expected to launch terrorist attacks against Israel, although its strategic priority is its campaign against the Egypt regime,” said the authors.

Additionally, Islamic State supports jihadi organizations and networks in countries bordering on Israel.

“ISIS is a terrorist organization with semi-state capabilities: it has advanced weapons and technology captured from the Iraqi and Syrian armies; it earns enormous amounts of money from oil fields and other resources; it has supporters in the Middle East and worldwide who help it enlist foreign fighters; it has an advanced media network which brands ISIS and the global jihad.

“To date those capabilities are mainly exploited for internal purposes (fighting enemies in Iraq and Syria). However, they may filter into jihadi organizations and networks in the Middle East, including countries and entities bordering on Israel, and strengthen the operational capabilities of local jihadi organizations,” the report warned.

Commenting on this section of the findings, Erlich said Israel is facing a “new reality in which new jihadi organizations are present to the north and south. It’s very hard to deter them. The only thing that works to our benefit is that they have not begun dealing with us yet. But problems are expected for Israel. Also, we should not believe that Jordan and Lebanon are immune.”

According to the study’s authors, “In the foreseeable future, ISIS strategy will continue focusing on gaining a firmer foothold in Syria and Iraq. However, in view of the American aerial attacks and the competition between the jihadi organizations, ISIS may encourage or initiate attacks within Israel from inside the country or from its borders, or against Israeli and/or Jewish targets abroad. They may receive help and support from the veterans of the fighting in Syria and Iraq who returned to their countries of origin and/ or from local operatives and networks that support ISIS.”

The report also cautioned about cooperation between the US-led coalition and Iran against Islamic State.

“Such collaboration might occur at Israel’s expense and harm its vital interests; for example, Iran’s concessions on the nuclear issue. In addition, collaborating against ISIS might increase Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq, and might also strengthen Hezbollah’s status in Lebanon, possibly strengthening the Iranian- led radical camp in the Middle East,” it said.

Erlich added, “Seemingly, Iran is a partner for the US against ISIS, which threatens Tehran’s interests in Iraq and Syria. We don’t think a deep strategic relationship will develop between them. Iran is seeking regional hegemony in place of the US. But local cooperation and a dialogue are possible.”

Envisaging how Washington and Tehran could work together, Erlich said, “One could support the Iraqi Army and the second could aid Shi’ite militias. That would result in cooperation.”


‘Hell is never far away’ - the female medic risking her life for Aleppo


Umm Abdu has lost her husband and a son to the war in Syria, but the pistol-wearing woman refuses to abandon her embattled city

Whenever she hears the helicopter, Umm Abdu tenses, collects her medical kit and runs through the lanes of Old Aleppo to the only working hospital in her neighbourhood.
It is a familiar routine: the thump of the rotor blades, the boom of the explosion from the barrel bomb released by the Syrian government troops far above, followed by Umm Abdu’s scramble towards the four-storey building that will receive the inevitable human carnage.
Not that the hospital is safe. Most large buildings around it have been obliterated by the same half-tonne bombs, leading those who work, live and die within its iodine-stained walls to believe that they are the real targets.
“Hell is never far away,” she says, resting on a gurney in what makes for a trauma area. She is the only woman on the floor, a black-clad figure working alongside three exhausted young men in green gowns to treat most of Aleppo’s victims of war.

Umm Abdu lives in a small flat with her three remaining children.
 Umm Abdu lives in a small flat with her three remaining children. Photograph: Martin Chulov/Guardian

Umm Abdu stands out for another reason: the steel pistol she holsters to her back when stitching or bandaging patients using the skills that echo her pre-war career as a wedding dressmaker. “Getting justice from this war has become a personal jihad for me,” she admits. “I can’t work without it [the gun] any more.”
Everyone who remains in the eastern half of this battered city has a story of deprivation and loss. And most, like 40-year-old Umm Abdu, have found ways to cope with life in a wasteland, where existence inches on but life has stopped. “I’ve used the weapons,” she says. “And then I’ve treated the people who were injured.”
The contradiction seems lost, or maybe even no longer relevant, in a conflict where death often comes from the skies. Barrel bombs, the Syrian war’s most savage weapon, are also its most indiscriminate killer.
Slowly, methodically, they have tipped the tide in the favour of the regime, which continues to edge around Aleppo’s north-eastern flank as its bombs erode the city of civilians, fighters, and hope.

Syrian boys play in the rubble of Aleppo.

 Syrian boys play in the rubble of Aleppo. Photograph: Baraa al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Umm Abdu’s son, Yousef, was killed by a bomb three months ago while travelling on a minibus to work in the only other functional hospital in the city’s east. That attack killed 35 people, and gouged yet another giant hole through an urban landscape now difficult to distinguish among piles of rubble often dozens of metres high.
“That day was the worst of days,” she says, sitting in a darkened room of her home on the edge of Old Aleppo. Her surviving son, Abdullah, sitting next to her, says: “We shared the same bed for 17 years. “We did everything together: we played, we dreamed, we grew. Now he’s gone. What can I say.”
In the small flat she shares with her remaining children, Umm Abdu has placed three teddy bears on her pillow, two Free Syria Army flags and an Islamic flag above her bed, and her gun on her mattress. Her medicines are tucked away nearby.
In the early days of a war that promised hope, but has instead delivered three years of unrestrained brutality and an estimated 200,000 dead, Umm Abdu’s husband was shot dead by a regime sniper.
Eighteen months ago, while trying to retrieve a wounded man from a no-man’s land near her home, she too was almost killed. Snipers bullets ripped through her mouth and thigh. “It was only flesh,” she says. “It’s all working now.”

A rebel fighter holds a position in Aleppo.

 A rebel fighter holds a position in Aleppo. Photograph: Zein al-Rifai/AFP/Getty Images

Rebel fighters who work alongside Umm Abdu in the city say the fighter-cum-medic is unique. “No one else risks her own life as much,” says a local leader, Abu Juud, who helps provide food for her family. “And no one else saves as many other lives.”
“We owe you a lot,” he tells her. “Aleppo owes you as well.”
Those who have remained in the east of the city – maybe 50,000 of the 1 million or so who once lived here – all speak with disconcerting candour about mothers, brothers, fathers and babies killed during the war.
“My three cousins were executed by Isis,” shrugs a fighter from the Islamic Front, the main opposition group in eastern Aleppo. “They betrayed them at a checkpoint.”
The fighter is sitting in a circle of eight men, all of whom had a similar story that they hadn’t deem worthy to share until asked about it.
“My sister was killed last year in al-Bab [a town near Aleppo],” says another fighter. “So was her son.” He shows photos of the boy stored on his mobile phone: “I loved him a lot.”
Another man says quietly but matter-of-factly: “My mother died in her home. I buried her in five pieces. She said she would rather die here than live on her knees in Turkey.”

A man holds a baby saved from under the rubble after an air strike by regime forces.

 A man holds a baby saved from under the rubble after an air strike by regime forces. Photograph: Hosam Katan/Reuters

Unfathomable loss is too evident at the hospital. “Most people who come here are ripped apart when they arrive,” says an Egyptian neurosurgeon who tries daily to repair the most seriously injured. “But I don’t have a working CT scan. Do you know how hard it is to do brain surgery without one?”
Despite this, the surgeon does have some successes. He leads us to a civilian who was shot through the brain a week earlier. “He can speak now,” the doctor says enthusiastically. “Say hello, Mohammed. Wave at me.” The patient wearily lifts his arm as his five-year-old daughter sits mutely on a bed across the room.
Nearby, a 30-year-old woman winces as another doctor sterilises a large gash in her thigh caused by a shell, not a barrel bomb.
Shells drop randomly on Old Aleppo many times each day. Later that afternoon, a deafening blast erupts near a fruit stall. The vendor doesn’t flinch as he hands over his produce; nor does his customer.
Fruit packed into carts – oranges, apples, bananas, watermelons – jut vividly from the grime of Aleppo in early winter; rare shocks of colour against a backdrop of grey. Those who can afford food are not starving, but the city itself – one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world – is all but broken.
Why, then, do people stay? “This is where I come from and this is where I will die,” says Ibrahim Khatan, 48, a resident of the Old City, who has remained behind with his seven young children. “Even if they surround us, we will sow potatoes in the fields and eat the chickens,” he says, pointing at a dozen hens and ducks his daughters have just fed by a mosque wall. “No one deserves a world without children. My oldest is 20 years old and my youngest, three months. I can’t take them away.”

Syrian children queue for food aid from a community kitchen in the Myassar district of Aleppo.

 Syrian children queue for food aid from a community kitchen in the Myassar district of Aleppo. Photograph: Zein al-Rifai/AFP/Getty Images

Nearby, the Islamic Front maintains a field clinic, where its fighters are treated for wounds sustained in clashes with regime troops around the ancient citadel less than a mile away.
Umm Abdu travels here regularly along the ancient cobblestones slick with recent rains, to tend to a local commander, Abu Assad, who is recovering from a gunshot wound to his thigh.
“Before this war, I was a seamstress making wedding dresses,” she says. “My family are all from here. This place is essential to my identity.”
I ask her what could make her change her mind, and take her surviving son and three daughters, one of whom works at the same hospital, to safety in Turkey. “If they don’t unite,” she says of the various rebel groups battling the regime, “I will kill myself.”
“That’s not true, my sister,” says a startled bystander.
“You’re right,” Umm Abdu replies with a smile – a rare sight in northern Syria. “But they need to bring everything together. We all need to support each other.”
Later that night, the clouds that had kept the helicopters away from Aleppo clear, and the risk of barrel bomb attacks increase. As dawn gives way to daylight, bright yellow ambulances parked near the hospital seem like perfect target indicators for any bomber above. The skies, though, stay empty. Clapped out generators that provide neighbourhood power echo through alleyways. A slight wind blows broken doors against stone walls. Islamic Front fighters move slowly through the heart of the Old City’s streets; some shelter in a giant atrium near a soap factory that a dog-eared sign says is heritage listed.
Their choice of refuge is touted as a hospital for intellectually disabled, built in 1354. “There’s no one crazy here,” one rebel says amid the flotsam and jetsam of endless war. “All the people on the streets – those [civilians] who are still here – they’re the crazy ones.”
Additional reporting: Saalim Rizk

Jihad isn't all it's cracked up to be, say disgruntled Isis recruits


It ain’t half cold here mum. My iPod has packed up. All I do is the washing-up.
Some of the messages sent home to France by disgruntled Isis volunteers sound like letters from homesick school-children. A number of young French men and women fighting or working for Isis in Iraq and Syria have appealed to relatives and lawyers to help them to come home.
A selection of their messages, leaked to the newspaper Le Figaro, contrast bizarrely with the image of implacable and hard-hearted jihad peddled by terror websites. “I’m fed up to the back teeth. My iPod no longer works out here. I have got to come home,” said a message from a French fighter in Syria.
Another disillusioned volunteer said: “I’m sick of it. They make me do the washing-up.” A third appealed for clemency from the French authorities, who have a policy of arresting returning jihadis. “I’ve done hardly anything but hand out clothes and food,” he said. “I’ve also cleaned weapons and moved the bodies of killed fighters . Winter is beginning. It’s starting to get tough.”
Over 1,100 young French people – many of them converts to Islam of French rather than Arab origin – are believed to have thrown in their lot with Isis or other jihadist groups. Over 260 are believed to be in Syria or Iraq. More than 100 have already returned. Of these, 76 have been arrested.
A group of French lawyers  is working with relatives to try to ease the passage home of scores of other Isis recruits, according to Le Figaro. They have collected text messages and emails which suggest that many of the volunteers feel that they have been “cheated” into making the hazardous journey to the Middle East.
Some messages reveal a fear of death or injury. “They want to send me to the front but I don’t know how to fight,” one young man said. The reluctant jihadis find themselves trapped between fear of their comrades and what might happen if they return to France.
Any volunteer who shows signs of wanting to flee is beaten, or even executed, according to the legal group.
“We have made contacts with the police and judicial authorities [in France] but it’s a hyper-sensitive subject”, one lawyer said. “Everybody grasps that the longer these people stay out there, the more they become time bombs when they return.
“But no one wants the risk of having an official policy to encourage the disillusioned ones to come back. What if one of them was to be involved in a terrorist attack in France?”
Intelligence sources also said that the profile of British recruits, was “more interesting, because they tend to be better educated”.

In wake of Ferguson, Obama orders review of US police

Barack Obama has ordered a review of military weapons in the hands of US police. Meanwhile, protests continue over the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white officer.
 On Monday, Obama met with his cabinet to discuss programs that provide heavy weapons to local police forces. The US president also met with civil rights leaders, elected local officials, community leaders and police about how to better build trust between communities and law enforcement agencies. The president ordered his staff to develop recommendations within 120 days on how to provide greater oversight such as requiring civilian approval of military-style acquisitions by local police departments.
"There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement and we don't want those lines blurred," Obama had said in August, when police launched a weaponized response to protests.
A review of programs that allow local police to acquire military equipment from the federal government has found that most of the purchases do not involve weapons, but rather office equipment or protective gear. Still, the report found that local law enforcement agencies had acquired about 460,000 pieces of controlled property, including 92,442 small arms, 44,275 night-vision devices, 5,235 Humvees, 617 mine-resistant vehicles and 616 aircraft.

Holding police accountable
The president also decided to create a task force on 21st-century law enforcement led by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and Laurie Robinson, a professor of criminology, law and society at George Mason University in Virginia. Obama asked Congress for $263 million (210.6 million euros) over three years for policing initiatives, including $75 million to purchase 50,000 body-worn cameras.
Ferguson Football St. Louis Rams
Five players from the St. Louis Rams protested the grand jury verdict before Sunday's American football match
The grand jury's decision not to prosecuteDarren Wilson, who hit Michael Brown with at least six bullets, centered on conflicting witness accounts about whether the unarmed black teenager had cooperated with or threatened the white police officer. No video exists of the shooting.
The funds would also pay for expanded training for police officers as such incidents have proved common in the United States, where black and Latino men find themselves the frequent, and disproportionate, targets of law enforcement. US policing tactics have even earned a rebuke from the United Nations. Meanwhile, in Ferguson and across the United States, the protests continue.

Ashton Carter - Meet Chuck Hagel's expected replacement as Defense Secretary

Ashton Carter, the former second-in-command at the Pentagon, appears to be the top choice to replace outgoing Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Barring any last minute complications, Ash Carter will be President Barack Obama's choice as the new Secretary of Defense, several U.S. administration officials told CNN.
An administration official had said that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, a former General Counsel at the Pentagon, was also still on the list of possibilities, but on Tuesday morning, sources said Johnson was no longer being considered. The prospect of an additional confirmation hearing for Johnson's replacement if he were to move to the Pentagon as the Senate switches to Republican control would have been problematic for the White House.
Hagel announced his resignation last week, but has said he will stay on until his successor is confirmed by the Senate. Carter, who served as Deputy Defense Secretary under both Leon Panetta and Hagel, would bring a wide range of experience to a department confronting multiple crises in the Middle East and preparing to enter a new phase in Afghanistan as the NATO combat mission ends. Carter's ability to hit the ground running from his past experience at the Pentagon, in addition to the respect many senior military leaders have for him are seen as major benefits to winning confirmation should Obama nominate him.
"His career has sort of prepared him perfectly for this kind of a moment," says Michael O'Hanlon, a defense industry analyst at the Brookings Institution.
In addition to a broad understanding of the Pentagon bureaucracy, Carter is seen as a master of managing large budgets, a premium in the present era of continued belt tightening on Capitol Hill, as well as an expert on weapons acquisitions.
He also has a firm grasp on understanding the trends and technology of warfare in the future.
"On paper and in terms of his resume and preparation you probably couldn't do much better," O'Hanlon said.
But Carter does lack certain experience shared by Hagel, Panetta had and many other secretaries - first--hand military experience. Carter has extensive experience at the Pentagon and in academia, but he was never actually in the military.
"You can always find things that you would have loved in a hundred year life span to have seen everyone do before they take this job, but realistically he has accomplished about as much as you could ask," O'Hanlon said.
Whoever is ultimately selected may not have much opportunity to make a mark at the Pentagon. They'll likely have less than two years likely on the job after confirmation. The next defense secretary will confront the specter of another possible round of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration to navigate with Congress, along with a White House known by some for micromanaging foreign and defense policy. While Carter was always seen likely on Obama's short-list of candidates, his name gained prominence following the withdrawals from consideration by former Pentagon official Michele Flournoyand Sen. Jack Reed that they not be considered for the post.
Carter, who does not have a background as a political operative, is believed to be open to returning to the Pentagon, and would likely generate a smooth confirmation process officials tell CNN.
He was previously a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, and was recently listed as a senior executive at the Markle Foundation.

Video Report - President Obama Discusses Communities and Law Enforcement Working Together

U.S. - Welcome to ‘the imperial Congress’

If Obama and House Democrats find ways of sticking together, they can prevent the next two years from becoming a festival of reaction, writes syndicated columnist.

President Obama issued a veto threat last week against a corporate tax-cutting orgy that promised the world to many powerful interests but did little for the middle class and nothing for low-income Americans. The president’s move was singularly useful. It should be a sign of things to come.
The widespread pessimism about the next two years in Washington, D.C., is premised on the view that divided government can work only if both sides are reasonable and engage in amiable bargaining. Obviously, given how profoundly conservative Republicans have become and how deeply many of them loathe Obama, that’s not about to happen.
But the coming period could be useful in an entirely different way. There will be a new clarity in the nation’s political argument. No longer will issues be muddled by a divided Congress in which a Republican House could block a Democratic Senate’s initiatives, and vice versa. Now, it will be a Republican Congress versus a Democratic president. Voters will have a much easier time seeing who stands for what.
Moreover, the president still has a great deal of power. There is the negative power to veto bills, and he needs only one-third of the membership of one house to sustain him. In this configuration, Democrats in the House, far weaker in theory than Democrats in the Senate, become more powerful, given their cohesiveness. If Obama and House Democrats find ways of sticking together, they can prevent the next two years from becoming a festival of reaction.
Something like this happened on the corporate tax deal that was being cooked up between House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. The agreement that was in the works would have made a variety of corporate tax breaks permanent while extending others, at an estimated 10-year cost of around $400 billion. Missing from the agreement was any permanence to improvements passed in 2009 to two tax provisions valued by progressives, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. It’s also strange that some who claim to care passionately about deficit reduction abandon their inhibitions when corporate tax breaks are on the table.
The emerging accord had already provoked a Democratic revolt led by U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Some of these congressional foes of the package told the White House that a veto threat would make it easier to rally opposition to it. The administration was reluctant to issue one unless it knew its veto could be sustained, but ultimately resolved the chicken-and-egg dilemma by going ahead with the warning. This appears, for now, to have headed off the great tax giveaway.
But if Obama and progressives can cooperate to keep the worst from happening, they — and particularly the president — can also get things done. Obama’s executive actions on immigration squarely challenge congressional Republicans to put up or shut up on their claims that they actually want reform.
Obama could act in other areas as well, and in the process send a signal that he wants to do something about stagnating wages. One example: Labor Department regulations could restore overtime pay to most salaried workers by adjusting current limits to account for inflation. This would curb a common practice of reclassifying employees as “managers” to get out of wage-and-hour rules. Would Congress want to block a pay raise for people who work 60 hours a week?
The Obama administration moved on another front last week to curb ozone emissions linked to asthma and heart disease. Republicans said they would try to block the new antipollution regulations. OK, let’s fight it out. Again, conservatives will have to explain why they want to reverse an initiative rather than obstruct action altogether and then blame Obama for being ineffectual.
Yes, such steps will call forth enraged rhetoric about “the imperial president.” But guess what? Starting in the Reagan Era, when Democrats controlled Congress, the Heritage Foundation and other conservative groups put out studies and books attacking “the imperial Congress” because they didn’t like any interference with a president from their own side. It seems that altered political circumstances can lead to neck-snapping changes in convictions that are allegedly rooted in constitutional principle.
Obama and progressives should spend the next two years accomplishing as many useful things as they can, blocking regressive actions by Congress, and clarifying the choices facing the nation’s voters. And they’ll get much further by doing all three at once.

Jeh Johnson defends Obama immigration action to House Republicans

By Jerry Markon

House Republicans clashed with the Obama administration over its recent executive actions on immigration Tuesday, with lawmakers blasting the measures as divisive and illegal but a top administration official defending them as a lawful and necessary first step toward fixing the nation's broken immigration system.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, in the first appearance on Capitol Hill by an administration official to defend Obama’s actions, said the administration ordered a thorough legal review to ensure their legality. “The reality is that, for decades, presidents have used executive authority to enhance immigration policy,’’ Johnson told the House homeland security committee.
Obama late last month announced a program to provide administrative relief and work permits to as many as 3.7 million undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, along with 300,000 young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children. The actions, which only defer deportations and do not provide legal status or a pathway to citizenship, came as the president has been attacked over immigration in recent months by all sides of the political spectrum.
GOP leaders have been considering various ways to stop the new program, and even as they spoke to Johnson in respectful tones at the hearing, they attacked the policies that he was there to defend.
“The president’s unilateral actions to bypass Congress undermine the constitution and threaten our democracy,’’ committee chairman Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said at the start of the hearing. “Regardless of where you stand on this issue, there is a right way to do this, and there is a wrong way. And unfortunately, the president has taken the wrong way.’’
Johnson responded that Obama’s actions were lawful and resulted from an extensive internal review in which the DHS chief consulted leaders of immigration agencies inside DHS, along with business and labor leaders and members of Congress.
“I recommended to the president each of the Homeland Security reforms to the immigration system that he has decided to pursue,’’ said Johnson, who acknowledged that the measures are imperfect. The president, he said, “continues to count on Congress for the more comprehensive reform that only changes in law can provide.’’
Democrats on the committee supported Johnson and criticized Republicans for what they called excessive criticism of Obama’s actions, especially when the GOP is unwilling to pursue broader immigration reform. Comprehensive reform is dead, for now, in Congress.
“I am troubled by the extreme criticism and disdain that this temporary and limited set of actions has received by some in Congress,’’ said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), the committee’s ranking member. He said Obama’s actions “are not outside the bounds of presidential authority, as provided under our Constitution.’’

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Afghans are ready but is Pakistan willing?

By Amrullah Saleh

Pakistan must stop framing Afghanistan as part of a sphere of influence policy.

In an exceptionally disastrous fashion, Kabul has experienced 12 consecutive days of terrorist attacks, resulting in the deaths of many innocent civilians - foreign and Afghan.
For most Afghans - and perhaps for President Ashraf Ghani as well - the recent spike in Taliban attacks comes as a surprise following his official visit to Pakistan last month, where he took an unprecedented step by directly reaching out to Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif to help stem the insurgency and help push for a peace deal.
Ghani may have believed that by not espousing the past and ignoring the historic realities clouding contemporary relations between the two countries, he would get a promise of peace from Rawalpindi - the military headquarters of Pakistan's armed forces. Even cynics hoped this would reduce the level of violence, and open up the way for a strategic relationship and partnership between the two countries.
But this time, the Taliban were quick to freeze hopes for our side. In a quest to demonstrate their presence on Afghanistan's strategic landscape, they launched an unprecedented winter offensive by indiscriminately targeting foreigners and Afghans alike.
Winter offensive
Ghani's hope that his trip to Pakistan would put a stop to a Taliban summer offensive in 2015 is fast evaporating, unless the Afghan political class reaches a consensus soon on a realistic strategy to push the negotiations agenda forward with necessary measures from key international stakeholders to facilitate sincere cooperation in the region.
Deadly attack on Kabul guesthouse ends
For now, the primary aim of the terror campaign in Kabul and other regions are to force out foreign civilians, shatter the sense of optimism, scare investment away, and remind both Afghans and their allies that the Taliban are creeping at the gates, not about to just fade away through niceties with Pakistan's decision-makers.
The attacks which targeted a volleyball match in Paktika(and left more than 80 young men dead), a British embassy vehicle in a crowded Kabul city street, a female member of parliament, a mosque, an army base, a funeral, security posts along key highways, and a guesthouse where a South African family were gunned down this week, show the hand of a sophisticated network at work.
The attacks also demonstrate training and expertise in casing, targeting, logistics and communications. These skills are usually not taught in religious madrassas. My experience tells me that invisible hands within our neighbouring intelligence circle are helping with the planning.
For the first time, in some of these attacks, advanced explosives have been used - a rare commodity only available to the military and intelligence services. The terrorists also seem to have learned from past mistakes, and studied the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and their US/NATO mentors.
Unlike most previous attacks, the suicide bombers and ambushers leave little or no evidence at the crime scene, depriving our forensics teams of material that can help us trace them and disrupt plans in motion.
Most successful counterterror attacks by the ANSF end up in the neutralisation of local cells, leaving the sanctuaries and master networks intact across the Durand Line.
The inability on the part of the Afghan government, and the lack of political will on the side of US and NATO to take the anti-terror war into sanctuaries that operate deep inside urban and rural areas, have not only caused massive frustration and disappointment for counterterror practitioners, but also for the Afghan and Pakistani populations at large.
Soft targets
Tactically, the Taliban are instructed to avoid frontal attacks, concentrate on soft targets, bog down enemy forces through violence and hit-and-run assaults. Thus, they aim to increase the cost of war and security for an impoverished nation, and create fatigue at the international level.
These conventional tactics have emboldened the Taliban's support networks in our region, giving them hope that time is on their side. Perhaps reconciliation on their terms is what they aspire to as a political solution at the end.
Pakistan's intermittent and selective cooperation with the West based on their convenient definition of terrorism is the core reason for the un-attainability of strategic victory over terror, and an end to militant violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The West has invested significantly and generously in Afghanistan. The build-up of ANSF - a force to be reckoned with, but still fragile on the edges - the rise of a middle class and spread of education and freedom of expression, have politically defeated the Taliban, yet the agenda is set by terror networks that have yet to be defeated militarily.
The key question these days is why Pakistan may want Ghani to fail in his novel Pakistan policy, seen by most Afghans as conciliatory?
Has Pakistan's army lost control of the Taliban? Does Pakistan want to gain more concessions from the West and from Afghans by forcing Afghanistan into an unequal treaty limiting its foreign relations and defence posture? Is there an x-factor that needs to be unpuzzled?
Days after Ghani's visit to Pakistan, Sartaj Aziz, national security adviser to Pakistan's prime minister, referred to the Afghan Taliban as friends of his country from the 1990s who posed no security threat to Pakistan and thus merited no military crackdown by the Pakistan army. Mulana Fazel Rehman, the leader of the Pakistani Jamiate Ulema Islam party, seen as the godfather of the Taliban, went further by branding the violence in Afghanistan as a legitimate anti-foreigner struggle. In response, an emboldened Taliban unleashed a bloody winter offensive.
As a result, the Afghan public belief has been reinforced that Pakistan will not give up on its proxy war, nor cease to facilitate the activity of the Taliban and other terror groups at this stage. In other words, Pakistan is not ready to respect an Afghanistan asking for a relationship on equal terms.
The strategic aim of Pakistan has hardly changed since the 1970s. It remains focused on creating a strategic framework for legitimising the unequal relationship between the two countries. Pakistan believes that it has no, or very little, influence in the current political and military setup in Afghanistan.
But Afghanistan is a changed country. Both houses of the Afghan Assembly ratified the signing of the strategic partnership and bilateral security agreements with the US and NATO.
Afghanistan's military alliance with the West is solid and popular. Similarly, Afghanistan has signed strategic partnership agreements with India, Turkey, European nations and Iran. The ANSF enjoys public support.
These facts are ignored or taken lightly by Pakistani decision-makers and their proxies. It is best for Pakistan to reciprocate the goodwill shown by the Ghani government (including Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah) by restraining the Taliban and ending the violence that affects both countries.

Policy of accommodation

There is political will and determination in the current Afghan unity government to pursue a policy of accommodation with Pakistan. Afghanistan has already placed all its cards on the table. In his address to the Pakistani business community in Islamabad last month, Ghani outlined four key areas for cooperation between the two countries, namely security, investment, trade and access to Central Asia.
This must be music to the ears of the deep-state in Pakistan, not drumbeats of war. Transforming Pakistan and Afghanistan into an energy hub, and making it possible for the TAPI pipeline to go live, will not be realised with more terror attacks.
Despite being Afghanistan's closest neighbour, and enjoying mass people-to-people contacts, the strategist community in Islamabad and Rawalpindi do not realise that framing us as a part of a sphere of influence policy is no longer a viable option, as Afghan resilience cannot be broken by pressure.
The Afghan psyche is set. It is time to say goodbye to the Cold War mentality, a policy of domination and big brother posturing. Any unequal treaty or imbalanced relationship forced upon this country through exploitation of our landlocked status and poverty will backfire. Afghanistan cannot be subdued.
Instead, it is time to shape a new paradigm. It is time to look forward and adopt new thinking and overcome strategic constipation. Afghans are ready, as demonstrated by the overtures of our new unity government, to say no to violence, extremism and backwardness. Is Pakistan ready?