Archive for February, 2014

A bright future?

28/02/2014

An article in The Hill discusses the future of the Tea Party. This topic has been discussed here before but as the “movement” reaches five years old the article is woth noting. It opens, “As the Tea Party turns five years old, some of its stars gathered Thursday to argue the movement is still growing and not on the wane. Hundreds of activists met in Washington, D.C., to mark the cause’s advent, acutely aware their nascent movement faces challenges. But together, they sought to reassure themselves they’re as vibrant as ever even in the face of building criticism. The event was hosted by Tea Party Patriots to mark the fifth the anniversary of CNBC contributor Rick Santelli’s on-camera rant against the federal government’s “promoting bad behaviour” with its housing market bailouts and calls for a new “tea party” protest against President Obama, comments that many credit with sparking the movement. Favorites like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) discussed their own upset victories and promised great things for the future”.

Thankfully however the article goes beyond this and mentions the real problems behind the movement, “their words of optimism come at a time when the movement is under intense scrutiny within the GOP after suffering setbacks in recent months. Cruz and other leaders took blame from within their caucus for the government shutdown as the Republican brand sank to record lows. And despite a continued push from some Washington groups to dethrone establishment Republicans, many appear to be easily cruising in their primaries, including top targets like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)”.

The piece notes “Both Paul and Lee suggested that to sustain itself, the Tea Party movement needed to outline a positive agenda, and move beyond its initial focus on protests”. However, in order to do this it will need serious policy thinking, something which the movement has been lacking. Its obession with throwning out experienced incumbebts and hatred for President Obama have done nothing to assure the long term stablity or sustainability of the movement. The group has also shown no desire to move away from social causes, like gay rights, that have been all but settled.

The article adds that “Heritage Foundation Chief Economist Stephen Moore, who spoke at the event, told The Hill that the Tea Party movement needed to find that uplifting message Lee and Paul called for in order to continue to wield significant power within the GOP. ‘What the Tea Party was originally about back in 2009 and ’10 when it was really given birth was stopping the incredible excesses of Obama in terms of borrowing, spending. Now, I think to galvanise the movement you need really populist, positive, pro-growth initiatives,’ said Moore. As a former Club for Growth president and one-time Wall Street Journal editorial board member, Moore straddles the void between movement conservatism and the establishment. From his perch, he warned that the internal war in the GOP is hurting the party’s prospects as a whole”.

It goes on to note “The strict ideological adherence the party still calls for clearly still has strong pull in the party. Cruz’s opposition to a clean debt ceiling increase made it much more difficult for the GOP to allow it to pass earlier this month, and even McConnell and Cornyn had to break with their party and vote on a motion to allow the bill to proceed. Many centrist Republicans are constantly wary of crossing deep-pocketed Tea Party-affiliated groups like the Club for Growth and now Heritage Action that help dictate policy and fire warning shots with their key vote scorecards”.

The piece ends, “GOP leadership and establishment business groups have begun pushing back more forcefully against the movement. The fact that both McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) were willing to break with most of the party to help increase the debt ceiling without conditions shows that their frustration with the base may have surpassed their fear of it. While there are dozens of Tea Party challengers to incumbent Republicans, only Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) appear to be facing a real threat. Martin argued that just defeating incumbents was only part of what the movement needed to accomplish, though she said admitted that those races were what scared the GOP more than anything”.

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NATO plans to leave

28/02/2014

NATO defence ministers say the alliance is beginning to plan for a withdrawal of all NATO-led forces from Afghanistan by the end of the year. Meeting in Brussels on 27 February, NATO defence chiefs said President Hamid Karzai’s refusal so far to sign an already drafted agreement with the United States on the status of troops in the country after 2014 is reducing the chances that such an agreement will be signed. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that without the “necessary” legal framework, NATO troops cannot remain in Afghanistan. “But we need to be very clear: finalising the planing for our new mission depends on completing the NATO Status of Forces Agreement. As we have said from the start, the NATO Status of Forces Agreement cannot be concluded until the Bilateral Security Agreement between Afghanistan and the Untied States is signed,” Rasmussen said”.

A year of retirement

28/02/2014

On this, the first anniversary on the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, Peter Kwasniewski at the New Liturgical Movement blog has written a homage to the sorely missed Pope emeritus.

He notes “Through his own unappealable decision and at a time appointed by himself, Pope Benedict XVI had ceased to be the Vicar of Christ on earth. The past year has been, to say the least, a dramatic and tempestuous one, in which I have often wondered exactly what providential role the nearly eight-year pontificate of Benedict XVI was meant to have in the life of the Church—and what role it is meant to continue to have, through the rich teaching and inspiring example this pontificate left us, and through the enormous energies for reform it has unleashed throughout the Church”.

He goes on to mention that “In company with Pope Benedict, we observed the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council—a Council in which he vigorously took part, a Council whose legacy he later witnessed being manipulated or forgotten as the “virtual” or “media” Council and its antinomian “spirit” took the upper hand, and finally, a Council that he rightly demanded must be read in a “hermeneutic of continuity” with everything that had come before or had been clarified since. All of this suggests that Pope Benedict was passionately concerned with rectifying something, or many things, that had gone desperately wrong in the past five decades. One way of understanding what has happened over this half-century is to think about the delicate balance between ad intra and ad extra concerns, which are two sides of the same coin. The Church has her own life, one could say—a liturgical, sacramental, spiritual, intellectual life, defined by the confluence of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium—and this life must be tended, nurtured, guarded, deepened. But simultaneously the Church always has a calling to go outwards into the world of unbelief, to preach to it, convert it, sanctify it, confront its errors and wrestle with its problems. It seems to me that the noble intention of Blessed John XXIII, a very traditional Pope in many ways, was to bring the treasures of the Church’s inner life to bear on modernity and the modern world. To this end he convened the Roman Synod and, more fatefully, the Second Vatican Council. He wanted the Catholic Church to send forth God’s light and truth, to intensify an apostolic activity that, under Pius XII, was already flourishing”.

He concludes, “Hence, after forty years of wandering in the desert, the pontificate of Benedict XVI seemed, and truly was, a watershed moment, a breath of fresh air—a realization that it was time to attend to the state of our soul, to put our own house in order, to renew our liturgy from its deepest sources, and to learn once again what exactly is the Good News we are supposed to be sharing in the New Evangelization. This pontificate began to undo, in a systematic way, the amnesia and the intoxication. In addition to its burgeoning fruits in the daily life of the Church, Summorum Pontificum stands forever as a symbol of the effort to bring about meaningful change by recalling the faithful to a tradition, spirituality, and way of life that are not in flux, as, indeed, its symbolic date—the seventh day of the seventh month of the seventh year of the new millennium—plainly announced. In God’s Providence, it was a short pontificate, but the teaching and legislation of those eight years will, as the new century moves on, prove to be either the mustard-seed of an authentic renewal or the prophetic condemnation of a failed one. In any case, it is our privilege, through no merits of our own, to embrace with gratitude, humility, and zeal the traditional Catholic identity, the fragrant living memory of God’s gifts, that Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI has done so much to protect and promote, and to let these seeds bear fruit in our own lives. There is no more any one of us can do, and yet this is enough. For God can take the few loaves and fishes we have, and multiply them endlessly. When one thinks of the greatness of the task Pope Benedict entrusted to us—the task of authentic renewal from the very sources of faith and in continuity with tradition—and when we contemplate how much work and suffering faces us as we strive to put into practice the profound teaching on the sacred liturgy Our Lord has given us through this great pope, we might be tempted to grow weary of the fight and fall away from it, especially in a time when so many in the Church seem to be running away from the dawning light back into the stygian darkness of the seventies”.

Thomas Reese meanwhile looks at his own relationship with Ratzinger/Benedict, “Whenever a reporter asks me about Benedict, I first acknowledge that I have some history with him. One of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s last actions as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was to tell the Jesuit superior general that I needed to be replaced as editor of America magazine, so I cannot claim to be an indifferent observer. Perhaps this is another reason I did not meet my deadline. This was a painful period in my life, so I warn reporters (and readers) that my own experience can bias my views. The temptation with any pope, even Francis, is to see him as black or white, all bad or all good. Nothing is that simple, especially a human being”.

Reese adds that “There is much to praise in the papacy of Pope Benedict. If for no other reason, he will be remembered for centuries as the pope who was not afraid to resign when he felt it was best for the church. Such humility, courage and trust in the Spirit are not easy virtues when everyone around you is telling you that you are indispensable. The resignation caused former supporters to turn on him and former critics to praise him. John L. Allen Jr. reports in The Boston Globe that Antonio Socci, a high-profile Italian conservative, has floated the question of whether Benedict’s resignation was actually valid under church law. This kind of talk is very dangerous and could lead to schism, but they will get no support from Benedict for such nonsense. Likewise, those who feared Benedict would try to run things from behind the scenes have been proved paranoid”.

He goes on to write that “As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger was the first Vatican official to take seriously the sexual abuse crisis. He was not perfect, but he listened to American bishops and learned faster than anyone else in Rome, including Pope John Paul II. He supported a zero-tolerance policy on abuse and threw hundreds of priests out of the priesthood for abusing minors. Pope Benedict also started the reform of Vatican finances, which is now beginning to bear fruit under Pope Francis. It was Benedict who finally said, “Enough,” and demanded that the Vatican observe the standards set by Moneyval, the European agency that deals with money laundering. Up until Benedict, the Vatican always argued that it was unique and could not be judged by outsiders. Now Vatican finances are periodically reviewed by Moneyval, which publishes its reports for everyone to see. All of the subsequent financial reforms have flowed from this decision by Benedict. Benedict must also be praised for the clarity of his writing. His first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, was universally praised for its explanation of the different types of love. The second part was an excellent guide for the ministry of charity in the church. In it, he described the ministry of charity as equally important as the ministry of the Word and the ministry of the sacraments. He stressed the importance of both professional and spiritual formation for those working with the poor. Sadly, the media were so focused on what he had to say about abortion, gays and condoms that what he had to say on other issues was ignored. People forget that he, like John Paul, was opposed to both Gulf Wars, and they proved wiser than all the policy wonks in Washington”.

Reese continues, “He was no fan of libertarian capitalism. He went further in saying that government has a role in the redistribution of wealth. Not even liberal Democrats say things like that. On economic issues, Benedict was to the left of President Barack Obama; he was even to the left of Nancy Pelosi. In fact, Benedict’s views on the relationship between religion and politics were quite sophisticated, as articulated at Westminster Hall in London and at the German Parliament, the Bundestag in Berlin. He was not a single-issue ideologue, and he recognized the role of prudence in political decision-making. Pope Benedict’s strength and weaknesses came from his background as a German professor, which was his life before Pope Paul VI appointed him archbishop of Munich in 1977*. His was the life of the mind where clarity of thought was prized. As a German professor, he was used to lecturing students who took down his words, memorized them and gave them back in exams. As a professor, he used technical language that might mean one thing in the classroom but something completely different on the street. Thus, he could say most Protestant churches were not true churches because he had defined “church” as a Christian community with a legitimate episcopacy. He could also use a word like “disordered,” which for him had philosophical meaning while on the street it would be interpreted as a psychological term”.

He closes, “To explain the Christian message to people of the 21st century will require the same kind of creativity shown by Augustine and Aquinas. We cannot simply quote them; we must imitate them. Augustine took the best thought of his age, Neoplatonism, and used it to explain Christianity to his time. Aquinas took the rediscovered Aristotle to explain Christianity to his generation. Theologians must be free to do the same today. Remember, Aquinas had his books burned by the archbishop of Paris. In his first Easter homily as pope, Benedict said the risen Christ is the next step in human evolution. I wish he had developed that thought, but that is a way of thinking that would be attractive to people today. To simply call Pope Benedict a conservative is a way of avoiding thoughtful analysis of a complex character. He gave and continues to give much to the church. He should be respected and honored for that while being clear-eyed about his limitations”.

“A grim future”

28/02/2014

Depicting a grim future for Afghanistan without U.S. help, the top U.S. military officer said Wednesday that Afghanistan’s refusal to sign a security agreement with the United States may make the fight more difficult this year, embolden the enemy and prompt some Afghan security forces to cooperate with the Taliban to “hedge their bets.” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spent the day with his commanders and troops in Afghanistan working to manage the after-effects of President Barack Obama’s order Tuesday to begin actively planning for a total withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of the year. In back-to-back meetings, he urged them to focus on the considerable military work they have to do and not worry about next year. Dempsey told The Associated Press in an interview that the possible exit of all U.S. troops was making Afghan military leaders anxious and eating away at their troops’ confidence. He said he spoke with some Afghan leaders after the Tuesday announcement, and they asked him to stay committed to an enduring U.S. presence, and told him they were doing all they could to get the agreement signed”.

Crimea, a precedent?

28/02/2014

The New York Times has today reported that “Amid fears of a Kremlin-backed separatist rebellion here against Ukraine’s fledgling government, armed men in military uniforms took up positions at two Crimean airports as Ukraine’s interior minister warned of “a direct provocation,” but there was no sign of any violence. In Simferopol, the regional capital of Crimea, a large number of masked armed men were stationed at the international airport Friday morning. They were dressed in camouflage and carrying assault rifles, but their military uniforms bore no insignia. It was not clear who they were and they declined to answer questions. In Kiev, the speaker of Parliament, Oleksandr V. Turchynov, who is now the acting president of Ukraine, convened a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council to discuss the situation in Crimea”.

The piece later adds, “In a post on his Facebook page, the interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said that units believed to be affiliated with the Russian military had blocked access to the airport overnight, with some Ukrainian military personnel and border guards inside. Mr. Avakov wrote that the men blocking the airport were also wearing camouflage uniforms with no identifying insignia”.

A separate piece notes, “President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia broke his silence on the crisis in Ukraine on Friday morning with a statement instructing his government to “continue contacts with partners in Kiev” and to work with international bodies to provide financial assistance for the country. In the statement, Mr. Putin also said that authorities in the restive Crimean region of Ukraine had appealed for humanitarian aid and that he had directed the Russian government to consider the request, “including possibilities for the Russian regions to provide assistance.’’ The three-paragraph directive made no mention of former President Viktor F. Yanukovych of Ukraine”.

It is clear that Putin has sent at least some form of Russian troops into Ukraine. However, a piece in Foreign Policy argues that this is a most counter-productive strategy with potential Russian implications. It opens noting “Russia seems to have made a bad bet in Ukraine. Its foreign policy, tactically agile as ever, was strategically unsound. It was certainly possible, as Russia proved in November, to bribe Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych not to sign an association agreement with the European Union. It was also possible to promise a $15 billion loan in return for a policy of repression in Ukraine. After accepting the money in principle, Yanukovych illegally forced a package of legislation through parliament that was closely modeled on similar laws in Moscow restricting freedom of speech and assembly. Right after the Kremlin freed up a $2 billion tranche of the promised loan, the Yanukovych regime gave orders for the mass shooting of protesters”.

The author notes that the aim of Putin’s moves was to push, or pull, Ukraine in  the Eurasian Union along with Belarus and Kazakhstan. He goes on to mention that “Putin has made clear that for him the Eurasian Union is meaningless without Ukraine. He, like everyone else, understands that the Russian empire without Ukraine is without glory. But the Eurasian Union cannot possibly have democratic members, since their citizens, in trading with and emigrating to Russia, would spread dangerous ideas. Thus, Ukraine had to become a dictatorship. The problem with this was the Ukrainians themselves. Instead of backing down in the face of batons, rubber bullets, and a sniper massacre, they made a revolution”.

He argues that there are two possible options, “One would be a reconsideration of the totality of Russian foreign policy” which he says would entail turning current Russian foreign policy on its head. He goes on to add, “The other alternative is to deny reality and continue to pursue the Eurasian dream. This would entail maintaining the line Moscow has so far taken in the crisis, namely that Ukrainian activists are fascists, terrorists, and gays. It could, perhaps, also translate into a Russian attempt to lay claim to some part of Ukraine. The greatest potential for mischief is to be found in the Crimean Peninsula, in the extreme south, where Russia has a naval base and where much of the population is ethnically Russian“.

While what has occured is not quite laying claim to Crimea it is hard to see where else it could go. He goes on to theorise that “The policy which seems to be under consideration in Moscow has three parts: first, to claim, as Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has already done, that Russian interests in Ukraine are under threat; second, to extend Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens in Crimea; and third, to claim a right of protection — which, in the case of Russia’s neighbours, Georgia and Moldova, has already resulted in the creation of Russian protectorates. As of this writing, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is on alert, and a Russian parliamentarian is in Crimea discussing passports and the possibility of a Russian annexation. It should go without saying that an attempt to seize Ukrainian territory would be a disaster in the short run, ruining Russian credibility around the world and likely starting a major war. In the long term, such an action, even if it were to succeed, would set a rather troubling precedent — for Russia itself”.

There is however no guarantee that a war would be started out of what has already occurred. There seems to be hazy legal promises to protect Ukraine but it is at the very least uncertain if these promises will be kept should they even be called on.

He goes on to elobrate that “If Russia excludes its own borders from the general international standard of inviolability, it might face some unwanted challenges down the road. If Russia’s external frontiers are flexible zones, to be pushed in various ways with appeals to the rights of ethnic brethren and passport holders, then what will happen, down the line, in Russia’s eastern Siberia? There, Russia holds major natural resources along its border with China, the world’s longest. Some 6 million Russian citizens in eastern Siberia face 90 million Chinese in China’s bordering provinces. Beijing pays attention to Ukraine because it has a major stake in Ukrainian agricultural territories. It will likely note the developing Russian doctrine on the flexibility of Russia’s external borders. China also has a stake in eastern Siberia. It needs fresh water, hydrocarbons, mineral resources such as copper and zinc, and fertile soil for its farmers. The Chinese economic relationship with eastern Siberia is a colonial one: China buys raw materials and sells finished goods. Beijing actually invests more in eastern Siberia than does Moscow. No one knows the exact number of Chinese citizens in eastern Siberia — in part because the last Russian census declined to count them — but it certainly dwarfs the number of Russians in Crimea, and is expected by Russian analysts to increase significantly with time”.

He concludes “It seems rather risky for Russia to develop, on its own border, a challenge to the basic premise of territorial sovereignty. Beijing and Moscow currently enjoy good relations, and Chinese leaders are too sophisticated to consider open threats to eastern Siberia. But down the road, as demographic pressures mount and Russian resources beckon, a Russian doctrine of the ethnic adjustments of Russian borders could provide Beijing with a useful model”.

Holding up DoD

28/02/2014

Sen. John McCain has placed a hold on two of President Obama’s nominees for  top Pentagon jobs, after he said they gave unsatisfactory answers during their  confirmation hearings Tuesday. McCain placed a hold on Bob Work, Obama’s nominee for deputy defense  secretary, after he said the littoral combat ship program he had overseen while  serving as under secretary of the Navy “is on solid ground and is meeting its  cost targets.” The 2015 defense  budget request proposes cutting the purchase of 52 littoral combat ships to only  32 ships, and calls for future alternatives to the ship. “I think this is very normal with Navy ship building,” Work said, adding that  a modified littoral combat ship model could be one of the  alternatives. “You think it’s normal?” McCain asked. “The cost overruns associated with  this ship, the fact that we don’t even know what the mission is…this whole  idea of moving different modules off and on. You disagree with the Government  Accountability Office (GAO) statement at the cost overruns? This is  normal?” Work said cost overruns for the ship program occurred before he served as  undersecretary from May 2009 through March 2013, and that he had not read the  2013 GAO report.  McCain said he was “stunned” that Work hadn’t read the report”.

Pakistan wages war

28/02/2014

Following the breakdown of Taliban-Pakistan talks and the choice faced by Pakistan it appears that the Pakistani government has accepted there is a need to fight back against the Taliban and take the war to them.

In light of this a piece in the Washington Post notes that “Hundreds of families have fled Pakistani tribal areas near the Afghan border where the air force has been targeting Taliban insurgents and their hideouts for over a week, officials said Tuesday. Military and intelligence officials said that jets and helicopter gunships killed nearly 25 insurgents in the latest strikes on Tuesday. There is no way to confirm the claim independently. The lawless region is off limits to journalists. The officials spoke anonymously as they were not authorised to talk to media. Most of the fleeing families are headed from North Waziristan to neighboring Bannu city, said Lutfur Rehman, an officer with the provincial disaster management authority.  Some of the families are heading to live with their relatives, he said”.

In related developments it has been mentioned that “The Pakistani government is on the verge of launching a major military offensive in the North Waziristan tribal region after brutal Taliban attacks in recent weeks and the apparent failure of peace talks with the militants, according to a senior Pakistani official. “It could be any day,” said the official, adding that military plans have been shared with top U.S. officials, who have long urged an offensive. Planning for the operation comes amid a Pakistan-requested pause in U.S. drone strikes that is entering its third month — the longest period without such an attack in more than two years — and high-level bilateral meetings. Pakistan’s defense secretary, Asif Yasin Malik, is heading a delegation of security officials in Washington. CIA Director John Brennan quietly visited Pakistan last week, days after Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, head of the U.S. Central Command, held meetings at military headquarters in Rawalpindi. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s national security adviser said cabinet-level consultations on the military option will take place this week. “Dialogue with the Taliban has derailed, and the writ of the state will be established in the region,” Sartaj Aziz told reporters Monday in Islamabad, the nation’s capital. With 150,000 troops already based in the tribal regions, the senior Pakistani official said the government is prepared to begin a full-fledged clearing operation. “We really don’t have to start from scratch,” the official said”.

The article goes on to add that the US presence in the region is pleased with the action being taken by Sharif and the Pakistani government but at the same time are cautious as there have been similar situations where little positive has happened.

The report continues, “the Pakistan People’s Party, the official opposition in Parliament, said it supported a military offensive. Imran Khan, head of the opposition Movement for Justice party, indicated that military action was inevitable. “Talks would have still been a better option,” he said, but he called on the government to “take political ownership of any military operation” and fully inform the nation. Khan, whose northwestern power base borders the tribal regions and who has been harshly critical of Sharif and the United States, called for the government to begin evacuating civilians from North Waziristan before starting a bombardment of the area, as it did before major military offensives in the Swat region in 2009 and in South Waziristan in 2010. The Pakistani Taliban — also known by the initials TTP, for Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan — is allied with but separate from the Afghan Taliban that is fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Elements of both, along with the Afghan Haqqani network and remnants of al-Qaeda’s core leadership, are located in North Waziristan. The TTP’s stated goal is to overthrow the Pakistani government and install an Islamic state based on religious law. Peace talks were proposed early last fall by Sharif, who took office in June after the first democratic transition in Pakistan’s history. Those talks were canceled when a U.S. drone strike in November killed TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud. The action led to one of the frequent downturns in U.S.-Pakistani relations, as Sharif’s government accused the Obama administration of trying to undermine negotiations”.

“Keep his post as defence minister”

28/02/2014

Egyptian army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will keep his post as defence minister in the new government, an official source said on Wednesday, quashing speculation he was about to announce a widely expected bid for the presidency. Sisi is tipped to win the upcoming presidential election but has yet to announce his candidacy. He must vacate the post of defense minister in order to run. The source said he would likely keep that job until an election law is finalised. It may not take long. The draft presidential election law will be handed to interim President Adly Mansour no later than Saturday for approval, the state news agency reported, quoting a judge involved in reviewing it.

Realism from the UN

28/02/2014

It has been reported that the UN has begun discussions with those terrorists in Syria. The piece begins, “Long a prime target of al Qaeda-inspired attacks, the United Nations has been discretely cultivating informal contacts with the terror organization’s Syrian affiliate in hopes of persuading the militants to allow aid workers to safely deliver humanitarian assistance to civilians in opposition-controlled territory”.

The report goes on to mention that “The contacts with leaders from the Jabhat al-Nusra terror group, which have not previously been reported, are mostly informal and sometimes involve little more than conversations between U.N. relief workers and Jabhat al-Nusra fighters at a specific checkpoint. In other cases, the U.N. funnels requests for safe passage through other more moderate armed opposition groups. Other more direct communications remain a closely-held secret. ‘We don’t talk about the details,’ said a senior U.N. official who confirmed the contacts. ‘These are not face to face contacts – they usually take placeon telephone or Skype.'” The outreach is highly sensitive within the U.N. and the broader international relief community. U.N. officials fear that the disclosure of any dealings, however incidental,with terror groups could fuel criticism that the world body is conveying such groups a kind of political legitimacy they don’t deserve. Still, U.N. officials say they have no choice but to deal with the militants. The world body is racing against time to get food and aid to the hundreds of thousands of civilians who are facing starvation in Homs, Aleppo, and other besieged Syrian towns and cities”.

It appears that the conversations are having an impact, “There are early signs that the outreach efforts may be paying off. Jabhat al-Nusra fighters have so far largely refrained from targeting relief workers inside Syria, and have provided assurances that their forces will not target U.N. aid convoys. That stands in stark contrast to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an even more extremist al Qaeda-inspired movement that has abducted foreign relief workers,seized aid supplies, and launched attacks against hospitals and other opposition forces. ‘They still don’t like the United Nations; they don’t trust it and see it as a tool of the United States,’ Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, said of Jabhat al-Nusra. ‘But they are a pragmatic organization and they understand that humanitarian aid from the outside will do more to provide relief than anything they can do.’ At a time when U.N. aid workers are facing the daily threat of suicide attacks by al Qaeda’s Somali affiliate, al-Shabab, the effort to cultivate ties with its Syrian counterpart would seem risky. But in recent years, the U.N. and independent relief agencies have been forced to coexist with other al Qaeda affiliates as the global terror network has spread to many of the Middle Eastern and African conflict zones where the United Nations is present”.

The author gives context noting that “Militants have been targeting the U.N. for years, but the attacks are growing far more frequent. In 2011, the Islamist extremist Boko Haram used a car bomb to flatten a U.N. compound in Abuja, Nigeria, killing at least 23 people in one of the bloodiest attacks in the world body’s history.This year has been even worse. In June 2013, al-Shabab launched a bloody terror strike against the U.N.’s humanitarian aid headquarters in Mogadishu, killing eight people. Last week, meanwhile, al-Shabab claimed responsibility for an attack on a U.N. convoy in Mogadishu that killed several bystanders, highlighting the U.N.’s status as an enemy target. In Afghanistan, Taliban insurgents frequently target U.N. personnel. David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary who serves as president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, says aid workers have little choice but to cultivate relations with a wide range of insurgents and extremist organisations who wield influence in areas where civilians are in desperate need of assistance. He pointed to Afghanistan, where his organisation has provided relief in areas under Taliban control”.

One of the reasons behind the diminutation in violence against the UN, it would appear is that “the political price of targeting the U.N. may prove costly for the movement in places like Syria, where Jabhat al-Nusra is seeking to gain support among Sunni civilians who are in desperate need of U.N. handouts. In an earlier stage of the conflict, the group’s fighters alienated local Syrians by enforcing a harsh brand of Islamic rule, and punishing other less religious Syrian fighters for crimes like blasphemy, according to Michael Weiss, a columnist for Now Lebanon, an English language publication in Beirut,who covers the Syria conflict”.

It ends, “Al Qaeda’s leaders seem to be taking heed. Earlier this month, al Qaeda formally disavowed its relationship with ISIS, which has targeted doctors, hospitals and foreign aid workers. In recent weeks, a coalition of Syrian opposition groups have taken up arms against ISIS, claiming it has invested more effort into asserting control over Syrian towns than fighting Assad. Jabhat al-Nusra has participated in the fight against ISIS”.

“On Ukraine’s doorstep”

28/02/2014

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was ordering a surprise military exercise of ground and air forces on Ukraine’s doorstep on Wednesday, adding to the tensions with Europe and the United States and underscoring his intention to keep the country in Moscow’s orbit. Taken together, the two events illustrated the continuing challenges that the new government in Kiev faces in calming separatism at home and placating a frustrated Russian leader who sees Ukraine as a vital part of his strategy of rebuilding Russian influence along the lines not of the former Soviet Union but of the czars. While few analysts expected a Russian military intervention in Ukraine, most said Mr. Putin was likely to respond in some fashion to such a stinging geopolitical defeat”.

Now the hard part

28/02/2014

After all that has gone on in Ukraine the hardest part would seem to be just beginning. An article in Foreign Policy notes that “Ukrainian leaders trade the barricades for bureaucracy, they’re faced with nearly empty government coffers, painful economic reforms, and the looming threat that their success will provoke retaliation from Russia, whether economic or otherwise. After a bloody week that brought the country to the brink of civil war, opposition leaders succeeded in ousting former President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled Kiev as his government dissolved. Their prize? Dealing with the same economic crisis that helped drive their predecessor from office. The new Ukrainian government has indicated that it will need roughly $35 billion to get through the next two years, much more than the original $15 billion bailout the government negotiated with Russia last fall”.

He notes “In addition to putting a price tag on fixing its economy, on Monday the Ukrainian government moved to shore up the country’s financial future by picking a new central banker. Parliament voted for Stepan Kubiv, who is a former “commandant” from the protest movement, according to the Kyiv Post. Kubiv said one of the first things on his agenda would be inviting the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to Kiev to restart negotiations over a bailout package. Over the past few days, Western countries have again welcomed Ukraine to the European fold, and now stand ready to offer financial assistance once a new government is in place. In addition to making clear that Ukraine had a path back to financial solvency through the IMF, the United States proffered bilateral aid as well. European officials are also reaching out to Japan, China, and Turkey to organise a Ukrainian bailout, according to Reuters”.

He continues, “The new leaders were part of the opposition that revolted against President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to accept Russia’s cash and reject closer trade ties with Europe. Now, they are free to put the country back on a European trajectory, and reconsider signing the trade and political agreement that Yanukovych rejected, but they may face the same fallout from Russia that he did. Ukraine relies on Russia, not just for trade, but also for natural gas imports. If Ukraine’s short-term financial lifeline comes with the signing of the association agreement with the European Union, which will allow for a free trade zone and lift visa restrictions, it will carry one big additional risk: the threat that an angry Russia could use its energy leverage to try to cow Kiev back into its orbit”.

While President Obama and European leaders have tried to convince Putin that a stable Ukraine is more in Russia’s interest than a failing state would be, the Russian leader’s geopolitical calculations are likely to be different — leading him to work against any sort of stabilisation of Ukraine”.

However, the possibility of this occuring is likely and as a result people should prepare for whatever tricks Putin may pull. The new leaders of Ukraine will have a hard balancing act in keep the country float economically and at the same time keeping the country united. However, if one must sacrafice one of these it should be obvious which it should be. If parts of the East of the country, or Crimea, want to leave Ukraine then so be it. The rest of Ukraine will develop while the parts that left will stagnate under Putin or whatever vessel is installed to the liking of Moscow.

The piece goes on to note “Russia holds sway over much of the Ukrainian economy, but Moscow’s dominance of natural gas supplies looms largest. Russia has cut off gas supplies to Ukraine several times in the past, and gas trade between the two countries has been at the heart of the tug-of-war for influence since late last year. Granted, Russia’s energy leverage over Ukraine and the rest of Europe isn’t unlimited. Wintertime low temperatures, which spur greater gas demand, will soon give way to spring”.

He continues, “For now, though, the big questions facing Kiev are threefold. What happens to the preferential deal that ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych signed with Russia in December that included $15 billion in aid and a 33 percent discount on natural gas? How painful will the domestic economic and energy reforms needed to satisfy the IMF and the European Union really be? Finally, what will the turmoil do to Ukraine’s long-term plans to become a bigger gas producer in its own right and shake off the Russian energy yoke once and for all? Russia does hold some powerful cards in the short term. Under the terms of the December deal, the price discount will have to be renewed by mutual agreement every quarter. Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations warned at the time of the deal that deep discounts can give energy suppliers big leverage, too”.

As with many things the trick is to sacrifice short term stability for long term gains, this is particularly hard in any democracy but the acting government can make the tough choices without “fear” of a poor electoral preformance. The decisions taken by this government could even have the effect of pushing Russia into a different direction from the one it is on now.

The piece adds “Ukraine’s broader trade relationship with Russia could also hang in the balance. Yanukovych decided to spurn the European Union last fall after Russia threatened punishing trade sanctions if he signed the deal. Russian Economic Development Minister Alexey Ulyukaev said Monday in Washington that his government would have to consider what a new Ukrainian pact with Europe would mean for Russia. He said it was still an open question whether Ukraine could be part of both the Russian and the European free trade zones. ‘We decided the three parts — Ukraine, European community, and us — will start to talk about if it’s really possible to have the two things together,’ Ulyukaev said. He also made clear that the rest of the $15 billion aid deal that it promised in the fall is not a sure thing. Ulyukaev said it would depend who Russia’s ‘partners’ were in Ukraine. A $2 billion bond deal that was supposed to be the latest installment of the aid package fell through last week, after Russia indicated it was backing off because of political instability”.

He concludes the piece “All that adds up to a political headache for the new crop of policymakers in Ukraine: Any move to raise domestic prices could eventually shore up state finances, which is why the IMF has pushed for such reforms, but could also spark a popular backlash. Finally, the months of protest, the formation of an interim government, and the prospect of another round of contentious elections raise the question of what will happen to Ukraine’s long-term prospects for domestic energy development. Last year, Ukraine signed huge deals with Chevron and Shell to develop shale-gas resources and try to replicate, if on a smaller scale, the kind of energy revolution that has turned the United States from an importer of natural gas to a prospective exporter in just a few years”.

Zero troops?

28/02/2014

President Barack Obama has warned his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai that the US may pull all of its troops out of his country by the year’s end. Mr Obama conveyed the message in a phone call to Mr Karzai, who has refused to sign a security agreement. The US insists this agreement must be in place before it commits to leaving some troops behind for counter-insurgent operations and training. The US has had troops in Afghanistan since 2001 when it toppled the Taliban.

Not just geopolitics

28/02/2014

In a piece published a number of days ago, it argues that it was financial matters that helped stir the current crisis in Ukraine. It notes “Late last year, with Ukraine’s state coffers running low because of overspending on political priorities like subsidising natural gas and increasing the wages of government workers, President Viktor Yanukovych faced a choice. The European Union offered a trade deal that promised to boost Ukraine’s sluggish economy in exchange for harsh and politically unpopular austerity measures. Russia offered $15 billion and didn’t ask Yanukovych to change much of anything. Unsurprisingly, he rejected the EU deal and opted for Moscow’s bailout instead”.

He notes that “Snipers shot into crowds, and firebombs came flying back. At least 70 people were killed, bringing the weekly death toll to at least 101, according to the Associated Press. In response, European officials moved to sanction Ukrainian leaders. After an emergency meeting in Brussels, EU foreign ministers said that they would freeze the assets and revoke the visas of officials they consider responsible for the violence.The United States issued a similar visa ban on Wednesday. The Russian government also pressured Yanukovych to restore stability, suggesting that it could withhold the next $2 billion installment of financial assistance”.

He adds that “European officials turned toward sanctions after months of trying to cobble together a competing financial deal for Ukraine. U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew reminded Ukrainian leaders Wednesday that they could still get a deal from the West in exchange for ‘steps to fix their economy.’ While Kiev is still burning, it seems unlikely that Ukrainian officials would sit down with a bunch of bureaucrats at the IMF to talk about economic reforms. But if Yanukovych steps down or agrees to share power with opposition leaders, a new interim government could reopen those negotiations. That, in turn, could clear the way for Kiev to receive desperately needed funds”.

The writer argues that the problems faced by Ukraine are not systemic, but are simply a result of too many subsidies and too many outogoings, “Yanukovych didn’t want to make any changes to that system for fear of weakening his grip on the country.  Wealthy businessmen and people close to Yanukovych have grown wealthy, even as the rest of the economy slipped into recession. ‘There’s a reason that Yanukovych’s son, a dentist by training, is now one of the most successful businessmen in Ukraine,’ said Steven Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The Ukrainian government also sunk a lot of money into hosting the European soccer championships in 2012. Ukraine spent $14 billion to get ready to host the games with Poland, according to a Bloomberg report at the time. But perhaps Ukraine’s biggest problem was paying a high price for imported natural gas and then selling it to consumers and businesses at a lower price”.

He finishes the piece “Natural gas imports have often figured in disputes between Russia and Ukraine for years, with Russia periodically shutting off the spigot. Still, that didn’t stop Yanukovych from turning to Moscow when faced with what he considered onerous loan terms from the West. Former IMF Chief Economist Simon Johnson said Ukrainian leaders were faced with a decision about whether to change the direction of the economy”.

A new Saudi approach?

26/02/2014

“Saudi Arabia has sidelined its veteran intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, as leader of the kingdom’s efforts to arm and fund Syrian rebels, replacing him with another prince well-regarded by U.S. officials for his successes fighting al-Qaeda, Saudi royal advisers said this week. The change holds promise for a return to smoother relations with the U.S., and may augur a stronger Saudi effort against militants aligned with al Qaeda who have flocked to opposition-held Syrian territory during that country’s three-year war, current and former U.S. officials said. Prince Bandar, an experienced but at times mercurial ex-diplomat and intelligence chief, presided over Saudi Arabia’s Syria operations for the past two years with little success, as a rift opened up with the U.S. over how much to back rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who has won praise in Washington for his counterterror work against al Qaeda in Yemen and elsewhere, is now a main figure in carrying out Syria policy, a royal adviser and a security analyst briefed by Saudi officials said Tuesday. Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, Saudi King Abdullah’s son and head of the Saudi National Guard, has also assumed a bigger share of responsibility for the kingdom’s policy towards Syria, the advisers said. A Saudi analyst who serves as adviser to top royals said the changes signaled the kingdom would also now emphasise diplomatic means, including outreach to and pressure on Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, the main backers of Mr. Assad’s regime”.

Divided or united?

26/02/2014

As events in Ukraine quicken two article have appeared that argue contradictory points of view. The first argues that Ukraine is fundamentally divided. The second takes a more optomistic view that Ukraine is far more unified that people think.

The first piece notes that, “Three European Union negotiators announced that they had agreed with President Viktor Yanukovych on a deal to end the crisis. With Yanukovych on the defensive, the anti-government protestors pressed their advantage. The opposition now seems to be in control of Kiev. Lawmakers have vowed to free one of the main opposition leaders, Yulia Tymoshenko, from prison. I hope that everything ends well. I have to confess, though, that I’m inclined to be skeptical. A few weeks ago two Reuters journalists published a report that looked into Ukraine’s regional divides. In the city of Lviv, in Western Ukraine, they found plenty of people who approved wholeheartedly of the anti-government protests, and who wanted to see Ukraine firmly in the Western camp. But in Yanukovych’s home city of Donetsk, in the East, the reporters came across a steelworker named Viktor Chernov, who described the turmoil in Kiev as ‘a disgrace.'”

He notes that “That Ukraine trades heavily with both Europe and Russia is objectively true; some 60 percent of the country’s trade goes to the republics of the former USSR, and most of its manufactured exports come from the heavily industrialized East. Many Eastern Ukrainians have close personal ties with Russia and other ex-Soviet territories. Europe is far away. And as for corruption — well, is the opposition really immune? In 2010, there were enough Ukrainians like these to give Yanukovych a victory in that year’s presidential election. (Hewon with 49 percent over main rival Yulia Tymoshenko, who garnered 45 percent.) His political machine, the Party of Regions, increased its support among the electorate enough towin parliamentary elections in 2012.”

Crucially he writes that “his party isn’t going to disappear even if the president leaves the scene. That’s because it has deep roots in the East. The Ukrainians who voted for Yanukovych aren’t going anywhere, and I’m really not convinced that they side with the protesters in the center of Kiev. A poll published earlier this month by the respected Ukrainian pollster SOCIS showed that Yanukovych still enjoyed the highest approval rating of any potential candidate for the presidency (about 21 percent). To be sure, the combined forces of the opposition would still be enough to beat him (assuming they could agree on a common candidate, hardly a given in the highly fractious world of Ukrainian politics). Over the years, though, presidential candidates from the East have been able to count on core support of some 30-40 percent of the Ukrainian electorate”.

He goes on to argue forcefully that “The fact of the matter is that Ukrainians have deeply divergent views on the future of the country, and that these views are strongly shaped by which part of the country they’re from. And since these views are strongly reinforced by geopolitics, language, and economics, the differences are not momentary, but deeply rooted. That Eastern Ukrainians aren’t taking to the streets in defense of the government is about as meaningful as the fact that Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” of disgruntled conservatives in the United States didn’t take to the streets to demonstrate against 1960s radicals. To emphasise these complexities is not — as some would claim — to deny Ukraine’s viability as a state. Nor does it imply that Ukraine ought to be carved up into constituent units. Ukraine is perfectly capable of continuing its existence as a state if it can find an institutional framework that will take its political diversity into account — instead of lurching from one crisis to the next as it has over the past 15 years. Ukraine’s regional differences do, however, mean that we should take the possibility of civil conflict seriously”.

He ends on the sound advice, “acknowledging the existing divides, rather than trying to wish them away, is the first step to developing viable reforms. I’m glad to hear that there is once again talk of constitutional change in Kiev, and that many members of the political elite understand that a new system is needed”.

The question is however, how to acknowledge the differences but at the same time steer the country away from Putin and towards what is the lesser or two evils, the EU, while keeping the country together.

In an article that is starkly different it argues that Ukraine is far more united that many would believe, “According to this interpretation, Ukraine is neatly divided into two homogeneous, coherent, and irreconcilable blocs. The implicit message is that partition is inevitable and desirable. As Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev for the pro-Russian and “separatist” Kharkiv on Feb. 22, analysts feared he would ignite a civil war between Ukraine’s irreconcilable factions. But as is often the case with such binary oppositions, they conceal and obfuscate more than they reveal and clarify, creating a simplistic image of a complex condition.

As is obvious to any visitor, Ukraine’s westernmost large city, Lviv, differs fundamentally from its easternmost counterparts, Luhansk and Donetsk. Lviv is pro-Western; it supports Ukrainian independence; it has consistently voted against Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions; it speaks Ukrainian and promotes Ukrainian culture, while being multilingual, multicultural, and remarkably diverse; and it rejects the Soviet past”.

He notes that “this neat picture becomes muddled in the environs of Luhansk and Donetsk. For example, the official website of the Bilokurakyn district of Luhansk province (which borders Russia) is in Ukrainian, and the website’s sentiments are distinctly anti-Yanukovych. The countryside and smaller towns of both provinces tend to speak Ukrainian and practice Ukrainian culture. And even in the cities themselves, the vast majority of the population — minus the pro-Russian chauvinists — will happily engage Ukrainian speakers in conversation. One Ukrainian history professor at Donetsk State University has been conducting all his lectures in Ukrainian for over a decade. At first some students grumbled — and he responded by pointing out that if they lack the intellectual ability to understand Ukrainian, they shouldn’t be university students”.

He notes that people in Lviv speak some Russian, and that the city is  “especially popular with Russian tourists, who like it for its Middle European feel, old architecture, and Ukrainian distinctiveness”. However, just because people speak Russian and read Russian newspapers does not, obviously mean that they feel any affinity for the Russian state, either its past or present. The author can easily pick out exceptions to the East-West divide in Ukraine but on the whole it would appear that country is not united, despite some minor exceptions.

He adds that “Kiev nicely illustrates another important nuance. It’s often said that Kiev speaks like the East and votes like the West: most Kievites are fluent in Russian, and most also support the ongoing anti-government revolution, just as they supported the 2004 Orange Revolution”.

He goes on to make the argument that “Just as unsurprisingly, every major south-eastern city — Kharkiv, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhya, Mykolayiv, Odessa, and, even the Crimea — has held anti-Yanukovych demonstrations in the last three months. A few weeks ago, some 5,000 people marched in support of the anti-government demonstrators in Yanukovych’s stronghold, Donetsk — a remarkable figure considering the violence they knew could await them from the local security forces”.

Again however he seems to equate demonstrations in the East as meaning the they are model “EU citizens” in waiting. This is patently false and while there may have been instances of push back against Yanukovych/Putin in the East, on the whole the East is not the same as the West culturally.

He concludes the piece “The real divide in Ukraine is not between East and West, but between the democratic forces on the one hand and the Party of Regions on the other.The latter is strongest in the southeast, mostly because its cadres (who are mostly former communists) have controlled the region’s information networks and economic resources since Soviet times and continue to do so to this day. Their domination since Ukraine’s independence rests on their having constructed alliances with organized crime and the country’soligarchs, in particular with Ukraine’s richest tycoon, Rinat Akhmetov. They have enormous financial resources at their disposal, control the local media, and quash — or have quashed — all challengers to their hegemony. Their rule has been compared, not inaccurately, to that of the mafia. Ukrainians in the southeast tend to vote for them, less because they’re enamored of Yanukovych (they are not), and more because they have no alternatives and, due to the Region Party’s control of the media, see no alternatives”.

Becoming less democratic

26/02/2014

Turkish President Abdullah Gul approved a law boosting government control over the appointment of judges and prosecutors on Wednesday, deferring to the Constitutional Court on some elements in the legislation. The law, along with a regulation tightening control of the internet already approved by Gul, is seen by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s critics as an authoritarian response to a corruption inquiry shaking his government. Erdogan accused his enemies on Tuesday of hacking encrypted state communications to fake a phone conversation suggesting he warned his son to hide large sums of money before police raids as part of the inquiry. Gul said he had studied the judiciary bill during its passage through parliament and warned the justice minister about 15 points which he regarded as anti-constitutional. He said these elements had been addressed in revisions to the draft”.

War with the Taliban, or surrender

26/02/2014

An article discusses the failing attempts of the Pakistani Taliban and the Pakistani government to talk.

It opens, “Pakistan’s bid to make peace with homegrown Taliban insurgents appeared to run aground over the weekend, after a faction of the extremist group claimed to have executed 23 paramilitary soldiers. At face value, stalemated talks are a setback for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose government has for months assiduously pursued negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). Look deeper, however, and it is clear that the suspension of peace talks is actually good news for U.S.-Pakistan relations. Still, if Sharif fails to recalibrate his negotiation strategy — in particular, by drawing a clear line of defence around Pakistan’s constitutional order — a rare period of goodwill between Washington and Islamabad could soon come to an end. After several rocky years, the United States and Pakistan have managed to restore a narrow basis for security cooperation and are even coordinating their tactics against the TTP. To be sure, the peace talks were hardly welcomed by Washington, which views the TTP not just as a threat to the Pakistani state, but as a potential source of international terrorism. Nonetheless, the United States has allowed the negotiations to run their course, even holding off on drone strikes so as not to be responsible for scuttling the delicate process”.

The writer makes the interesting point that “well-placed Pakistani officials went out of their way to convey to me that the talks are mainly a political charade. Soon enough, those officials hinted, the TTP will show its irreconcilable colours and the public will conclude that war is the only option. At this point, the army will be unleashed in North Waziristan, the principal bastion of anti-state militancy along Pakistan’s long border with Afghanistan. Outwardly, at least, U.S. policymakers appear to have received and accepted this same line, and to date, they have made no effort to force Islamabad’s hand. On Feb. 9, as hardline Taliban appointees to the peace talks conferred with insurgent leaders in North Waziristan, U.S. drones reportedly buzzed overhead without firing a shot. The last known drone strike in Pakistan took place on Dec. 25, 2013. The CIA’s newfound forbearance is coupled with equally restrained rhetoric from the State Department, all in stark contrast to U.S. actions last November, when U.S. drones opportunistically targeted then-TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud and, in the process, blew up a similar nascent dialogue attempt”.

This is a very fair strategy by the Pakistani government. As has been said here before, there is much to commend trying to talk to these groups but ultimately the failure of the talks should be prepared for. This has been shown with what the Pakistani Taliban have done over the last weeks when talks were meant to haave been taking place. The attempt at talks does however have the advantage of preparing people for war against such groups when such actions become necessary.

The article mentions that “This temporary convergence of U.S. and Pakistani tactics will only hold, however, if Islamabad actually follows through on its plan to mobilise political support for a military campaign. Unfortunately, Taliban negotiators have proved at least as deft at winning propaganda points as their government counterparts. They now enjoy a national pulpit for their team of negotiators — a team that includes Maulana Abdul Aziz, the hardline cleric who launched a failed insurrection from Islamabad’s Red Mosque in 2007 — and have used the talks to buy time without putting down their arms. The faltering of negotiations over the weekend, however, could give Islamabad the political cover it needs to reverse these losses by launching a large-scale military offensive. But at the moment, the Sharif government appears more inclined to revive the negotiations in pursuit of a cease-fire”.

The author notes that “This will test Washington’s patience, a commodity that has always been less abundant in the U.S. counterterrorism community than in the diplomatic community. Those two camps have long debated the relative costs and benefits of the drone war in Pakistan, and the White House’s present restraint looks like a limited test of Islamabad’s intentions”.
He makes the valid, though in the long term, a worrying argument that “As U.S. forces thin out, they will find it harder to counter TTP movements along the border and into Afghanistan during any future Pakistani operations in North Waziristan. That, in turn, will hurt the Pakistani army’s ability to deliver a decisive blow to insurgents. At the core of Islamabad’s negotiating strategy lies a deadly flaw in its anti-Taliban propaganda campaign. Pakistan’s top military and civilian leaders still refuse to publicly characterise the insurgents as what they are: insidious byproducts of official state support to extremist militant groups that have fought for decades in neighbouring Afghanistan and India. Shirking its own responsibility, Islamabad has unconvincingly attempted to lay the blame on other doorsteps”.

He argues that Pakistan should “fess up to its past sins, stop criticising its security partners, and present itself as the defender of Pakistan’s constitutional order — against the Taliban’s inflexible vision for an Islamic state. In so doing, it would expose the insurgent group’s essential irreconcilability, rally the widest possible group of allies across the political spectrum, and pave the way to decisive military action. By defining the issue in terms of the Taliban’s violent rejection of core national principles, moreover, Islamabad would also set an important precedent for future dealings with Pakistan’s many other militant groups”.

He concludes ominously, “the real proof of Sharif’s intentions will come only through the negotiations themselves. If the talks did indeed die with the 23 paramilitary soldiers, then both Islamabad and Washington should waste no time pivoting to a war footing, with U.S. forces in Afghanistan playing a supportive role from that side of the border. At stake is not merely the fragile renewal of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation, but the future writ of the Pakistani state in the face of a determined and violent opposition. Unfortunately for Islamabad, the alternative to war with the TTP is not peace, but surrender”.

Weapons from Iran

26/02/2014

Reuters has reported that Iraq has signed a weapons deal with Iran, “Iran has signed a deal to sell Iraq arms and ammunition worth $195 million, according to documents seen by Reuters – a move that would break a U.N. embargo on weapons sales by Tehran. The agreement was reached at the end of November, the documents showed, just weeks after Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki returned from lobbying the Obama administration in Washington for extra weapons to fight al Qaeda-linked militants. Some in Washington are nervous about providing sensitive U.S. military equipment to a country they worry is becoming too close to Iran. Several Iraqi lawmakers said Maliki had made the deal because he was fed up with delays in U.S. arms deliveries. A spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister would not confirm or deny the sale, but said such a deal would be understandable given Iraq’s current security troubles”.

No free thinkers allowed

26/02/2014

An article from the Economist recently notes that in China free thought is not allowed. Where this leaves those who assume China will overtake America technologically with greater innovation is unclear.

It begins noting the motto of Peking University, “one of China’s leading academic institutions, is ‘freedom of thought and an all-embracing attitude’. But in recent months it was not all-embracing enough to allow Xia Yeliang, an outspoken economics professor, to keep his job. Economics was not the subject on which Mr Xia was most forthright. He was a signatory of Charter 08, a petition drawn up in 2008 that called for sweeping political change, and he was known for his liberal political views. (Another signatory of the charter was Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel peace prize in 2010 and is now serving an 11-year jail term for subversion.) Mr Xia was dismissed in October, accused of being a poor teacher. Unable to find another post in China, this month he took up a position as a visiting fellow at the Cato Institute, a think-tank in Washington, DC. Mr Xia’s case is part of a wider clampdown on free-thinking intellectuals. In December Zhang Xuezhong, a legal scholar, was dismissed from East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai after he published a series of articles defending the provisions of China’s constitution. State media called such views a Western plot to overthrow the party. Also in December, Chen Hongguo, an academic at the Northwest University of Politics and Law in Xi’an, resigned. The university had objected, among other things, to his holding salons that discussed texts by Western philosophers such as John Stuart Mill”.

The Communist Party, concerned that it is losing control, has issued a number of political directives banning liberal topics in the classroom. “Since Xi Jinping came into power [as party chief] he has tried to control everything, learning the means from Mao Zedong,” said Mr Xia. “It is a great regression.” The crackdown has also been aimed at activists among ethnic minorities. Ilham Tohti, an economist at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, was detained on January 15th. Mr Tohti is a member of the ethnic Uighur minority, a Muslim group in China’s north-west, many of whom believe their land has been occupied by the Chinese. He is accused of spreading separatist thought and inciting ethnic hatred. On February 7th Radio Free Asia, a radio network sponsored by the American government, released an interview with Mr Tohti from before he was detained. In it he denied any association with a terrorist group and spoke of his fears, asking for the interview to be released if he were detained: “The number of police officers around me has gradually increased,” he said. “I am almost confident that the Chinese government is trying to get rid of me this time.” He said he had only ever advocated human and legal rights and equality for Uighurs”.

The piece ends, “Mr Zhang, the legal scholar, sees his own dismissal as a scare tactic that will fail in the long term as the dissonance grows between politics and everyday life. “When there are many people who are…waiting to stand up, crackdown measures will only make people angry,” he says. That may be so, but for now, on the surface at least, the party appears to be in control”.

This is yet more evidence that China will not be the hub of innovation and free thought that many claim or hope, it will be. Instead, like Russia, China will stagnate and whatever gains it has made will be worthless. Of course, the alternative is to open the society up to free thought, expression and belief. That would mean ending the monopoly of CCP power which, for all the talk of reform, is not going to happen. The CCP is fearful of being stuck in the middle income trap. If this does happen it will be the fault of the CCP.

3,000 troops?

26/02/2014

“One of the four options President Obama is considering for a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan beyond this year would leave behind 3,000 troops, based in Kabul and at the American installation at Bagram, U.S. officials said. Military commanders have recommended 10,000 troops, with more installations across the country. But the military has spent the past several months studying what kind of reduced counterterrorism and training operations it could conduct under the smaller option, which some in the White House favor. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel plans to brief his NATO counterparts in Brussels this week on the status of U.S. decision making. A senior administration official said that no announcement of specific troop numbers was planned but added that “we’ll have to tell people where we stand in our thinking and planning.” During a December visit to Kabul, Hagel suggested that the late-February NATO meeting was a “cutoff point” for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign the bilateral security agreement that sets the terms for a post-2014 U.S. presence. Although the accord was finalised in the fall, Karzai has since refused to sign it, leaving the administration to delay its decision on numbers while threatening a complete pullout when the last combat troops leave at the end of the year.

“Not be ignored by the judiciary”

26/02/2014

An article in the New York Times discusses the issue of gay marriage in America and its relationship to public opinion.

It opens, “America’s ban on same-sex marriage and continued a remarkable winning streak for gay rights advocates, putting new pressure on the Supreme Court to decide the momentous question it ducked last summer: whether there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Since June, when the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples are entitled to equal treatment in at least some settings, federal judges in Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia have struck down laws barring same-sex marriages. In state legislatures and state courts, too, supporters of same-sex marriage have been winning. ‘The pace of change has perhaps outstripped the Supreme Court’s preferences, but the momentum is tremendous,’ said Suzanne B. Goldberg, a law professor at Columbia. Rapid changes in public opinion are also playing a part, said Andrew M. Koppelman, a law professor at Northwestern. ‘It is becoming increasingly clear to judges that if they rule against same-sex marriage their grandchildren will regard them as bigots,’ he said. In striking down Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage, Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen of Federal District Court in Norfolk relied heavily on the Supreme Court’s decision in June in United States v. Windsor, which ruled that the federal government must provide benefits to same-sex couples married in states that allow such unions”.

Importantly the piece goes on to mention that “The Windsor decision also figured prominently in recent rulings from federal judges striking down bans on same-sex marriage in Oklahoma and Utah. The three trial-court decisions vindicated a prediction from Justice Antonin Scalia, who dissented in Windsor. “By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency,” he wrote, “the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition.” He has so far turned out to be right, presumably to his bitter dismay. In keeping with the pace of change, Judge Wright Allen’s decision was marked by haste. It was issued late in the evening, which was curious in light of the fact that it was stayed pending appeal. And its first paragraph, since corrected, initially attributed the phrase “all men are created equal” to the Constitution, though it is in the Declaration of Independence. The decision chose just one of the plausible readings of Windsor, which contained doctrinal crosscurrents. Indeed, Judge Wright Allen quoted a long passage from Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s majority opinion extolling the central role of states in defining marriage. That would seem to support allowing Virginia to decide whom it will let marry”.

The article ends “If past were prologue, this might indicate that the Supreme Court will take its time before returning to the question of what the Constitution has to say about same-sex marriage, particularly now that the court’s jurisdiction is almost entirely discretionary. After all, only 17 states and the District of Columbia allow such unions, not counting the recent decisions, all stayed, from Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia. On the other hand, public opinion in 1967 was strongly against interracial marriage, while most polls show that a rapidly growing majority of Americans support same-sex marriage. That transformation in public sentiment will not be ignored by the judiciary, Professor Koppelman said. He added that the Supreme Court is likely to step in as soon as next year should any of the recent decisions be affirmed by a federal appeals court”.

“A framework for future negotiations”

26/02/2014

Iran and six world powers on Thursday ended nuclear talks with agreement on a framework for future negotiations but little progress on the main issue of what nuclear concessions Tehran must make in exchange for an end to sanctions stifling its economy. In a joint statement at the end of three-day talks, officials for both sides said they would meet again in Vienna on March 17, continuing a process likely to take at least six months and probably longer.  Separately, the U.N. nuclear agency confirmed that Tehran is meeting its commitments under the first-step pact that led to this week’s negotiations, which seek a more ambitious deal. The agency noted that Iran’s stockpile of nuclear material that can be turned quickly into the fissile core of a nuclear warhead had diminished by nearly 20 percent to 161 kilograms (355 pounds) under the first-step agreement, which took effect last month.” The Wall Street Journal notes that  “Diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program gained momentum on two key fronts Thursday, but the advancement was tempered by differences over the scope of negotiations in coming months. Iran and global powers set ambitious goals for the timeline of the talks, while United Nations inspectors said they’ve gained improved access to Iranian nuclear facilities. But at talks with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, a bloc known as the P5+1, Iranian officials opposed a U.S. proposal for negotiations over caps on Tehran’s ballistic-missile program. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif argued that Tehran’s military capabilities were nonnegotiable. U.S. officials countered that the world powers were required to discuss the missile program because of U.N. Security Council resolutions that demand Tehran suspend its missile program until it addresses evidence the program is being developed to deliver nuclear warheads. Tehran has refused to stop testing the weapons. Iran argues the missiles are defensive and aren’t designed to carry nuclear warheads”.

No automatic entry

26/02/2014

An excellent article has been published in the Daily Telegraph. It argues that Salmond is only taking the best case for Scottish independence and is therefore detached from reality.

The piece begins, “In the parallel universe inhabited by the First Minister of Scotland and his separatist supporters, their campaign to break up Britain is sailing towards victory. The reality, however, is somewhat different. On Sunday, José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, fired what was but the latest in a series of well-aimed torpedoes at the SNP’s attempt to win September’s referendum on Scottish independence. He said that it would be “difficult, if not impossible” for a separate Scotland to join the EU, pointing out that the acquiescence of all 28 members would be required; a solitary veto would be enough to block entry. His words, on The Andrew Marr Show, are a particularly bitter pill for the Nats to swallow, as “Scotland in Europe” has long been a key plank in the separatists’ manifesto. They have preached that belonging to the European Union was the security blanket in which many voters could take comfort if they voted to leave the three-century-old union with England, Wales and, now, Northern Ireland”.

The piece goes on to correctly mention the endless problems tha Salmond has had in attempting to square the ill thought out circle. The report adds “And it is his policy on Europe on which Mr Salmond has continually stumbled. Only five years ago he said he favoured joining the euro, describing sterling as a “millstone” around Scotland’s neck. Then he said that Scotland wouldn’t have to apply to join the club as it could merely ascend straight to the top table in Brussels because, as a constituent part of the UK, it had always been a member. That policy had to be abandoned in the face of reality checks from everyone who’s anyone in the EU, with Mr Barroso again in the van. Then the SNP claimed that they would, after all, apply but that they’d be fast-tracked, with negotiations completed in double-quick time, certainly within 18 months of a Yes vote. That timetable was shot down in flames by, for one, José García-Margallo, the Spanish foreign minister, who said there was no chance of such a special deal for Scotland, which would have to negotiate all 35 chapters of the EU treaty and then have the application approved by the parliaments of all 28 member states, as well as their governments”.

The writer makes the valid point about the importance of the comments by Barroso, “However, while Spain’s lack of enthusiasm for Scotland’s EU entry – because of its problems with Catalonia and the Basque country – is well known, the EU president’s words came as a shock to the nationalists. Mr Barroso’s words followed the triple-whammy, as it’s been termed, from the three economic spokesmen of the Westminster parties – one, or perhaps two, of which will form the next British government after 2015’s general election. Chancellor George Osborne, his shadow Ed Balls, and Osborne’s deputy Danny Alexander, have all declared that they will not permit an independent Scotland to share the pound in a sterling currency union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland”.

The author notes that the response of Salmond to what was a serious setback for his cause was “in response to the head of the EU was that he was being ‘preposterous’. Sound bites of this nature have become the stock-in-trade of the SNP leader, with his speech in Aberdeen yesterday littered with well-worn smart-Alex phrases about how those opposed to him had been indulging in, variously, ‘a destructive campaign’ and were ‘undermining the democratic process’, ‘dictating from on high’ and indulging in ‘caricatures’. Some of his accusations will strike a chord with Scots and may see a short-term increase in the poll showings for the Yes vote. But this had been factored in by the Unionist camp, who are confident that in the medium term most voters north of the border will see that without a currency union and with, according to Mr Barroso, little likelihood of EU membership, Mr Salmond has no coherent economic policy to offer for an independent Scotland”.

He concludes, “As if to prove how bizarre his claims are becoming, Mr Salmond included a promise that “his” independent Scotland would never regard England, Wales and Northern Ireland as “foreign”. That’s rich, indeed, coming from a man who plans to continue to charge students from those three up to £36,000 for university tuition at Scottish universities, while those from France, Spain, Italy, Germany, the Republic of Ireland, and other EU countries would continue to study for free”.

He ends the piece in what is an superb argument against the case of Salmond, “if the whole emphasis of the separatists’ campaign has not always been to make Scotland “foreign” from the rest of the UK, what’s it been about?”

“Failed to comply”

26/02/2014

A U.S. drone strike in December that killed at least a dozen people in Yemen failed to comply with rules imposed by President Obama last year to protect civilians, according to an investigation by a human rights organization released Thursday. The report by Human Rights Watch concluded that the strike, which was carried out by the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command, targeted a line of vehicles that were part of a wedding procession, and that evidence indicates “some, if not all those killed and wounded were civilians.”  The findings contradict assertions by U.S. officials that only militants were killed in the operation, although the report acknowledged that members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist network’s affiliate in Yemen, may have been among the dead. Overall, Human Rights Watch “found that the operations did not comply with the targeted killing policies that President Obama outlined” in a speech in May, the report said, citing in particular Obama’s requirement of “near-certainty” that no civilians would be harmed.

Pell’s revenge

24/02/2014

Following the consistory that has just taken place, today, Pope Francis has made public his decision to create a new Secretariat for the Economy. Francis has, with the creation of the new office has at the same time named the prefect, George Cardinal Pell.

In the press release from the Press Office of the Holy See it notes, “Today’s announcement comes after the recommendations of the rigorous review  conducted by the Pontifical Commission for Reference on the Organization of the  Economic- Administrative Structure of the Holy See (COSEA) were considered and  endorsed by both the Council of 8 Cardinals established to advise the Holy  Father on governance and the Committee of 15 Cardinals which oversees the  financial affairs of the Holy See”.

It adds, “COSEA recommended changes to simplify and consolidate existing management  structures and improve coordination and oversight across the Holy See and  Vatican City State. COSEA also recommended more formal commitment to adopting  accounting standards and generally accepted financial management and reporting  practices as well as enhanced internal controls, transparency and governance”.

Several things are worth noting. Firstly, the head of the office is not called president but prefect, a title akin to that of the head of a congregation. Both other economic/finanacial offices use president.

Secondly, Cardinal Pell is already on the Council of Cardinals but more importantly his appointment as prefect of the Congregation for Bishops was nixed at the last moment due to intense curial opposition.

Thirdly, this new office raises questions. Where does the Prefecture of the Economic Affairs of the Holy See stand in relation to it, and what of its current president, Cardinal Versaldi. As has been noted here before both Palermo and Bologna both have archbishops serving past the canonical retirement age.

An article by the famous Thomas Reese notes that “The prefecture had little impact until Pope John Paul II appointed Cardinal Edmund Szoka of Detroit as its head in 1990. Szoka imposed the first unified chart of accounts for the Vatican and published detailed financial statements. He computerized the books so that the statements came out within a year rather than five years late. Szoka had to fight hard for every victory. He was hated by many people in the Curia because he was changing the way things had always been done. John Paul not only brought in Szoka; he also put other non-Italians as heads of every important financial office, including Vatican City, APSA (the Vatican finance office), and the Vatican bank. This did not last. By the end of his papacy, the Italians were again in control of all these entities. Once Szoka left in 1997, things quickly deteriorated. Subsequent prefects were Italians who were less competent and less aggressive than Szoka. They preferred to get along rather than upset other Vatican officials by pushing reform. Most only wanted the job because it came with a red hat”.

Reese goes on to make the point that “the new prefect will have great authority in Rome because he reports directly to the pope. In the papal court, this matters. He will have greater access to the pope and therefore greater authority than the heads of the Vatican City State and APSA, whom he will supervise. Szoka never had this type of access and authority. Second, Pell, like Szoka, is no shrinking violet. He is a tough cookie who is not afraid to throw his weight around. He will be a formidable opponent to anyone who tries to oppose him. As a member of the eight-member Council of Cardinals, he is well placed to influence future reforms. Third, the authority of the new secretariat is more extensive than that of the Prefecture for Economic Affairs. No longer is there talk of “inspecting the books, if need be.” The new secretariat “will undertake economic audit and supervision” of Vatican offices. Audits are now mandated. The new secretariat also has the authority to establish “policies and procedures regarding procurement and the allocation of human resources,” which was never under the purview of the prefecture. This authority would have been held by APSA. Finally, the new secretariat is totally independent of the Secretariat of State. This means that the new office does not have to explain financial accounting to a bunch of diplomats and convince them before getting approval for doing anything. In addition, the new secretariat will have the authority to impose financial rules on the Secretariat of State and audit its books. No one would have dared do that in the past. But questions still remain. What kind of staff and budget will Pell have? The new secretariat cannot be run by priests and nuns with no accounting training. Experienced lay accountants do not come cheap”.

He ends noting that the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See, “should be dissolved and its functions should be given to the new secretariat”.

The document states that the APSA currently headed by Domenico Cardinal Calcagno will become a central bank with all the functions of those institutions

Egpytian government resigns

24/02/2014

“Egypt’s Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi announced on State TV Monday that his cabinet has submitted its resignation to interim President Adly Mansour. Following a 15-minute meeting with the cabinet early on Monday, Beblawi said “reform cannot take place through the government alone,” adding that all Egyptians should strive to achieve the change they aspire to. Beblawi also mentioned that Egypt currently faces huge challenges as well as great opportunities to be grasped. “It is time we all sacrificed for the good of the country. Rather than asking what has Egypt given us, we should instead be asking what we have done for Egypt,” he added at the end of his short televised speech. A prominent economist and politician, Beblawi was named prime minister last July following the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi and his prime minister Hisham Qandil’s government amid massive protests on 30 June 2013. Beblawi’s government was subjected to criticism over the past few weeks by all colours of the political spectrum in Egypt”.

Where next for Ukraine?

24/02/2014

An article from the most recent Economist disucsses the situation in Ukraine.

It notes that “Despite talk of a truce between some of the participants, the horror could yet get much worse. The bloodshed will deepen the rifts in what has always been a fragile, complex country (see article). Outright civil war remains a realistic prospect. Immediate responsibility for this mayhem lies with Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s thuggish president. But its ultimate architect sits in the Kremlin: Vladimir Putin”.

This anyalsis makes sense however, it has been reported that when the Polish foreign minister, along with two others visisted Yanukovych the meeting was interupted by a phone called, reputedly from Putin advising Yanukovych to stand down.

The peice mentions that it came into being as an independent nation only in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Combining lands in the west that had once been part of Austria-Hungary, and a Russian-speaking south and east, the new country always had its doubters. Since then Ukraine’s politics have been characterised by infighting”.

 The piece adds, “It was Mr Yanukovych’s rejection, in November, of a trade agreement with the EU, in favour of an opaque deal with Russia, which started the unrest. Soon the protesters were demanding his resignation, while Mr Yanukovych and Russian propaganda denounced them as terrorists. How, after three months of tetchy stand-off, the killing started this week is murky. But most of it was perpetrated by the president’s men. The response from the West should be firm. The president’s henchmen deserve the visa bans and asset freezes that America has imposed and the EU is considering. Mr Yanukovych must rein in his troops and, if he can, the plainclothes goons who are committing much of the violence”.

The article calls for both sides for form a transitional government. The article casts a grim look at the tenure of Yanukovych, “A presidential election is due in 2015: it should happen this year instead, preferably without Mr Yanukovych. His regime has featured rampant cronyism, the persecution of his rivals, suborning of the media and nobbling of the courts, now topped off by slaughter. But he will be hard to move. Built like a bouncer, he twists like a weasel; he is likely to try to wriggle out of any commitments he makes when he thinks the crisis has passed. If so, the tycoons who have sustained his power, and who have much to lose in this madness, must force him out”.

 

Interestingly the article argues that “The protesters have no clear champion—one reason the violence may prove difficult to stop. It is hard to envisage a candidate emerging who will bridge the underlying fault-lines in Ukrainian society (see map). Mr Yanukovych still commands support in the east and south; in Kiev and the west, where protesters have seized government facilities, he is reviled. A split remains terrifyingly plausible”.

On the role Putin has played thus far, “To most rational observers, fomenting chaos across the border in Ukraine might seem an odd ambition for Russia. Not to Mr Putin, who regards Ukraine as an integral part of Russia’s sphere of influence, and saw the orange revolution as a Western plot to steal it. His economic sanctions and threats helped to persuade Mr Yanukovych to turn his back on the EU. It is clear that the loans and cheap Russian gas that prop up Ukraine’s teetering economy are conditional on Mr Yanukovych taking a tough line with the protesters. Mr Putin’s bullying and machinations have brought Ukraine to this pass”.

The article ends, “It is past time for the West to stand up to this gangsterism. Confronting a country that has the spoiling power of a seat on the UN Security Council, huge hydrocarbon reserves and lots of nuclear weapons, is difficult, but it has to be done. At a minimum, the diplomatic pretence that Russia is a law-abiding democracy should end. It should be ejected from the G8. Above all, the West must stand united in telling Mr Putin that Ukraine, and the other former Soviet countries that he regards as wayward parts of his patrimony, are sovereign nations”.

While these measures may sound plausible and valid they seem to be bring more heat than light to the debate. Putin’s role in the debacle however is clear.

Another Taliban death

24/02/2014

A top commander of the Pakistani Taliban was shot dead by unidentified gunmen on Monday in the militant stronghold of North Waziristan, security sources and family members in the tribal region told Reuters. Asmatullah Shaheen was on the Pakistan army’s list of twenty most wanted Taliban commanders, and had had a $120,000 bounty placed on his head since 2009. He was appointed as interim chief of the Pakistan Taliban following the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, the previous leader, in a U.S. drone strike on November 1. Shaheen’s killers ambushed his car as it passed through Dargah Mandi, a village 5 km (3 miles) northwest of Miranshah, the regional capital of North Waziristan”.

“Only partly genetic”

24/02/2014

An interesting article from the Daily Telegraph discusses the origins of homosexuality.

It opens, “Homosexuality is only partly genetic with sexuality mostly based on environmental and social factors, scientists believe. A study found that, while gay men shared similar genetic make-up, it only accounted for 40 per cent of the chance of a man being homosexual. But scientists say it could still be possible to develop a test to find out if a baby was more likely to be gay. In the most comprehensive study of its kind, Dr Michael Bailey, of Northwestern University, has been studying 400 sets of twins to determine if some men are genetically predisposed to being gay”.

It goes on to mention “The study found that gay men shared genetic signatures on part of the X chromosome – Xq28. Dr Bailey said: ‘Sexual orientation has nothing to do with choice. Our findings suggest there may be genes at play – we found evidence for two sets that affect whether a man is gay or straight. ‘But it is not completely determinative; there are certainly other environmental factors involved. “The study shows that there are genes involved in male sexual orientation. ‘Although this could one day lead to a pre-natal test for male sexual orientation, it would not be very accurate, as there are other factors that can influence the outcome.’ Dr Alan Sanders, associate Professor of Psychiatry at Northwestern University, who led the study said that it was it was an ‘oversimplification’ to suggest there was a ‘gay gene.’ ‘We don’t think genetics is the whole story. It’s not. We have a gene that contributes to homosexuality but you could say it is linked to heterosexuality. It is the variation.’ The study builds on work by Dr Dean Hamer from the US National Cancer Institute in 1993 who also found an area of the x chromosome that he believed was linked to male sexual orientation”.

Interestingly it adds, “Canadian scientists found that the more older male siblings a man has, the greater change he will be gay. They believe that the immune response produced by a pregnant mother increases with each son, increasing the odds of producing more feminine traits in the developing brain of the foetus. Each older brother raised the odds that a man was homosexual by one third. Researchers at the University of California believe that homosexuality can be explained by the presence of epi-marks — temporary switches that control how our genes are expressed during gestation and after birth”.

It concludes, “Dr Bailey said environmental factors were likely to have the biggest impact on homosexuality. He added: “Don’t confuse “environmental” with “socially acquired.” Environment means anything that is not in our DNA at birth, and that includes a lot of stuff that is not social.” Richard Lane, of Stonewall, said that while studies into the origins of homosexuality have yet to produce firm evidence, they do to point to a biological root”.

An acting president

24/02/2014

Fugitive Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, ousted after bloody street protests in which demonstrators were shot by police snipers, is wanted by for mass murder, authorities announced on Monday. As rival neighbours east and west of the former Soviet republic said a power vacuum in Kiev must not lead to the country breaking apart, acting President Oleksander Turchinov said Ukraine’s new leaders wanted relations with Russia on a “new, equal and good-neighbourly footing that recognises and takes into account Ukraine’s European choice”. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will travel to Ukraine on Monday, where she is expected to discuss measures to shore up the ailing economy, which the finance ministry said required $35 billion in foreign aid over the next two years, with the first tranche needed within two weeks. Yanukovich, who vanished on Saturday, is still at large. “An official case for the mass murder of peaceful citizens has been opened,” acting interior minister Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook profile. “Yanukovich and other people responsible for this have been declared wanted,” he said. Yanukovich had left a private residence in Balaclava, in the Russian-speaking Crimea region, for an unknown destination in a car with one of his aides, Avakov said. On Independence Square in central Kiev, cradle of the uprising, barricades of old furniture and car tires remained in place, with smoke rising from camp fires among tents occupied by diehards vowing to stay until elections in May.

An impossible deal?

22/02/2014

A piece deals with the ongoing talks with Iran. It argues that there are significant problems in the near future for the talks and the author implies that a deal may not be reached at all. He opens that “the negotiations among Iran, the United States, and five other world powers to find a comprehensive solution on Iran’s nuclear program, which begin Feb. 18 in Vienna, will face far greater challenges. The six months allowed for negotiations by the interim agreement might not be enough to overcome Iran’s hardliners and sway skeptics on Capitol Hill, all while maintaining the unity of the countries involved in talks: the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and Germany (also known as the P-5+1). ‘We don’t in any way underestimate how difficult the comprehensive solution will be,’ said a senior U.S. official. Gary Samore, a Harvard researcher and the top White House nonproliferation expert until last year, similarly said in an interview, ‘The chances of negotiating a comprehensive solution, particularly in the next six months, are very low.’ President Obama himself has conceded that the odds of a successful outcome are not more than ’50-50.'”

He then deals with a number of issues each under its own heading. The first, terms and verification, opens, “Obama’s negotiators are not revealing their opening positions for the talks, but there are strong indications they will seek the permanent shutdown of most of Iran’s nuclear activities, paired with unprecedented inspections and other verification steps. The Iranians publicly reject the suggestion that key parts of their program might be terminated”.

Indeed it has been written elsewhere exactly what the US and others want when it comes to a deal with Iran. However, what should be rejected outright is just because the odds are not high should not mean that a deal could not be agreeded and ratified by both sides.

One should aspect, he writes is that “U.S. officials say they have not acceded to Iran’s “right” to enrich, but they and their partners acknowledge that Iran might be allowed to do limited nuclear fuel work. The Joint Plan of Action, as the interim deal is known, says vaguely that Iran’s future uranium enrichment will fall within ‘mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs.’ Exactly what that means will be the subject of hard bargaining. It is too soon to know whether Iran would agree to concentrate uranium enrichment in one location — the aboveground plant at Natanz — and close its underground Fordo site”.

What is clear is that Iran does have a right to enrich but it does not have a right to enrich to such high levels. If a tough surveillence regime can be implemented then this could be seen as a victory for both sides. Worryingly however he notes, “U.S. officials carried on “extensive discussions” with outside experts over several months late last year about what a comprehensive deal should look like, said David Albright, who heads the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). ISIS subsequently issued a reportcontending that Iran should not retain more than 4,000 centrifuges, meaning 15,000 would have to be removed. That would leave a minimum “breakout time” of six months. Asked last month by CNN whether any centrifuges could be destroyed, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said simply, ‘No, no, not at all.’ The duration of an accord will also be contentious. Iran has publicly spoken of three to five years — and, in private, of up to ten, but is hesitant to concede so much. U.S. officials have informally discussed 20 years of tight restraints”.

The other aspect is that of how any potential deal is agreeded in Tehran. He writes that the regime is plauged by divisions, “The reformist Rouhani has a mandate for making compromises to reach a comprehensive deal. Iranians, tired of years of U.S. and international sanctions, gave negotiators returning to Tehran after signing the interim deal a roaring welcome in the streets. Khamenei has spoken of showing ‘heroic leniency’ — flexibility — toward the West on the nuclear dispute. The interim deal could not have happened without his nod. But Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, are in a delicate position: They are trying to ease Iran’s economic squeeze while not tempting hard-liners to launch a full-on challenge on the nuclear diplomacy and other issues. The conservatives, still smarting from their defeat by Rouhani in elections last June, control the military, security services, and judiciary. There are divisions among them on how far concessions by Rouhani and Zarif can go. Khamenei is presiding over these opposing political camps, and he seems well positioned for either the talks’ success (taking some credit) or failure (blaming the West or allowing Rouhani and Zarif to own the disappointment)”.

He concludes with the mess that is US domestic politics, “Obama is bound by political fights at home. Any long-term nuclear deal with Iran will have to run a political gauntlet on Capitol Hill, where mistrust of Iran has only grown ever since the 1979 U.S. Embassy hostage crisis following Iran’s revolution. ‘Moving toward a final agreement, the internal politics of the United States will be critical,’ said the European official. A warning flare of sorts has gone up in the form of an Iran sanctions bill introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) after the interim deal was reached. For now, the administration has gotten a reprieve. White House opposition has peeled off some Senate Democratic support. Menendez changed course on Feb. 6 and asked that no vote take place for now. An influential lobby supporting the bill, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, did likewise”.

He ends the section “Yet the lead U.S. negotiator in the Iran talks, Wendy Sherman, assured edgy senators on Feb. 4, “We have made it clear to Iran that, if it fails to live up to its commitments, or if we are unable to reach agreement on a comprehensive solution, we would ask the Congress to ramp up new sanctions.” No doubt, the administration could get them. Both Republicans and Democrats who are wary of the Iran talks will be watching for them to break down — and create a new opening to act”.

Lastly he deals with the unity among the Western negotioters, “Holding together the six countries that are bargaining with Iran will require constant attention. Russia and China were reluctant converts to sanctioning Iran for its intransigence, and they would probably accept looser nuclear restrictions on Iran than others in the group. Some European states — with stronger trade and cultural ties to Iran than the United States has — found the oil embargo and the severing of most financial dealings with Iran painful. ‘There may be differences about how to deal with the Iranians,’ said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. Risks to P-5+1 concord have already emerged, as European and Russian executives flock to Tehran to get in line for business opportunities if nuclear sanctions end. More than 100 French executives came to Iran in early February — the most high-ranking private-sector group to visit since the 1979 revolution. The White House reacted sharply to Russian discussions with Iran about a goods-for-oil swap, saying it would violate sanctions laws and the interim agreement. Russia’s Lukoil is also talking with Iran about returning if sanctions are lifted, though no deals have been announced”.

He closes “the biggest unknown is simply whether Iran’s leadership will accept a tight leash around its atomic ambitions. And doubts are in order. ‘All these issues are very difficult one by one, but collectively they reflect the more fundamental difference in national interests at play here,’ said Samore. ‘Iran wants to achieve a nuclear-weapons option, and we want to deny it that.'”

Confirming more dicasteries

22/02/2014

Pope Francis has confirmed the officials and members of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

“No new progress”

22/02/2014

A piece in the New York Times covers the plan from the main Syrian opposition group for its plans for Syria. It notes strikingly, “The Syrian opposition coalition on Wednesday presented its most detailed vision yet of a political transition to end Syria’s conflict, in a 24-point plan that, strikingly, made no mention of President Bashar al-Assad or his ouster, while outlining strong requirements for human rights and justice in a future Syria. The proposal, detailed in a document presented to the Syrian government’s delegation during peace talks here, marked a shift in tone for the opposition group, which has long insisted on Mr. Assad’s departure as the starting point for a political resolution to the conflict. The shift was bold yet risky, coming as the opposition delegation has managed for the first time to persuade several representatives of armed rebel groups to attend the Geneva talks. It carried the risk that the fighters, whose trust the exile opposition coalition seeks to gain, would feel betrayed by the omission of a demand for Mr. Assad’s ouster. Yet the opposition delegates here displayed little ambivalence about the move, sharing the document widely with journalists and Syrian organisations”.

The fact that the proposal calls for Assad to go should not be a suprise but it will not please either Russia or Iran. This may mean the plan is pointless even before it is fully read and discussed. The report notes that “The proposal calls for strong human rights guarantees and a transitional justice process to “hold accountable” those who have harmed Syrians, while explicitly rejecting wide purges of government employees and calling for the preservation of state institutions, including the army and security services. Opposition members said they hoped the proposal would help ease the fears of Syrian fence-sitters — by signaling that Mr. Assad’s opponents want to avoid a state collapse like that in Iraq following the American-led invasion in 2003 — and warm relations with Russia, the Assad government’s strongest backer. Russia has long said it is not committed to Mr. Assad personally but rejects making his ouster a precondition for political transition”.

Unsuprisingly the piece mentions that “In Wednesday’s face-to-face discussions, Syrian government and opposition delegations continued to talk past one another, raising the stakes of meetings that the two sides are scheduled to hold later in the week with senior Russian and American officials, in the hope that pressure from their sponsors can break the deadlock. The Russians and Americans are set to hold trilateral talks on Thursday with the United Nations mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, who has said he wants ‘lots of outside help’ to inject momentum into the talks. Members of the opposition delegation said that the omission of Mr. Assad’s name was deliberate, continuing a strategy of presenting their side as more willing than the government to be flexible and adhere to the agenda of the meeting, which is based on the June 2012 Geneva I communiqué. That document does not call for Mr. Assad to step down, but requires the establishment of a transitional governing body “by mutual consent.” The government delegation did not respond to the opposition proposal, which also called for an end to all violence, the eviction of foreign fighters from Syria regardless of which side they support, and the dismantling of fighting groups and the integration of members into civilian life or the security services”.

Iran hacks the Navy

22/02/2014

Iran’s infiltration of a Navy computer network was far more extensive than previously thought, according to officials, and the officer who led the response will likely face questions about it from senators weighing his nomination as the next head of the embattled National Security Agency. It took the Navy about four months to finally purge the hackers from its biggest unclassified computer network, according to current and former officials. Some lawmakers are concerned about how long it took. When Vice Adm. Michael Rogers, President Barack Obama’s choice for the new NSA director, faces his confirmation hearing, some senators are expected to ask whether there is a long-term plan to address security gaps exposed by the attack, congressional aides said. The hearing hasn’t been scheduled yet, but could be next month. The Wall Street Journal in September first reported the discovery of the Iranian cyberattack. Officials at the time said the intruders had been removed. However, officials now acknowledge that the attack was more invasive, getting into what one called the “bloodstream” of the Navy and Marine Corps system and managing to stay there until November. The hackers targeted the Navy Marine Corps Intranet, the unclassified network used by the Department of the Navy to host websites, store nonsensitive information and handle voice, video and data communications. The network has 800,000 users at 2,500 locations, according to the Navy”.

Penny pinching?

22/02/2014

An article in AP discusses the simple style of Pope Francis in relation to today’s consistory. It begins that “Pope Francis’ pared down papal wardrobe of sensible black shoes and a white cassock so thin you can see his black trousers through it is a perfect fit for his call for simplicity and humility among his clergy. The pope’s personal style — which earned him Esquire magazine’s ‘Best Dressed Man of 2013’ award — and his broader message of sobriety will be put to the test Saturday when he inducts 19 prelates into the College of Cardinals, placing the three-cornered red silk biretta on the heads of the new ‘princes of the church.’ For the festive occasion, cardinals are traditionally outfitted in scarlet from head to toe, from the silk skull cap to bright red socks, with a white lace embroidered surplice known as a rochet worn over the red cassock and underneath the mozzetta, or shoulder cape. But with the “slum pope” now calling the sartorial shots, fashionistas and Vaticanistas are wondering how his new cardinals — who hail from some of the poorest places on Earth, including Haiti, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast — will dress themselves for their new role”.

The report goes on to mention “will they go the route of the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who according to clerical legend wore an altered hand-me-down cassock inherited from his predecessor for his 2001 consistory? “The cardinals and priests are much more careful of shining and spend less on their clothes,” Mancinelli told The Associated Press. “The gilded miters are only in shop windows. This is a consequence of Francis. They want to show they are on the same pastoral page.” Mancinelli, who is getting little sleep these days putting the finishing touches on outfits commissioned by several of the new cardinals, has some tips of what to watch out for on Saturday, when Francis will preside over the consistory formally welcoming the new cardinals. Immediately noticeable will be how much lace is on the rochet, once sewn by hand — with a price-tag to match — but now often machine made. “This is the Francis effect,” he said of the cheaper version as he ran his fingers over a prototype. Back in 2001 when the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II, he wore a simple rochet with only two thin bands of embroidered lace. Another saving can come in the material used for the cassock itself. Once made out of precious silk and cashmere, the cassocks are now often synthetic: polyester for the red lining and territal, a synthetic wool blend”.

The danger with this approach is that it oversimplifies not only the role of a cardinal but the Church also. The cardinals are the princes of the Church and as such they need to dress accordingly. Of course this can be taken to extremes but on the whole a more “frugal” approach does nothing for the dignaty of not only the cardinalate but also how others view the Church as a whole.

The piece goes on to mention “Once handmade, the 33 red buttons (representing the years of Christ’s life) are now more often than not machine made. The cardinals’ red, it should be noted, isn’t just a fabulous fashion statement: As Francis will recite when he places the biretta on each prelate’s head, red symbolises a cardinal’s readiness to sacrifice his life for the church and “to act with courage, even to the shedding of your blood.” Altogether, a cardinal’s outfit runs in the ‘few hundreds of euros, not few thousands,’ Mancinelli said. One relatively reasonable add-on: a pair of red socks at 12 euros a pop. Cardinal watchers might also want to keep their eyes on the pectoral crosses worn by the churchmen: When the Jesuit Bergoglio became a bishop in 1992, a friend bought him the simple metal pectoral cross he continues to wear as pope (having eschewed the gold-plated one offered to him the night of his election). Bergoglio’s metal cross was purchased in Mancinelli’s shop and identical versions are on sale for about 330 euros today”.

The article ends, “Mancinelli said that ever since Francis became pope a year ago, there has been a bit of “belt-tightening” all around in clerical garb, due also to the global economic crisis. But there will always be exceptions. Across the Tiber river from the Vatican and Mancinelli’s small shop is Gammarelli, tailors by papal appointment and founded in 1798. Gammarelli famously prepares the three white outfits — small, medium and large — that a newly elected pope picks according to his size to wear out onto the balcony of St. Peter’s after his election. Sixth generation Lorenzo Gammarelli said Francis’ call for sobriety — which Esquire credited with subtly signaling “a new era (and for many, renewed hope) for the Catholic Church” — hadn’t really affected business at all”.

Bound to happen

22/02/2014

The government decided to pull the plug on the moribund peace talks with the Taliban as the prime minister and the military leadership decided that “proceeding with the peace talks amid the bombings and slaughter of soldiers would be injustice to terror victims.” Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar announced the policy decision by the country’s civil-military leadership in a press conference on Thursday. Following a wave of terrorist attacks on security forces, it has been decided that talks will only be held when blood stops spilling, Nisar quoted the premier as saying”.

Consistory 2014:titles and deaconries

22/02/2014

After meeting the Council of Cardinals and after two days of consultation with almost the entire College on the  family.

Rocco writes that “Francis has signaled his premium on hearing the ‘mind of the body’ instead by extending the session to two days, while culling back its agenda to just one item: the pastoral challenges facing the family – Papa Bergoglio’s marquee issue-item for 2014, set to culminate at October’s Extraordinary Synod on the same topic'”.

Rocco goes on to write “At the same time, what the Pope’s “script” lacked in a heavy roster, it more than made up for with his choice of messenger. Yet again, no small amount of shockwaves made the rounds on the announcement that the retired Christian Unity Czar, German Cardinal Walter Kasper, would be the keynote speaker at yesterday’s opening session. For all the warmth that’s marked the unprecedented dynamic of ‘two Popes’ coexisting behind the walls, the move signaled yet another theological turn from the mind of Ratzinger toward a greater openness to the thought of his rivals. A onetime assistant to Hans Küng, Kasper memorably clashed with the future B16 over the primacy of the universal or local church and, before his 1998 arrival in Rome, over the very issue that’s become the flashpoint of Francis’ call to reflection on family life: the standing of civilly remarried Catholics, particularly on their reception of the sacraments. Specifically citing the ‘adamant refusal’ of the Eucharist posed by the latter scenario, Kasper wrote in 2001 that ‘no bishop should be silent or stand idly by when he finds himself [facing] such a situation.’ Within days of his election, the new Pope began showcasing the German iconoclast as – to quote Mickens – “the theologian of his pontificate.” At his first Angelus, Francis conspicuously plugged Kasper’s recent opus on mercy, hailing him as an ‘on the ball’ thinker. Even before the election, meanwhile, the cardinal – who, having turned 80 days after B16’s resignation, was able to vote in the Conclave by the skin of his teeth – said the next Pope ‘need[ed] to realize the perception of the Second Vatican Council; we have not accomplished this task… to fully realize collegiality.'”

In a related article Rocco reminds readers that “In today’s Vatican, meanwhile, the sign of the times is subtler – and for many, not as sweet… but still no less significant. After 33 years of one German’s dominance in matters of the Doctrine of the Faith, today sees another of Joseph Ratzinger’s countrymen take his seat as the cardinal-prefect of the “Holy Office.” Even so, a continuity argument would be a challenge to make – despite being reconfirmed in his post, Gerhard Müller has already been eclipsed. Once ranked atop the Curial orbit as “La Suprema,” a dicastery technically headed by the Pope, this Consistory finds the CDF taking an inferior place to the power-center of the new pontificate, as the Secretary of a newly-emboldened Synod trumps the “Grand Inquisitor” in seniority and standing, upending an order of rank that dates to the 16th century”.

Notably, Benedict XVI attended the ceremony, Rocco notes that “the first fully public appearance of the Pope and his predecessor together since B16’s epochal resignation a year ago this week. Even beyond our time, meanwhile, the duo’s joint presence at a major event made for an act never before witnessed in the two-millenia history of the papacy, and one that wasn’t expected to be seen until Pope Francis’ joint canonizations of Blesseds John XXIII and John Paul II on April 27th”. He goes on to write that “Once he emerged – greeted at the front by an applause most of the congregation couldn’t see to understand – the Pope-emeritus unusually remained in his white grecca (overcoat). Then again, the place was said to be freezing during the midmorning rites.  In any event, Papa Ratzinger – seated alongside the junior cardinal-bishop in the same red silk chair as the rest of the College – made a conspicuous homage to his successor; as Francis approached Benedict on both his entrance and exit from the Altar of the Confession, B16 removed his zucchetto (skullcap), a lower prelate’s classic act of homage to the Pope, albeit one which has largely gone by the wayside over recent decades”.

Pope Francis has created his first cardinals in a ceremony in Rome today. As per custom each recieved a titular church linking them to the historic clergy of the diocese of Rome. These were announced today as follows:

  • Pietro Cardinal Parolin: Cardinal-Priest of Santi Simone e Giuda Taddeo a Torre Angela
  • Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri: Cardinal-Deacon of  Sant’Anselmo all’Aventino
  • Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Muller: Cardinal-Deacon of Sant’Agnese in Agone
  • Beniamino Cardinal Stella: Cardinal-Deacon of Santi Cosma e Damiano
  • Vincent Gerard Cardinal Nichols: Cardinal-Priest of Santissimo Redentore e Sant’Alfonso in via Merulana
  • Leopoldo Jose Cardinal Brenes Solorzano: Cardinal-Priest of San Gioacchino ai Prati di Castello
  • Gerald Cardinal Lacroix, ISPX Cardinal-Priest of San Giuseppe all’Aurelio
  • Jean-Pierre Cardinal Kutwa: Cardinal-Priest of Sant’Emerenziana a Tor Fiorenza
  • Orani João Cardinal Tempesta, O. Cist.: Cardinal-Priest of Santa Maria Madre della Provvidenza a Monte Verde
  • Gualtiero Cardinal Bassetti: Cardinal-Priest of Santa Cecilia
  • Mario Aurelio Cardinal Poli: Cardinal-Priest of San Roberto Bellarmino
  • Andrew Cardinal Yeom Soo-jung: Cardinal-Priest of San Crisogono
  • Ricardo Ezzati Andrello SDB: Cardinal-Priest of Santissimo Redentore a Valmelaina
  • Philippe Cardinal Nakellentuba: Cardinal-Priest of Santa Maria Consolatrice al Tiburtino
  • Orlando Cardinal Quevedo OMI: Cardinal-Priest of Santa Maria “Regina Mundi” a Torre Spaccata
  • Chibly Cardinal Langlois: Cardinal-Priest of San Giacomo in Augusta

In addition to the 16 voting cardinals Pope Francis elevated three non-voting others:

  • Loris Francesco Cardinal Capovilla: Cardinal-Priest of Santa Maria in Trastevere
  • Fernando Cardinal Sebastian Aguilar: Cardinal-Priest of Sant’Angela Merici
  • Kelvin Edward Cardinal Felix: Cardinal-Priest of Santa Maria della Salute a Primavalle

This means that there is now 122 cardinal electors. Before this consistory there was 13 vacant titles and nine vacant deaconaries. However, as a result of the number of Cardinal-Priest’s new titles have been established, are Santi Simone e Giuda Taddeo a Torre Angela  which is the new titular church of Cardinal Parolin, Cardinal Langlois’s church of San Giacomo in Augusta and Sant’Angela Merici of Cardinal Sebastian Aguilar.

Not attending

20/02/2014

Cardinal-designate Loris Francesco Capovilla will not be attending the consistory  in which he will be created cardinal because of age reasons, and will receive the red biretta on March 1 at the church in Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXIII, where he resides.

Disengagment from Asia?

20/02/2014

An article has appeared in the Economist discussing the pivot to Asia. It opens mentioning that Kerry “set off this week on a tour that takes him to China, South Korea, Indonesia and Abu Dhabi. Rightly sensitive to the charge that Barack Obama’s administration is neglectful of Asia, officials are keen to remind the world that this is Mr Kerry’s fifth trip to North-East and South-East Asia in a year. He in particular has been criticised in the region for being too preoccupied with peacemaking in the Middle East to pursue the “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia announced in the president’s first term. And despite his air miles, American diplomacy in Asia is not going well. Relations with the emerging power, China, remain fraught; the United States is at odds on important issues with its biggest regional ally, Japan; and its efforts to forge a new regional trade agreement have missed deadlines. Some Asian diplomats blame the perception of American disengagement for China’s recent assertiveness in pressing its claims in territorial disputes in the region”.

This is a tad unfair. On the point that the administration is too focused on peace in the Middle East it seems that it is either too focused or not engaged enough. Similarly, and no less importantly, the ongoing talks with Iran should take, if not precedence then should be higher on the agenda than Israel. While it is true that deadlines have been missed regarding trade a free trade deal was agreeded with South Korea in 2012. The piece uses interesting language, “blame the perception of American disengagement” so implicitly they must acknowledge that the perception is only that and is at the very least liable to mis-interpretation. This also overlooks the fact that it is not a machine. China does what it wants to do. China may use the notion that America is not engaged, whatever that means, as an excuse or justification for its actions but nothing more.

The piece goes on “Mr Obama sent the wrong signal, they say, by pulling out of two summits in South-East Asia last October because his government was partly shut down. Whatever the cause, one effect of China’s alleged assertiveness is to stymie the broad-based, co-operative relationship that America and China say they want. Instead, meetings are overshadowed by regional tensions, and in particular the worry that Japan and China may clash as both patrol around the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu islands by sea and air. America says it takes no position on the islands’ sovereignty, but regards them as under Japanese administration and so covered by its security treaty with Japan”.

The piece goes on to mention “This month a senior American official again criticised China’s unilateral declaration in November of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over a part of the East China Sea that includes the disputed islands. He warned China that declaring another ADIZ over the South China Sea, where it also disputes territory with Taiwan and four South-East Asian countries, might prompt a redeployment of American forces. And Daniel Russel, an assistant secretary of state, laid into the “nine-dashed line”, which China points to in maps from the 1940s as giving it sovereignty over almost the whole of the South China Sea”.

The writer goes on to mention that “For America, all of this is a headache. It would like Japan to bear more of the burden of regional security, and it applauds Mr Abe’s wish to reinterpret Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow the country more military latitude. America also needs Mr Abe’s support in a years-long effort to relocate a controversial American airbase on the island of Okinawa. But it deplores the tendency of the Japanese right to dismiss any criticism of Japan’s war record as “victors’ justice”. Mr Obama is to visit Japan (as well as Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea) in April. In Japan, he will have to find a way to distance America from Mr Abe’s revisionism. If he is too hard on Mr Abe, however, America could hand China the diplomatic prize of an open rift between the treaty allies”.

The author does make the valid point that “The Obama administration is still struggling to convince Asia that its pivot amounts to much. The policy has entailed some lofty rhetoric about America’s Pacific destiny, much shuttling by senior officials, some modest military redeployments and—with greater emphasis in recent months as it has seemed closer to fruition—the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ambitious trade agreement involving America, Japan and ten other countries (not including China), together accounting for a third of global trade. Having missed the goal of finalising the TPP in 2013, negotiators are due to gather in Singapore on February 22nd for another try. They would be given a boost if Mr Obama’s team had “fast-track” authority to reach a deal that could not then be unpicked line by line in Congress. But winning congressional approval for fast track is looking difficult”.

Again the article paints a mistaken picture, ideally the president would have far greater control over trading relationships but the US Constitution hampers his powers. Not only that but there would need to be a constitutional referemdum in order for the author to do what the author suggests on trade. Just because the TPP is not being signed as it is being negotiated does not amount to a disengaged Asia policy from Asia.

“Demanding a cease-fire”

20/02/2014

Pakistan government mediators are demanding a cease-fire from the Taliban before they resume peace talks. The peace committee made the announcement in a statement on February 18, referring to its “inability to continue talks” in the shadow of insurgents’ attacks. A faction of the militant group announced on February 16 they had killed 23 kidnapped soldiers, prompting the cancellation of scheduled peace talks on February 17. On February 18, two government soldiers were killed in separate attacks in the country’s northwest.  In addition to the kidnapped soldiers, reports say some 60 people have died in Islamist-linked violence since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced the peace talks on January 29″.

Worldwide Catholic poll

20/02/2014

Following on from the poll conducted in the Diocese of Trenton, NJ, a poll has been conducted which has been published in the Washington Post. The results, though hardly startingly are important as they put figures around what had been a gap in the knowledge of the views of lay Catholics.

The report notes, “Most Catholics worldwide disagree with church teachings on divorce, abortion and contraception and are split on whether women and married men should become priests, according to a large new poll released Sunday and commissioned by the U.S. Spanish-language network Univision. On the topic of gay marriage, two-thirds of Catholics polled agree with church leaders. Overall, however, the poll of more than 12,000 Catholics in 12 countries reveals a church dramatically divided: Between the developing world in Africa and Asia, which hews closely to doctrine on these issues, and Western countries in Europe, North America and parts of Latin America, which strongly support practices that the church teaches are immoral”.

It adds that “19 percent of Catholics in the European countries and 30 percent in the Latin American countries surveyed agree with church teaching that divorcees who remarry outside the church should not receive Communion, compared with 75 percent in the most Catholic African countries”.

Interestingly it goes on to mention that “30 percent of Catholics in the European countries and 36 percent in the United States agree with the church ban on female priests, compared with 80 percent in Africa and 76 percent in the Philippines, the country with the largest Catholic population in Asia”. The report goes on to say that “40 percent of Catholics in the United States oppose gay marriage, compared with 99 percent in Africa”.

The writers note that “After his election to the papacy 11 months ago, Francis seemed to immediately grasp the significance of the divisions among the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. He has chosen inclusive language, has played down the importance of following the hierarchy and has warned against the church locking itself up “in small-minded rules.” The poll reflects previous ones in finding that the vast majority of Catholics appreciate his approach. Other faiths have seen many fissures over similar questions about doctrine, including Protestant denominations and Judaism. Pope Francis appears particularly eager to engage with divisions around sex, marriage and gender and has called a rare “extraordinary synod” this fall on “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family.” For that, he has asked bishops to survey Catholics about their views of cohabitation, same-sex parenting and contraception, among other things”.

While it is certainly true that Francis has “chosen inclusive language” he has not altered the teaching of the Church. This is the fear that many in the media will either through error or through malice believe that Francis can and will change things like women priests and gay marriage.

The piece in the Washington Post goes on to mention that “Of the seven questions pollsters asked about hot-button issues, there appeared to be the greatest global agreement on contraception (opposing church teachings) and gay marriage (supporting the church’s stance). Seventy-eight percent of Catholics across all countries surveyed support the use of contraceptives, which violate the church’s teaching that sex should always be had with an openness toward procreation. The church teaches natural family planning, which Catholics can use to plan sex and attempt to avoid getting pregnant. More than 90 percent of Catholics in Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Spain and France support the use of contraception. Those less inclined to support it were in the Philippines (68 percent), Congo (44 percent) and Uganda (43 percent). In the United States, 79 percent of Catholics support using contraception. Debate in the church over reproductive technologies is nothing new, said Jose Casanova, a leading sociologist of religion at Georgetown University”.

Not surprsingly the article continues, “Overall, 65 percent of Catholics said abortions should be allowed: 8 percent in all cases and 57 percent in some, such as when the mother’s life is in danger. But the highest support for abortion rights is in European countries, then in Brazil and Argentina, then in the United States, where 76 percent of Catholics said it should be allowed in some or all cases. In the Philippines, 27 percent of Catholics said abortion should be allowed under certain circumstances. In Uganda, 35 percent said so”.

The piece ends, “In the United States, Catholics are divided on some issues, including gay marriage (54 percent support it; 40 percent oppose it). Compared with Catholics worldwide, they are more liberal than Africa, Asia and some parts of Latin America but not as liberal as Spain. The poll mirrored ones that show U.S. Catholics support married priests, female priests, abortion and contraception”.

It concludes crucially, “Critics say his solicitation of opinions wrongly gives the appearance that Catholicism is a democracy. Others — including the authors of this poll — say there’s no evidence that he would touch doctrine and is seeking a deeper understanding of why so many Catholics reject church teachings so as to better market them”.

“In pursuit of a final settlement”

20/02/2014

Six world powers and Iran began talks in Vienna on Tuesday in pursuit of a final settlement on Tehran’s disputed nuclear program in the coming months despite warnings from both sides that a deal may prove impossible. Expected to last two or three days, the meeting is the first since the powers – the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany – struck an interim accord with Iran in November under which Iran scaled back its most sensitive nuclear work in return for some sanctions relief. In a final deal, Western governments want to define the permissible scope of an Iranian nuclear program and resolve their concerns that Tehran is seeking the capability to build an atomic bomb. Iran, which denies having any such goal, wants the complete removal of painful economic sanctions imposed by Washington, European governments and the United Nations”.

Sacrificing Syria for Iran

20/02/2014

A piece in Foreign Policy makes the valid argument that the main reason President Obama does not want to intervene in Syria is because of the ongoing talks with Iran. The piece opens “There are many reasons that President Barack Obama doesn’t want to get involved in Syria. And when I say involved, I’m not talking about providing humanitarian assistance or participating in the Geneva process. I mean significantly militarising the U.S. role by either supporting the opposition with sophisticated military equipment or by directly applying U.S. military force — or both. It’s also been clear for some time now that the president’s eminently defensible policy of not getting involved in Syria cannot possibly work — if working means pressuring President Bashar al-Assad to leave power and ending Syria’s civil war. John Kerry’s comments about the policy’s limits, continued humanitarian horrors on the ground, the failing Geneva effort, and Damascus’s foot-dragging on chemical weapons only offer new confirmation that, by doing nothing, the United States is changing nothing”.

He goes on to make the point that “Yet it is more than likely that no real shift in America’s limited, risk-averse strategy on Syria is in the offing. Obama has been stunningly clear on why. Indeed, reading David Remnick’s interview with the president, it is refreshing to hear such honesty and clarity — whether you agree with the policy or not. ‘I am haunted by what’s happened. I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we’d have a peaceful transition, it’s magical thinking.’ Yet there is one reason for the president’s caution that he almost never mentions — and it may be one of the most compelling. Not surprisingly, it is derivative of Obama’s most important foreign-policy objective in the Middle East: a nuclear deal with Iran”.

However, the problem with President Obama’s comparison between Iraq and Syria is that it is totally false, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Iraq war was defensive, in light of the 11th September attacks. Secondly, inaction in Syria will not just doom Syria but Lebanon, Iraq as well as a host of other nations that surround it. Thirdly, his argument that engaging in Syria, which is what he said he would do, would not lead to a better outcome is highly contestable. Doing nothing will either lead to stalemate, which has already occured, or worse it will lead to an Islamist victory and the hollowing out of what remains of the Syrian state. The consequences of this in light of a decade of trying to make failing states more stable should be obvious. Obama is well aware of these arguments and the fact that he still does nothing in spite of these arguments means he will rightly be judged harshly.

The piece continues, “Aside from another al Qaeda attack on the homeland, Iran is the only foreign-policy issue that has the power to mess up the remaining years of Obama’s presidency. If diplomacy fails and Iran moves to break out and weaponize, or even come close to being able to make a deliverable weapon, the risks of three very unpleasant things happening go up: first, Obama getting blamed for being the leader on whose watch the mullahs got the bomb; second, Israel striking Iran; and third, America having to do the same thing, or getting dragged into an Israeli-Iran fight. The first development would leave Obama looking poor in the legacy department, weak and outfoxed. The latter two events would open up a box of very bad juju — and would risk things like plunging financial markets, rising oil prices, attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and proxy terror. So, if at all possible, avoiding a confrontation with Iran is the president’s core goal in the Middle East”.

The writer goes on to make the valid point that “to have any chance of getting things done with Iran, America needs to be talking with the Iranians — not shooting at them in Syria or anywhere else. Indeed, the last thing Obama wants or can afford now is direct military intervention in Syria that would lead to a proxy war; kill Iranian Revolutionary Guard units assisting Assad‘s forces; or convince Tehran that U.S. policy is designed to encircle Syria’s Shia regime with a U.S.-backed Sunni arc of pressure. Critics of the president’s Iran and Syria policy want him to pursue these objectives. Their argument holds that, if America brings Assad down, Iran will be more constrained and less of a threat, and that it will scale back its nuclear weapons ambitions. This is an interesting take — and essentially great game strategy. It is also rooted in the assumption that Syria isn’t a vital Iranian interest and that backing Sunnis will make Iran nervous and more compliant. But while it is true that Syria isn’t as vital to Iran as Iraq, it is still very important. Without a friendly regime in Damascus, the mullahs really don’t have much access to Lebanon or Shia allies”.

He ends the piece “The pressing question now is whether, having made his policy choices, Obama can actually achieve his two Middle East priorities: to get Assad to the negotiating table where he can be convinced to give up his rule, and to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Based on my time in government and the world in which we live, I very much doubt Obama will succeed. These days, that kind of heroic diplomacy just doesn’t seem possible. I can only hope that the Iranian thing actually works out. Otherwise, Obama’s critics will be all over him for failing in two Middle Eastern countries — and the world will be left with a bunch of mullahs with nukes and a Syrian regime that continues to perpetrate wrongs, defying both U.S. and international sanction”.

Their third meeting

18/02/2014

Just days before his first consistory to create new cardinals, Pope Francis is holding the third meeting of the Council of Cardinals. Archbishop Pietro Parolin has joined the group during these days and according to the Press Office of the Holy See will continue to sit with the group from now on.

Levin’s plan

18/02/2014

Senator Carl Levin who is retiring this year after nearly 30 years in the Senate is trying to bolster his historical image at a time when he is on his way out the door. An article notes that he is attempting to broaden the powers of oversight on drone usage.

The piece notes “An effort by a powerful U.S. senator to broaden congressional oversight of  lethal drone strikes overseas fell apart last week after the White House refused  to expand the number of lawmakers briefed on covert CIA  operations, according to senior U.S. officials. Sen. Carl  Levin (D-Mich.), who chairs the Armed Services Committee, held a joint  classified hearing Thursday with the Senate  Intelligence Committee on CIA and military drone strikes against suspected  terrorists. But the White House did not allow CIA officials to attend, so military  counter-terrorism commanders testified on their own. Levin’s plan ran aground on the Washington shoals of secrecy and turf,  according to congressional aides and other U.S. officials, none of whom would be  quoted by name discussing classified oversight matters”.

The move by Levin has run aground, “In May, the White House said it would seek to gradually move armed drone  operations to the Pentagon. But lawmakers added a provision to the defense  spending bill in December that cut off funds for that purpose, although it  allows planning to continue. Levin thought it made sense for both committees to share a briefing from  generals and CIA officials, officials said. He was eager to dispel the notion,  they said, that CIA drone operators were more precise and less prone to error  than those in the military. But the House and Senate  intelligence committees closely guard their status as keepers of intelligence  secrets, including covert operations. Sen. Saxby  Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence  Committee, balked at allowing the CIA to brief the Armed Services Committee,  even though he sits on both panels. The White House and CIA also had concerns. Officials had little appetite for  briefing the 26 senators and 62 House members who sit on the armed services  committees on the CIA’s most sensitive operations”.

It ends “In the end, the White House refused to provide the necessary security  clearances for members of the House and Senate armed services committees to be  briefed on the CIA drone program. And the White House instructed the CIA not to  appear at the hearing. “The CIA didn’t appear at the hearing due to clearance issues that the White  House is still working to resolve with the committee,” said a U.S. official who  was not authorized to be quoted discussing the matter. The military sent Michael G. Vickers, undersecretary of Defense for  intelligence; Michael Lumpkin, assistant secretary of Defense for special  operations and low-intensity conflict; and Lt. Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the JSOC  commander. Levin invited Senate Intelligence Committee members to sit in, but few did”.

Gain independence, lose pension?

18/02/2014

Gordon Brown has warned his fellow Scots that a vote for independence would mean them losing their British state pension. The former Prime Minister Mr Brown said a Yes vote for independence would mean the loss of the “pooling and sharing” of resources which help pay for state pensions and other benefits for retired people. He said he did not believe the SNP administration’s assertions that pensions would continue to be paid, pointing to questions over the value of North Sea oil revenues in the coming years. In a keynote speech in Fife, Mr Brown also said pensions were the third of Alex Salmond’s “real” problems after Westminster ruled out a formal deal to share the pound and the European Commission president said it would be “difficult, if not impossible” for a separate Scotland to join the EU. Greg McClymont, Labour’s pension spokesman, said Scotland currently receives £200 million more per year than its UK population share in state pension and pension credit payments”.

Too much relief?

18/02/2014

An interesting article discusses the rise in the sales of Iranian oil. It opens “Exports of Iranian crude oil jumped in January, raising concerns that the sanctions relief included in the interim nuclear agreement between Western countries and Tehran is giving a shot in the arm to the struggling Iranian economy that could weaken prospects for a comprehensive deal to derail Iranian nuclear weapons development. Oil is the lifeblood of the Iranian economy, and Barack Obama’s administration and its allies have spent years trying to strangle its oil industry as a way of forcing Tehran to the negotiating table. The International Energy Agency’s monthly oil report estimated that Iranian oil exports spiked by about 100,000 barrels a day in January. That brought Iranian crude exports to just over 1.3 million barrels per day, worth almost $4 billion a month given the current price of oil”.

The writer goes on to add “Iran’s growing oil revenues come amid signs that the Iranian economy more generally seems to be recovering from the darkest days of rampant inflation and a plunging currency, suggesting that the economic stranglehold that U.S. diplomats say pushed Iran to the negotiating table may be waning. The International Monetary Fund said this week that ‘the pace of contraction in [Iranian] economic activity is slowing’ — an assessment that hands a new weapon to opponents of the White House’s interim nuclear deal with Tehran, who have long argued that the agreement was giving Iran too much financial relief”.

He goes on to note “Crude exports are an important source of revenue for the Iranian government, but they had been slashed by years of oil sanctions organised by the United States and European countries. Before oil sanctions began in 2012, Iran exported about 2.5 million barrels per day, and exports fell as low as 760,000 barrels a day last fall. Under the terms of the six-month interim agreement announced in November and finalised in January, Western countries relaxed efforts to continue squeezing Iranian oil exports. The partial relief, U.S. officials said, would still limit Iranian crude exports to about 1 million barrels of oil a day, but Iran is now clearly exporting significantly more than that.

Crucially he mentions that under the interim agreement Iran cannot increase its oil exports. He does not however that despite the uplift “the Iranian economy remains weak overall and in need of major reforms, but future prospects have been buoyed by the temporary nuclear deal struck in January that could pave the way for the lifting of sanctions. The IMF said the Iranian economy could begin to stabilize and even grow 1 to 2 percent in 2014-15 but remain ‘highly uncertain.’ The comments come after the IMF’s first trip back to the country since punishing international sanctions decimated the economy and drove down the value of Iran’s currency. The IMF is expected to finish a full report on the trip in late March. Some economists caution that improved prospects won’t mean much if Iran can’t reach a permanent deal with the West that repeals the vast majority of the sanctions, which are still in place”.

He ends the piece noting “the news is likely to stoke fears in Washington that the administration has given up too much in the interim deal. Under the existing sanctions regime, revenues from Iranian oil exports are held in escrow accounts, which theoretically limits the amount of hard currency Tehran can receive. But Iran has managed to sidestep banking restrictions in the past, notably in deals with Turkey, and critics of the administration’s approach worry that greater oil exports will translate into a stronger Iranian economy”.

However if the Iranians thought that Washington was not going to give up anything of significance then there would be little point in attempting to do any sort of deal with America, let alone the European countries.

It concludes that some think Iran is gaining too much from sanctions relief with a dispute over the figures and the extent of what the relief is worth, but rather than this being a negative it could push the Iranians towards a better long term deal.

Relying on women

18/02/2014

“Senate Democrats’ agenda for the next few weeks will be tailor-made toward female voters — a strategy they hope will give them a boost with the crucial voting bloc.  Three of the next items on the Senate’s to-do list protect, and are meant to appeal to, women: military sexual assault legislation, a minimum wage increase and the Paycheck Fairness Act. “Women will determine the Senate, and both parties are targeting women,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and strategist. “What Republicans are hoping to do is to minimize the Democratic vote among women, and if they can win men by more than they lose women, then they’ll win the election.” She said Democrats are hoping for a large vote among women and especially for high turnout of unmarried and young women”

 

 

65 reasons to disagree

18/02/2014

An article in the New York Times discusses the release of 65 Afghan prisoners from Bagram prison, much to the annoyance of US authorities. The significant security risks posed seem to have been secondary, if considered at all, by Hamid Karzai.

The piece begins, “On Thursday at 9:10 a.m., the gates of the Bagram Prison swung open, and 65 men with long beards and new clothes walked out to freedom. The moment showed clearly just how thoroughly President Hamid Karzai had broken with the American military, here now 12 years. American officials had lobbied intensely with the Afghan government, first in private and then in increasingly acrimonious terms in public, to prevent the release of men they believed were not only dangerous insurgents with American and Afghan blood on their hands, but also men who would be convicted of that in an Afghan court of law. Instead, American soldiers on duty at Bagram could do nothing more than watch on closed-circuit television monitors as Afghan military police used Ford pickup trucks to ferry the prisoners to the nearest bazaar to catch taxis, saving them a mile-and-a-half walk. Prison authorities had given each man, in addition to clothes, warm coats and 5,000 afghanis, or about $90 — nearly half the base monthly salary of an Afghan police officer”.

The piece rightly notes the connection with Iraq, “Many American military leaders could not help noticing a troubling parallel with Iraq, where hundreds of Sunni inmates have escaped from Iraqi prisons, often in mass jail breaks, giving new impetus to the insurgency there. As one NATO officer in Kabul noted wryly: ‘Here, they don’t even have to escape. They just walk out, thanks to our own allies.’ Mr. Karzai continues to refuse to sign a long-term security agreement, which would keep American troops here past this year; the Americans want the agreement signed by December, well before the April 5 presidential election in Afghanistan. Last April the American military signed an agreement that only Afghan forces could raid homes at night, even though the military long regarded the raids as essential to its strategy”.

He continues, “If the past is any guide, the statement noted, some of these prisoners will head right back to war, like many of the 560 other suspected insurgents who the Afghans have released from Bagram in the past year. In an email, the American military said it believed that some of these newly freed insurgents had ‘already returned to the fight.’ That and previous statements released this week and last month by the American military were unusually outspoken, demanding that the final group of prisoners handed over to Afghan custody whose cases were under review be sent to stand trial.  One of those who walked out Thursday morning was Abdul Samad, who said he had been picked up in the insurgent-dominated district of Andar in Ghazni Province 15 months ago, and was on his way to Nerkh district, another insurgent stronghold in Wardak Province, to meet his brother”.

The author notes the US offical statement, “the American military expressed ‘strong concern about the potential threats these detainees pose to coalition forces and Afghan security forces and civilians.’ Mr. Karzai, at a news conference in Ankara on Thursday, responded that the American military should ‘stop harassing’ the Afghan judiciary, according to Mr. Faizi. The 65 men were ordered released by an Afghan review board, which determined that there was not enough evidence to try them, according to Abdul Shakor Dadras, who heads the board. Mr. Dadras said he expected that most of the remaining 23 detainees would be released as well. In Washington, the response of Obama administration officials was more muted than that of the military in Afghanistan”.

The release of prisoners will do not just damage to the US mission in Afghanistan but long term damage to Afghanistan. Many of these men cannot be trusted to do and say that they will just return to normal life. It would be wrong to assume that all prisoners are terrorists and those that are not a threat should be given a full apology and some compensation for the way they were treated.

The writer does correctly point out that “Many of the prisoners had been held in Bagram for years as enemy combatants, without judicial review by Afghan authorities. Mr. Karzai, who has called the prison a ‘Taliban-producing factory,’ has said repeatedly that he wants to see it closed — although there are hundreds of others being held there by Afghan authorities. The only prisoners known to still be in American custody at the facility are an unknown number of foreign prisoners, believed to be mostly Pakistanis”.

From a domestic point of view the author mentions that “Administration officials said they did not want to stake the entire relationship between the two countries on this single issue, and emphasized that they would prefer to wait out Mr. Karzai’s term in office, which ends later this year, than confront him over the release of 65 prisoners. Such patience was less evident in Congress. One of the most ardent supporters of the American partnership with Afghanistan, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, warned that unless Mr. Karzai backed off the escalating vitriol directed at the United States in recent months, the Afghan leader could destroy what little support was left in Washington for keeping American troops in Afghanistan and, more important, for spending billions of dollars a year there to help finance the country’s government”.

No more co-operation

18/02/2014

It has been nearly three weeks since President Obama used his State of the Union Address to say 2014 should be a “year of action,” but there are already plenty of signs that the year will be much more about staking out election positions, and much less about finding compromise. Cooperation and concessions have been part of the major bills Congress has managed to move over the last year, like the debt ceiling, spending, the farm bill, student loans and others. But there seems to be little chance of generating that same momentum on the other issues that are lingering in the background. In January, House GOP leaders wrote a letter to Obama suggesting a focus on legislation in those few policy areas where they believed there was a credible chance of agreement. Republicans have boasted of passing more than 200 bills that the Senate has ignored, but in their letter they highlighted just four areas where the parties could potentially work together. Those issues are reforming federal job training programs; making it easier to build natural gas infrastructure; giving workers time off to attend to sick family members; and funding research into pediatric diseases.But the White House has not responded, more than two weeks later. A House GOP aide said White House officials have said several times that they have not had a chance to review the letter, which the aide said is a missed opportunity.