News & Current Affairs

February 20, 2010

Dutch cabinet collapses in dispute over Afghanistan

Dutch cabinet collapses in dispute over Afghanistan

A Dutch soldier in Afghanistan

Dutch forces have been in Uruzgan since 2006

The Dutch government has collapsed over disagreements within the governing coalition on extending troop deployments in Afghanistan.

After marathon talks, Christian Democratic Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende announced that the Labour Party was quitting the government.

He offered his government’s resignation to Queen Beatrix in a telephone call.

The premier had been considering a Nato request for Dutch forces to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2010.

But Labour, the second-largest coalition party, has opposed the move.

Just under 2,000 Dutch service personnel have been serving in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan since 2006, with 21 killed.

Their deployment has already been extended once.

Where there is no trust, it is difficult to work together
Jan Peter Balkenende

The troops should have returned home in 2008, but they stayed on because no other Nato nation offered replacements.

The commitment is now due to end in August 2010.

The Dutch parliament voted in October 2009 that it must definitely stop by then, although the government has yet to endorse that vote.

Mr Balkenende’s centre-right Christian Democrats wanted to agree to Nato’s request to extend the Dutch presence in Afghanistan.

But this was bitterly opposed by the Dutch Labour Party.

The finance minister and leader of the Labour Party, Wouter Bos, demanded an immediate ruling from Mr Balkenende.

When they failed to reach a compromise, Labour said it was pulling out of the coalition.

Nato priority

Mr Balkenende said he would offer the cabinet’s resignation to the Dutch Queen Beatrix later on Saturday following the collapse of the government.

It was announced after a 16-hour cabinet meeting which ran into the early hours of Saturday morning.

The prime minister said there was no common ground between the parties.

“Where there is no trust, it is difficult to work together. There is no good path to allow this cabinet to go further,” he said.

The launch in 2001 of Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) for Afghanistan was the organisation’s first and largest ground operation outside Europe.

Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said six months ago when he began his job that his priority was the war in Afghanistan.

As of October 2009, Isaf had more than 71,000 personnel from 42 different countries including the US, Canada, European countries, Australia, Jordan and New Zealand.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende

Mr Balkenende had been considering the Nato request

The US provides the bulk of foreign forces in Afghanistan, and President Barack Obama has announced an extra 30,000 American troops for Afghanistan.

The Pentagon has said the next 18 months could prove crucial for the international mission in Afghanistan, after more than eight years of efforts to stabilise the country.

Afghanistan remains a deadly place for foreign forces.

Suicide attacks on Afghan civilians and roadside bomb strikes on international troops are common, with the Taliban strongly resurgent in many areas of the country.

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June 30, 2009

Challenges loom as Iraqis celebrate

Filed under: Latest, Politics News, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 11:33 am

Challenges loom as Iraqis celebrate

Iraqi celebrate 29 June 2009

Iraqis celebrated US troop withdrawals from cities in a way that has not been seen since the invasion

There was a pop concert and celebrations in the Baghdad zoo park, fireworks in the night sky, and jubilation in the streets.

Security forces were everywhere, all leave cancelled, for fear that the bombers might strike again.

But even the checkpoints were garlanded with flowers and flags, and many had music blaring.

They were marking the arrival of the last day of June, the deadline for US forces to be out of Iraqi towns and cities.

It’s been named Sovereignty Day, and declared a public holiday. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has said it is a huge victory for Iraq.

But the fact is that for most people in Baghdad and elsewhere, 1 July will look very similar to 30 June or 29 June.

‘A few miles away’

American troops have rarely been seen on the streets in many areas in recent months.

Most of the tasks involving contact with the public have been taken over by Iraqi security forces.

But the withdrawal process did see the US troops either dismantling some 86 bases in the capital or handing them to Iraqi forces.

At one such base, Joint Security Station Comanche on the edge of Sadr City, American soldiers were toiling last week in the baking heat to meet the deadline.

People have tasted democracy, they have worked on democracy… Nobody can enforce dictatorship again on this country
Haidar al-Obadi
Shia MP

Huge concrete blast-walls were taken to pieces and trucked away in the dust to another base outside the city.

The US soldiers from the 1st Cavalry’s Ironhorse Brigade were packing their kitbags and backpacks, stashing them in MRAP armoured vehicles, and being driven away.

“Since we came here in February, our 2,300 men haven’t suffered a single fatality,” said the position commander, Capt Chris Clyde.

“We’re moving to another base a few miles away outside the city, and will continue working with our Iraqi partners from there.”

JSS Comanche is already a thing of the past.

It is no longer a military position. It has been totally dismantled. The building used as its command centre was handed back to its original owners, the Iraqi Agriculture Ministry.

‘Sacrifices’

On Monday, there was a symbolic ceremony at the old Iraqi Ministry of Defence building in the centre of Baghdad, the last US-held position to be handed over to the Iraqi authorities.

At another big ceremony and parade on Tuesday, Mr Maliki paid tribute to the “increasing credibility” of the Iraqi security forces.

Iraqi soldiers on parade 29 June 2009

He said the US withdrawal from the cities vindicated the position taken by Iraqi negotiators in the tough talks with the US that led to the agreement under which American troops should be entirely out of Iraq by the end of 2011, and that the withdrawal timeline would be adhered to.

As far as the towns and cities are concerned, while US forces remain on call outside city limits, their role in urban areas now changes to one of training and advising.

“This is a huge day both for the American and Coalition forces and for the Iraqis,” said the chief spokesman for the US-led Multinational Forces, Brig Gen Steve Lanza.

“This is the culmination of much hard work and sacrifice over the years, as Iraqi security forces now have primacy and control in this country.”

Election test

Much now depends on whether Iraqi forces can prevent the upsurge of violence which heralded the approach of the US withdrawals from triggering another spiral of sectarian violence – the clear aim of a series of deadly bomb attacks directed almost exclusively against Shia neighbourhoods and markets.

It was just such attacks which provoked Shia militias to take brutal revenge against Sunnis in 2006 and 2007, taking the country to the brink of civil war and disintegration.

US soldier in Baquba

More than 130,000 US soldiers remain in Iraq, with full withdrawal due in 2011

“Iraqi society, two years and more ago, looked into that abyss and rejected it, and that is the trend now,” said British ambassador in Baghdad Christopher Prentice, looking ahead to key general elections scheduled for January.

“The concentration and effort across Iraq now is on a very vigorous political campaign. Six months from a landmark election, this is almost unique in the region, a country that is focusing on coalition building, on real politics, and the question is which politicians can win the trust of the electorate to deliver better services and build on the improving security in the way that meets the national needs.”

The period leading up to the elections will be a real test for the Iraqi forces.

They still have 131,000 US troops standing by to help if they run into trouble.

But if they do have to call them back in, it will be seen as a reverse for the Iraqi government, and for President Barack Obama’s hopes of getting all of his forces out of Iraq by the end of 2011 without leaving chaos in their wake.

Changed society

Last January’s provincial elections set an impressive model of democracy in action, with powerful parties in some cases losing out, but accepting the results with good grace.

Will they do so in future elections, when the Americans are no longer around to stiffen the resolve of security forces? Is democracy now sufficiently rooted that it will survive the US withdrawal?

Haidar al-Obadi, a Shia Member of Parliament and close adviser to the prime minister, believes it is.

“There is no going back to a dictatorship or a one-party system in the country now,” he said.

“People have tasted democracy, they have worked on democracy, it is an operation not only at the centre, but also in other areas, in the governorates and in the regions. Nobody can enforce dictatorship again on this country.”

March 29, 2009

Biden appeals to G20 protesters

Biden appeals to G20 protesters

Prime Minister Gordon Brown meets US Vice-President Joe Biden (R) in Chile on Saturday 28 March 2009

Joe Biden (right) asked protesters to give G20 leaders a fair hearing

US Vice-President Joe Biden has called for G20 protesters to give governments a chance to tackle the economic crisis.

At a G20 warm-up meeting in Chile, Mr Biden said heads of state would agree proposals to remedy the crisis at next week’s meeting in London.

As they spoke, tens of thousands of protesters marched in the UK capital and in Germany, France and Italy.

US billionaire George Soros told the news the G20 meeting was “make or break” for the world economy.

“Unless they do something for developing world there will be serious collapse in that part of the world,” Mr Soros said.

Massive security operation

At a news conference in Vina del Mar, Mr Biden said he hoped the protesters would give the politicians a chance.

“Hopefully we can make it clear to them that we’re going to walk away from this G20 meeting with some concrete proposals,” he said.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he understood why people were demonstrating in the UK.

“We will respond to [the protest] at the G20 with measures that will help create jobs, stimulate business and get the economy moving,” he said.

But Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told the Chile meeting that everyone was suffering from the recklessness of those who had turned the world economy into “a gigantic casino”.

“We are rejecting blind faith in the markets,” he said.

In London on Saturday, demonstrators demanding action on poverty, jobs and climate change called on G20 leaders to pursue a new kind of global justice.

Police estimated 35,000 marchers took part in the event.

A series of rallies are planned for Wednesday and Thursday by a variety of coalitions and groups campaigning on a range of issues from poverty, inequality and jobs, to war, climate change and capitalism.

There have been reports that banks and other financial institutions could be targeted in violent protests.

British officials have put a huge security operation in place.

‘We won’t pay’

Before the London summit, Mr Brown has been visiting a number of countries trying to rally support for his economic plans.

In Chile on Friday he said people should not be “cynical” about what could be achieved at the summit, saying he was optimistic about the likely outcome.

But in an interview, German Chancellor Angela Merkel dampened expectations of a significant breakthrough.

She said one meeting would not be enough to solve the economic crisis and finish building a new structure for global markets.

In Berlin, thousands of protesters took to the streets on Saturday with a message to the G20 leaders: “We won’t pay for your crisis.”

Another march took place in the city of Frankfurt. The demonstrations attracted as many as 20,000 people.

In the Italian capital, Rome, several thousand protesters took to the streets.

In Paris, around 400 demonstrators dumped sand outside the stock exchange to mock supposed island tax havens.

November 12, 2008

Was Armistice flawed?

Was Armistice flawed?

The armistice deal signed on 11 November 1918 brought yearned-for relief to Western Europe. But the same pact has been blamed for the return to conflict in Europe only 20 years later. Does the deal deserve the criticism, asks Professor Gerard De Groot of the University of St Andrews.

Armistice celebrations in Britain

The Armistice ended four years of fierce fighting

On 27 September 1918, the British Army, reinforced by French, Belgian and Canadian units, attacked the German line in Flanders, Belgium.

Progress was not immediately impressive, but that operation did achieve the symbolically important result of piercing the Hindenburg Line, which was supposed to be impregnable.

For Erich Ludendorff, the German commander, the jig was up. On 1 October, he told his general staff that “final defeat was probably inescapably at hand”. The task now was to avoid ignominious defeat.

The Germans therefore notified US President Woodrow Wilson on 6 October that they were willing to discuss an armistice.

They approached Mr Wilson because they hoped to get a good deal from a leader who seemed humane.

That immediately aroused the suspicions of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French President Georges Clemenceau, both of whom were determined to make Germany pay for the suffering the war had caused.

‘Harsh peace’

Keen to get a jump on President Wilson, Mr Clemenceau asked the Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch to draw up armistice terms.

You wish to do justice to the Germans. Do not believe they will ever forgive us; they will merely seek the opportunity for revenge
Georges Clemenceau
French President

Mr Foch concocted a set of demands designed to render it impossible for the Germans to resume hostilities.

All captured territory, including German speaking areas of Alsace and Lorraine, would be immediately surrendered. Within four weeks, the Germans would be required to evacuate the right bank of the Rhine to a depth of 10km (six miles), a demand cleverly calculated to leave German units in a disorganized state.

In addition, a vast collection of military hardware (including 5,000 artillery pieces, 25,000 machine guns and 1,700 aircraft) were to be surrendered, plus 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 railway cars and 5,000 lorries.

At sea, Germany would be reduced to a second-rate naval power, surrendering all her submarines and the bulk of her surface fleet.

By the end of October, the British and French had managed to drag the Americans toward their version of reality.

The three powers settled upon terms roughly similar to Mr Foch’s.

In a series of notes, Mr Wilson warned the Germans to expect a harsh peace.

They were to consider themselves militarily defeated, and safeguards would be implemented to insure that hostilities could not be resumed. They should also expect to pay reparations for the costs of the war.

President Wilson further insisted that he would deal only with the elected representatives of the German people, not with the Kaiser.

‘No hope’

For Mr Ludendorff, this amounted to unconditional surrender and was therefore unacceptable.

Allied Supreme Commander  Ferdinand Foch (first row, 2nd right) and other signatories of the Armistice treaty in Compiegne Forest on 11 1918

The Armistice was signed in a railway carriage outside Compiegne Forest

In consequence, he demanded that the German government back away from the armistice.

His sidekick, General Paul von Hindenburg, likewise attested: “Wilson’s answer can only amount to a challenge to continue to resist to the utmost of our capabilities”.

But that rallying cry was shouted into a vacuum.

The German state was in terminal meltdown. Once the possibility of an armistice was raised, there was no further hope of rousing the people to continue the fight.

On 8 November, therefore, a German delegation – headed by Matthias Erzberger – met Mr Foch in a railway carriage outside Compiegne.

The terms sent Mr Erzberger into a state of near paralysis. He nevertheless accepted, and it was agreed that the armistice would take effect at 1100 on 11 November.

Not punished enough?

The armistice terms, and the Versailles settlement that confirmed them, have been blamed for causing World War II.

It is difficult to imagine an armistice that would have satisfied the Entente powers and left the Germans feeling fairly treated

Because we know that WWII occurred, it is easy to judge in retrospect that the armistice must have been too harsh.

This harshness had dual effect: it encouraged a desire for revenge within Germany and a feeling of contrition within Britain. Thus, when the time came that Germany felt able to reassert herself, the British were disinclined to protest because, for many, its anger seemed warranted.

Another school holds that Germany was not punished enough. According to this thesis, the war ended too soon – Germany’s offer of an armistice should have been refused and its army should have been pushed back across the Rhine in order to give the German people graphic proof of their own defeat.

Those who adhere to this thesis often also argue that the treaty established the principle of war guilt, which encouraged German resentment, but did not sufficiently destroy the German ability to act upon that resentment.

Bearing in mind the way Adolf Hitler manipulated the propaganda value of the “unjust” peace, the argument seems to have some merit.

US ‘isolationism’

But punishment, be it of nations or children, is a blunt tool.

Could Germany’s aggressive power realistically have been destroyed in 1919? And, if that option was indeed possible, would the allies have been prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to realize it?

Allied troops huddle in a trench around a tiny fire near Ypres, Belgium, in 1914

More than 40 million people – soldiers and civilians – died in World War I

Which country would have been prepared to forfeit the lives of its citizens in order to make victory more emphatic and peace more severe?

A “fairer” peace seems likewise inconceivable.

“You wish to do justice to the Germans,” Mr Clemenceau once remarked to Mr Wilson. “Do not believe they will ever forgive us; they will merely seek the opportunity for revenge.”

Mr Clemenceau was probably right.

It is difficult to imagine an armistice that would have satisfied the Entente powers and left the Germans feeling fairly treated.

A more liberal treaty might have brought into being a more peaceful, secure Europe, but the populist mood across Europe was not liberal. Equanimity is easy in hindsight, but difficult at a time when the graves of millions were still being dug.

The flaws in the armistice did not alone cause WWII. Germany was able to act upon its resentment because the country that emerged most powerful from the Great War decided subsequently to absent herself from European affairs.

Power implies responsibility, yet the US, in the inter-war period, sought an isolationist haven.

It is by no means clear that greater American involvement in European affairs would have prevented WWII. But it is certain that America’s decision to turn her back on Europe created a power vacuum that Hitler was able to exploit.

September 19, 2008

Becalmed Baghdad counts war’s cost

Becalmed Baghdad counts war’s cost

There have been dozens of bombings in the Karrada district of Baghdad. But there is one date Ali Hameed will never forget – 26 July 2007.

Ali Hameed
We have a bright future in Iraq. The cloud that was hanging over all of us has passed
Ali Hameed

At six pm, a massive truck bomb exploded near his fish shop. Five members of his family were killed.

“We thought it was an earthquake because of the power of the explosion,” he told me.

Ali spent several minutes helping the wounded in the street. Only later did he realise that his home nearby had been destroyed. The whole apartment block was flattened.

In total, more than 60 people were killed. Ali pulled the bodies of his daughter and his brother from the rubble.

But, despite everything that happened to his family, he does not come across as angry or full of hate.

“The situation now is getting better,” he tells me.

“Life is gradually coming back to normal for us. People have started to question the purpose of fighting.

“We have a bright future in Iraq. The cloud that was hanging over all of us has passed.”

The smell of grilled fish wafts out onto the road. It is full of people buying groceries, sitting in cafes, and standing around chatting.

There is a sudden bang and I instinctively flinch. But it is just a car backfiring. The locals do not even notice.

Future anguish

Across Baghdad, people are starting to feel more confident. There are still bombings and shootings almost every day. But there is no longer the constant fear.

Dr Haider Maliki
Many of the children who have experienced trauma become very violent…. It will be a very violent generation
Dr Haider Maliki

The drop in violence has allowed many to think more about its effects. One recent study found that 70% of children exposed to trauma in Iraq go on to develop psychological problems.

At a park in central Baghdad, two orphans are playing.

Salah is nine years old. He was found by the police after a bomb went off. Nobody knows what happened to his family.

Saif is seven. His parents were killed in an explosion.

“I want to tell them [the bombers] it’s against God’s law to kill people,” he tells me. “I want to ask them: why did you kill my mother and father.”

He says he wants to be a policeman when he grows up, so that he can find his parents’ killers and send them to prison.

Salah barely talks at all. His shaking hands tell their own story.

Dr Haider Maliki deals with many similar cases at Baghdad’s only child psychiatric ward. Flowers hang from the ceiling and the walls are brightly painted. They have tried to make it as friendly as possible for the children.

Dr Maliki thinks problems are being stored up for the future.

“Many of the children who have experienced trauma become very violent,” he says. “They are violent towards their parents and they have no respect for their teachers. It will be a very violent generation.”

Letting off steam

On the other side of the city, there is a very different scene. We watch as the stunt bikers of Baghdad take to the streets.

Bikers in Baghdad

Bike enthusiasts make the most of a relatively safer Baghdad

At dusk, more than a hundred people gather on motorbikes. It is an anarchic sight as they race around performing skids, jumps and wheelies for the crowd.

The police keep moving them on, but they always find another venue for their impromptu displays.

The young men are ecstatic – almost intoxicated by the mix of testosterone and petrol fumes.

At one point, the bikers are joined by a man driving a minibus who skids his vehicle wildly around the empty car park.

After all the violence of recent years, young people in Baghdad clearly need to let off a lot of steam.

September 18, 2008

Yemen faces new Jihad generation

Yemen faces new Jihad generation

Aftermath of attack on US embassy

New recruits actively target the Yemeni regime and its supporters like the US

The deadly car bombing outside the US embassy in Yemen represents an escalation in attacks against Western targets and shows al Qaeda-inspired jihadis are growing in ability and determination.

Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed at least 16 people, but it is possible that other groups will come forward in the next few days.

There is a complex network of over-lapping splinter cells and claims of rival leadership within Yemen.

Extremist violence in Yemen has been on the rise since February 2006, when 23 prominent militants tunneled their way out of a high-security jail.

Ten Europeans and four Yemenis have died in attacks on tourist convoys in the past 15 months.

In March, a misfired mortar strike hit a girls’ school next door to the US embassy by mistake.

A subsequent bombing campaign in the capital – against an expatriate residential compound and oil company offices – prompted the US state department to evacuate all non-essential embassy staff from Yemen.

US employees had just started to return to their embassy desks at the end of August – so the timing of the latest attack is significant.

Crackdown

During July, Yemeni security forces killed five al-Qaeda suspects, disrupted a second cell and arrested more than 30 suspected al-Qaeda members.

Map of Yemen

In August, a prominent Islamic Jihad figure was arrested.

But this attack shows that effective leadership remains intact and operational capacity has not been disrupted.

Two Saudi passports were found among documents seized in the July raids and interrogations were said to have uncovered plans to launch attacks in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Yemen subsequently extradited eight Saudi nationals to Riyadh.

The raids underlined the importance to Saudi Arabia of Yemen’s internal security. But Yemen is also paying the price for the northern kingdom’s muscular clampdown on its own insurgents.

In March, a Saudi militant fundraiser said al-Qaeda had been defeated in Saudi Arabia and he called on his remaining associates to flee to Yemen to escape capture or assassination by the Saudi authorities.

The current migration of Saudi jihadis to Yemen coincides with the emergence of a transnational structure calling itself al-Qaeda in the South of the Arabian Peninsula.

Yemen’s mountainous terrain and the weak presence of state structures outside Sanaa have long fostered close ties between jihadis in these neighboring states.

Public education

Cash-strapped Yemen lacks the financial resources to tackle terrorism in the same robust manner as the Saudis; its per capita gross domestic product of $2,300 is dwarfed by the $23,200 seen across the northern border.

The government is moving to a policy of direct confrontation with the younger generation
Analyst Ahmed Saif

In recent years, the Yemeni government has pioneered a dialogue programme and poetry recitals to influence violent jihadis and tribesmen.

The most recent initiative is a two-hour feature film intended to educate the public about Islamic extremism.

The film, called The Losing Bet, follows two Yemeni jihadis who return home after being radicalized abroad.

They are directed by an al-Qaeda mastermind to recruit new members and carry out a “martyrdom operation”.

News footage from the aftermath of a real suicide bombing is edited into scenes of this creative new drama – written and produced by a popular Yemeni director.

The film was launched in August, at a five-star hotel that has previously been an intended target of foiled terrorist plots.

It comes as the government faces a new generation of violent Islamists who are blowing the old, inclusive consensus apart.

The young generation appears to be immune to the standard tactic of negotiation and compromise that President Ali Abdullah Saleh used with the Yemeni mujahideen who returned home at the end of Afghanistan’s war against the Soviet Union.

The Afghan veterans supported the northern tribes against the former socialist South Yemen during the 1994 civil war in return for a reputed “covenant of security” deal – where the government guaranteed protection inside Yemen as long as violence occurred outside the boundaries of the state.

But new recruits are actively targeting President Saleh’s regime, citing as provocation the torture and humiliation of captive al-Qaeda members.

In July, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a police station in Hadramaut. In a subsequent statement, a splinter cell pledged to continue attacks against security and intelligence structures.

Such an explicit declaration means there is no longer scope for dialogue, according to Ahmed Saif, director of the Sheba Centre for Security Studies.

“The government is moving to a policy of direct confrontation with the younger generation,” he says.

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.”

September 5, 2008

US ‘spying’ on Iraqi leadership

US ‘spying’ on Iraqi leadership

US President Bush with Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad in 2006

Mr Bush says he has worked hard on his relationship with Mr Maliki

The US has been extensively spying on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a new book by renowned US reporter Bob Woodward claims.

A source in the book is quoted as saying “we know everything he says”, according to the Washington Post.

The book also says “ground-breaking” covert techniques have helped reduce the violence in Iraq.

This is the fourth book on the Bush administration by Mr Woodward, the Washington Post’s associate editor.

The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008, examines the handling of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and President Bush’s leadership and governing style, according to the Post.

Several sources in the book support the claim that Mr Maliki and other Iraqi leaders were being spied on by the US administration.

But Mr Woodward says the tactic was not universally popular in the White House – some senior US officials questioned whether it was worth the risk, given Mr Bush’s efforts to develop a close working relationship with Mr Maliki.

Growing rifts

The book also claims that the US “surge” in 2007, in which nearly 30,000 extra troops were sent to Iraq, was not the primary reason for the steep drop in violence seen over the last year.

Mr Woodward says new covert techniques have been used successfully by US military and intelligence officials to find, target and kill insurgents.

He does not go into detail about them, saying the White House asked him to withhold specifics in the interests of national security.

The book quotes from interviews given by Mr Bush himself, and looks at the how the decision-making of the war evolved and the internal clashes it caused.

It reveals a breakdown in the confidence between the president and his military commanders in the region, as well as discord between the state and defence departments.

US officials have not commented on the book, which is due to be published on Monday.

Mr Woodward is well-known for his investigative reporting, and first came to prominence for his role in exposing the Watergate scandal which led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

September 3, 2008

Profile: John McCain

Profile: John McCain

McCain is a divisive figure within his own Republican
party [GALLO/GETTY]

A decorated Vietnam war hero who spent more than five years as a war prisoner, McCain’s successful bid for the Republican nomination had marked his second attempt to run for the White House.

But his success is a remarkable turnaround for the Arizona senator, who until recently was not viewed as a serious contender.

A self-proclaimed straight talker whose bluntness and at times unconventional style have both frustrated and appealed to would be voters, McCain is a divisive figure within his own party, to the extent that some have claimed they will not vote for him.

And some have pointed to both this rocky relationship and his age – at 71 he will be America’s oldest ever president –  as major obstacles on the road to the Oval Office.

Vietnam ordeal

McCain [here with Richard Nixon] spent years
in Vietnam POW camps
[Getty Images]

McCain comes from a family with a long military history – both his father and grandfather served as US navy admirals.

McCain himself joined the navy in 1958, beginning a 22-year long naval career marked most notably by his decision to volunteer for service in the Vietnam war.

It was a momentous decision. In October 1967 during a bombing mission, McCain’s plane was shot down by a missile.

He ejected but was injured in the process, breaking both his arms and his leg.

Captured by north Vietnamese soldiers, he was taken prisoner and held at several prisons for five and a half years, often enduring torture by his captors. He still bears physical scars from his ordeal.

Most notably, though he was offered an early release by the North Vietnamese, McCain declined because he did not want to be seen as receiving preferential treatment.

On his return, McCain decided to enter politics, becoming first a naval liaison for the US senate, then a congressman for Arizona before entering the senate in 1987.

Hawkish policies

“Tehran must understand that it cannot win a showdown with the world”

John McCain

On foreign policy, many prospective voters were unnerved by a comment McCain made while campaigning in which he said he believed US forces should stay in Iraq for 100 years if necessary.

“I oppose a pre-emptive withdrawal strategy that has no Plan B for the aftermath of its inevitable failure and the greater problems that would ensue,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine.

However, McCain has criticised US military strategy in Iraq, saying that by failing to adopt a counterinsurgency strategy the US and the Iraqi people had paid a “dear price”.He is also a firm opponent of the use of torture. However, he recently voted against a senate bill which would have banned the controversial interrogation method of waterboarding widely viewed as torture.

McCain also advocates building up Israel militarily and isolating Hamas, while using every resource available “to aid moderate Muslims … who are resisting the well-financed campaign of extremism that is tearing Muslim societies apart”, he added.

On Iran, McCain is hawkish, describing the nation as the world’s “chief state sponsor of terrorism” and advocating all options, including possible military action, against the Islamic Republic should it continue with its nuclear program.

“Tehran must understand that it cannot win a showdown with the world,” he wrote.

However, an embarrassing gaffe during a visit to Jordan in March, in which he wrongly accused Iran, a predominantly Shia nation, of aiding Sunni al-Qaeda fighters, led to questions about whether his foreign affairs experience was as solid as he claimed.

Polarising figure

McCain was left embittered after his 2000
nomination battle with Bush[EPA]

McCain remains a polarising figure within the Republican party.

On domestic issues McCain is known for being willing to “cross the floor” and work with Democrats, particularly on the matters of campaign finance and on immigration – co-sponsoring a bi-partisan bill which would have offered an amnesty to illegal immigrants.

This has caused suspicion amongst some of the more traditionalist members of the Republican party, who consider him too moderate on social issues such as immigration.

McCain’s response has been to aggressively tout his conservative credentials while out on the road campaigning for the nomination, attempting to strike a delicate balance by reaching out to centrists who may be wooed to vote for him while at the same time striving not to upset evangelicals or more right-wing members of the Republican party.

Past controversies

Two decades ago, McCain and four other senators were accused of trying to influence banking regulators on behalf of Charles Keating, a savings financier later convicted of securities fraud.

The Senate Ethics Committee decided that McCain had used “poor judgment” but that his actions ‘were not improper” and did not deserve punishment.

In 2000 McCain ran against George Bush, losing after a controversial nomination race in which scurrilous accusations against him implied erroneously he had fathered an illegitimate African-American child.

The experience, he later acknowledged, left him angry – although his relationship with Bush has since thawed.

Nonetheless, sensitised by the slurs against him in the 2000 nomination campaign, McCain set up a “South Carolina truth squad’ to rebut allegations that he had “sold out” prisoners of war.

In February, he also denied a New York Times report that suggested he had a romantic relationship with a Washington lobbyist.

However, with the potential slings and arrows of a major presidential campaign, McCain may face more of the same in the future.

September 1, 2008

Australia WWII wreck probe begins

Australia WWII wreck probe begins

HMAS Sydney, pre-1941

The wreckage of the Sydney was found earlier in 2008

An inquiry into Australia’s worst naval disaster is to begin hearing evidence from former war veterans.

Some 645 sailors died when HMAS Sydney was lost in a battle with a German cruiser off Western Australia in 1941.

HMAS Sydney was regarded as the pride of the Australian navy and defense officials say the investigation is “important unfinished business”.

The inquiry will be run by Sir Terence Cole, who presided over a hearing into Australia’s AWB oil-for-wheat scandal.

He is trying to uncover the truth behind one of Australia’s most enduring wartime mysteries.

HMAS Sydney perished after being attacked by a German ship, the Kormoran, which was disguised as a Dutch merchant vessel.

It too sank but the majority of its crew survived.

Australian War Memorial]

None of the Sydney’s crew survived, but the Kormoran’s crew did

But all on board the Sydney were lost and over the years various theories about their demise have emerged as the nation became fascinated with this naval tragedy.

Historians have been unable to unlock the secrets of that day in November 1941.

They have provided no explanation as to why such a superior vessel was sunk by a German boat sailing under a false flag.

There was speculation that the Australian cruiser was really sunk by a Japanese submarine – even though Japan had not yet entered the war.

The wrecks of both HMAS Sydney and the Kormoran were finally located by divers earlier this year.

This week the inquiry will hear from former Australian navy personnel who sailed with the Sydney before it sank more than 65 years ago.

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