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from The Great Debate:

Bergdahl reveals the impossible choices faced by hostages’ families

U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl waits in a pick-up truck before he is freed at the Afghan border

The furor surrounding the exchange of five Taliban prisoners for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl this week has exposed the murky world -- and impossible choices -- of the families of Americans taken captive by militants.

Demands for vast ransoms or for prisoner releases put these families in the excruciating position of seeming to be able to save a loved one’s life. Meet demands and your beloved lives. Hesitate and carry responsibility for their death to your grave.

Yet few families have access to the sums of money that militants demand. Nor can they free prisoners held by the United States or a local government. Despite the fact that the families feel primary responsibility, they have no real control.

I’m biased about Bergdahl. Five years ago, I was kidnapped by the same Afghan Taliban faction along with two Afghan colleagues while I was on leave from The New York Times, researching a book in Afghanistan. An offer for an interview from a Taliban commander who had previously met twice with European journalists proved to be a ruse. We were abducted at the meeting point and then transported to the tribal areas of Pakistan.

from The Great Debate:

Leave no soldier behind – no exceptions

dunlop -- top!

The deal for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s return has hardly generated the praise the Obama administration might have hoped. Hard questions abound.

Will negotiating with terrorists encourage them to snatch more Americans? Is freeing five hardened Taliban leaders too steep a price?  Is Congress rightly upset by a president who may have defied the law in releasing Guantanamo detainees?

from The Great Debate:

Afghan elections redefine U.S. role

On Saturday, Afghans will go to the polls to elect a new president, marking a critical turning point in Afghanistan's history and our role in the country.

This election comes at an important time in U.S.-Afghan relations, which have been hindered by the erratic and often insulting behavior of President Hamid Karzai. The outcome will present an opportunity for the United States to redefine our relationship with Afghanistan in a way that addresses our shared security concerns and the long-term stability and viability of the country.

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.

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 The Great Debate:

Risky business: Talking to the Taliban

If one event crystallizes Pakistan’s helplessness in confronting its political future, it is the recent assassination-by-American-drone of Hakimullah Mehsud, erstwhile leader of the Pakistani Taliban.

Islamabad had only just acknowledged its plan to hold “peace talks” when Mehsud was killed. Mehsud -- with a $5 million bounty on his head, and thousands of civilian deaths to his movement’s credit -- was immediately eulogized as the key to peace in Pakistan.

from David Rohde:

How covert drone strikes turn murderers into martyrs

Five days after an American drone strike killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Pakistani politicians are accusing the United States of “murder.” And a militant leader responsible for attacks that killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Pakistani civilians is being viewed as a victim.

On one level, the response was nothing new in the warped, post-2001 relationship between Pakistan and the United States. For 12 years, interactions between these purported “allies” have been marked by distrust, recriminations and lies.

from The Great Debate:

Let Pakistan’s Taliban talks fail without us

Adding to an unenviable list of challenges that already includes earthquakes, sectarian violence and an economy teetering near collapse, Pakistan’s leaders are attempting to open a new round of high-stakes peace negotiations with homegrown insurgents, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

The United States cannot do much to help these talks succeed, but President Barack Obama should use his October 23 summit with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to ensure that if Pakistan’s Taliban talks fail, they fail in ways that unite mainstream Pakistanis in the fight against violent extremism rather than creating new rifts between Washington and Islamabad.

from Expert Zone:

An Indian pivot in Afghanistan after troop drawdown

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)

Notwithstanding Afghan President Hamid Karzai's disinclination to participate in talks, the Taliban retain the ability to calibrate violence levels in large parts of the country. But even if an understanding is reached with the Taliban, it does not hold the promise of lasting peace. Breakaway factions will find support and funding to continue bloodletting.

It is necessary to take stock of Kabul's problems and find strong regional partners as anchors in unison with the depleted NATO/American establishment after the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) drawdown. Kabul's foremost problem is fielding well-trained forces. The ISAF has apparently reached the numbers it had set as its target but the forces fail to inspire confidence. Continued intensive training is required.

from The Great Debate:

A fragile peace with Taliban if school attacks escalate

In the week in which America opened the door for negotiations with the Taliban, three bloody massacres of school children -- shot down simply because they wanted to go to school -- raise grave questions about what kind of peace the Taliban offer.

Within days of the initiative for talks, the Taliban shot to death nine foreign tourists encamped on the peak of Nanga Parbat in northern Pakistan, saying the murders were in retaliation for a drone attack that killed one of their leaders. But what kind of justification can possibly be offered for the firebombing of a college bus carrying forty girls from their Quetta campus in Pakistan? Fourteen defenseless girls died in the bombing; eight more people died when the terrorists ambushed the hospital.

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