27 December 2014

China raises Nepal aid 5-fold to compete with India

Dec 26, 2014

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi waves following his arrival at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, on December 25, 2014. (AFP photo)

BEIJING: In what appears to be a straight competition for influence with India, China has increased its official aid to Nepal by more than five times. China has also promised to build electricity infrastructure in Nepal worth $1.6 billion to counter an Indian offer of soft loan for the power sector.

Chinese aid to the Himalayan nation will rise from the present level of $24 million to $128 million in 2015-16. The announcement came after talks between Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and his Nepali counterpart Mahendra Bahadur Pandey in Kathmandu on Friday.

Besides, Beijing is building a police academy for Nepal as a special gift. This is probably because Nepalese police help control the flow of Tibetan refugees trying to enter India through Nepal.

"As neighbors China and Nepal have common security needs ... we need to work together to crack down on illegal border crossings and transnational crimes," Wang said.

Nepali elite have for sometime complained that India has taken its relationship with the country for granted, and has not done enough to meet its development aspirations. China appears to be filling in the gap besides competing with Indian companies in Nepal's power sector.

The Langtang mountain range towers over the Kathmandu valley, hidden under a blanket of cloud, as seen from Bhanjyang on the outskirts of Kathmandu on December 10, 2014. Nepal is located between India to the south and China to the north. Agriculture is the mainstay of the country's economy (AFP photo)

India has announced a $1 billion soft loan to built the country's infrastructure including power projects. Nepal's hydropower sector has a potential to generate up to 42,000MW of electricity.

North Korea blames US for internet outages

Dec 27, 2014

North Korea experienced Internet problems last weekend and a complete outage of nearly nine hours before links were largely restored on Tuesday.

SEOUL: North Korea accused the United States on Saturday of being responsible for Internet outages it experienced in recent days amid a confrontation between them over the hacking of the film studio Sony Pictures. 

North Korea's main internet sites experienced intermittent disruptions early in the week for reasons that US tech companies said could range from technological glitches to a hacking attack. 

"The United States, with its large physical size and oblivious to the shame of playing hide and seek as children with runny noses would, has begun disrupting the Internet operations of the main media outlets of our republic," the North's National Defence Commission said in a statement. 

"It is truly laughable," a spokesman for the commission said in comments carried by the North's official KCNA news agency. 

The spokesman again rejected an accusation by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation that North Korea was behind the cyber attack on Sony Pictures and demanded the United States produce the evidence for its accusation. 

"Obama had better thrust himself to cleaning up all the evil doings that the US has committed out of its hostile policy against (North Korea) if he seeks peace on US soil. Then all will be well." 

North Korea experienced Internet problems last weekend and a complete outage of nearly nine hours before links were largely restored on Tuesday. 

U.S. officials said Washington was not involved. 

Following the hacking attack on Sony, the studio cancelled the release of a comedy called "The Interview", about the fictional assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. 

After criticism from President Barack Obama that it was caving into pressure from North Korea, Sony reversed its decision and decided on a limited release. 

The film took in more than $1 million in a Christmas Day release in 331 mostly independent theatres after large movie theatre chains refused to screen the comedy following threats of violence from hackers.

Ukraine, pro-Russia rebels swap war prisoners

Dec 27, 2014

Ukraine handed over 222 prisoners and the rebels released 145 people, according to Russia's state RIA Novosti news agency — the biggest one-time prisoners swap since the pro-Russian insurgency flared up in eastern Ukraine in April. (AP photo)

DONETSK, Ukraine: Ukrainian authorities and pro-Russia rebels exchanged nearly 370 prisoners on Friday, a major step toward easing hostilities in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine handed over 222 prisoners and the rebels released 145 people, according to Russia's state RIA Novosti news agency — the biggest one-time prisoners swap since the pro-Russian insurgency flared up in eastern Ukraine in April.

The Interfax news agency quoted Svyatoslav Tsegolko, a spokesman for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, saying that 146 Ukrainian prisoners were released on Friday and another four will be freed on Saturday. The figures corresponded to an earlier Ukrainian official statement, which said that 150 Ukrainian prisoners were to be released.

Hundreds of others were released during previous months.

Numbers of those to be released varied on Friday and tensions were flying high as buses carrying the prisoners arrived at a site north of the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

At some point during the exchange, separatist rights ombudsman Darya Morozova was quoted by Tass news agency as saying that the exchange was pushed back until Saturday.

Russia's state television showed Ukrainian war prisoners boarding buses in the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk before being driven to a location north of the city where the exchange took place.

On the site where the swap was conducted, prisoners were called up by groups of 10 with officials from both sides verifying their identities.

The exchange had been tentatively planned for earlier this week, and the failure to conduct it pushed back another round of Ukraine peace talks in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, which was set for Friday but was adjourned indefinitely

An officer from a volunteer battalion holds a family member, after returning home to the Ukrainian capital from the war conflict with pro-Russian separatists in the country's east, in Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday, December 6, 2014. 

Fifty shades of saffron

December 27, 2014

PTI"Narendra Modi can pay tribute to Sardar Patel by making India proud rather than building his statue." Picture shows him with BJP leader L.K Advani in Kevadia village, Gujarat.

The danger now is that under an overtly Hindu government, discriminatory practices against the most vulnerable people will flourish even more

On December 11, 2014, when the U.N. General Assembly adopted June 21 as the International Day of Yoga, as recommended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India rejoiced. Never mind that the day before was the first Human Rights Day under his watch; this crept by unnoticed.

At the SAARC Summit, Mr. Modi declaimed, “As we seek to build bridges to prosperity, we must not lose sight of our responsibility to the millions living without hope.” He was, as always, matchless as a kathakar, an artiste whose fabulous retelling of fables reinforces them in the minds of the faithful as fact. But while his performances have zero defects, on the lives of the multitudes hanging on to his words, believing in them and daring to hope, they have had zero effect so far, because the responsibility of which the Prime Minister spoke is usually ignored.

In 1990, the U.N. launched the Human Development Report based on the challenging predicate that “people are the real wealth of a nation.” How wealthy are we really? After two decades of rapid GDP growth, we bestride SAARC like a colossus doing the splits, one foot splayed eastward to keep China out, the other westward to keep Pakistan down. We loom like a giant among midgets, but on every parameter that measures equity in development, there is little to choose between us and our neighbours.

The Human Development Index (HDI) for 2014 ranks us at 135 among 187 countries; Sri Lanka at 73 did way better than us, and we were shadowed by Bhutan at 136, Bangladesh at 142, Nepal at 145 and Pakistan at 146. The fact that India was a stable democracy, as the others were not, that our economy had galloped along, as theirs had not, had made very little difference to the lives of our citizens.

Within the HDI, the Gender Inequality Index which measures three critical parameters — reproductive health, women’s empowerment and their participation in the labour market — is particularly important because it shows how a society treats its more vulnerable half. Sri Lanka at 75 is well ahead of us, but so is Nepal at 98, Bhutan at 102 and Bangladesh at 115. India is in lock-step with Pakistan, both ranked at 127. The Criminal Law Amendment Act, which brought in far-reaching measures to protect women, is now almost two years old; sadly, it has made little difference.

Depth of deprivation

A template for teacher education

December 27, 2014

None of our Teacher Education programmes has ever seriously tried to achieve a clear and convincing enough understanding of what one tries to achieve through education. It always has been a rhetoric of larger aims and working for myopically understood parental and market aspirations

All curricula are situated in contexts and are simultaneously guided by ideals. Therefore, an understanding of and a balance between the two is essential.

We have succeeded in creating an education system that discourages good education in every possible way. It is largely apathetic to the quality of education and the fate of children. The mindset that governs thinking and the actions of the functionaries of education in the government are to somehow manage the naukari and to reap the benefits of the job on the basis of seniority. The thought of doing a good job rarely comes to mind if it ever does. The idea of reform and improvement remain at the level of rhetoric. In this system, any teacher who wants to work for good education has to work on his or her own and without much support. He or she also has to overcome varied forms of resistance.

Obstacles before the teacher

In schools, the quality of education revolves around issues such as a school uniform, heavy school bags, mark sheets and some semblance of having the English language and infrastructure in place. Parents are conscious of the need for quality education, with upward mobility in the form of well-paying jobs being uppermost in their minds. This is a legitimate expectation, but parents and schools see the path to well-paying jobs through so-called English medium and high-fee charging schools. From there it moves on to children studying in private universities, now a dime a dozen, and which all proclaim to produce leaders.

Children’s lives, even in the rural areas, now revolve around television and in various activities on the mobile phone. Hence, the motivation to ensure that a child has a worthwhile education enabled by a wholesome learning experience has to be created by the teacher. Even if the child is a natural and enthusiastic ‘learner’, that all learning is equally worthwhile is an unexamined assumption. Therefore, the teacher has to direct the efforts of the child towards this goal. This is a difficult job.

Let’s focus on the teacher. In the general atmosphere of economic competition and consumerism, a teacher legitimately desires leading a good economic and social life. The teacher has to constantly fight with her visibly low status in society, which saps her enthusiasm for good teaching.

Education is increasingly becoming centric to the government’s thinking in order to realise the desire for India’s economic competitiveness in a globalised world. Thus, the purpose of education can be well served by having a layered education system. One part of that system can take the responsibility of mass producing “narrowly skilled” people with a limited vision of life and completely sold out on shining promises of consumerist hedonism. Another part could produce a limited number of people who can think relatively better regarding skills and theoretical knowledge, but still remain wedded to promises of economic growth.

Obviously, in each point mentioned in the system, namely the parent, the child, a teacher’s ambitions and the government, there exists many alternative ideas and serious efforts as well. I have painted this grim picture in order to claim that this is the dominant mood and in spite of there being many people who want to do something better. The purpose of citing these instances is not to deny the positive aspect, but to make the point that a teacher has to work in an adverse scenario and be on the lookout to identify genuine elements in the system to collaborate and work with.

The ideals

The issue is this: what is the kind of Teacher Education (TE) curriculum needed that can help a new teacher enter this scenario with confidence and to work effectively? The context-centric thinking has a natural tendency to privilege status quo without the thinker being conscious of this problem. One starts thinking of ways of survival in the face of adverse elements in the context and loses sight of the larger purpose, thereby reinforcing the context as it is. This is producing a tendency to take the context as given and planning education that seems possible in the given limitations. In the process, the limitations gain acceptance while the quality of education becomes a variable to be adjusted with them. The teacher has to strive for quality; not only for survival.

But why should the teacher struggle? It is much easier and personally beneficial for him to go along with the system. What motivation could there be to challenge it? And, strive for what? What should he try to achieve? What are the kind of tools to be used? These abstract questions are very pragmatic ones if we are to develop an effective TE curriculum.

One definite requirement to work well is to have an idea of what one is working for and an ability to divert one’s efforts towards enabling worthy goals and a vision. Therefore, a personal examination of goals and vision proposed by the system is essential in order to create commitment for a task. This requires a reasonable amount of intellectual autonomy; it may be weak and limited autonomy perhaps, but autonomy nonetheless.

A teacher needs to build an intellectually, ethically and socially satisfactory, if not exciting, life for herself as a thinking being. Also, a possibility for continuous personal development is essential in order to contribute towards creating good education. Usually, creating opportunities for such development is supposed to be the job of the system; but in the situation we have, the poor teacher has to fend for herself.

A commitment to good education will also require an understanding of the need for education in people’s lives and society, and a reasonable dose of dreams. People seem to be creatures of dreams to a large extent, and there is no contradiction between being creatures of dreams and being situated in socio-political reality as embodied creatures. The trick is to create dreams that have intellectual conviction as well as pragmatic possibility.

The need for capabilities to teach is obvious enough. But these capabilities have to be rooted in what one wants a child to achieve through education, an understanding of the child, and the society in which both the child and the teacher live. This demands a serious theoretical understanding of the same, boring and age-old questions: Why teach? What to teach? And, how to teach?

Practical skills

None of our TE programmes has ever seriously tried to achieve a clear and convincing enough understanding of what one tries to achieve through education. It always has been a rhetoric of larger aims and working for myopically understood parental and market aspirations. This confusion has made education non-serious to both — a case of na khuda hi mila na wisaal-e sanam. We are prone to see the failure of TE in the lack of practical skills. However, a deeper analysis is likely to show that the failure is primarily theoretical. Practical skills, however well taught, usually do not answer the question “why” and, therefore, do not generate conviction and commitment — essential ingredients in good teaching. There is a reasonable unexplored possibility that adequate understanding of and conviction in the “why” along with guidance in teaching skills may produce a variety of viable methods. Therefore, the issue is not where to start from — is it theory or from practice? It is to traverse the whole continuum whatever one’s chosen starting point is. If one starts at theory, then it is about bringing it right down to the classroom level and in terms of actual skills; if starting with classroom work, it is about taking it to issues of serious theoretical understanding. A half-finished or half-hearted job, irrespective of the starting point, will remain unsuccessful. A display of bias in any direction will also be counterproductive.

In concrete terms, a teacher has to have a range of capabilities. A tentative first listing could look like this: capability to teach all school subjects at the primary level and at the least, one at the upper primary level. This will involve practical activities, the use of materials, and connecting with children. It will also demand an understanding of the subject in terms of its content, epistemology and rationale in the curriculum; adequate understanding of the curriculum and its rationale. It will necessarily involve understanding the aims of education, the need for education in an individual’s life and in social life; a convincing dream of a desirable society and living a satisfactory life. And situating oneself and the child in this dream; self-confidence and a conviction to work in an either indifferent or adversarial education system; a professional conviction that one can find ways for personal growth and development as a teacher, and a capability to generate episodes of reasonable success in order to keep that hope alive.

What kind of curricular content and institutional experiences will develop these qualities is what will have to be worked out seriously, with care and in detail. It seems that without these capabilities, teacher education is unlikely to have any effect on the system. We also have to discard the rhetoric of “change agents” and replace it with an unglamorous idea of doing one’s job adequately to one’s personal and social satisfaction, and as a plain and simple worker.

(Rohit Dhankar is with the Azim Premji University, Bangalore, and is honorary secretary, Digantar, Jaipur.)

Who Should Worry About Pakistan’s School Carnage?

By Malik Siraj Akbar
December 26, 2014

Is the tragic Peshawar massacre a symptom of Pakistan’s continued tolerance of the Taliban? 

Pakistan has a unique relationship with terrorism: It is safe ground for terrorist training and offensives, it is a regular victim of terrorism, and, at the same time, it is a state that is perceived as an apologist and a justifier of terrorism. Pakistan’s complicated struggle with jihadists is no clearer than now in the aftermath of the Taliban school massacre in Peshawar that killed more than 130 children.

It is not the right time, some may argue, to point fingers at the Pakistani army and intelligence agencies, which for years have had connections with and even supported the same jihadist elements that carried out the attack. After all, most of the children who were killed in the Peshawar attack by the Taliban were presumably from military families. Some would insist that tragedies like this one should convince the world that the Pakistani army is paying a heavy price for its engagement in an operation against the Taliban – a Taliban spokesman confirmed that the attack was meant to avenge an ongoing operation against them in the country’s tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.

The core problem with the army’s commitment to the fight against the Taliban is that not everyone in the ranks of the armed forces is fully convinced that this is Pakistan’s war. The soldiers are not fully motivated to fight this war because they believe that their bosses are killing “fellow Muslim brothers” on the instructions of the Americans, while the real decision-makers in the army and the intelligence agencies believe that absolute abandonment of the jihadist ideology may lead to catastrophic consequences for Pakistan’s long-term interests in Afghanistan and the disputed territory of Kashmir.

In other words, the Pakistani military strategists refuse to concede that they have lost control over the jihadists. Meanwhile, the architects of the pro-jihad policy suffer from an overconfidence syndrome and mistakenly believe that they are still fully capable of shutting down the jihadist franchise whenever they wish to do so. If that is true, then, according to the army’s standards, the Peshawar attack is not the worst that could happen.

Tragedies like the Peshawar school massacre need explanation but they do not get clear answers because their aftermath is heavily dominated by emotions. But a grand tragedy as big as the Peshawar carnage does provide the Pakistani government with a unique opportunity for self-reflection. Seen from past experience, such as the high profile shooting of the pro-education teenage campaigner Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban, the Pakistanis have missed opportunity after opportunity.

Not only are there too many distractions that always deflect attention from an earnest national debate about sincerely fighting the Taliban, there are powerful pressure groups, such as the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, a right-wing party led by former cricketer Imran Khan. People like Khan, an ardent supporter of Pakistan’s negotiations with the Taliban, are highly influential in confusing the Pakistani masses, especially young people, about whether the Taliban deserve political accommodation or whether they should be eliminated. Khan and his supporters might be correct that military operations cannot solely resolve the Taliban challenge. However, Khan’s rise has taken Pakistan’s Taliban challenge to a more advanced or possibly even irreversible level where, for the first time, the Taliban have strong political supporters and defendants in mainstream politics.

Pakistan Responds to the Peshawar School Massacre

By Mina Sohail
December 26, 2014

Intense public outrage is forcing the government to step up its fight against terrorism.

Mohammad Hilal, 16, lies motionless on his bed in the Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar. He is one of the survivors of the December 16 massacre at the Army Public School, which left 145 dead, including 132 children. Five young men give Hilal a firm handshake, placing flowers behind him on the windowsill.

“These men aren’t Hilal’s friends,” says Nahida Bibi, a nurse in the male Orthopaedics B ward. “Every day, people from nearby areas and cities come to meet these children and comfort their parents.” Bibi has been working at the hospital for less than two weeks, and already she has been exposed to what many now regard as Pakistan’s 9/11. “When Hilal came here, he had severe fever and would bleed a lot,” she says. “He still has shoulder and lower limb injuries but is recovering slowly.”

Hilal’s father, Mohammad Bilal, is a gardener at his son’s school. Locked inside a room with his colleagues until the commandos and Special Services Group (SSG) had overcome the seven terrorists inside the school building, he was told that no child had survived. “When the siege ended, I went straight to the military hospital and found my son bleeding,” he says, overcome with emotions of relief and bliss. “I will take my son back to school once it reopens and he recovers,” says Bilal. “If we don’t go, then it means we have lost.”

When the terrorists entered the school auditorium, more than 100 kids – mostly from grades 8, 9 and 10 – were taking part in a first aid training session. The seven gunmen entered the room shooting indiscriminately. Some of the children managed to stayed alive by pretending to be dead. Most were slaughtered.

Four days after the massacre, and the air is somber. While schools throughout the country remained closed for security reasons, the Army Public School is filled with dozens of children, who have donned their school uniforms and are strolling through classrooms, which now have craters in the walls. Most of the blood-splattered floors have been cleaned but bloodstains and shattered glass are still visible. Photographs of some of the victims, taken from their Facebook pages or provided by relatives, are placed on wreathes and posters that adorn a large portion of the school grounds.

The eerie silence in the school is in sharp contrast to the clamor in the rest of the country. In Islamabad, protests have been held outside the Red Mosque, whose chief cleric, Abdul Aziz, has refused to condemn the killings. Hundreds of protestors have shouted anti-Taliban slogans, holding placards of “Arrest Abdul Aziz.” The cleric’s obstinacy led marchers to lodge a police complaint (known in Pakistan as a First Information Report) against him on the second day of the protests.

CNN Interview: Husain Haqqani on the Pakistani Taliban School Attack

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I’m Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Washington.

Let’s get back to our top story, slaughter in Pakistan. After one of Pakistan’s bloodiest days, there are defiant pledges to strike back against terrorism. But we must remember, this is a country that has been gripped by an insurgency now for more than a decade. The Pakistan Taliban, other terror groups, they’ve killed tens of thousands since Pakistan joined the United States in the war on terror.

We’re joined now by the former Pakistan ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani. He’s also the director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute here in Washington, a think tank.

Ambassador, thanks for coming in.

Who are these terrorists, these savages that can go into a school and say, if you’re below puberty, you’re not going to die, but if you’re 13, 14, 15, you’re dead? Why would these people do that to young school kids?

HUSAIN HAQQANI, FORMER PAKISTAN AMBASSADOR TO THEU.S.: Wolf, we’ve already seen Boko Haram in Nigeria which does the same thing. They’re all chips off the same block. They all believe in just wanting to overrun the countries where they are trying to wage wars and they want basically no one to learn anything that is modern. And they want their own way of life as they see it to be imposed on everyone by force. So they are savages. The issue is, how do we deal with it? And —

BLITZER: How? What’s the answer?

HAQQANI: And what we need essentially is that there is a lot of sadness today and there’s a lot of outrage in my country, Pakistan. And I share it. But we need to transform it into resolve. Pakistan has seen these attacks for many, many years. We’ve lost at least 20,000 civilians and more than 6,000, 7,000 soldiers fighting the menace. But unless and until we decide that all terrorists need to be eliminated and that their ideology needs to be delegitimized instead of saying they have some legitimate grievances against the West, basically no grievance actually allows something like what happened in Peshawar.

BLITZER: They don’t want any education, certainly not for girls, right?HAQQANI: They don’t want education for girls. They don’t want

Where Does Pakistan Go From Here?

By Hamza Mannan
December 24, 2014

Has the barbarity of December 16 finally changed the way Pakistan’s politicians view security?

In the same breath with which we applaud Malala Yusufzai for her Nobel Peace Prize, we mourn and grieve the loss of at least another 148 students and teachers, most of them children, working to fulfill her vision. Such is the enigma of Pakistan.

At a press conference marking the completion of the operation against the terrorists in the Army Public School in Peshawar, Inter-Services Public Relations Director General Asim Bajwa said this was the “Blackest Day” in Pakistan’s history. Each year in Pakistan dates on the calendar are darkened, some a shade darker than others. None quite as dark as December 16: The Express Tribunethe morning after led with the headline “Our Darkest Hour,” TV-stations blackened their logos, and in a show of solidarity people on social media changed their display pictures to a black screen.

After a period of introspection and mourning, Pakistan will have to answer a tough question: Where does it go from here?

Perhaps this attack will help forge a certain unity. A coherence around a national narrative against terrorism has hardly been the focus of the country. Shuja Nawaz of the Atlantic Center believes that Pakistan is nearing a “watershed moment” and that an attack such as this one will compel Pakistan’s vibrant civil society and middle class to end the distinction between the various shades of militant groups. There are no two ways about terrorism. Political parties such as the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) and the Jamaat-i-Islami, which have in the past argued against military operations, will find it harder to make that same argument. At the expense of many lives, Pakistanis may finally unite against a common enemy. Steps to this effect are being taken. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif convened a multi-party conference to renew dialogue on security policy, and PTI assembled a parliamentary committee meeting to address the very same issue. Sharif also stated that there “will be no differentiation between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ Taliban and [we] have resolved to continue the war against terrorism until the last terrorist is eliminated.” Other important players such as Imran Khan, leader of the PTI, added: “Today, we all agreed that a national plan to eliminate terrorism should be prepared.”

The logic guiding the Taliban’s attack on the Army school was twofold: to inflict the same pain on the children of the Armymen that the families of the militants felt and to signal to the Army that despite a reduction in attacks and civilian casualties, the terrorist network is still alive and well. In the short term, what is certain is the resolve of the Army (and now perhaps the country) in continuing the operation in Waziristan. The day following the attack, Sharif removed the six-year moratorium that had been set on the death penalty in cases involving terrorism. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan followed this decision by announcing plans to execute 500 convicted terrorists whose appeal had been denied. While strict accountability and oversight over this procedure will now be required, it did send a tough signal to the Pakistani Taliban and other militant outfits. Moreover, the Army has already launched retaliatory strikes, leading to the deaths of dozens of militants. Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif, who during his recent trip to Washington won praise from the Obama administration, also made a trip to Kabul on Wednesday to discuss intelligence sharing with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani. Soon thereafter, Afghanistan and Pakistan launched coordinated operations in the eastern Kunar province, where TTP leader Mullah Fazlullah is said to be hiding. These cooperative actions will help reduce uncertainty over each other’s intentions, a problem that has plagued Af-Pak relations for the greater part of the last decade.

Pakistan’s reaction to the Taliban’s child massacre is more than ‘vengeful bloodlust’

By Mina Sohail 
December 23 Follow @MinaSohail

Ending the ban on executions of terrorists in Pakistan was necessary.

Mina Sohail is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad. She is a graduate of the New York University.

Pakistani students chant slogans to condemn the Taliban’s attack on a military-run school in Peshawar, during a demonstration in Karachi. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan) 

A commando led me through the Pakistan school auditorium Saturday where terrorists had interrupted students’ lessons with an indiscriminate barrage of bullets four days earlier. The floor had been scrubbed clean of students’ blood, but craters still marked the walls like augmented bee holes in a plank. The officer, still visibly shaken, stared somberly at the spots where he had seen the splattered brains of children during the military’s counter attack. Seven Taliban gunmen slaughtered 148 people — 132 of them children — before they were stopped. 

Across the sprawling 21-acre campus, the victims’ youthful faces smiled from photos placed on memorial wreaths. Amidst the tributes to the children were handwritten messages promising retribution against Tehrik-e-Taliban, the group behind the massacre: “We will hang them,” “We will crush TTP,” “We will never forget you and make them pay.” 

Memorials for the victims of Pakistan’s deadliest terror attack lie outside of the Army Public School. (Mina Sohail) 

Two days after the school attack, Pakistan ended its six-year unofficial ban on the death penalty in terror cases. Six terrorists convicted on previous terrorism charges have been hanged, and it appears the government is planning to execute hundreds more. Pakistanis, enraged by the child massacre, have widely supported the hangings, but the international community has been critical of the sudden move. Amnesty International called Pakistan’s lifting of the death-penalty moratorium a “knee-jerk reaction that does not get at the heart of the problem.” Human Rights Watch said, “Pakistan’s government has chosen to indulge in vengeful blood-lust.” 

Campbell: The New Mission in Afghanistan

US Army Gen. John Campbell, commander, NATO’s International Security Assistance December 23, 2014 
The year 2014 proved to be a time of critical transition in Afghanistan. Defying Taliban intimidation, more than 7 million Afghans participated in two nation-wide elections to select a new president, marking the first peaceful, democratic transition of power in Afghanistan's history.

The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) demonstrated their professionalism and capability, fighting tenaciously against a determined enemy, and preventing the Taliban from achieving any of its stated objectives for 2014. As a result, the ANSF have earned the Afghan people's trust and admiration and are now the most respected institution in the country.

For the past 13 years, more than 50 countries have contributed to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. No coalition of this size in history has demonstrated more cohesion, resilience or effectiveness.

ABOUT THIS SERIES: Defense News asked 15 thought leaders in military, government, academia and industry -- from Europe to Asia to the US to the Middle East -- for their perspectives on their region and how they fit into world events. The result is a comprehensive collection of viewpoints that puts 2014 into context while forecasting the challenges -- and what must be done to meet them -- in 2015.(Photo: Staff) 

On Dec. 31 the International Security Assistance Force mission will end. We will then commence our new NATO mission, Resolute Support.

The ANSF have shown throughout the past two fighting seasons that they can win battles on their own. They now need our assistance to win the campaign and build the institutional capability to organize, train and equip their forces. Hence, we have shifted our focus from advising them on tactical operations to building the long-term sustainability in their corps and security ministries.

This represents both a significant physical and mental shift for us. Back in 2011, we had more than 140,000 troops distributed over 800 sites. On Jan. 1, we will have about 13,000 coalition troops at 25 bases.

Our brave sergeants and captains used to be our primary means of carrying the fight to the enemy; now it is our experienced advisers —senior officers, NCOs and civilians — who serve as our "primary weapons systems." These highly skilled individuals will work through essential functions such as budgeting, programming, sustainment and force generation to build the systems required to sustain a modern army and police force. This remains a daunting challenge, but one that we can and will overcome.

The China-Japan Détente Examined Through the Soviet Prism

By Miguel Oropeza De Cortéz-Caballero
December 26, 2014
Comparing current Sino-Japanese relations to the Soviet-U.S. thaw of the 1970s.

The enthusiasm, or lack thereof, which radiated from Chinese Premier Xi Xinping as he shook hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at last month’s APEC summit in Beijing was surely one of this year’s highlights of the annual meeting. Frostiness aside, it was an important moment that marked a turn in China-Japan relations that in recent years have been anything but warm. The reversal has been such that more and more the term détente, usually reserved to describe the U.S.-Soviet relations during the 1970s, has been used to describe the current state of relations between Beijing and Tokyo, including in a recent editorial in the New York Times written by Akio Takahara, Japanese Secretary General of the Japan-China Committee. What exactly does détente mean in the context of complex Sino-Japanese relations?

Although in the West the term may be synonymous with the thawing of icy relations between any two great powers, the understanding of détente in China goes further, retaining a distinctly Soviet framing. Despite the fact that Sovietology is seen as an increasingly irrelevant field of study in the West 25 years after the end of the Cold War, it remains popular amongst the Chinese leadership, who vividly remember the USSR and have developed what some call an obsession over studying what led to the demise of their former rival. As an example, one need not look further than a film produced last year in China about the fall of the Soviet Union, which had among its intended lessons to “correctly understand the lessons of history.” The Soviet specter being a haunting presence for Chinese policymakers has implications as Tokyo and Beijing retreat from brinksmanship.

David Holloway, the noted political scientist, recently commented that the Soviet challenge to Washington is one of the primary comparison points used in Beijing to assess the future of their relationship with the United States. For China, détente between the Soviet Union and the United States was less of a voluntary reduction of tensions between the two superpowers as it was a stalemate in which the Americans found themselves in a post-Vietnam reality that forced them to accommodate a USSR that was continuing to close the gap between itself and the West. Washington never abandoned its agenda of sidelining the Soviets, but rather put it on hold – resuming it when Soviet stagnation became the beginning of a slow decline and the stalemate was broken.

This interpretation of détente is relevant for the current China-Japan thaw. Xi and his inner circle may view last month’s shift not as stemming from the realities of economic interdependence and skillful diplomacy but from a Japanese realization that accommodations are needed for a rapidly growing China. Last month’s agreements are certainly broad enough that they can be interpreted as concessions, at least as far as the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute is concerned. Were this the case, the current period of détente represents something of a temporary truce rather than the groundwork for lasting cordiality. The continuing rise of China could then be accompanied with an abandonment of détente once Beijing has determined that it has sufficiently eclipsed Japan.

Why Christmas Is Huge in China

DEC 24 2014

A Western religious festival takes on Chinese characteristics.

A worker at a factory producing Christmas decorations in the Chinese city of Yiwu (Reuters/China Daily)

BEIJING—There’s a joke going around: “Santa Claus was descending into China from the sky. Due to the heavy smog, he fell to the ground, but no one dared help him up. While he was still lying in the snow, his bag was ransacked for presents, and his reindeer and sleigh taken away by the chengguan. Therefore, no Christmas this year.”

While some of the humor needs context—there are digs at China’s notorious bystander effect and much-despised urban-management officials, chengguan—the larger meaning is clear. Ironic jokes about Santa’s routine being disrupted with uniquely Chinese characteristics are a sure sign that, yes, they do know it’s Christmas time in communist China.

The Chinese Town That Turns Old Christmas Tree Lights Into Slippers Retailers lead the way here: An annual spending season that once focused on Chinese New Year in the winter is now bloated and elongated, stretching from the invented Singles' Day on November 11 through February, with Christmas as a kind of hump day. Even before December, shops, streets, and hotels begin filling with slightly off-kilter Yuletide scenes: performers in elf suits play traditional cymbals while a grinning plastic Santa Claus toots a saxophone outside his gingerbread cabin. Why the sax? Theorists point to everything from romantic associations with the avuncular Bill Clinton jamming on the instrument in the 1990s, to the smooth alto-sax muzak that is the preferred soundtrack of Santa’s typical dwelling, the shopping mall.

How China Classifies State Secrets

By Susan Finder
December 23, 2014

China’s new rules for classifying state secrets will do little to increase government transparency. 

Qu Shaoshen, who is famous in Guangzhou for exposing the private use of government vehicles, noticed a government car parked at the city’s Dong Shan Hotel. That prompted Qu to request the release of Guangzhou’s regulations on the use of government and Communist Party vehicles from Guangzhou’s Administration of Industry and Commerce (AIC) under China’s open government regulations (OGI Regulations). The Guangzhou AIC refused the release on the grounds that the regulations are classified as a state secret. The decision of the Guangzhou AIC was upheld this year by the Tianhe District People’s Court and by the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court on appeal.

Classification issues now regularly come before Chinese courts, often in open government information cases when individuals sue government agencies to release information, (and less often in criminal cases for leaking state secrets). Most classification challenges end the same way as Qu’s case did, even though the information involved appears not to threaten Chinese national security in any way. The Supreme People’s Court standards in OGI casesthat relate to state secrets are understood to limit a court to a superficial check of formalities. In criminal cases, the court is bound by state secrets determinations done by the National Administration for the Protection of State Secrets (State Secrecy Bureau) or its local counterpart.

Most Chinese academics take the view that judicial review standards in state secrets cases (whether OGI or criminal cases) inadequately protect human rights. Despite this, the classification standards issued in March 2014, which are not generally known to the world outside China, are intended to clarify procedures for state secrecy officials rather than to provide procedural protections to those seeking to challenge overly broad classification of state secrets.

What is new about these classification standards (the Interim Provisions on Management of State Secrets Classification, or simply the Classification Provisions), issued by the State Secrecy Bureau is that they provide definitions and procedures lacking in their framework legislation, the better-known 2010 State Secrets Law and 2014 State Secrets Law Implementing Regulations. The Classification Provisions define which “state organs” can classify information as a “state secret,” although they do not provide such guidance with respect to the classification authority of other “entities,” including institutions such as universities or state owned enterprises (SOEs). The Classification Provisions do not further specify the matters that may be classified, retaining maximum flexibility for the State Secrecy Bureau and its counterparts.

Jordan Warns Militants Against Harming Pilot

DEC. 25, 2014

Safi al-Kasasbeh, in keffiyeh, with well-wishers on Thursday. His son, First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, is being held by Islamic State fighters. 

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Jordan threatened the militants of the Islamic State on Thursday with “grave consequences” if they harmed a Jordanian pilot captured after his F-16 crashed in northern Syria.

The warning, issued by Jordan’s Parliament, came as members of the pilot’s family appealed to his captors to welcome him as a “guest” and to show him mercy as a fellow Muslim.

But no new information on the fate of the pilot, First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, has emerged since his jet went down on Wednesday and supporters of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, distributed photos online that showed him in his underwear and with a bloody mouth as bearded gunmen led him away.

His plane was the first to crash since an American-led coalition of countries, including the Arab nations of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, began bombing Islamic State targets this year in an attempt to weaken the group’s hold of territory in Syria and Iraq.

Lieutenant Kasasbeh is also the first military member of the coalition to be captured by the militants, raising the prospect that the group could use him for propaganda purposes or kill him for revenge.

The Evolution of ISIS

Key points in the terror group’s rapid growth and the slowing of its advance as it faces international airstrikes and local resistance. Video by Quynhanh Do on Publish DateDecember 13, 2014. Photo by Islamic State.

The Islamic State often distributes videos of its fighters executing captured Syrian and Iraqi soldiers and has beheaded two American and two British civilians in what it called revenge for their countries’ war against it.

The pilot’s capture has shocked Jordan, one of the United States’ closest Arab allies. Like all of the coalition’s member nations, Jordan has spoken generally about its participation in the campaign but has not elaborated on its role for fear of retribution by the Islamic State and to avoid provoking the jihadists’ domestic sympathizers.

It remains unclear whether the pilot’s aircraft had a mechanical failure or, as the Islamic State militants have claimed, was shot down with an antiaircraft missile. American military officials said Wednesday there was no indication a missile had felled the plane.

The Jordanian warning was issued by the lower house of Parliament, which said in a statement carried by the state-run Petra news agency that the Islamic State and its supporters would face “grave consequences if pilot First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh is harmed.”

The statement voiced continued support for Jordan’s role in the coalition and urged the government of King Abdullah II to “do its utmost to ensure a safe return of the pilot.”

The king met with the pilot’s family on Wednesday, and his wife, Queen Rania, posted on Instagram an image of a Jordanian flag in the shape of a fighter jet with the hashtag “We are all Moaz.”

ISIS Downs a Coalition Jet: What Does It Mean?

Possible problems within the Western-Arab coalition, for one. 

Jordanian Air Force F-16 Fighters (File photo)

Earlier this Christmas Eve, the Islamic State shot down and captured an F-16 pilot from the Royal Jordanian Air Force. (According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Islamic State, that is — the Pentagon is still saying there isn’t evidence the plane was shot down.)

Seizing the propaganda opportunity, the group then quickly posted photos of the capture on social media. Shortly thereafter, the group added screenshots of the pilot’s Facebook page and his personal details.

For both tactical and strategic reasons, this incident is significant.

First off, on the tactical side, it suggests the group has improved its ability to bring down advanced fighter aircraft. While technical issues or pilot error may have been involved here, Jordan’s Air Force is well equipped and well trained. Moreover, for months now, ISIS has possessed a number of Chinese FN-6 single-user-operated anti-air missile systems captured from other Syrian rebel groups. While these missiles are effective only below 13,000 feet, that doesn’t mean they’re useless. Lacking the target-identification technology of their U.S. counterparts, Arab coalition pilots often engage Islamic State forces from lower altitudes. In order to avoid innocent casualties, these pilots are taking greater risks for themselves.

This incident presents two immediate tactical challenges for the coalition.

First, it raises concerns that the coalition may lack a sufficient combat-search-and-rescue capability. When a pilot is downed, standard military procedure is for all other allied aircraft to fly close air support to protect the pilot until a rescue team can arrive. Without an array of forward operations bases in Syria or Iraq, however, rescue forces were likely hundreds of miles from the pilot and that kind of support was impossible. The coalition will now have to reassess its posture.

Second, with the risk to its pilots now publicly apparent, coalition commanders may order pilots to fly at higher altitudes. But while this will make another shootdown less likely, it will also allow the Islamic State to better hide its forces and increase the risks of civilian deaths.

ISIL’s brutal zeal foretells the certainty of its demise

December 24, 2014

ISIL fighters parade through the Syrian city of Raqqa (AP Photo/Raqqa Media Center)

Revolutions always destroy themselves, unless they settle into moderation and reform. This may be the best way to read the first-person account of the brutal rhythms of life in ISIL’s revolutionary so-called “Islamic state” by German author, former politician and judge Juergen Todenhoefer, who may be the first western non-believer to go in to – and come out of – territory controlled by the extremist group.

Mr Todenhoefer spent 10 days with ISIL, a perilous adventure for a visibly European man with no claims to have seen the light and converted to Islam. But it came about after seven months of Skype calls, which he initiated through a German jihadist. Carrying a permit from the “office of the caliphate” (some might call it Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s typing pool), which was meant to guarantee his safety and that of his son, Mr Todenhoefer entered ISIL’s world through Turkey. He spent half a day in Raqaa in Syria and six days in Mosul in Iraq, initially in the very hotel occupied by journalist James Foley, the first American to be beheaded by ISIL. Foley’s murder in August was filmed and posted by ISIL on social media to worldwide revulsion, followed by regular horror show episodes that comprised footage of the decapitation of five Westerners, two Lebanese army men and 18 Syrian soldiers and Kurds.

But the perpetrators of these crimes guaranteed Mr Todenhoefer safe passage. Unsurprisingly, as he has since told the world’s media from the safety of his home in Munich, he was worried that they might change their mind.

They didn’t and he has lived to tell the tale of the fanatical, self-righteous and violent campaign that ISIL imagines as a revolution. It is a dystopian story with frightening markers that foretell its demise.

Father pleads with ISIL to free Jordanian pilot

December 25, 2014 

The Jordanian pilot Maaz Al Kassesbeh was captured by ISIL after his plane crashed near the Syrian city of Raqqa on December 24, 2014. Jordan News Agency / EPA

AMMAN // The father of a Jordanian pilot captured by ISIL in Syria pleaded for his son’s release on Thursday, as Washington denied claims the miltants shot his jet out of the sky.

Maaz Al Kassasbeh, 26-year-old first lieutenant in the Jordanian air force, was captured by ISIL on Wednesday after his F-16 jet crashed while on a mission against the militants over northern Syria.

His father, Youssef, urged the militants “to host my son ... with generous hospitality”.

“I ask God that their hearts are gathered together with love, and that he is returned to his family, wife and mother,” he told reporters in the Jordanian capital, adding, “We are all Muslims.”

ISIL has so far said nothing about Lt Al Kassasbeh’s fate after gunmen from the group dragged him away following his crash.

An activist in Raqqa said ISIL militants were divided over the fate of the Lt Al Kassasbeh’s, with more extremist foreign fighters wanting him executed and others wanting him kept alive.

His capture – and the potential hostage situation – presents a nightmare scenario for Jordan, which vowed to continue its fight against the extremist group that has overrun large parts of Syria and Iraq and beheaded foreign captives and local rivals.

“The Jordanian government ... is making all efforts with several crisis cells to free [the pilot],” government daily Al Rai said in an editorial on Thursday.

“We are confident that our brave one will be released ... He has not been forgotten.”

Jordan, along with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, has joined the US-led coalition carrying out airstrikes in Syria against ISIL.