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DAWN - Editorial; September 12, 2007

September 12, 2007


Making peace with the Taliban?

FROM time to time, the world hears of the Afghan government and the Taliban trying to establish contacts to begin talks in earnest, but nothing substantial emerges. It remains to be seen whether the latest peace moves from both sides will yield results. On Monday, a day after President Hamid Karzai offered talks to the Taliban, a spokesman for the militant organisation said the Taliban were ready in “national interests” to talk to the Kabul government.

At his Sunday’s press conference President Hamid Karzai denied that his government was involved in “formal negotiations” with the militants and sought Pakistan’s help in contacting the Taliban leadership as a follow-up to the declaration of the joint peace jirga. Several factors have combined to reinforce the desire on the part of the Karzai regime to seek a negotiated solution to the six years of bloodshed. One obvious reason is that the fighting is not producing any results, and the casualties are mostly civilian. It is significant to note that when the Afghan Senate passed a resolution last May, calling for a ceasefire, the Senate speaker said the motion reflected the Afghan lawmakers’ belief that negotiations with the militants would be more effective than fighting. Civilian casualties, he said, could not be avoided when “the Taliban go inside the homes of local people.”

Another factor is the growing differences among the US-led coalition forces over tactics and deployment. Many commanders avoid deployment in the south, which is the real battleground, to avoid heavy casualties. Gen Ray Henault, who recently retired as Canadian defence chief, complained at a press conference the other day that “some” Nato countries avoided committing troops and equipment to the south, and the fighting there was done mostly by American, British, Canadian and Dutch forces. This contained an implied criticism of France, Germany, Italy and Spain. The other commanders’ version is that the other theatres of war could not be left unmanned.

It seems that battle fatigue is setting in. After six years of war which has inflicted tremendous suffering mostly on the civilians, peace is nowhere on the horizon. If, therefore, the Karzai government and the Taliban are thinking in terms of finding a negotiated solution they should be encouraged. Pakistan should take note of President Karzai’s plea. The Taliban have been operating from both sides of the Durand Line, and it is in the interest of the two countries that this bloodshed should come to an end. President Karzai has of late toned down his rhetoric against Pakistan, and this is a positive development.

Let Islamabad and Kabul join hands with all the sincerity they can command to find a negotiated end to the fighting. Afghanistan has been ravaged by 27 years of constant war and its people have been pauperised. Foreigners — whether the Soviets in the eighties or the Americans and Europeans now — have by their behaviour added to the Afghan people’s misery instead of alleviating it.

No end to quake victims’ pain

AS WE approach the two-year anniversary of the Oct 8, 2005, earthquake, it is important to take stock and raise some questions about the progress made on reconstruction efforts and how effectively the foreign aid/loans have been utilised. It is unfortunate that charges of corruption in the public and private sector remain. Take, for instance, a report on Sunday about allegations of misappropriation of funds in Muzaffarabad. The AJK government has finally taken note of the allegations (first made in April) against a high official at the AJK chamber of commerce who is charged with misappropriating Rs50m given to him by a Saudi NGO for distribution among earthquake victims. Of the 635 people to have received the Saudi funds last year — that works out to Rs86,410 per person — around 80 per cent are said to belong to the official’s tribe. The inquiry must ascertain what the selection criterion was. If women who are claiming to be widows when their husbands are alive did indeed receive funds, then it is a clear case of misappropriation. It is especially important to get to the bottom of this so that no NGO or individual feels that its funds will not reach the deserving.

The sad reality is that there have been many scams since the earthquake occurred and a lot of people have gotten away with their crimes. This makes it necessary to punish culprits involved in wrongdoings as it will restore the people’s faith in the rehabilitation and reconstruction process which has been dampened. There can be no denying the fact that the compensation aspect has been badly handled — victims have been complaining of not receiving the promised amount whereas others have received more than was due to them. The discrepancies have been widely reported and thus require thorough investigation. Erra, on its part, has had all sorts of charges levelled against it, like the high expenditures it incurs on administrative costs or that its housing and education projects have yet to take off or — the popular theory — that it is not a transparent organisation. All these allegations need to be addressed by Erra as they may be undeserved. Most important though, Erra must speed up the rehabilitation process, especially in the housing and education sector where work seems to be progressing at a snail’s pace. It must also put in place a monitoring system ensuring that no NGO is making a profit from the people’s pain.

Unruly court behaviour

THE unruliness displayed by hundreds of predominantly MQM workers chanting slogans at the Sindh High Court on Monday serves to negate the political party’s claim that its supporters had come to file affidavits as witnesses in the May 12 case. Citing “compelling circumstances”, the seven-member bench adjourned the hearing to Sept 17. It was an understandable decision as the emotive situation inside the courtroom could have easily led to indiscipline, possibly even violence. As part of the ruling dispensation that has been blamed for failing to maintain law and order in Karachi on May 12, the MQM has a lot to answer for. While only a judicial probe can pin responsibility, a show of muscle-flexing by the MQM in the courtroom is not going to help its image. Neither will the words of its leader Altaf Hussain who warned on Saturday that a decision not based on “ground realities” would be rejected.

Political maturity demands that the MQM workers observe the sanctity of the court proceedings and maintain decorum inside the premises. So long as the proceedings are not in camera, members of the public have every right to attend court hearings. However, this right should not be abused. In fact, as part of the government, the MQM should have exemplary conduct. However, if the party persists with its current mood of defiance, it will damage its image, possibly beyond repair, and will be seen as an organisation given to lawless behaviour.

Congregation without a cause

By Mahir Ali

NOT long after the organisation known as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) was set up at Canberra’s initiative in 1989, a sceptical Australian diplomat wittily dismissed it as “four adjectives in search of a noun.” At its inception, the group consisted of seven East and Southeast Asian nations alongside Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

The idea, evidently, was to improve the level of American engagement, in the aftermath of the Cold War, with what Australia considered a relatively neglected region.

Since then, Apec’s membership has almost doubled: it now includes China, Chinese Taipei (otherwise known as Taiwan), Chile, Peru and Russia. However, if the organisation’s summit in Sydney last week is anything to go by, its raison d’etre hasn’t become any clearer in the interim: “21 leaders in search of an agenda” is how a senior Australian journalist aptly put it.

Barely two months ago, the host nation’s prime minister, John Howard, had promised that the gathering would culminate in the most momentous agreement on combating global warming since the Rio summit in 1992, which established the basis for the Kyoto Protocol.

Neither Australia nor the US has ratified the protocol and the current governments of both countries remain unconvinced about the impact of human activities on the planet’s climate. They are keen, however, to control the post-Kyoto arrangements, partly in order to ensure that developing nations don’t get away with less stringent targets for cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

It has never been terribly clear exactly what Howard was hoping to achieve in Sydney: although Apec includes the world’s largest emitters, its appropriateness as a forum for anything other than broad discussions on the subject is open to question.

Whatever his motives, there was little room for disagreement when President Hu Jintao made it clear that China would not be party to any attempt to bypass the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Partly as a consequence, the centrepiece of Apec’s Sydney Declaration is an agreement to contemplate the advisability of contributing towards the reduction of greenhouse gases. Its aspirational goals are, at best, completely meaningless. They would be worse than useless if anyone were to read into them the illusion of progress, but there’s little danger of that.

The declaration was equally anodyne in the economic sphere, calling for efforts towards concluding the Doha Round of World Trade Organisation negotiations and pointing towards the desirability of an APEC free-trade zone.

Experience has taught us, of course, that such gatherings seldom accomplish very much, beyond facilitating a degree of social networking among politicians.

But if that is their main purpose, wouldn’t it make greater sense to pack the concerned leaders off to an island resort for a week or so every year?

Last week’s summit was billed as “21 leaders, one great city”, but Sydneysiders were less than thrilled by the Apec encroachment, which entailed the erection of intimidating metal barriers in the heart of the city.

The VIPs who whizzed through the streets in motorcades could have been forgiven for assuming that Sydney had been hit by a neutron bomb, given that ordinary folks were barred from the Apec security zone. The arrangements included snipers on roofs and thousands of police on the ground, including some in riot gear. According to the authorities, this was necessitated by “intelligence” on planned protest marches.

In the event, the only violence was perpetrated by the police themselves, who occasionally — perhaps more out of boredom than in response to any kind of provocation — pounced on unarmed demonstrators, pinned them to the ground, and rained blows on them for no apparent reason.

In at least one instance this treatment was meted out to a middle-aged pedestrian whose only crime was to cross the road. None of this is particularly surprising: given that the centre of Sydney resembled a fascist police state, it was inevitable that some of the foot soldiers would behave accordingly.

What is not clear is the extent to which this overkill was insisted upon by the Americans. One of the first questions George W. Bush faced at a news conference shortly after he arrived in Sydney, fresh from a surprise stopover in Iraq, was why the presence of the leader of the free world entailed so many curbs on freedom in the host city.

Taken aback, he mumbled something vaguely apologetic. He had been considerably less incoherent the previous night when Australia’s deputy prime minister greeted him on the tarmac and asked how things were in Iraq. “We’re kicking ass,” responded the president of the United States.

Bush may have been relatively clear about what he was doing in Anbar province, but the reason for his presence in New South Wales appears to have been something of a mystery to the president, given that he thanked Howard “for being such a fine host for the Opec summit”. He quickly corrected himself but compounded the gaffe by saying he’d been invited by Howard to next year’s Opec summit.

That’s not very likely, given that neither the US nor Australia is a member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Bush went on to praise the role of “Austrian” troops in Iraq — a statement that may have raised a few eyebrows in Vienna.

Fortunately for him, the American president wasn’t the only source of comic relief during the Apec summit. Early on, a bunch of talented satirists associated with a television show titled The Chaser’s War on Everything decided to test Sydney’s security firewall by arranging a motorcade bearing the Canadian flag (based on the valid assumption that no one is familiar with the Canadian prime minister’s physical features).

Equipped with obviously fake security passes, they made their way to within yards of the Inter Continental Hotel, where Bush was supposedly staying.

The police only realised something was amiss when one of the comedians emerged from the limousine dressed as Osama bin Laden, fake beard and all.

The authorities were not amused, but for more or less everyone else this light-hearted diversion was the highlight of the summit. (For video clips, visit

There were other distractions, too, not least a timely reminder that the real Bin Laden remains at large, although he too may be relying on fake facial hair. Osama’s 26-minute video prompted an equally silly response from George W, although he was clearly preoccupied with Iraq and this week’s report card on the “surge”, prepared by the White House but channelled through General David Petraeus.

From John Howard’s point of view, however, the least palatable aspect of Apec week was the Australian media’s continued focus on his dwindling political fortunes: for much of the year, the government’s standing in opinion polls has ranged from poor to hopeless, and there are indications that the prime minister may even fail to retain his own seat.

Predictably, awkward endorsements from Bush haven’t helped. Elections are unlikely to be delayed beyond November. Although the majority of Australians reacted to the pointless Apec summit with indifference or irritation, their retrospective view of it may be less unkind if it comes to be seen as a prelude to regime change.

The writer is a journalist based in Sydney.

A video on families

The Philadelphia Inquirer

AS students leave summer vacation behind and resume their reading, writing, math and science, many school districts struggle with how to teach the harder lessons required in their curriculums these days.

By state mandate or societal necessity, they have to fashion lessons on conflict resolution, sex education, tolerance, diversity and anti-bullying — all while trying to respect parents’ divergent views of morality.

It isn’t easy. No district discovered that more painfully last school year than Evesham in Burlington County. As part of New Jersey’s state-mandated health curriculum to “identify different kinds of families and explain that families may differ,” the district showed one school’s third graders That’s a Family, a half-hour video depicting mixed-race, divorced, single and adoptive parents, and families headed by grandparents.

But it was the video’s segment on same-sex couples that drove the town into an ugly mid-winter uproar. At a public meeting-turned shouting match, some parents and school officials defended the video as a useful tool to teach tolerance and prevent bullying. Others derided it as promoting homosexuality. Both sides behaved badly, setting a poor example for youth.

In the months since, surveys, study and discussion led an advisory committee to recommend in August that the video be shown to fourth graders, rather than third.

But the school board voted 7-1 two weeks ago to chuck it altogether. That’s probably for the best. Whatever its merits, the video has become a lightning rod locally. …

Evesham should recommit to its worthy, original goal — exposing elementary school students to a diversity of families — and find a new teaching tool to promote understanding of all groups... Lessons can be value-neutral. Acknowledging that divorce exists, for example, does not “advocate” divorce.

Students as young as third grade do wonder why some families look different from theirs, and they do ask questions — not always in the privacy of their homes, as a number of Evesham parents seemed to desire.

Far better that the questions get answered in the classroom than on the playground. — (Sept 10)

No place to go

The Baltimore Sun

THE recent decision by the Baltimore YWCA to close its downtown shelter for homeless women and children is more than unfortunate. If the shelter goes out of business by Oct 1, as announced, about 10 per cent of the city’s temporary beds for families could be lost. There’s no question that permanent housing is the ultimate solution for getting the homeless off the streets. But in the meantime, families must not be left without a place to go.

On any given night, an estimated 3,000 people in Baltimore are homeless… of the total homeless population, about 10 per cent are under the age of 18. City officials rightly try to put families into transitional housing as quickly as possible, generally apartments where they can stay for up to two years… But with only 428 transitional spaces for families, homeless women and children must often stay in one of Baltimore’s 205 emergency beds, distributed among half a dozen shelters scattered around the city, for a maximum of 90 days. The YWCA shelter on West Franklin Street provides 63 of those emergency beds for women and children…

Despite the obvious need, YWCA board members say they made a business decision to close the shelter, citing recent funding cutbacks from the United Way of Central Maryland and the city, as well as a desire to refocus the organisation on its core missions to empower women and eliminate racism. Yet (it) has not announced any plans to close another shelter in Baltimore County and does not rule out developing new programmes that could help homeless families…

The YWCA and the city are trying to reach a compromise, but whether or not homeless families can continue to be housed at the West Franklin Street facility, the dialogue should not be so limited. Recognising that temporary shelter is a necessary stop on the path to permanent housing, the city as well as private organisations should step in with extra space or extra funds to help fill the void. — (Sept 7)

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007