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from The Great Debate:

Afghanistan votes on its future

The coverage on the impending Afghan presidential elections has been filled with death and chaos -- the tragic shooting at the Serena hotel where an international election monitor was killed, the shocking attack on the Afghan Election Commission's headquarters, the killing of a provincial council candidate and the news that several international monitoring groups are pulling out.

These tragedies, however, shift the focus from the major news in Afghanistan this week: Election fever has gripped the nation. I hear from Afghans as well as many foreigners now working in Afghanistan that the excitement about the coming April 5 presidential election is palpable and encouraging.

If this election goes relatively smoothly, it will mark the first democratic handover of power in Afghan history. Potential large-scale fraud and violence will be substantial obstacles to overcome, but there are also some positive signs. Voters, observers and security personnel are gearing up with a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation.

Why be optimistic?

Civil society has begun to blossom in many parts of Afghanistan after decades of repression and near-constant war. Bearded men pump their fists in the air during election rallies, others dance in dusty fields at political gatherings while volunteers serve lunch and tea. Millions of Afghans watch the candidates’ heated debates on television.

from Photographers' Blog:

Hip, young and in Kabul

Kabul, Afghanistan
By Morteza Nikoubazl

Kabul is a bustling city, full of people who want to see their country become less violent and more stable.

As I documented life in the capital this month, I met lots of young people who shared their thoughts about the future of Afghanistan: painters, actors, musicians, even a rapper.

from Photographers' Blog:

Afghan refugees – Seeking sanctuary

Brussels, Belgium

By Francois Lenoir

It was a cold, wet morning when I passed through the doors of the Church of Saint John the Baptist at the Beguinage, a grand 17th century building in the center of Brussels.

Inside, children were playing and shouting in the large, dark hall, which was lined with rows and rows of tents. I had not just entered a church – I was inside people’s homes. The building had become a very private space.

from The Great Debate:

How to fix foreign aid

All war-torn countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan, share a common characteristic -- the absence or destruction of economic infrastructure. The lack of opportunity fuels frustration and unrest, giving violent actors an opening to destabilize fragile institutions.

The frustration in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in other fragile states, exists despite Washington having spent billions of dollars in military and non-military aid to boost their economic development during the past decade. The lack of progress has fed a growing sense that U.S. foreign aid programs cannot establish economically viable systems.

from David Rohde:

Dooming the Syria talks before they begin

The United States won a short-term diplomatic victory over Iran this week. Under intense pressure from American officials, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon withdrew an invitation for Iranian officials to attend the Syria peace conference.

Disinviting Tehran is the latest example of the Obama administration’s continual search for easy, risk-free solutions in Syria. As the conflict destabilizes the region, however, Washington must finally face the hard choice: Either compromise with Iran, or decisively support and arm the rebels.

from The Great Debate:

Is there a ‘right’ path for the U.S. in Syria?

Key parties to the conflict in Syria are meeting in Switzerland on Wednesday. The participants have been downplaying expectations that the “Geneva II” peace conference -- which will bring together for the first time representatives from the Assad government and various rebel groups along with major international players -- will resolve the conflict, or even bring about a ceasefire.

For the U.S. government, the crucial issue at this meeting and beyond is determining if and how to intervene and provide support in a conflict where there may no longer be real “good guys,” or supporters of U.S. national interests, to back. This is particularly important given Washington’s interwoven interests throughout the region -- not only in Syria, but in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond.

from David Rohde:

From Kiev to Kabul, the promise of prosperity

In Kiev, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have taken to the streets to demand the government join the European Union, in the hopes it will spur economic growth. In Kabul, Afghan leaders overwhelmingly voted to have American troops remain for another decade, in the hopes they will maintain a “war and aid economy” that has brought them unprecedented riches.

As a fiscally constrained and war-weary Washington confronts its foreign policy challenges, events in Ukraine and Afghanistan show that economic incentives can play a major role in addressing them. Younger generations in both countries are eager for prosperity, reduced corruption and a place in a globalized economy. Globalism is challenging cronyism.

from Photographers' Blog:

Learning to walk again after Afghanistan

San Antonio, Texas

By Jim Urquhart

With each step he learns to take he is that much closer to achieving independence. All he wants is to once again be able to be a soldier in the infantry.

Sergeant (Sgt.) Matt Krumwiede has endured about 40 surgeries since June 12th, 2012, when he stepped on a IED while on patrol in Afghanistan.

from Full Focus:

After Afghanistan

On June 12, 2012, U.S. soldier Matt Krumwiede was on patrol in Afghanistan when he stepped on an improvised explosive device, which tore away both his legs, damaged his left arm, and ripped open his abdominal cavity. The 22-year-old has since undergone around 40 surgeries and is learning to walk with prosthetic legs. Photographer Jim Urquhart spent time with Matt as he undergoes treatment in Texas. Read Jim's personal account here.

from The Great Debate:

Can Obama ever close Guantanamo?

Twelve years ago this month, President George W. Bush issued an order authorizing the U.S. military to detain non-U.S. citizen “international terrorists” indefinitely, and try some of them in military commissions. Within two months, those seized in the “war on terror” following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan were being sent to Guantanamo Bay.

A dozen years later, the United States is preparing to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, ending “the longest war in American history,” as President Barack Obama observed on Veteran’s Day. Yet the Guantanamo prison -- now notorious as the site of torture and other abuses -- remains open.

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