Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

from Russell Boyce:

Asia – A Week in Pictures 06 March 2011

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.

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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

Inside the Great Hall Jason shot this fantastic, Daliesque image of the headless conductor who appears to radiate waves from the central red star that has replaced his head. Another picture that caught my eye is the image of the patient watching the national address by China's Premier Wen Jiabao from her hospital bed. I wonder if the remote is within reach as these speeches tend to go on for quite a long time and imagine that if you are in hospital in pain there is only so much economic news you can absorb at one time ? Moving away from Beijing and the NPC I am really drawn to Aly's picture of the construction site which was shot to illustrate the housing inflation story in China (not an easy one at any stretch of the imagination). The metal reinforcement supports look like leafless trees, the solitary figure trudging through a lifeless, snowy landscape. 

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The conductor of a military band performs during the rehearsal prior to the opening ceremony of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing March 5, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Lee

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

In Pakistan, an assassination and the death of words

bhattiWhen 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.

Flash, bang, but Afghan night raid comes up empty

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Reuters correspondent Matt Robinson provides a rare glimpse of night raids by U.S. forces in Afghanistan that are again on the rise in an effort to break the back of the insurgency. Here’s his story from a village in Paktika province near the eastern border with Pakistan. (Picture by Matt Robinson)

First the men were separated from the women and children and made to crouch outside on the frozen ground, wrapped in blankets. Then the soldiers went room-to-room, torches shining from raised rifles.

U.S. drones fall silent in Pakistan; only a brief respite?

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For more than three weeks now, there has been no U.S. drone strike in Pakistan’s northwest, triggering speculation that the pause may be related to the tensions between the two countries over the arrest of an American embassy employee for murder. Washington is seeking the release of Raymond Davis, a former Special Forces soldier who killed two Pakistanis on Jan 27 during what he said was an attempted robbery in a Lahore street, arguing he is covered under diplomatic immunity.

Pakistanis,  deeply resentful of the heavy U.S.  involvement in the country, are refusing to hand over Davis, saying he should face trial in Pakistan as he didn’t have immunity.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Afghanistan: Petraeus, personalities and policy

chinook2Buried in the Washington Post story on Marc Grossman taking over as the new U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan are some interesting references to the possible departure of U.S. commander General David Petraeus.

"... virtually the entire U.S. civilian and military leadership in Afghanistan is expected to leave in the coming months, including Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and the embassy's other four most senior officials, Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the U.S.-led international coalition, and Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who runs day-to-day military operations there," it says.

India’s best and brightest at the UN

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The foreign minister of India took the floor at a UN Security  Council meeting this week, but in a rather embarrassing faux pas he  began reading out from the speech of his Portuguese counterpart instead of his own. Three minutes into the address, Indian diplomats realised that S. M.Krishna was reading off the wrong speech, and stopped him from proceeding further. He began again, this time with the right script.

It’s not known what the Portuguese thought of the Indian official  reading their address as his own. Thankfully, the Portuguese minister had spoken earlier, or else Krishna might have been accused of stealing his thunder !

An American in Pakistani custody

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Who exactly is Raymond Davis, the main at the centre of a flaming row between the United States and Pakistan that threatens to derail ties altogether ? It’s an obvious question to ask given the lengths the Obama administration has gone to secure the release of Davis held in Pakistan for shooting and killing two men who he said were trying to rob him. As Reuters reported this week, Washington had put on hold some bilateral engagements, and even hinted that a $7.5  billion civillian aid package could be jeopardised if Islamabad continued to hold Davis disregarding his diplomatic immunity. The New York Times and the Washington Post said a much-sought after state visit by President Asif Ali Zardari planned for the end of March was on the line now. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cancelled a meeting with Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi at an international security conference in Munich late last month, the Post said.

The Americans are saying Davis is a diplomat and hence arresting him is a violation of international norms and the Vienna Conventions.  The U.S. embassy had initially identified him as a staff member of the U.S. consulate in the eastern city of Lahore where the incident occured.

Slamming the door on reconciliation with Taliban

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Afghanistan’s National Security Adviser Rangeen Dadfar Spanta has said that the Taliban would have to lay down arms, accept the constitution in its current form and run for elections if they wanted a share of power.  If the Taliban thought they could get cabinet berths for the asking in return for a peace deal, they have another thing coming, he told the McClatchy newspapers in an interview.

If that’s the Afghan government’s stand,  a deal with the insurgents seems to be a non-starter. Imagine the Taliban agreeing to take part in a Western-style election  campaign under a constitution they have long denounced as forced on the country following their ouster in 2001. The idea of the Taliban – more known for their brutal methods –  knocking on doors seeking votes seems a bit far fetched at the moment. Last week’s reports of the Taliban stoning a young couple to death in rather barbaric fashion in northern Afghanistan on charges of adultery have only reinforced the image of a group unyielding in its interpretation of sharia  law.

U.S. Afghan strategy : destroying a village to save it

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A U.S. military operation in Afghanistan’s Arghandab valley in which a village overrun by the Taliban was destroyed and is now being rebuilt has set off a firestorm of criticism  from experts and Afghans who say this is a surefire way of losing the population to the insurgents.  Surely you can’t win over hearts and minds by levelling homes and farms and then offering to resettle residents back there,  even if the new dwellings turn out to be better, stronger than the original.

It goes back to the  old debate that has dogged the U.S. mission in Afghanistan .  Is defending the local population and its interests  at the heart of the counter insurgency strategy or is this now a mission focused on a single-minded pursuit of al Qaeda (not many left there in any case) and the Taliban to the last man standing ?

Afghan crisis had five-star lining for MPs

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By Hamid Shalizi

For Afghanistan’s recently elected MPs, a political crisis that threatened to stop some of them ever taking up their seats had a silver lining – they all moved into a five star hotel.

Nearly all 249 MPs booked rooms in one of Kabul’s most luxurious hotels, the hill-top Intercontinental, after President Hamid Karzai said he would delay the inauguration of parliament by a month.

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