Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Afghanistan surprises most first-time visitors (including many on military transport planes) with stunning natural beauty — there’s little room in column inches taken up with war to describe snow-topped mountains, lush valleys, spring fields scattered with crocus and other pleasures of living here.
The country’s dazzling blue Band-e Amir lakes are almost unique geologically (not the way they are formed, but in their size), there are endangered animals like snow leopards roaming the country’s more remote corners, and now naturalists have discovered one of the world’s largest natural stone arches.
The Hazarchishman arch, which sits over 3,000 metres above sea level, has a span of almost 65 metres, making it the 12th largest known in the world. It has nudged Utah’s Outlaw Arch down one place in the list.
There are also man-made treasures left, despite centuries of war and destruction, and a more recent spasm of archeological looting fueled by the huge market for antiquities, whether legal or not.
In the run-up to Wednesday’s cricket match between India and Pakistan, passions are running high on both sides of the border and in the diaspora which is following their teams’ progress in the game’s biggest tournament.
How to demolish Pakistan was the title of a programme aired by an Indian television network where former players and experts discussed ways to win the high-voltage game that will be played in the northern Indian town of Mohali, within, in a manner of speaking, of earshot distance of the heavily militarised border with Pakistan.
Pakistan television in similarly wall-to-wall coverage ran a programme where one of the guests advised the team to recite a particular passage from the Koran before stepping out to play that day. There is even a story doing the rounds in Pakistan that an enraged Indian crowd put a parrot fortune teller to death for predicting a Pakistani victory, according to this report.
Islamic countries set aside their 12-year campaign to have religions protected from "defamation", allowing the U.N. Human Rights Council in Genea to approve a plan to promote religious tolerance on Thursday. Western countries and their Latin American allies, strong opponents of the defamation concept, joined Muslim and African states in backing without vote the new approach that switches focus from protecting beliefs to protecting believers.
U.S. President Barack Obama welcomed the Persian New Year (1390, which started on Monday) with a video message, as he has done every year of his presidency.
Nawroz festival (also spelt nowroz, nowruz and several other ways) falls on spring equinox and is celebrated across a wide swathe of Central Asia and surrounding areas — it is a public holiday in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Iraqi Kurdistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kashmir and Kyrgyzstan, according to Wikipedia.
The United States has said the scope of its military intervention in Libya is limited, but it nevertheless raises questions about what happens to the two other wars that it is waging, especially in Afghanistan. The last time Washington took the eye off the ball in Afghanistan was in 2003 when it launched the Iraq war and then got so bogged down there that a low level and sporadic Taliban resistance in southern Afghanistan grew into a full blown insurgency from which it is still trying to extricate itself.
The question then is will the U.S. attention again shift away from Afghanistan and to Libya and indeed other African and Middle East countries where revolts against decades of authoritarian rule are gaining ground, and unsettling every strategic calculation. Already U.S. Republicans are saying they are concerned that U.S. forces may be getting drawn into a costly, long-running operation in Libya that lacks clear goals. If it ends in a stalemate – a possibility recognized by Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen – how focused can America be on Afghanistan where you can argue that the stakes are arguably less now that al Qaeda has largely been pushed out, and the fight is almost entirely with the Taliban.
from Pakistan: Now or Never?:
With the release of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, the United States and Pakistan have put behind them one of the more public rows of their up-and-down relationship. It was probably not the worst row -- remember the furore over a raid by U.S. ground troops in Angor Adda in Waziristan in 2008, itself preceded by a deluge of leaks to the U.S. media about the alleged duplicity of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in its dealings on Afghanistan.
But it was certainly one which by its very nature was guaranteed to get the most attention - an American who shot dead two Pakistanis in what he said was an act of self-defence, denied diplomatic immunity and ultimately released only after the payment of blood money. Adding to the drama were two intelligence agencies battling behind the scenes.
from Pakistan: Now or Never?:
In a report this month calling for faster progress on a political settlement on Afghanistan, the influential UK parliamentary foreign affairs committee was unusually critical of the dominance of the military in setting Afghan policy.
"We conclude that there are grounds for concern over the relationship between the military and politicians. We further conclude that this relationship has, over a number of years, gone awry and needs to be re-calibrated ... we believe that problems in Afghanistan highlight the need for a corresponding cultural shift within Whitehall to ensure that those charged with taking foreign policy decisions and providing vitally important political leadership are able to question and appraise military advice with appropriate vigour," it said.
from Russell Boyce:
I do enjoy a coincidence. The week after calls for prodemocracy demonstrations under the social media tag of "Jasmine Revolution" and the week before the National People's Congress (NPC), International journalists (and I of course include photographers under this title) are brought in by the authorities for "chat". During the "chat" they are reminded of the terms of their journalist visas and how quickly these visas can be revoked if the rules are broken on illegal reporting. Also outlined are places that special permission is needed to report from, Tiananmen Square heading the list. Our picture of a member of the PLA leaving the Great Hall in Tiananmen Square appearing to almost step on the photographer with this low angle picture, as I said I do love a coincidence.
A military delegate from the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) leaves the Great Hall of the People after a meeting during the annual session of China's parliament, the National People's Congress, in Beijing March 4, 2011. China said on Friday that its official military budget for 2011 will rise 12.7 percent over last year, returning to the double-digit rises that have stoked regional disquiet about Beijing's expanding strength. REUTERS
from Pakistan: Now or Never?:
When I first heard about Shahbaz Bhatti's assassination, there seemed to be nothing sensible to be said about it. Not yet another prediction about Pakistan's growing instability, nor even an outpouring of anger of the kind that followed the killing of Punjab governor Salman Taseer in the English-language media. The assassination of the Minorities Minister did not appear to portend anything beyond the actual tragedy of his death. And nor could anyone say it came as a surprise. A loss of words, then. A painful punctuation mark.
Cafe Pyala has now articulated far better than I could what went through my mind when I first heard about the assassination.