Monthly Archives: April 2019

Clinton in Pakistan ‘to ask tough questions’

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew into Pakistan on Friday with “tough questions” for the country’s leadership nearly a month after US commandos killed Osama Bin Laden near Islamabad.

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The top US diplomat is to meet Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, army chief General Ashfaq Kayani and the chief of Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the State Department said.

Clinton will be accompanied in the meetings by chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen and is expected to demand more cooperation from Pakistan in the fight against Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.

She will also likely push for an investigation into bin Laden’s time as a fugitive in Pakistan, and help push for a political solution to the nearly 10-year war against the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Relations between Pakistan and the United States, wary at the best of times, sank to new lows after US Navy SEALs swooped on the Al-Qaeda chief’s compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, home to a military academy, on May 2.

Kayani has said any similar raid would prompt a review of military cooperation with the United States and Islamabad asked Washington to reduce the strength of US military personnel to a minimum.

The discovery that the world’s most-wanted man was living just a stone’s throw from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point raised troubling questions about whether anyone in the Pakistani establishment was protecting him.

Western officials have long accused Pakistan’s intelligence services of playing a double game by fighting Islamist militants who pose a domestic threat, but protecting those who fight against American troops in Afghanistan.

“They are now having to look at some very tough questions that they either tried to avoid or which they gave inadequate answers to before,” a senior US official told reporters travelling with Clinton.

“They have cooperated. We have always wanted more… But now the sense of urgency is different,” the official added.

In Paris on Thursday, Clinton said the United States had “expectations” from Pakistan but stressed that it wanted “long-term” security ties with the country, seen as integral to the war effort in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s leaders were humiliated by the discovery that bin Laden had been living, possibly for years, in Abbottabad and by the American raid, which unfolded without Pakistan being told.

Pakistani troops have been fighting homegrown Taliban for years in its northwest and militant attacks have killed more than 4,400 people across the country since July 2007 in revenge attacks for the government’s US alliance.

“We have to see what they’re prepared to do… From their perspective they’ve done a lot,” said the US official.

“What they never really grasped is how much more they have to do in order to protect themselves and, from our point of view, protect our interests and assist us in ways that are going to facilitate our transition in Afghanistan.”

Clinton is expected to welcome Pakistan’s “positive actions” in the aftermath of bin Laden’s death, such as providing access to the compound and his wives, and giving back the tail of a helicopter damaged in the raid.

“Opportunities and risks were created by the bin Laden operation. Our job is to try to minimise the risks and to maximise the opportunity,” the official told reporters.

Pakistan has suffered a wave of attacks since the May 2 raid, with the country’s main Taliban faction claiming a series of major hits to avenge his death in the American raid, further embarrasing the security forces.

The latest attack killed 32 people in a suicide car bomb outside a Pakistani police station in the northwestern town of Hangu late Thursday.

The government this week authorised “all means” to wipe out militants, but stopped short of unveiling specific new military operations.

The United States has long put pressure on Pakistan to lead a major air and ground offensive in North Waziristan, the most notorious Taliban and Al-Qaeda bastion used to launch attacks across the border in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has always maintained that any such operation would be of its own time and choosing, arguing that its 140,000 troops committed to the northwest are too overstretched fighting against militants who pose a domestic threat.

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Fear lingers for Afghan women 10 years on

Aged just 17, Roya Shams cannot leave home in the Afghan city of Kandahar because she fears the Taliban will kill her.

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“If I do, they will shoot me,” she said. “I’m a problem for them.”

Young, educated and speaking good English, Roya is one of thousands of women across Afghanistan who still live in terror of the militant Islamists, 10 years after the start of the US-led war on October 7, 2001.

Women’s rights have undoubtedly improved in Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted. Under them, girls’ schools had been closed, and women banned from working outside the home and forced to wear the burqa.

But the Taliban still intimidate women, as Roya’s story shows. Her family started receiving threats saying she should not study or go to work teaching English after the Taliban killed her policeman father in July.

“My family is saying ‘Look what they did to your father, they will do it to you.’ But actually, I am happy to lose myself for my country,” she told AFP by telephone.

Some female politicians argue that former mujahedeen warlords who now form part of President Hamid Karzai’s government are just as bad as the Taliban when it comes to women’s rights.

Malalai Joya, a former lawmaker kicked out of parliament in 2007 for denouncing warlords and now a political activist, called them “wolves in the skin of lambs.”

Joya, 33, travels with armed guards and said she moves between safe houses in Kabul because she fears for her life after five assassination attempts.

The international presence in Afghanistan “pushed us from the frying pan into the fire because they replaced the terrorist, fundamentalist, misogynist Taliban with warlords who are mentally the same as the Taliban,” she said.

Restoring rights for women was touted as a major aim of the US-led invasion 10 years ago.

Hillary Clinton, then a US senator but now secretary of state, wrote in Time magazine in November 2001 that the Taliban’s mistreatment of women “was like an early warning signal of the kind of terrorism that culminated in the attacks of September 11.

“Similarly, the proper treatment of women in post-Taliban Afghanistan can be a harbinger of a more peaceful, prosperous and democratic future,” Clinton added.

There have been clear gains in the last 10 years, experts say, particularly in education for women.

British charity Oxfam says there are now 2.7 million girls in school in Afghanistan compared to only a few thousand who received religious education under the Taliban.

Girls walking to school and smartly-dressed women going to work are a common sight on the streets of Kabul, although the picture is often different in rural areas, where illiteracy is widespread and the Taliban can be stronger.

Another study from ActionAid found that 72 percent of Afghan women believe their lives are better now than they were 10 years ago.

But practices such as child marriage, honour killings, giving away girls to settle disputes and self-immolation by women are still widespread in Afghanistan, according to a UN report last December.

ActionAid also found that 86 percent of women worry about a possible return to Taliban-style government.

The future of efforts to talk peace with the Taliban looks highly uncertain after last month’s assassination of Karzai’s peace envoy Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Many women are, though, deeply concerned what will happen if the Taliban return to power when Western combat forces leave the country after 2014.

“We have made incredible gains in the last 10 years. Women are working as doctors, lawyers and businesswomen and girls are at school,” said Orzala Ashraf Nemat, co-author of Oxfam’s report.

“But what is life going to be like for us in the next 10 years? Already life is getting tougher for Afghan women. Afghan women want peace — not a stitch-up deal that will confine us to our homes again.”

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Mekong mega-dam on hold

Energy-starved

Ministers from Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos postponed a decision on the $US3.

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8 billion ($A3.7 billion) Xayaburi dam after meeting in the Cambodian city of Siem Reap on Thursday, saying more research was needed into the likely effects of such projects.

“There is a need for further study on the sustainable development and management of the Mekong River including impact from mainstream hydropower development projects,” they said in a statement.

The decision was welcomed by activists who warn that the vast 1260 megawatt dam in Laos, the first of 11 planned for the mainstream lower Mekong, could spell disaster for the roughly 60 million people who depend on the waterway.

The four member states of the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission (MRC) have an agreement to cooperate on the sustainable development of the waterway.

Their announcement, which is not legally binding, added that the ministers agreed in principle to approach Japan and other development partners to support such studies.

Laos is one of the poorest nations in the world and sees hydropower as vital to its potential future as the “battery of South-East Asia”, selling electricity to its more industrialised neighbours Vietnam and Thailand.

Thailand, which has agreed to purchase some 95 per cent of the electricity generated by the dam, had already indicated that it would not oppose the project at Thursday’s meeting.

But Vietnam and Cambodia, wary of the dam’s impact on their farming and fishing industries, expressed strong concern ahead of the talks and called for further studies to be carried out before it is allowed to go ahead.

Last week, Laos indicated it should get the green light, as “this dam will not impact countries in the lower Mekong River basin”, deputy minister of energy and mines Viraphon Viravong told the official Vientiane Times.

Cambodia said this was not enough and called for further examination of cross-border impacts of the multi-billion-dollar project before a final decision is made.

Vietnam has even proposed a 10-year moratorium on all hydro-electric projects on the lower Mekong.

MRC chief Hans Guttman said the Xayaburi dam had not been specifically discussed on Thursday, with the focus instead on working together to study the impact of hydropower on areas such as fisheries and water quality.

“There’s obviously a need for further work,” he told AFP.

The 4800km-long river, the longest in South-East Asia, is home to more than 700 species of freshwater fish including the endangered giant Mekong catfish, according to conservation group WWF.

Environmentalists have warned that damming the main stream of the waterway would trap vital nutrients, increase algae growth and prevent dozens of species of migratory fish swimming upstream to spawning grounds.

Conservation group International Rivers said more than 22,000 people from 106 countries submitted a petition ahead of the meeting, asking ministers to cancel the project.

“Today the Mekong governments responded to the will of the people of the region,” said Ame Trandem, South-East Asia program director for the group, which says the dam is not needed for Thailand’s future energy needs.

“We welcome the recognition that not nearly enough is known about the impacts of mainstream dams to be able to make a decision about the Xayaburi Dam,” she said.

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Greek PM pledges debt referendum

Embattled Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou on Monday called for a confidence vote and a referendum on last week’s EU debt deal, taking a political gamble to silence growing opposition to his policies.

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“On this roadmap of political initiatives I ask for a confidence vote,” Papandreou told his Socialist party lawmakers in parliament, moments after he announced a referendum would also be held on the EU deal.

“An expression of confidence in the policy to be followed is more necessary than ever,” Papandreou said, adding that the referendum expected early next year would be a “cornerstone” to build a “new era” for Greece.

Papandreou, who has 153 deputies in the 300-seat parliament, has faced increasing dissent within his own party over the tougher austerity policy monitored by the EU and the International Monetary Fund that has sparked general strikes and widespread protests, many of them violent.

“The command of the Greek people will bind us,” the premier said.

“Do they want to adopt the new deal, or reject it? If the Greek people do not want it, it will not be adopted,” the prime minister said after protests around the country last week against his government’s austerity policies.

The confidence vote is expected to be held on Friday.

The EU agreement brokered last week is designed to cut Greece’s debt load of over 350 billion euros ($495 billion) by around 100 billion euros.

It was only reached after months of haggling in marathon talks last Thursday and besides the Greek debt reduction included measures to bolster the European banking system, help other struggling eurozone member states and boost the size of the bloc’s bailout funds.

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Papandreou’s gambit come as Greece faces delicate negotiations with its eurozone peers on the details of last week’s agreement and with global bankers asked to accept a 50-percent loss on their Greek debt holdings.

Veteran political analyst Ilias Nikolakopoulos termed it “a panic reaction” and a “dangerous” decision by the Socialist leader whose approval ratings are at historic lows.

Public anger showed itself again on Friday as parades were held to mark Greece’s wartime resistance to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

President Carolos Papoulias walked out on a military parade in the northern city of Thessaloniki when hecklers labelled him a ‘traitor’ and other officials in other cities were also insulted.

Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos indicated the referendum was hastened by political opposition at home to last week’s EU deal.

“Even such a deal is placed in question by some,” Venizelos told parliament, arguing that something had to give so that progress could be made.

Successive efforts by Papandreou in recent months to gain support from his domestic political rivals to boost Greece’s bargaining powers in Brussels have failed.

The finance minister later added that the referendum would be held after the details of the EU agreement are worked out, a process expected to culminate in early 2012.

“An application law (on the EU deal) will come to parliament and will also be put before the people,” Venizelos said.

In Greece, many people believe the country has gone too far in allowing the EU and IMF to dictate economy policy in return for two bailout deals which have cost several hundred billion euros so far.

The opposition parties frowned on the government’s move.

The main opposition New Democracy conservatives called Papandreou “ruthless” and “dangerous,” accusing him of throwing Greece’s EU future “in the air like a coin.”

“This is raw blackmail, we should have elections now,” Makis Mailis, a spokesman for the third-ranking Communist party, told private Mega channel.

Papandreou had previously pledged to hold a referendum in the autumn “on the great changes of this land.”

But he has consistently ruled out holding early elections, which many analysts have warned would fail to produce a strong majority in parliament and plunge the country in political uncertainty.

“We have two years of productive work ahead of us. We say no to elections at this stage because they would constitute a plain subterfuge,” Papandreou said.

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