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from Photographers' Blog:

One last time in Afghanistan

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One of the responsibilities of Reuters picture coverage in Washington, besides the White House, Capitol Hill and the State Department, is the Pentagon. As the top-level cabinet secretaries travel overseas, Reuters, along with other agencies The Associated Press, Agence France Press and Getty Images cover these trips on a rotational basis.

In the 4- ½ years serving as Secretary of Defense under two Presidents, Robert Gates’ made his 12th and final trip to Afghanistan this week, primarily to thank the troops for their service one last time. Fortunately for me, it was Reuters’ turn to embark on this historic journey. As we circled the earth clockwise via Hawaii and Singapore and eventually onto Brussels for a NATO Summit, Gates touched down in Kabul on June 4th and began three days of extensive travel around Afghanistan, via Blackhawk helicopter, C-17s and Osprey aircraft over the scorching desert in the south and mountainous east of the country.

As a Washington-based photographer more accustomed to mundane political assignments where making a great and memorable picture is akin to creating a “silk purse out of a sow’s ear”, I relish the chance to mix it up and cover the “real world” outside the Washington beltway. Yes, the Secretary of Defense trips are insanely long (11 days this time) and force you to work in some difficult environments, but I love them because you are given a little more access behind the scenes and are generally allowed almost as much freedom to move around as the Secretary’s own Pentagon photographer, the only other on the trip. In getting the best pictures, access is everything.

It was surreal to land at remote Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) and Combat Outposts (COPs), spend a few hours there and then move onto the next one. Gates wanted to thank as many troops serving in the country as he could during his trip so we included as many as we could fit in each day. On almost every occasion we would hear the emotion in his voice as he addressed those serving their nation. Gates would also present each one of them with his own challenge coin, a military tradition, bearing his name on one side and the Department of Defense insignia on the other.

from FaithWorld:

Q+A: Women’s rights in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban

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(Afghan men and women teachers attend their graduation ceremony in Kabul March 30, 2011/Omar Sobhani)

Women have won hard-fought rights in Afghanistan since the austere rule of the Taliban was ended by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001. But gains made in areas such as education, work and even dress code look shaky as the government plans peace talks that include negotiating with the Taliban.

from FaithWorld:

How will Afghan women fare if Kabul and the Taliban reconcile?

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(Schoolgirls listen to a speech by Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a ceremony marking the start of the school year at Amani High School in Kabul March 23, 2011/Omar Sobhani)

The gaggles of giggling schoolgirls in their black uniforms and flowing white hijabs seen across Afghanistan's cities have become symbolic of how far women's rights have come since the austere rule of the Taliban was toppled a decade ago. While women have gained back basic rights in education, voting and work, considered un-Islamic by the Taliban, their plight remains severe and future uncertain as Afghan leaders seek to negotiate with the Taliban as part of their peace talks.

from Bernd Debusmann:

U.S. nation-building in the wrong place?

America's costly efforts at nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq came under intense scrutiny this month in critical reports and a gloomy Senate hearing that prompted a memorable assertion. "If there is any nation in the world that really needs nation-building right now, it is the United States."

That came from a Democratic Senator, Jim Webb, who continued: "When we are putting hundreds of billions of dollars into infrastructure in another country, it should only be done if we can articulate a vital national interest because we quite frankly need to be doing a lot more of that here."

from FaithWorld:

Women brave social barriers to join Afghan police force

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(Afghan policewomen search women at a polling station in Herat, western Afghanistan September 18, 2010/Raheb Homavandi)

Married off at 12 years old to an abusive husband more than four times her age, Maryam wanted to join Afghanistan's police force to help others avoid an all-too-familiar plight in a country where women's voices often go unheard. A mother of three, Maryam is one of the women who make up less than one percent of Afghanistan's National Police. They wear knee-length olive green skirts over thick trousers with navy hijabs.

from FaithWorld:

In Kabul’s only synagogue, Afghan merchants open up shop

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(An Afghan woman clad in burqa and her daughter walks past a restaurant built inside part of the only synagogue building in Kabul, June 1, 2011/Omar Sobhani)

A lattice of corrugated iron Star of Davids marks Afghanistan's only working synagogue, a white-washed, two-storey building tucked into a sidestreet in the centre of Kabul. Kebabs, carpets and flowers are served and sold on the ground floor of the synagogue, which has been transformed into businesses over the last 18 months by the country's sole remaining Jew, who lives upstairs in a small pink room.

from India Insight:

India no angel in dangerous neighbourhood

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By Annie Banerji

Perhaps the finger-pointing at neighbouring Pakistan and the talk of Afghan militancy destabilising the region that New Delhi so often rolls out should be reconsidered. The neighbourhood may well be dangerous, but India is no model pupil.

According to the 2011 Global Peace Index, an initiative of the Institute of Economics and Peace, which evaluates 153 countries based on the level of ongoing conflict, safety and security and militarisation, India is the world's 135th most peaceful country, falling seven positions from last year.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Taliban talks – a necessary but not sufficient condition for peace

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We have known for months that the United States has begun direct talks with representatives of the Taliban. And as I wrote in this story, the death of Osama bin Laden in a U.S. raid on May 2 should make it easier for the Taliban to break with al Qaeda, a fundamental requirement for including them in any eventual political settlement in Afghanistan. But lest anyone should think these talks, combined with bin Laden's death, would somehow produce an early end to the Afghan war,  it is important to remember that engaging with the Taliban is only a necessary but far from sufficient condition for a political settlement.

As Thomas Ruttig  writes at the Afghanistan Analysts Network,  any deal between the Taliban and Afghan President Hamid Karzai that was simply meant to open the exit door for foreign troops would not serve the interests of Afghans.  "... they need an end of the bloodshed that will also physically reopen spaces for economic and political activities, a debate about where their country is going. A deal which does not address the main causes of the conflict (namely the monopoly over power of resources concentrated in the hands of a small elite, then possibly with some additional Taleban players) will not bring peace.

from Expert Zone:

After bin Laden: Do not retreat from Afghanistan

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(The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not represent those of Reuters)

The killing of Osama bin Laden should strengthen U.S. resolve to stabilise Afghanistan and ensure that it does not return to serving as a safe haven for terrorists intent on attacking the U.S. homeland.

from Bernd Debusmann:

Pakistan and questions over foreign aid

In the flurry of statements on the killing of Osama bin Laden, a remark from Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, spoke volumes about how U.S. foreign aid tends to be perceived by its recipients. It's not enough.

"The United States spent much more money in Iraq than it did in Afghanistan," Haqqani said in a television interview. "And then it spent much more in Afghanistan than it did in Pakistan. So were there cracks through which things fell through? Absolutely."

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