Tales from the Trail

The First Draft: David Letterman and the Dalai Lama

CANADA/This is one of those Washington days that seems to defy a theme. Consider:

Iran is the topic at the Senate Banking Committee, where officials from the State and Treasury departments are set to testify on economic sanctions against Tehran.

Afghanistan is expected to be front and center when President Barack Obama briefs congressional leaders about his Afghan strategy.

Pakistan‘s foreign minister has a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The Dalai Lama is in town, too, meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and getting a human rights award.

In the background is the steady drumbeat of the healthcare debate, the fight over climate change legislation and defense spending.

An honest assessment of Afghan mistakes, but what is next?

It is encouraging that the U.S. administration finally seems to be getting a handle on what went wrong in Afghanistan these past eight years.

What is less encouraging is the fact there seems little political appetite around the globe to fix the mess.AFGHANISTAN

Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s report is a stark and honest assessment of the war in Afghanistan.

from FaithWorld:

Almost two million vanish from Obama’s estimate of U.S. Muslims

dawn-front-page002 (Dawn front page for Sunday, 21 June 2009)

Almost two million people have inexplicably disappeared from the estimates of the U.S. Muslim population that President Barack Obama has given recently. In his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo on June 4, he spoke about "nearly seven million American Muslims in our country today." On Sunday, the Karachi daily Dawn published an interview with him where he said "we have five million Muslims."

There was no explanation for the change, but his reason for citing the figure seemed to be the same. Shortly before his Cairo speech, Obama told the French television channel Canal Plus that "one of the points I want to make is, is that if you actually took the number of Muslim Americans, we'd be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world." He cited no figure there but mentioned seven million in Cairo three days later.

Many blogs, FaithWorld included, questioned that figure and noted that estimates of the U.S. Muslim population range from 1.8 to 7-8 million. The U.S. Census Bureau cannot ask about religion on a mandatory basis but refers on its website to a Pew Forum study pegging Muslims at 0.6% of the population. The CIA World Factbook uses the same percentage figure. It translates into about 1.8 million.

The First Draft: Details

OBAMA/The devil’s in the details, the saying goes, and we’ll find out plenty of details today about two big initiatives of the Obama administration: the budget and the bank bailout.

At 10:35 a.m., Obama will propose slashing $17 billion from the U.S. budget in 121 programs ranging from weapons systems to mine cleanup. Republicans are likely to say that’s not enough to tame his $3.55 trillion budget.

At 5 p.m., the Treasury Department will reveal the results of its “stress tests” of major banks, and is expected to say that about half of the 19 largest banks will need to raise more money to stay financially should.

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. 

In Pakistan, video footage has been circulated of Taliban militants flogging a teenage girl in the Swat valley, where the government concluded a peace deal with the Taliban in February. The graphic and disturbing video, which has been posted on YouTube, has outraged many Pakistanis and the flogging was condemned by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani as shameful. There have been contradictory reports of exactly when and why the girl was punished, although Dawn newspaper quoted a witness as saying she was flogged two weeks ago for refusing a marriage proposal.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Obama’s South Asian envoy and the Kashmir conundrum

Earlier this month, I wrote that the brief given to a South Asian envoy by President Barack Obama could prove to be the first test of the success of Indian diplomacy after the Mumbai attacks. At issue was whether the envoy would be asked to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan or whether the brief would be extended to India, reflecting comments made by Obama during his election campaign that a resolution of the Kashmir dispute would ease tensions across the region.

That question has been resolved - publicly at least -- with the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. No mention of India or Kashmir.

India has long resisted overt outside interference in Kashmir and argued - with great vehemence since the Mumbai attacks - that tensions in South Asia were caused by Pakistan's support for, or tolerance of, Islamist militants rather than the Kashmir dispute.  For India, a public reference to Kashmir following Mumbai would amount to endorsing what it calls cross-border terrorism.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Obama and his South Asian envoy

There's much talk about President-elect Barack Obama possibly appointing Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy to South Asia. The New York Times says it's likely; while the Washington Independent says it may be a bit premature to expect final decisions, even before Obama takes office on Jan. 20.

But more interesting perhaps than the name itself will be the brief given to any special envoy for South Asia. Would the focus be on Afghanistan and Pakistan? Or on Pakistan and India? Or all three? The Times of India said India might be removed from the envoy's beat to assuage Indian sensitivities about Kashmir, which it sees as a bilateral issue to be resolved with Pakistan, and which has long resisted any outside mediation. This, the paper said, was an evolution in thinking compared to statements made by Obama during his election campaign about Kashmir.

Before last year's Mumbai attacks, Obama had suggested that the United States should help India and Pakistan to make peace over Kashmir as part of a regional strategy to stabilise Afghanistan. In this he was supported by a raft of U.S. analysts who argued that Pakistan would never fully turn against Islamist militants threatening the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan as long as it felt it might need them to counter burgeoning Indian influence in the region. Obama's suggestion raised hackles in India, and broke with a tradition established by the Bush administration which had tended to be -- publicly at least -- hands-off about the Kashmir dispute. 

The First Draft: Monday, Dec 1

With the images of death and destruction in Mumbai last week fresh in everyone’s minds, U.S. President-elect Barack Obama is set on Monday to name his national security team
 
At a 10:40 EST (1540 GMT) news conference in Chicago, Obama is expected to name former rival Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state and nominate Defense Secretary Robert Gates to stay on in that role. In addition he is expected to name Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano as homeland security secretary, Eric Holder as attorney general and adviser Susan Rice as ambassador to the United Nations.
    
After a series of three straight news conferences last week focused on the ailing U.S. economy, Obama will switch gears today as he will likely face questions about India and Pakistan and his proposed policies toward the two nuclear-armed nations.     
    
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will travel to India on Wednesday. She has been in contact with the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan in recent days to ease tensions between the states.

    
Indian investigators said the militants who attacked Mumbai underwent months of commando training in Pakistan, raising tensions between the neighboring nations as recriminations mounted in India. 

In an interview with the Financial Times , Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari has appealed to India not to punish his country for the Mumbai attacks, saying militants have the power to precipitate a war in the region.
    
In economic news back home, stocks appeared set to fall after poor manufacturing figures from China and a raft of economic data expected in the U.S. this week.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Mumbai attack and Obama’s plans for Afghanistan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As if the challenge facing President-elect Barack Obama of stabilising Afghanistan was not difficult enough, it may have just got much, much harder after the Mumbai attacks soured relations between India and Pakistan -- undermining hopes of finding a regional solution to the Afghan war.

As discussed in an earlier post, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has blamed a group outside India for the attacks which killed at least 121 people. The coordinated attacks bore the hallmarks of Pakistani-based Kashmiri militant groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which India says was set up by Pakistan's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.

Pakistan has condemned the attacks and an Indian government spokesman said the head of the ISI had agreed to visit India to share information -- an extraordinary agreement given that the two countries have fought three wars and came to the brink of a fourth in 2001/2002. But it's hard to believe that would be enough to appease India after the brazen attack on its commercial capital exposed its vulnerability.

The First Draft: Friday, Nov 28

If Thanksgiving is over, it must be time for “Black Friday”. The big question this year is — will the traditional start to the holiday shopping season be a good one given the bleak economic picture? 
 
Retailers sure hope so, and they have slashed prices and offered incentives to lure shoppers to their store.
 
Terry Lundgren, chief executive of Macy’s said about 5,000 people had lined up outside the flagship Herald Square store which he called “encouraging” though he admitted in an interview on “Good Morning America” it’s been a “challenging period” for retailers like Macy’s.
 
“For retailers, this is the playoffs,” he said. “Starting now through the week after Christmas … We have much more aggressive pricing than we have in previous years.”
 
The state of the U.S. economy is on the minds of many — even al Qaeda.
 
Al Qaeda’s second-in-command published an Internet video saying the U.S. financial crisis was caused by Washington’s military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
 
In India, commandos took control of Mumbai’s Trident-Oberoi hotel but battles raged on with militants who were still holed up in another luxury hote, the Taj Mahal, and a Jewish center with about half a dozen foreign hostages.
 

After two days, the siege at two hotels and a Jewish center neared its end amid gunfire and more deaths. Police said so far at least 121 people have been killed.