Archive for May, 2009

Pakistan on the front lines

May 27, 2009

Every time I hear American politicians verbally attack Pakistan from the safety of their offices on Capitol Hill, I think they should remember the victims of this vicious act of carnage inflicted on the city of Lahore, in Eastern Pakistan.

Lahore carnage

Rescuers comb through debris after the Lahore attack (AFP photo)

 This is what’s left of a street corner in downtown Lahore, a major city just across Pakistan’s border with India, after suicide bombers detonated a massive car bomb outside of a police headquarters and an ISI office (ISI is Pakistan’s version of the CIA–Inter-Service Intelligence Agency). Up to 30 people were killed in this attack and nearly 300 were injured. All of this happened as Pakistan’s Army is engaged in a full-scale military operation against Taliban fighters in the scenic Swat Valley, which was once a major tourist attraction before the Taliban brought their way of life and all its terror into it.

I think its crazy to accuse Pakistan of not doing enough in the war on terror. The Pakistani people are on the front lines of the war on terror, whether our politicians want to acknowledge this or not. In order to keep America safe since 9/11, the people of Pakistan have paid a very steep toll–unfortunately, the Lahore attack is just one example of a long line of violent acts committed against the Pakistani state. Already this year, Lahore has seen a siege of a police station and an attack on a visiting Sri Lankan Cricket Team. The team suffered injuries, but all of the players survived thanks to the work of the policemen protecting them. Six officers were not so lucky, however. Bombings and other terrorist activities continue to rock cities across the country, including the capital, Islamabad.

Pakistani soldiers and police are laying down their lives so that Americans can debate whether or not terrorism is a legitimate concern almost 8 years after 9/11. Yet, it seems that all our leaders will do is harass the Pakistani government and go so far as to accuse Pakistan of sympathizing with the Taliban, a laughable accusation that has nonetheless outraged some Pakistanis. The President of Pakistani, Asif Ali Zardari, lost his wife, Benazir Bhutto, in a bombing back in 2007, and former President Musharraf survived multiple assassination attempts that involved shootings, IED’s, and suicide bombers. Last year, Condoleezza Rice ruled out US sanctuary for Musharraf after he was threatened with impeachment. Rice claimed that former President Musharraf’s declaration of a state of emergency was out of line with democracy, but maybe she should be asking what an American President would do if bombings were rocking cities all across the United States on a weekly basis. Would she honestly say that America would not be in a state of emergency then?

As an American, I am grateful for everything that Pakistan has done. In the months after 9/11, almost everyone I talked to felt that another attack on US soil was imminent–people were buying duct tape to seal their doors out of fear that Al-Qaeda would launch a chemical attack and some Americans felt the need to purchase their own firearms. Others felt that the suicide bombings that had been seen in Israeli cafes and buses would be arriving in US in just a matter of time. In the 7 and a half years since our nation’s worst terror attack, none of that has happened. Americans have remained safe and have been able to go about their lives, largely without having to worry about being blown up. This is not because terrorism is not a legitimate threat, but because all of those fears–the suicide bombers, the chemical attacks, the shootouts–they have all been happening in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. In the last 6 years, hundreds of terrorists have blown themselves up in cities all across these three countries, taking a toll that is difficult for Westerners to contemplate.

Pakistan has made mistakes just as much as the US has, but Americans should take it easy on the Pakistani Army, police, and government because there are plenty of reasons for them to want to hesitate, especially because it is their cities and people who pay the price when the Taliban and Al-Qaeda retaliate while Americans are on the other side of the world sleeping in peace.

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A taste of Tijuana

May 24, 2009

Here is the link to my article published last week in the Brentwood Press. I wrote about my experience and Tijuana–which took place in March–and what I took away from it. I should add I plan on going back to the city early next year to try and write a follow-up story. I’m hoping I can get the coveted interview I narrowly missed last time I was down there.

As I read the horrific details about the killing of four young Americans that emerged from Tijuana last week I felt a sense of horror … it was the second major attack in the city I had read about in less than two weeks, the most recent being a coordinated attack by drug gangs armed with AK-47s that left seven police officers dead and many more injured.

Having been to Tijuana myself, the brutal attacks did not surprise me – just days before I left for my trip, six people were brutally executed; three of them were found beheaded. What did surprise me was the overwhelming coverage of the swine flu outbreak that originated in Mexico City and brought the world to the brink of a “pandemic” just a couple weeks ago. I’m not one to compare tragedies and argue which is worse, but after a week of fear-mongering from media outlets all over the world, swine flu turned out to be far less threatening than we thought.

Meanwhile, the thousands of ruthless drug cartel fighters threatening Americans and Mexicans alike continue to run back and forth across the border, killing people and terrorizing entire cities to the point where mayors and police chiefs are afraid to go to work. In fact, more Americans died in the recent Tijuana attack than in the nationwide outbreak of the H1N1 virus.

Just two months earlier, I was in Tijuana, walking the streets of Avenida Revolucion and the city’s financial district. Common sense kept me away from the most dangerous parts of the city, like Zona Norte, which is arguably the most dangerous place imaginable for a lone traveler to mill about late at night.

I visited the city because I wanted to get an understanding of Mexico’s bloody and lengthy drug war, casualties of which are comparable to Iraq or Afghanistan. During my trip, I got to visit a police station in the center of the city and talk with some of the officers about Mexico’s progress in confronting the increasingly violent drug cartels. I had originally planned to have a solid interview, but the weekend, with its need for more men on the streets, made that very difficult.

Much like the consular official– Press attaché Jessica Lopez from Mexico’s San Francisco Consulate – with whom I had spoken over the phone, who acknowledged that Northern Mexico in general and the city in particular have problems. But Lopez did her best to assure me that Americans should not be discouraged from coming to Mexico despite the travel advisory that was issued.

Most officers were very friendly and I trust that they are doing their best to serve their city, but many were wary when I asked to take a few photos – something that required the consent of a higher-ranking officer at the scene. I assured him I only wanted to show my community how much courage and hard work is being done at the hands of police officers south of the border, which pleased him.

The Army soldiers who patrolled a government office not far from my hotel weren’t too anxious to have their photos taken either, a request I politely asked in my progressing Spanish. Four men occupied a Humvee, one of them sitting behind a .50 caliber machine gun and all of covering their faces in balaclava – I suspected this was out of fear that they would be identified by passersby associated with local cartels, who in turn would come after their families. Unfortunately, this is all too common in Mexico and I was quick to thank the soldiers for their service and apologize for inconveniencing them.

The rest of my story can be viewed here.

Sri Lanka’s bitter civil war comes to a close

May 18, 2009

I felt a strong sense of emotion when I heard that Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, was killed in a gunbattle with Sri Lankan soldiers along with his son, several of his top aides, and scores of his dedicated fighters. Its clear that Sri Lanka’s military conflict has drawn to a close, although I have doubts that the insurgency is over for good. Sri Lanka is full of lush jungles and the rebels are masters at guerrilla warfare. Nevertheless, the Sri Lankan Army deserves praise for being able to defeat such a vicious insurgency after so many years of warfare that have shaken the island.

Anyway, the reason I say I have such strong emotions is because, first off, I think that Prabhakaran is (was) a megalomaniac and a mass murderer. He perfected the use of suicide bombings–including the invention of the explosive-belt that has brought so much carnage to cities all over the world, whether it be Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, Middle Eastern cities like Tel Aviv and  Baghdad, or cities as far off as Moscow. This monster, Sri Lanka’s version of Osama Bin Laden, will not be missed by all those who condemn terrorism in all its brutal forms. Prabhakaran’s organization is going to be remembered as one of the most fearsome terrorist groups the world has ever seen and the only one that has succeeded in assassinating a sitting world leader, two in fact: Indian President Rajiv Gandhiin 1991 and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadassa in ’91.

At the same time, we cannot forget about what the Sri Lankan government did to achieve this…it seems it took a stunning scorched-earth policy to break through Tamil Eelam and get to rebel leader Prabhakaran. I can’t help but feel a sense of horror when I think about the hundreds of civilians who were killed in shelling last week, many of whom were injured and lying in hospital beds before mortar rounds and other artillery slammed into their place of refuge, according to doctors working on site. Some of the claims made by the LTTE about civilian casualties should be met with skepticism, much like the fabrications made by Hamas during the 22-day war in Gaza at the beginning of the year. There is no doubt that the rebels used civilians as human shields, but at the same time, the Sri Lankan government bars all journalists from the war zone.  It is not possible to confirm what actually happened the jungles of northern Sri Lanka in the last months of its bloody and violent civil war. Maybe the Sri Lankan government would prefer to keep it that way.

Aside from these criticisms, I wholeheartedly congragulate Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his victory over terrorism…I think that the United States could even learn a thing or two from Sri Lanka’s war. Judging by the jubilation in the streets, its very clear that the island has had enough of war and the Sri Lankan Army knew that a strong push was necessary.  Despite everything that has happened these last few weeks and months, I have no doubt that many more people would have died if Vellupillai Prabhkaran was still plotting acts of violence from the safety of the countryside.

Sri Lankans are celebrating and they deserve it. After so many years of bombings and shoot-outs, many Sri Lankans in Colombo and all across the country must feel a sense of hope that it is over for good. Unfortunately, the only way that this can be guaranteed is if the government can do something to help the Tamil people, many of whom are feeling angry, humiliated, and threatened in the war-ravaged northeast of the country. Tens of thousands are barely getting by in refugee camps. It seems to me that these are the perfect conditions to create another Prabhkaran who can could re-ignite more political and military tension somewhere down the road. After all, the LTTE has always viewed their leader almost as a God…now he has given his own life and will be seen as a martyr throughout the Tamil community.

Before President Rajapaksa declares the war over, his government should assure the Tamil people that it will commit to helping them build new homes and lives where they will be a represented part in a unified country diverse with many ethnicities and religions, but one that puts being a Sri Lankan citizen first.

Real-world version

May 17, 2009

I find this story outrageous…’Slumdog Millionaire’ is one of my favorite movies, I’ve seen it three times, actually. I don’t understand why the young actors who did such an excellent job playing their parts haven’t been taken care of. Why are they still living in slums? I wonder how much money the producers, director, and the creators made while the movie was bringing in huge profits all over the world.

From The New York Times:

In a scene reminiscent of the gritty hit movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” municipal workers in Mumbai, India, on Thursday demolished the home of one of the children who starred in the rags-to-riches tale. Local officials told reporters that they did not know that the row of shanties they demolished included the home of the family of Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, above, the 10-year-old who played the character Salim as a child. They said they were following orders to clear illegally built shanties ahead of the monsoon season. The child star was asleep when a police officer woke him up and told him to leave his family’s home, he told The Associated Press in an interview.

Through Afghan Eyes

May 8, 2009

What success should mean for Afghans and not only Americans

afghan girlsThe future of Afghanistan and what the United States can do to help that nation are in jeopardy right now. I’m sure this statement is of no surprise to anyone, which is unfortunate. We have been in Afghanistan for over 7 years now and at the end of those 7 years, the country is in the worst shape it has been in since the Taliban fell from power in 2001. Afghans are angry at America; the most recent example of why they are so upset is the recent aerial strikes by US warplanes that, according to some reports, killed well over 100 people.

If this report is confirmed and is revealed to be the deadliest incident involving civilians since 2001, then it might make Americans and Afghans alike wonder what reason the US and NATO have to even be in Afghanistan. A friend of mine on another blog recently expressed his anger over this, asking “What’s the point of being in Afghanistan to fight terrorists who mass murder civilians if we are just going to mass murder the civilians for them?”

I found this to be a very good insight into what is happening in Afghanistan. I cannot imagine the anger and despair the Afghan villagers in Farah Province are feeling right now. Who is on their side? Who’s going to help them rebuild their country, their lives, and their communities?

american soldier in afghan

This is why we need to modify our strategy in Afghanistan. Two presidents in a row now have failed to address the key issues…sending more troops to battle the Taliban is only a small part of the solution to rebuild Afghanistan. I highly doubt we would be seeing this resurgence of violence if coalition forces had put more effort into necessities like women’s empowerment, education for girls, the eradication of poverty, the removal of land mines (there are millions in Afghanistan) and the modernization of an infrastructure intentionally run-down by millenarians bent on bringing their society back to the dark days of the 7th Century.

There is an excellent web source I have been reading from, called “The Afghan Women’s Mission”…I have added it to my sidebar and borrowed an image from the site at the top of this post. Afghanistan’s answer to future success is not simply more soldiers and more fighting…yes, the Taliban needs to be defeated and yes, air power has proven to be essential in backing up Afghan and coalition forces who encounter swarms of Taliban fighters in the vast mountainous expanses throughout the country. But we need more civilian aid. Afghans who are satisfied with their lives will prove to be far more valuable in defeating the Taliban and stabilizing the country than even the most sophisticated bomb.

 There is an old proverb I’ve heard many times, and I’m sure you have too: “catch a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you fee him for a lifetime”. I think this can be applied to the great nation of Afghanistan. The country needs a police force and a modern army that can fight for the people and stand against threat regardless of who is in the White House or what the political situation is like in the US. I hope that President Obamahas some ideas on how to do this. The surge in Iraq saw great success because the strategy was to work directly with the Iraqi people. The same needs to be done in Afghanistan if we want to see more results.

After 7 long years that have grown in ferocity as they pass, Afghans lack basic services. Afghanistan needs to be fixed, or else the US and our NATO allies will simply be remembered as another set of “invaders” who failed to bring anything but violence to Afghanistan, and Afghans will slide back into a hell that will make the current spate of roadside bombings and suicide attacks seem serene. Regional neighbors, like Russia, Iran, and India, have an even bigger stake in all off this. Surely, Indian and Russian intelligence are going to be very afraid if Taliban leader Mullah Omar succeeds in coming to power…India will be especially concerned if the Taliban gains power in Pakistan. That, I must add, would be a recipe for a humanitarian disaster.

I remember in the weeks after September 11th, President Bush asked children all across America to donate $1 to the children of Afghanistan. What ever happened to those days? I thought we were all united, standing together and ready to confront the challenges we faced. Its time we live up to what we started and help fix Afghanistan.

Echoes of political strife

May 3, 2009

I found this story story about Nepal to be particularly concerning. In case you did not know, Nepal was locked in a bitter civil war between government forces and Maoist rebels throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s. Thousands of people were killed and the country’s tourism, unfortunately, took a hit. Peace has taken a hold with democratic elections held in 2008, along with the abolishment of monarch. However, the new government, which is dominated by Maoists, including former rebels, has fired the Chief of the Army over policy differences. As a soon-to-be visitor, I am very aware that this could have an impact on my trip. Hopefully, this isn’t going to amount to anything serious but it is worth posting. I feel confident I will be able to lend my hand to the people of Nepal, regardless of politics and government bureaucracy. Honestly, I think this current situation in Nepal seems a lot less tense than the political atmosphere here in the United States. The link to the story is just below.

From BBC News:

Nepal’s army chief has been fired by the ruling Maoists in a row over integrating their former fighters into the armed forces.

General Rookmangud Katawal was forced out during a special Cabinet meeting, the information minister said.

He was accused of defying government orders to stop hiring new recruits and to get rid of eight generals.

The government wants to integrate former Maoist rebel fighters into the army – a move opposed by generals.

Correspondents say the row could undermine the peace process which ended the civil war in 2006.

The Maoists fought the army for more than a decade before giving up their armed revolt in 2006 and joining a peace process.

Thirteen-thousand people died in the conflict.

It would be quite difficult to engage in community development if guns and explosions are going off. Given the humanitarian interest in Nepal from so many different agencies, the political factions in Nepal have an obligation to make sure these new tensions do not broil into anything serious so that the deep poverty the country is facing can be addressed. So far, Nepalese citizens I have talked to don’t seem to reflect the hostilities between the Army and the Government, instead they have a kind, generous nature and are looking towards a new future.

This is something to keep an eye on…but in the end peace and democracy are going to prevail in this festive, mountainous country full of culture and history.

Update: Nepal’s President is unwilling to go along with the decision made by the Prime Minister and the Maoist government…the Maoists are unhappy about this.

From The Himalayan Times:

KATHMANDU: Nepal’s ruling Maoists warned that the Himalayan nation’s peace process was “in peril” after the country’s president attempted to stop them sacking the powerful army chief.

The ultra-leftists fired General Rookmangud Katawal for refusing to integrate former Maoist rebel soldiers into the regular army, a key part of a 2006 peace deal that ended a decade of civil war.

But centrist President Ram Baran Yadav has told the army chief to stay.

Maoist spokesman and cabinet minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara told AFP that this was tantamount to a “constitutional coup” and vowed to fight back with street protests.

“The president is… violating constitutional norms. The president’s move has put the peace process in peril,” he told AFP. “Our party has taken the president’s step as a constitutional coup and we will fight against it.”

“The executive power to sack and appoint an acting army chief lies with the government and not the president. We will stick to our decision. We don’t have any plans to quit the government,” he said.

He said that the decision to sack the head of the army — traditionally a bastion of Nepal’s elite and former monarchy — was necessary to bring the army under civilian control.

 The opposition Nepali Congress party described the army chief’s sacking as “undemocratic and autocratic” and an attempt by the Maoists to “impose dictatorial rule” on Nepal.

Nepal does not need this right now. Politicians are always so focused on their own differences they easily forget about the people they are supposed to serve…this doesn’t just apply to Nepal in particular, because my own country hasn’t exactly been leading the way in a post-partisan politics, unfortunately. Anyway, there is widespread poverty all over Nepal, as I mentioned, and there are people in refugee camps throughout the country. Maybe the Maoists, the Opposition, and the Army could address that instead of argue and threaten a hard-earned peace process.

Nepal switches sides on the road!

May 1, 2009

Check this out…this is obviously going to have an effect, on my trip! A month ago the Nepalese government announced that the road regulations are going to change. The country had the traditional hallmark of a region influenced by the UK–cars driving on the left side of the road with steering wheels on the right-hand side.  But now, conversion kits are going to be offered to help drivers switch over in what is being called the “New Nepal”. Just think, I’ll be there right as this is taking place.

The Ministry of Labour and Transportation Management announced in Kathmandu today that Nepal will switch from driving on the left side of the road to driving on the right. The statement also said that the government will offer subsidized conversion kits for existing vehicles with right-side steering.

Transport Enhancement Division spokesman Latta Man Singh made the announcement in a joint news conference with police officials. He said that the proposal had been initiated by the Traffic Police after all other attempts to manage Kathmandu’s chaotic roads had failed. Singh said that his ministry had supported the idea from the beginning and saw it as a modernization step.

Pretty cool, isn’t it? I think this is going to be a very exciting event of cultural significance that I will have the chance to witness when I arrive in the country. Before I go to Nepal, I will be in India, which still maintains its left-side driving regulations, granted its history with the UK. From what I hear, traffic can be chaotic in India so maybe a which side of the road the cars are driving on won’t be my biggest worry. I’ve had the experience before anyways, a couple years ago when I was in Ireland and drove a jeep around the fields of Sligo.

Here you can see the Nepalese minister point out the British influence…

“We drive on the left only because the British forced India to do so,” he said. “People in the most developed countries drive on the right side of the road, and in the New Nepal we will too. That’s sure to encourage development in Nepal.”

The change will be phased in gradually according to Singh. Initially only government vehicles with yellow and white license plates will switch to right-side driving. After two weeks black-plate commercial vehicles will change over, and eventually private autos with red license plates will join them. The process is scheduled to be completed within 60 days.

Well, all I can say is I am very excited about seeing this “New Nepal” regardless of which side of the road its citizens will be driving on.  The rest of the story above can be viewed in the link at the top of this post.