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from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Afghanistan’s civilians caught in the middle

Reuters correspondent Emma Graham-Harrison has written a moving and disturbing story about an 8-year-old girl badly burned by white phosphorous after being caught in the middle of a firefight in Afghanistan.  Like everything else that happens in Afghanistan, the question of who fired the shell that exploded in her house is in dispute. Her family said the shell was fired by western troops; NATO said it was "very unlikely" the weapon was theirs; and a U.S. spokeswoman suggested the Taliban may have been responsible.

But beyond the dispute, what comes across powerfully in Emma's account is the story of the girl. 

"Life as 8-year-old Razia knew it ended one March morning when a shell her father says was fired by Western troops exploded into their house, enveloping her head and neck in a blazing chemical," she writes. "Now she spends her days in a U.S. hospital bed at the Bagram airbase, her small fingernails still covered with flaking red polish but her face an almost unrecognisable mess of burned tissue and half her scalp a bald scar."

Do read the whole story.

And now to the broader question of civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

President Hamid Karzai has called on the United States to halt air strikes following attacks on two villages this week that Afghan officials said killed 147 people. Washington has acknowledged that some civilians died, but the U.S. military said it could not confirm with certainty which of the casualties from the fighting this week were Taliban fighters and which were non-combatants, because those killed had all been buried.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Pakistan: from refugee exodus to high-tech drones

With Pakistan launching what the country's Daily Times calls an "all-out war" against the Taliban, more than 500,000 people have fled the fighting in the northwest, bringing to more than a million those displaced since August, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.After apparently giving the Taliban enough rope to hang themselves, by offering a peace deal in the Swat valley which the government said they then reneged upon, the government for now seems to have won enough popular backing to launch its offensive.But to succeed in defeating the Taliban, the government must also be ready with a strategy to rebuild shattered lives if the mood in the northwest is not to turn sour, Dawn newspaper says. It quotes defence analyst Ikram Sehgal as estimating the military could take up to two months to conclude its campaign, and that dealing with the impact on civilians will require more than 10 times the one billion rupees (12 million dollars) the government has so far announced.In a separate article, it says that refugees are already upset about the behaviour of both the Taliban and the military. 'We are frightened of the Taliban and the army. If they want to fight, they should kill each other, they should not take refuge in our homes," it quotes an 18-year-old girl as saying.Both Pakistan's The News International newspaper and the blog Changing up Pakistan warn against the onset of compassion fatigue, both for  the sake of the people affected and to make sure refugee camps do not turn into recruiting grounds for the Taliban."If the militants can provide services and offer more viable options for IDPs than the state, that is a dangerous phenomenon. The government and international agencies must therefore do more to relieve the plight of the ever-increasing number of displaced persons in Pakistan, not just for humanitarian purposes, but because we cannot afford to let the Taliban win any more," Changing up Pakistan says.In the meantime, more questions are being raised about the U.S. administration's policy of using unmanned drone aircraft to fire missiles on Pakistan's tribal areas. The missile attacks, meant to target militant leaders and disrupt al Qaeda's capabilities, cause civilian casualties, alienate Pakistanis who see them as an invasion of sovereignty and add to a perception that Pakistan is fighting "America's war" in one place, while being bombed by American planes in another.Foreign Policy Journal quotes U.S. Congressman Ron Paul as criticising the Obama administration for continuing the drone missile attacks first started under President George W. Bush. “We are bombing a sovereign country,” it quotes him as saying. “Where do we get the authority to do that? Did the Pakistani government give us written permission? Did the Congress give us written permission to expand the war and start bombing in Pakistan?” he asked.

It adds that he said there are “many, many thousands of Pashtuns that are right smack in the middle, getting killed by our bombs, and then we wonder why they object to our policies over there. How do you win the hearts and minds of these people if we’re seen as invaders and occupies?”

Dawn newspaper also urges an end to the drone attacks in a passionately worded editorial.

Post-Iraq, would-be militants eye Pakistan

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By William Maclean

The flow of foreign militants to Pakistan worries Western governments, which fear the south Asian country has replaced Iraq as the place to go for aspiring Islamists planning attacks on the West.

The camps will probably be smaller and the skills on offer less photogenic to al Qaeda’s online video audience, but that is no deterrent to Arabs, Central Asians and Europeans making their way to the turbulent northwestern tribal areas.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Defending women’s rights in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Barely had President Barack Obama outlined a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan meant to narrow the focus to eliminating the threat from al Qaeda and its Islamist allies, before the U.S.-led campaign ran into what was always going to be one of its biggest problems in limiting its goals. What does it do about the rights of women in the region?

The treatment of women has dominated the headlines this week after Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a new law for the minority Shi'ite population which both the United States and the United Nations said could undermine women's rights. Karzai has promised a review of the law, while also complaining it was misinterpreted by Western journalists. 

Keeping an eye on the Taliban

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By Jonathon Burch
 
“Contact at Woqab. They’ve made contact,” says Devos calmly before running to the edge of the rooftop to have a better look into the distance with his binoculars.

“What do you mean they’ve made “contact”?” I ask, trying to see where his binoculars are pointed. “Small arms fire at Woqab,” he says pointing beyond a line of trees in the distance. Suddenly I feel exposed, standing in the open, three storeys off the ground.
 
The place is Musa Qala in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province and Devos is a 26-year-old soldier from Nepal serving in the British Army’s 2nd Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles. His job is to man the lookout on top of the British base inside the district centre, about a 30-minute helicopter flight across the desert from Camp Bastion, the main British base in Helmand.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

How will Obama tackle militants in Pakistan?

Read President Barack Obama's speech on his new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan and compare it to what he said a year ago and it's hard to see how much further forward we are in understanding exactly how he intends to uproot Islamist militants inside Pakistan.

Last year, Obama said that "If we have actionable intelligence about high-level al Qaeda targets in Pakistan's border region, we must act if Pakistan will not or cannot." Last week, he said that, "Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders.  And we will insist that action be taken -- one way or another -- when we have intelligence about high-level terrorist targets."

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Obama takes Afghan war to Pakistan

U.S. President Barack Obama set out his strategy to fight the war in Afghanistan on Friday, committing 4,000 military trainers and many more civillian personnel to the country, increasing military and financial aid to stabilise Pakistan and signalling that the door for reconciliation was open in Afghanistan for those who had taken to arms because of coercion or for a price.

He said the situation was increasingly perilous, with 2008 the bloodiest year for American forces in Afghanistan. But the United States  was determined to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan", he said, warning that attacks on the United States were being plotted even now.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Pakistan’s chief justice reinstated

Two years after Iftikhar Chaudhry was first sacked by then President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan government officials said he would be reinstated as Chief Justice after a nationwide protest led by Pakistan's lawyers.

It's been a rollercoaster ride. After he was removed by Musharraf, Chaudhry was reinstated only to be sacked again and placed under house arrest along with many other lawyers when the former general declared emergency rule in November 2007. At the time, Pakistani lawyer/politician Aitzaz Ahsan wrote in an editorial in the New York Times that the leaders of the lawyers movement "will neither be silent nor still". But he also fretted that the lawyers' movement would be ignored by the United States and overlooked by the forthcoming election.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Pakistan’s general and the warring politicians

Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani is much talked about these days as the one national figure who could lean on Pakistan's warring politicians to back down from a confrontation threatening the stability of the country. The question is over how he would intervene while maintaining a commitment to keep the army out of politics.

Most analysts have ruled out a coup for now and in an interview with PBS Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he believed Kayani was committed to a civilian government.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Pakistan: has it reached the edge of the precipice?

Maybe this always happens at times of national upheaval. But there is a surprising disconnect between the immediacy of the crisis facing Pakistan as expressed by Pakistani bloggers and the more slow-moving debate taking place in the outside world over the right strategy to adopt towards both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Reading Pakistani blogs since confrontation between the country's two main political parties exploded and comparing them to international commentaries is a bit like watching men shout that their house is on fire, and then panning over to the fire station where the folks in charge are debating which type of water hose works best.

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