News & Current Affairs

September 26, 2008

West ‘agrees new Iran resolution’

West ‘agrees new Iran resolution’

Iran maintains that the purposes of its nuclear programme are peaceful

The foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany have agreed a draft resolution on Iran’s nuclear programme.

Diplomats said the new resolution would reaffirm three earlier rounds of UN sanctions, and make it clear that the Security Council wants Iran to comply.

The agreement came after discussions between the US and Russia in New York.

On Wednesday, Iran’s president warned it would resist “bullying powers” who tried to thwart its nuclear ambitions.

Addressing the UN General Assembly in New York, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his country supported dialogue but would not accept “illegal demands”.

Western powers suspect Iran wants to build a nuclear weapons capability. Tehran says its nuclear programme is peaceful.

The UN Security Council has already imposed three packages of sanctions against Iran for defying its calls to halt uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, and refusing to answer questions from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In a report last week, the agency said that without further information, it would not be able to provide assurances about Iran’s nuclear programme to the international community.

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September 12, 2008

Pakistan’s counter-insurgency quandary

Pakistan’s counter-insurgency quandary

The residents of Sheikh Yasin camp are not celebrating the inauguration of Pakistan’s new president.

Taheer, a farmer now resident in the Sheikh Yasin camp
The army’s killing people because America gives it money to fight terrorists, so it has to show it’s doing something
Taher, a farmer now resident in Sheikh Yasin camp

They jostle each other as they wait for hand-outs of bread and queuing for soup, ladled out from huge vats under a canvas tarpaulin crusty with flies.

More than 2,000 people have fled to the camp to escape an army bombing campaign against the local Taleban in the Bajaur tribal area near the Afghan border. More civilians were killed than militants, they say.

For many Pakistanis, this is what the “war on terror” has brought: displacement and death. There is resentment and anger.

Double game

Despite, or perhaps because of, the high price that Pakistan has paid since 9/11, there’s no consensus in the country about how to confront Islamist militancy.

Now with a new president and a relatively new government, once again questions are being raised about the country’s counter-insurgency policy.

Pakistan’s former military leader Pervez Musharraf swung between military offensives and peace talks with militants.

Neither worked, and the general, although a key American ally, was accused of playing a double game by maintaining links with the Taleban.

It’s not clear if it will be any different under the new civilian President, Asif Zardari, who took the oath of office this week. During his party’s short six months in government, it has also tried both war and peace.

But at his inaugural press conference, Mr Zardari seemed to signal a new line. He shared the podium with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president who has accused Pakistan of harboring and supporting the Taleban.

They pledged co-operation against the militants, something for which Washington has long been pressing.

‘America’s man’

“I think so far Mr Zardari has been more forthright and more articulate [than Musharraf] in his belief that the war on terror has to be fought with greater intensity and sincerity,” says Tariq Fathimi, a former ambassador to the United States.

“He has also been very categorical in stating that the war on terror is something that’s in the interest of Pakistan, and that must be something that pleases the Bush administration.”

resident of Sheikh Yasin camp

For Sheikh Yasin residents, the ‘war on terror’ has brought only misery

But for many in Pakistan, his performance has only strengthened impressions that he’s America’s man, and that’s a problem.

Most Pakistanis are opposed to their government’s participation in what they call America’s war. And a recent surge in US air strikes against suspected militant targets in Pakistan’s border region has not helped the new government.

“It is making things rather impossible for us,” says Rehman Malik, head of the Interior Ministry, “because when the people hear of an alien attack, nobody likes it, we’re talking about the sovereignty of our country.

“So we are fighting our war… and now we are asking the international community to help us.”

It’s not just the people – Pakistan’s army is also angry, and it’s still the country’s most powerful institution. Any new policy or approach by Asif Zardari would need its backing to be successful.

Analysts say the army is unsure about Mr Zardari but willing to work with him, especially if he can deliver clear parliamentary support for military action.

Pakistani soldiers in NWFP

The army is eager to get the government’s support

That source of popular legitimacy was sorely lacking under the previous administration. But the US air strikes complicate the relationship with the government.

“Within the army there is strong thinking that we are being let down by the government if it doesn’t respond,” says retired General Talat Masood.

“Because then, what would the people of Pakistan think about the army, which is just allowing national sovereignty to be violated in such a gross manner?”

There’s no doubt Pakistan is facing a huge problem of Islamic militancy. But many are convinced it can’t tackle this if it’s seen to be acting at America’s behest.

“Probably the only way to reverse it is to initiate a parliamentary debate,” says Zaffar Abbas, the Islamabad editor of Dawn Newspaper, “to have a home-grown policy to deal with militancy and religious extremism, which is somewhat de-linked from the American demand to have an international campaign against terrorism.

“Unless they are able to do it, it will be nearly impossible to deal with this menace of terrorism.”

Asif Zardari may have signalled that he’s willing to work closely with America. But as a democratically elected leader, he also says he’ll be directed by parliament.

How he handles that is crucial. His challenge is to truly make this Pakistan’s war.

September 7, 2008

France shocked by images of war

France shocked by images of war

Staring out from a glossy eight-page spread in the latest edition of the magazine Paris Match, several Taleban fighters show off their trophies of war.

Funeral for French soldiers

The loss of the 10 soldiers in Afghanistan shocked France

Guns, walkie-talkies and even a wrist-watch are photographed – all spoils taken from the 10 French soldiers they killed in an ambush last month.

Accompanying the pictures is a long interview with the Taleban leader who calls himself Commander Farouki.

He claims they were tipped off about the French mission in their area and were able to prepare an ambush with 140 highly trained insurgents.

“If night hadn’t fallen we’d have killed every one of the soldiers,” he boasts.

He denies reports that other French paratroopers were captured and tortured but warns that every single French soldier found on Afghan soil will be killed.

Propaganda

On French radio today, Defense Minister Herve Morin criticized Paris Match for peddling Taleban propaganda.

“Should we really be doing the Taleban’s propaganda for them?” he asked.

“The Taleban have understood perfectly that Western public opinion is probably the Achilles’ heel of the international community present in Afghanistan.”

A diplomat from the foreign ministry said it was the responsibility of the media to decide what they covered and how they did it, but added: “The reactions of the families of the servicemen speak for themselves”.

“We can only imagine the pain that they felt when they saw these pictures, as well as that of the comrades of these men who are still in Afghanistan.”

The French population can’t accept to see any more soldiers killed
Jean Francois, Parisian

The father of one of the dead soldiers said he was shocked and hurt to see images of the “murderers” parading the personal effects of his son and comrades.

Although the freedom of the press is fiercely protected in France, in Paris many people were outraged at what they believed was irresponsibility on the part of Paris Match.

“It makes me sick,” said one woman who was close to tears.

“I think about how the parents must feel, the sisters and the brothers… and really… I would hate to see this if this was my son.”

Jean Francois, a financial adviser, agreed.

“This kind of report is horrible and unfair for the families,” he said.

“The French population can’t accept to see any more soldiers killed. French soldiers have to come back to France as soon as possible.”

War opposed

A survey taken in April this year when President Nicolas Sarkozy announced he was sending another battalion of almost 800 soldiers to north-east Afghanistan showed that two-thirds of people here believe their country has no place in the Afghan conflict.

Despite Mr Sarkozy’s insistence that France is fighting a battle against terror in Afghanistan, many people here feel they have just been sucked into Uncle Sam’s war.

Earlier this week, the mother of another of the French paratroopers killed in the 18 August attack told the news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur that she had written a letter to Mr Sarkozy, begging him to get France out of the war.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy lays a medal on the coffin of a soldier killed in Afghanistan

President Sarkozy led mourners at the soldiers’ funeral

“Stop following the example of President Bush,” she wrote. “Let’s stay French. Let’s get our soldiers out of the quagmire.”

Last month’s ambush was France’s worst single military loss in 25 years. As well as those killed, another 21 soldiers were injured.

Until then there had been little news coverage of the French mission, although some 3,000 of the country’s troops are currently serving in Afghanistan.

But being confronted with full-page, glossy photographs of the insurgents who killed their troops is bound to rekindle arguments about what France’s role in Afghanistan really is.

The French parliament has called for an urgent debate on the matter but on Thursday Mr Sarkozy – while acknowledging the difficulties and dangers endured by French troops – insisted they would not abandon their mission.

“If we abandon Afghanistan, we’ll destabilize Pakistan,” he warned.

“And I’d like to remind you that Pakistan has nuclear capabilities.”

August 7, 2008

China rejects Bush criticism of its affairs

China rejects Bush criticism of its affairs

Courtesy Yahoo

BANGKOK, Thailand – China rejected President Bush’s criticism Thursday of its human rights record and restrictions on religion, diplomatically telling him to stay out of its affairs even as he flew to Beijing to attend the Olympics.

In a speech outlining America’s achievements and challenges in Asia, Bush pushed for a free press, free assembly and labor rights in China, and against its detentions of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists. He said he wasn’t trying to antagonize China, but called such reform the only path the potent U.S. rival can take to reach its full potential.

He antagonized the Chinese anyway, setting the stage for an interesting reception when he attends the opening ceremonies Friday evening, takes in some events — including the U.S.-China men’s basketball game — and meets with President Hu Jintao on Sunday after attending church.

“The Chinese government puts people first, and is dedicated to maintaining and promoting its citizens basic rights and freedom,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in response to Bush’s speech. “Chinese citizens have freedom of religion. These are indisputable facts.”

He said China advocates discussions on differing views on human rights and religions on “a basis of mutual respect and equality,” then indicated it didn’t see Bush’s criticism in that light.

“We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues,” Qin said.

Bush did offer praise for China’s market reforms. “Change in China will arrive on its own terms and in keeping with its own history and its own traditions,” he said. “Yet, change will arrive.”

Bush has been trying to walk a tightrope in attending the games, wanting to avoid causing Beijing embarrassment during its two weeks on the world stage while also coming under pressure to use his visit to openly press China’s leaders for greater religious tolerance and other freedoms. Chinese officials bristled when he met with Chinese activists at the White House last week.

“With this speech, Bush is trying to address two polar issues: easing the controversy created by those who oppose his visit during the Games and simultaneously maintaining America’s strategy with China,” said Yan Xuetong, an expert in U.S.-China relations at Beijing‘s prestigious Tsinghua University.

Making the repression issue timely, China has rounded up opponents ahead of the Olympics and slapped restrictions on journalists, betraying promises made when it landed the hosting rights.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd urged the international community “to speak with a strong and united voice” to maintain pressure on China over human rights. But he conceded Beijing’s record has improved.

“Remember, it was not all that long ago they were in the middle of the cultural revolution with people getting put up against a wall and basically knocked off,” he told Nine Network television before flying to Beijing.

The White House’s handling of the speech demonstrated the president’s balancing act. Bush’s address containing the criticism of China was delivered outside the country, in Thailand. The White House took the unusual step of releasing the text of it even earlier, about 18 hours before he spoke.

And the speech was followed by a string of events Thursday, by both the president and his wife, Laura, that were clearly aimed at shifting the focus to the repressive military regime in Myanmar, neighbor to Thailand, where Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej regards himself as a friend of Myanmar’s generals. Myanmar, also known as Burma, marks the 20th anniversary of a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists on Friday.

The Bush administration has become increasingly vocal about Myanmar in recent months, blaming a corrupt regime for failing to help its citizens after a devastating cyclone in May, in large part by initially failing to accept international help and then only with tight restrictions, and for violently suppressing democracy demonstrations by Buddhist monks in last September’s so-called Saffron Revolution.

Mrs. Bush, the administration’s highest-profile spokeswoman on the issue, flew for the day to northwestern Thailand to visit a border refugee camp. The Mae La camp is home to 38,000 Karen, an ethnic minority that human rights organizations say is the target of an ongoing Myanmar military campaign marked by murders of civilians, rapes and razing of villages. She also stopped at a health clinic run by a woman known as the “Mother Teresa of Burma.”

Remaining in Bangkok, the president was briefed at the U.S. ambassador’s residence on recovery from the cyclone that devastated Myanmar’s heartland and killed more than 80,000 people, had lunch with nine Burmese activists and did an interview with local radio journalists in hopes of influencing events across the border.

Bush called the activists “courageous people,” saying he wanted to hear their stories and their advice.

One of the activists, Lway Aye Nang of the Women’s League of Burma, said rape has long been used “as a weapon of war” in Myanmar and thanked Washington for imposing sanctions against her country.

“This is really hitting … the regime and their associates, who have been defiling the country’s natural resources for their own benefit and leaving ordinary citizens in extreme poverty,” she said.

Bush’s speech had been expected to prominently feature Myanmar. But it contained only a brief — though blunt — mention of the reclusive nation.

One of the world’s poorest countries, Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962, when the latest junta came to power after brutally crushing a pro-democracy uprising in 1988.

“We will continue working until the people of Burma have the freedom they deserve,” Bush said, calling for the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners.

Bush also urged North Korea to live up to its promise to dismantle its nuclear weapons, adding: “The United States will continue to insist that the regime in Pyongyang end its harsh rule and respect the dignity and human rights of the North Korean people.”

About 25 people around the convention center where Bush spoke welcomed him. But a Muslim group shouted “Bush, get out. God is great” as the presidential motorcade passed. The protesters handed out leaflets saying “George Bush is a war criminal.”

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