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from Photographers' Blog:

Poppy politics

It's not hard to find a field of poppies in the village of Jelawar, north of Kandahar. Some are hidden discreetly behind mud walls but others have been brazenly planted within sight of the main road. During a recent patrol, I accompanied Afghan National Army Captain Imran (he uses one name) and a group of U.S. civil affairs soldiers on a tour of Jelawar's back roads as they tried to assess the extent of this year's opium production.

A large field of poppies grows on the north side of Jelawar village in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley.   REUTERS/Bob Strong

The first field we came to was a couple of hundred meters across, filled with pink poppy flowers in full bloom. There were several men working the field and Imran asked them what they were doing. A farmer looked up from pulling weeds and said they were working on their onions. Indeed, in a poppy field the size of a football stadium there were a handful of green onion shoots pushing out of the soil. Not exactly the perfect cover, especially after the farmer admitted to planting the poppies in the first place.

A farmer who said he was tending to his onions works in the middle of a large field of poppies in Jelawar village in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley.  REUTERS/Bob Strong

As we walked from one poppy field to the next, Imran was not amused. Finally, he gathered a group of farmers together to give them some bad news. "President Karzai has said it is illegal to grow opium poppies and that they must be destroyed. I give you 48 hours to cut down your plants or I will return with Afghan police and Afghan soldiers and we will force you to destroy these fields."

The farmers protested. What about the money we have already spent to prepare the fields and irrigate the land? Why not let us harvest this year's crop and we will not plant next year? Imran was firm. "My hands are tied", he said. "If I let one farmer harvest his crop then I must let everyone harvest their crops. Everyone must be treated in the same manner."

from FaithWorld:

Anti-Western messages grow among Afghanistan’s imams

hazrat ali mosque

(Hazrat Ali mosque in Kabul March 21, 2010/Ahmad Masood)

Enayatullah Balegh is a professor at Kabul University and preaches on Fridays in the largest mosque in central Kabul, where he advocates jihad, or holy war, against foreigners who desecrate Islam. After a fundamentalist U.S. pastor presided over the burning of a copy of the Koran last month, there has been a growing perception among ordinary people that many of the foreigners in Afghanistan belong in just one category: the infidels.

"The international community and the American government is responsible for this gravest insult to Muslims," Balegh told Reuters in the blue-and-white tiled Hazrat Ali mosque. "I tell my students to wage jihad against all foreigners who desecrate our religious values. We have had enough."

from FaithWorld:

U.S. pastor unbowed, vows new anti-Islam protest

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(Pastor Terry Jones at his Dove World Outreach Center church in Gainesville, Florida, April 2, 2011/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

A militant fundamentalist Christian preacher in Florida whose burning of a Koran triggered deadly riots in Afghanistan is unrepentant  and defiantly vows to lead an anti-Islam protest outside the biggest mosque in the United States. The planned demonstration could further inflame tensions over the Koran burning, which led to two days of protests in Afghanistan that included the killings of U.N. staff and stoked anti-Western sentiment in parts of the Muslim world.

from Russell Boyce:

Asia – A Week in Pictures April 3, 2011

In case anyone is in any doubt about the volatile situation many of our staff and stringers work under in Afghanistan I want to recount what happened on Saturday. Ahmad Nadeem was covering a demonstration that was sparked by the actions of extremist Christian preacher Terry Jones, who, according to his website, supervised the burning of the Koran in front of about 50 people at a church in Florida. The mood at the demonstration changed very quickly as the crowd sought a focus for their anger. Ahmad, our stringer in Kandahar was targeted. He was beaten with sticks, his gear smashed and his hand broken. Then an armed man instructed the mob to kill him. Ahmad fled for his life escaping into a nearby house where he successfully hid from the mob. Earlier in the day a suicide attack also hit a NATO military base in the capital Kabul, the day after protesters overran a U.N. mission in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and killed seven foreign staff in the deadliest attack on the U.N. in Afghanistan.

AFGHANISTAN-VIOLENCE/KABUL

Bullet holds are seen on the windshield of a car used by insurgents after an attack at Camp Phoenix in Kabul April 2, 2011. Insurgents clad in burkhas attacked a coalition base in Kabul with guns and rocket-propelled grenades on Saturday, but were killed either when they detonated their explosives or by Afghan or coalition fire outside the entrance, NATO and police said.    REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

from FaithWorld:

Extreme fundamentalist U.S. pastor is focus of Muslim outrage – again

kabul koran protest

(Afghans protest in Kabul on April 1, 2011 against the burning of the Koran by a U.S. pastor/Omar Sobhani )

A extreme fundamentalist Christian preacher in Florida who caused an international uproar last year by threatening to burn the Koran has put himself back in the spotlight after incinerating Islam's holy book -- again with deadly consequences.

from Afghan Journal:

Huge natural stone arch new Afghan treasure

photo courtesy of  Ayub Alavi/Wildlife Conservation Society

photo courtesy of Ayub Alavi/Wildlife Conservation Society

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.

from Russell Boyce:

Asia – A Week in Pictures, March 27, 2011

Japan continues to dominate the file from Asia with new photograhers rotating in to cover the twists and turns of this complex and tragic  story.  In a country were the nation rarely buries its dead, the site of mass graves is quite a shocking scene to behold. Holes the length of football pitches are dug in the ground with mechanical digggers and divided into individual plots by the military and are then filled with the coffins of the victims of the tsunami. Family members come to weep and pray over the graves. Some are namless and marked only with DNA details, others bear the names of the victims. There is not enough power or fuel to cremate the thousands of bodies that are being recovered from the disaster zone. 

JAPAN-QUAKE/

Members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force carry a coffin of a victim of the earthquake and tsunami to be buried at a temporary mass grave site in Higashi-Matsushima, in Miyagi prefecture, northern Japan March 24, 2011. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

from Afghan Journal:

Happy New Year Mr President

AFGHANISTANU.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.

from Afghan Journal:

United States begins a new war, what happens to Afghanistan?

kunduz

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?:

The “sound and fury” of U.S.-Pakistan ties

rayjmonddavisphotoWith 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.

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