Monday, December 31, 2007

Isn't It Time Muslims Defended Islam?

If you're never heard of Takfiris you soon will for they're the Muslim equivalent of ninjas and they're about to really stir things up in Pakistan.

Like the legendary ninja, the Takfiri is an assassin, but one religiously motivated to slaughter fellow Muslims they judge apostate for failing to embrace Islam strictly as revealed by Muhammed and his companions. Anyone deviating from the path is considered no longer Muslim and, hence, an infidel deserving of assassination.

Asia Times Online warns that a Takfiri force is about to be unleashed in Pakistan:

On the one side are US-backed President Pervez Musharraf and political parties such as Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (now headed by her 19-year-old son Bilawal) and Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League.

Against them are al-Qaeda ideologues such as Egyptian scholar Sheikh Essa, who are determined to stamp their vision on the country and its neighbor, Afghanistan.

Prior to 2003, the entire al-Qaeda camp in the North Waziristan and South Waziristan tribal areas of Pakistan was convinced that its battle should be fought in Afghanistan against the foreign troops there, and not in Pakistan against its Muslim army.

That stance was changed by Sheikh Essa, who had taken up residence in the town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan, where his sermons raised armies of takfiris (those who consider all non-practicing Muslims to be infidels). He was convinced that unless Pakistan became the Taliban's (and al-Qaeda's) strategic depth, the war in Afghanistan could not be won.

In a matter of a few years, his ideology has taken hold and all perceived American allies in Pakistan have become prime targets. Local adherents of the takfiri ideology, like Sadiq Noor and Abdul Khaliq, have grown strong and spread the word in North Waziristan. Former members of jihadi outfits such as Jaish-i-Mohammed, Laskhar-i-Toiba and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi have gathered in North Waziristan and declared Sheikh Essa their ideologue.

This is the beginning of the new world of takfiriat, reborn in North Waziristan many decades after having first emerged in Egypt in the late 1960s. On the advice of Sheikh Essa, militants have tried several times to assassinate Musharraf, launched attacks on the Pakistani military, and then declared Bhutto a target.

This nest of takfiris and their intrigues was on the radar of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the day after Bhutto's killing Sheikh Essa was targeted by CIA Predator drones in his home in North Waziristan. According to Asia Times Online contacts, he survived, but was seriously wounded. Sheikh Essa had only recently recovered from a stroke which had left him bedridden.

Someone has to smash this radical, fundamentalist threat. The West already has its hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan. Venturing into Pakistan could be a terrible debacle. Isn't it time the very nations next in line to be targetted by these extremists - countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt - finally took some responsibility for defending Islam and moderate Muslim states from the ravages of these Islamist Jihadis? It's not as though these countries don't already feel threatened by the Wahabis, they do. The capricious Sauds have been playing both sides of this street for so long that they're vulnerable to the very monster they themselves empowered. It's not only Pakistan's survival that's at stake, it's their own.

Taliban Getting Outside Help. Ya Think?

General Rick Hillier has let the cat out of the bag, the Taliban is getting outside help.

Hillier said the Afghan insurgents are getting help from other radical groups, including those fighting in Iraq. Roadside booby traps in Afghanistan, also known as improvised explosive devices or IEDs, are becoming more sophisticated and deadly, in part because of outside help.

"We do see some of the tactics, perhaps, that do come out of Iraq," he said. "It's hard to say exactly . . . but we are pretty confident that some of the tactics in use of IEDs . . . has come out of Iraq, without question."

Support goes beyond expertise in explosives.

"Do we see foreign fighters in Afghanistan? We do.

"We see Chechens . . . and we see Arabs and Egyptians, Arabs from a variety of nations. We see Algerians and Moroccans, not in big numbers, but we do see those folks there."

Hillier seems to have made no mention of the (rabidly radical Sunni) Taliban being fed improvised explosive devices by (fiercely fundamentalist Shiite) Iran. This allegation was made by Hillier's boss, DefMin Pmackay, in Kandahar on Christmas day. Curious omission, that.

The general said that our glorious success in Afghanistan could have a stabilizing effect across the entire region - even in placid Pakistan next door. Yeah, right.

It's not that I don't expect Hillier to be top cheerleader for the Afghan mission. He hatched the idea and then sold it to the pols after all. What I find troubling is that he utterly shies away from discussing the metrics of just how well we're doing.

How well are we doing in Afghanistan? Who knows? How does one tell? Just what does winning look like? What does losing look like? How many areas in Kandahar province are free from the prospect of Taliban infiltration or attack? Maybe that's not a good measure. How many towns and villages can resist Taliban intimidation? That's probably not a good one either. How much territory do we control this year compared to last year and the year before? Move along, nothing to see here.

I guess we could use body counts, or at least we could if we had any reliable means to differentiate the civilians we kill from the insurgents we kill. Then again, body counts aren't much use if the enemy is able to readily replace his losses and keep recruiting and training new fighters as needed.

Hillier hasn't just lowered the bar, he's gotten rid of it entirely. The goal he initially set - way back when he talked our leaders into approving "the mission" - was to drive the Taliban out of Kandahar province. It was to kill a few dozen "scumbags." So just how has the general met his own stated objectives? Well, he's certainly killed a few dozen "scumbags" and a few dozen civilians to boot. But he's not driven the Taliban out of Kandahar. To the contrary, a few dozen have grown into many hundreds at least, possibly more, and they're not "out" of Kandahar but they are "throughout" Kandahar. The Taliban force has grown by leaps and bounds since we first arrived and yet we're still fielding the same minuscule battle group to fight them.

We've got some very important decisions to make this year including whether to extend "the mission" past its scheduled end in 2009. It's going to be a tough decision. Nobody in NATO wants in and yet no one wants to be the first to bail out either. The Dutch just extended their commitment to mid-2010 and I'm very suspicious that their incremental extension was taken in the hope that we would get out first so they didn't look quite so bad.

We've got important decisions to take and not much time to mull them over. Now, more than ever, we need some plain talk and clear direction from Rick Hillier. He either has to show us how to make this thing work, with clear and precise objectives, or he has to admit he hasn't got a clue about winning in Kandahar. I think he'll do everything he can to duck the tough questions that only he can address in hope that the whole thing can be blamed on feckless politicians.

Seven More Months of Bush, Yippee!

Here's something to celebrate tonight - the end of the Bush regime. Seven long years and counting, seven more months to go. Why so soon? Because Congress will recess for the 4th of July celebrations and that'll be it until the next president takes office. There'll probably be a few appropriations bills passed but there won't be any real legislative initiatives churned through Congress, the books will be closed on them if they aren't already.

Bush is going to try to push some muddled, Middle East agenda, but those who matter in that region are already waiting to see who will be the next occupant of the Oval Office. That's the person who matters to them now, not George w. Bush.

Then there are the wars. Afghanistan and Iraq remain in tatters and now Pakistan looms large as the next hot spot (and we thought it was going to be Iran - how silly). I expect Bush will opt for the security of military rule while making all the appropriate noises about democracy and civilian rule in Islamabad. When the going gets tough the Bushies look for tough guys, not democracy activists.

All things considered, I suspect the Frat Boy president will be glad to see the day where he can vacate the premises and leave his successor the job of cleaning up his neo-con, foreign policy incontinence.

If there's one legislative battle of interest, it may be Bush's initiative to make his tax cuts, scheduled to lapse in 2010, permanent.

So, raise a glass tonight to a better future - for Washington and the world - and don't forget that this year we can also celebrate the 4th of July!

Mexican Army Disarms Cops - Again

This time it's El Rosarito's police force that's been disarmed after an attempt on the life of its police chief raised suspicions the force had been infiltrated by drug traffickers. From The Guardian:

The guns from the El Rosarito force will be tested to see if they were used in recent crimes, including an incident in which hooded gunmen walked through the local security chief's offices shooting out computers and telephones, and leaving one person dead. The officers will also undergo "trust tests" expected to include lie-detector sessions and drug screening.

The security chief and local mayor have been assigned personal security entourages of dozens of soldiers, while the army has taken over everyday patrolling duties in the town of 160,000 next to Tijuana.

"We recognise that the enemy is inside our house and for this reason we are purging our ranks," the head of the state police, Daniel de la Rosa, told reporters.

The newspaper El Universal has put the total of execution-style murders for 2007 at 2,673, 20% more than 2006.

Galbraith Writes Off Pakistan

Peter Galbraith, writing in The Guardian, doubts that Pakistani democracy will survive the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

Galbraith who has vast experience of the region as a former Senate Foreign Relations committee staffer and US diplomat believes that the Pakistani military will prevail instead.

"For all its flaws, the PPP is Pakistan's only true national institution. As well as overwhelming support in the Bhutto family's home province of Sindh, it has substantial support in Punjab and North-West Frontier Province. Like many south Asian political parties, it is a family affair, but it has an enduring platform: opposition to military rule.

Pakistan's army has long defined itself as the guardian of the nation, and successive generals have used this role as their excuse to seize and hold power. But the army is not a national institution. Historically, the Punjab has produced 90% of the officer corps while the Sindh, with 25% of Pakistan's population, is essentially unrepresented. Sindhis tend to see army rule as equivalent to Punjabi rule. The Bhutto killing sparked widespread attacks on federal property in Sindh and could galvanise separatist sentiment in the province.

Benazir was an extraordinarily gifted politician. She was a brilliant strategist who focused not only on finding a way back to power for a third time but also on constructing a moderate coalition - including power-sharing with Pervez Musharraf - that could defeat extremism, make peace with India and thus create conditions that would get the army out of politics for good.

But the larger problem is the Pakistani military. Pakistan's ruling generals have an almost unbroken record of sacrificing the national interest for their personal interest. Musharraf is not as bloodthirsty as his predecessor Zia ul-Haq but is no less keen on power.
Since Musharraf has certainly read the handwriting on the wall and yet still intends to stay in power, there is not much foreign leaders can do, in effect, to encourage his departure. Many Pakistanis - and most Sindhis - believe Musharraf and the army had a role in the Bhutto killing, which took place in a garrison city. Musharraf cannot be trusted to conduct an impartial investigation of the murder of his top rival. He has sacked Pakistan's independent-minded judges and imprisoned its lawyers."

Galbraith contends the US and Britain should press for an independent, United Nations investigation of the assassination.

"The Bhutto killing is tearing Pakistan apart. A UN investigation can help calm passions, but only the permanent departure of the army from power can provide a hope - and it is only a hope - of saving the country."

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Safeguarding Privacy

Here's another reason why Canada is a great place to live. According to a survey by Privacy International, Canada remains a leading nation in protecting the privacy of its citizens.

From CanWest News Service:

"The 2007 rankings indicate an overall worsening of privacy protection across the world," says an overview of Privacy International's findings on the group's website.

The report describes "an increasing trend amongst governments to archive data on the geographic, communications and financial records of all their citizens and residents.

"This trend leads to the conclusion that all citizens, regardless of legal status, are under suspicion," the report states.

The countries that received the highest marks for protecting individual privacy in 2007 were Greece, Romania and Canada.

However the news wasn't all good for Canada.

Last year this country was described as having "significant protections and safeguards." The new ranking says Canada has "some safeguards but weakened protections."

The lowest ranking countries in the survey were Malaysia, Russia and China.

The United States, which has been criticized for its domestic surveillance as part of its war on terrorism, joined the United Kingdom on the list of nations described as "endemic surveillance societies" - the ranking's worst category.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Next Leader of Pakistan?

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto has plunged Pakistan into turmoil. Her Pakistan People's Party was always a one-woman band so there is no natural successor to step into her shoes. That leaves Sharif and Musharraf. Of the two, Mushie is probably the strongest but is he strong enough?

What happens if Pakistan falls to a leader the nation cannot adequately support? It may fall back on the time-honoured alternative - military rule. That would mean that Musharraf's own, freshly-minted army leader, Ashfaq Kiyani, could step into his boss's old spot.

Kiyani is not only a career soldier from Punjab but he was also his nation's spymaster as former head of the Interservice Intelligence Agency (ISI). It's widely believed that Musharraf chose Kiyani to take over as head of the armed forces primarily because of his loyalty to Mushie but now that loyalty may be severely tested.

Musharraf's power is waning and, in Pakistan, that's not a good thing when political power is always shared with military power. As Mushie declines, Kiyani's position is ascendant. Some analysts are now of the opinion that, if the unrest against Musharraf isn't quieted soon, the army may "invite" him to step aside so that Kiyani can assume total control.

It's also reported that Kiyani has strong links with Washington so he may been seen as the best option to put down unrest.

The High Price of Time Squandered, Opportunities Lost

Penny wise, pound foolish. An old English truism about how a person can be utterly focused on saving a few pence but be wholly blind to wasting pound upon pound.

Squandered. That may be a fitting epitaph for the West's hapless adventure in Afghanistan. Opportunities squandered, treasure squandered, lives squandered - all in the name of being penny wise.

We wandered into the very heartland of insurgencies whose backward people have driven out one powerful invader after another for centuries - a perfect record in fact - and we thought we could do it on the cheap with what amounts to barely more than a token force when measured against the enormity of the challenge.

Washington and its Foreign Legion sallied forth in the arrogant belief our inherent superiority would bend these peasants to our will. Six years later and our military leaders still boast that the insurgents cannot fight us "head to head." That's as irrelevant and foolish as saying the Taliban is doomed because it has no submarines.

Memo to Washington, Ottawa and Brussels - these guys didn't fight "head to head" when they drove out Alexander or the British army (twice) or the Soviet army. They don't fight to lose, they fight to win and they know what works where, judging by the idiotic statements that still issue from our side, we don't.

Six lost years.

We got it wrong from the outset, confusing pushing on an open door with great military victory. The Taliban and the Northern Alliance had fought each other to utter exhaustion before 9/11. They were reduced to trench warfare that largely consisted of lobbing a few tank shells at each other every day. All our vaunted Western firepower really was little more than the straw that broke the camel's back and sent the Taliban retreating to the hills. As military victories go, that's about as meagre as they come and yet we were in the mood for celebrating great victory over the villains of 9/11 so that's exactly what we did. And so it was entered into the history books.

And then we proceded to turn the country on its head and miraculously transform it into a wonderful, Western-style democracy. We held an election, ensuring that our guy won. Then we sent the Foreign Legion into the field in pitiful numbers to hold the fort.

Do you remember General Rick Hillier swaggering about and proclaiming how his 2,500 strong ground force was going to Kandahar province to "kill scumbags" whose numbers he assured us were a mere few dozen? It didn't matter that he had a mere one rifle for every 30 sq. kms. of turf he'd undertaken to defend because there were only a few dozen bad guys and they were already all but whipped, right? As the words spilled out of his mouth they all sounded so confident, so convincing.

Six years later.

How things have changed. The vermin we thought exterminated have multiplied, sharpened their teeth and nails, and returned to plague us.

Our "just add water and stir" approach to building Afghan democracy has achieved every result predictable including insinuation into senior levels of the government of warlords, drug lords and even some known to collaborate with the insurgency. Is it any surprise that a horde like this would produce a national police service that is utterly corrupt and predatory to the civilian population?

That government is the foundation for everything we seek to accomplish in Afghanistan, whether civilian or military. And yet we simply look the other way lest we have to confront the reality that this foundation is rotten and crumbling. But, then again, this is Afghanistan and, even if you turn your back to one failure you then turn your face toward another - whether it is the fields of opium poppies, police banditry or a population utterly vulnerable and compromised by a resurgent guerrilla campaign.

Now we have the neighbouring state, Pakistan, thrown into even greater upheaval by the assassination of Bhutto. It is this state, where we're also promoting an "add water and stir" democracy, that serves as a refuge, staging area and training ground for our own insurgency.

Six years on, we've squandered lives, we've squandered treasure but, most critically, we've squandered time we never could afford to waste. We have reached the bottom of our bag of tricks and have now produced what is gradually becoming a permanent culture shaped by medieval feudalism, crime, corruption and conflict. The longer it is allowed to persist the more entrenched it becomes and the fewer options remain to us to change it to our liking.

The northern warlords - once our supposed allies - see what's coming and are re-arming, fully intending to call home their ethnic segments of the Afghan army when the time comes. They've lost faith in Kabul and Karzai, in the US and NATO, and they have a strong sense of what's ahead. Washington and Brussels may tell us that the mission is a generational thing but find one group in Afghanistan willing to wait that long.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Stability, Then Democracy - Eventually, Maybe, Perhaps

Is Pakistan in any condition to attempt the leap into the uncertain arms of democracy? Despite the assassination of the one person most capable of attempting to bring her volatile country in that direction, the Musharraf government continues to be pressured to hold national elections scheduled in less than two weeks.


Pakistan's military will not tolerate weak and ineffective civilian rule which is about all that is possible in the country's current state of disarray. What can be gained from putting Pakistan through a repeat of the Zia and Musharraf coups?

Even Bhutto's own PPP party was so fragile that, without her, there is no obvious leader to take her place. It was a one-woman band. That leaves her former rival, Sharif, who has already declared his party will boycott the elections. That seems to leave the way clear for Musharraf's bunch to win and what conceivable credibility will invest them in these circumstances?

Even without the existential challenges from al-Qaeda and the Taliban and other, homegrown Jihadist and Islamist groups, civilian rule for Pakistan is a dubious prospect. One major reason is the pervasive influence of the Pakistani military, not only in the nation's politics but in its economy.

Not only does the military have huge sums invested in businesses and real estate, but less active military officers commonly work in the economic sector. Retired members of the military have many business advantages, especially when competing for government contracts.

The Pakistani military is also able to acquire private land and redistribute it for its own personnel, where military-owned construction and transportation companies monopolize service through preferential awarding of government grants.

In Pakistan there are over 90 military foundations providing a wide variety of goods and services. There are also undocumented ventures such as bakeries and gas stations, which are set up in communities where they are able to undercut local prices.

Additionally, the actual military possesses financial autonomy and capacity to redistribute resources. The Pakistani military possesses considerable financial autonomy and is able to use the principle of eminent domain-generally used in America during the creation of highways, or public buildings-to acquire public land and redistribute it to their personnel.

Currently, the Pakistani military receives 10 percent of newly available land. The military received three million acres in 11 provinces in the last few years - just over 3.5 billion American dollars worth of property. As a result, there is less land for peasants to farm.

Military officials in Pakistan will aggressively defend these types of actions, saying that their business ventures are more effective and successful than private ones, and that that they are trying to raise money to better care for their soldiers.

Establishing legitimate democracy in Pakistan will require wholesale reform of the country's military, prying away its economic clout. Until then the most that can be achieved at the ballot box is the creation of a weaker and ultimately secondary, civilian administration. A civilian government that rules only at the sufferance of an autonomous military is pretty much doomed from the start.

Israel Clears Israel Over Cluster Bomb Attacks, Quelle Surprise!

The Israeli military has notified the Israeli military that it has completely exonerated the Israeli military in its use of cluster bombs in Lebanon during its failed skirmish with Hezbollah in 2006.

Israel's military advocate-general, Brig-Gen Avihai Mendelblit found the, " majority of the cluster munitions were fired at open and uninhabited areas", but in some cases the military hit residential areas, responding to rocket attacks by Hezbollah. In Maroon a-Ras, the bombs were used to "allow the evacuation" of Israeli soldiers.

Amnon Vidan of Amnesty International in Israel said he was not surprised by the decision, noting that in such cases, rather than have the army investigate itself, it was better that an international investigation take place.

"The amount of cluster bombs used in civilian areas, as well as testimonies by soldiers about the use of the bombs, and Israel's refusal to hand over to the UN maps of the locations where it fired the bombs to help demining efforts," all point to different conclusions than those reached by the military, he said.

In August 2006, Jan Egeland, then the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, had harshly condemned Israel's use of cluster bombs, calling it "shocking and completely immoral."

"Ninety percent of the cluster bomb strikes occurred in the last 72 hours of the conflict, when we knew there would be a resolution," he said, adding that populated areas, such as homes and agricultural land were now covered with unexploded bomblets.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

China Likes "Intensity Based" Emissions Policy

China has released a policy paper that essentially tells the West to back off in its demands that the peoples' republic curb its carbon emissions. From the Washington Post:

"China [claims it] should not be forced to put a limit on greenhouse gas emissions at this stage of its economic development, as urged by environmental activists and some Western governments.

Even now, with an economy growing at more than 10 percent a year, the 1.3 billion Chinese use only half the world's per-capita energy-use average for hydroelectric power and only one-fifteenth of the per-capita average for oil and natural gas, it said.

"China is a developing country in the primary stage of industrialization, and with low accumulative emissions," the report added, referring to its long-term average.

China, which is the world's second-largest coal producer with 2.21 billion tons mined in 2006, will continue to use large amounts in the foreseeable future, the report said.

With reserves of 1,034.5 billion tons, or 13 percent of the world's known total in 2006, the country cannot afford to ignore this traditional energy source despite the pollution it produces. But at the same time, the report said, the government is gradually reducing the percentage of China's energy consumption that comes from coal."

What the Chinese appear to be saying is that they're going to continue to use billions of tons of coal each year but that, as their economy grows, the percentage (intensity) of coal use will decline. Neat, eh? Sounds like it could've been written by Sharper himself.

Why Karzai Expelled Euro Diplomats

In case you missed it, Afghan president Hamid Karzai has ordered diplomats representing the EU and UN to leave his country. The official line is that these two - Michael Semple, acting European Union mission head, and Mervyn Patterson, a senior UN official - were endangering Afghanistan security by negotiating with the Taliban.

Talking to the Taliban? Please. Who isn't talking to the Taliban? Leave it to The Guardian to put Karzai's motives into perspective:

On the face of it they have been threatened with deportation for talking to Taliban leaders in Musa Qala, the town retaken by British and Afghan troops just before Christmas. The suspicion is that they have actually become caught in a political battle, perhaps involving the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. Faced with the probable arrival of Paddy Ashdown as a UN envoy, the president may have wanted to show he retains sovereign authority by expelling officials from the bodies Lord Ashdown is supposed to oversee, the UN and the EU. The Afghan president is unlikely to have been shocked by the fact that the men were in contact with Taliban leaders, since he has done the same thing. Nor is Lord Ashdown opposed. Writing in the Guardian in July, he argued that "success is not measured in dead Taliban ... modern war is fought among the people ... the battle for public opinion is the crucial battle".

Indeed, the idea of an opposition force that can clearly be identified as the Taliban, and which should either be attacked or talked to, according to preference, is misguided. In a country fragmented along tribal, regional and religious lines, and with no history of central command, concepts such as government and insurgency are only partly helpful. British forces in Helmand province have been fighting Taliban soldiers, but the difference between them and local leaders is not always large.

The Taliban is at times as much a way of mind as it is a coordinated force, and to overcome it will need more than military might. It will require local negotiation and reassurance of just the kind the Secret Intelligence Service is said to have been carrying out."

Since I asked the question of who isn't talking to the Taliban, I suppose I should take a stab at answering it. I guess that would be our own Furious Leader, Little Stevie Harpo, and his trained chimp/waiter, Peter MacKay. The idea that the Taliban aren't going to be defeated in battle isn't one that passes through their wee minds. No, stay the course, for Sharper and PmacKay. Beats the hell out of having to come up with a workable solution, eh?
In a rare interview, Harper said he doesn't understand whether Canadians appreciate what is at stake in Afghanistan. "So I don't know whether Canadians do – or don't – understand. I think Canadians are deeply troubled by the casualties." What does he mean he doesn't know? This is the guy who spends vasty more on polling than any prime minister before him. Harper knows that Canadians are fed up with "the mission" and that he can take his full share of the credit for that. It's been his job, after all, to lead Canadians on this one, to persuade them to support this adventure. He's failed, completely, but - apparently lacking the ability to accept responsibility for his failure - and with no one else he can pin it on, he's reduced to saying he "doesn't know."

Bhutto Attacked, Possibly Assassinated

The New York Times, citing Pakistan's state news agency, reports that Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto has been killed.

The paper says Bhutto died in a gun and suicide bomb attack while attending a rally near Islamabad. She was taken to hospital where doctors tried to resuscitate her for 35-minutes before she was declared dead. The cause of death was given as shrapnel wounds.
The loss of Bhutto appears to leave Pervez Musharraf virtually unopposed in national elections set for next month.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Behind Karzai's Back

It looks as though Britain is having second thoughts about the viability of the Karzai government and its prospects for ever putting an end to the Taliban threat.

Afghanistan has just ordered two Westerners out, identified in the Sydney Morning Herald as "the acting European Union mission head, Michael Semple, of Ireland, and a senior UN official, Marvin Patterson, of Britain." An Afghan government source is said to have told the paper that the officials not only met with Taliban representatives but also gave them money.

Now word is out that British intelligence agents have also been dealing with the Taliban.

AGENTS from MI6 held secret talks with Taliban leaders despite a pledge by the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, that his country would not negotiate with terrorists.
Officers from the Secret Intelligence Service - MI6's official name - held discussions, or jirgas, with senior insurgents several times in the northern summer.

"The SIS officers were understood to have sought peace directly with the Taliban, with them coming across as some sort of armed militia," a source said. The British would also provide "mentoring" for the Taliban.

The disclosure came just two weeks after the Prime Minister told the House of Commons: "We will not enter into any negotiations with these people."

Meanwhile, Canadian defence minister Peter MacKay dished up turkey in Kandahar. Go get'em, Pete!

Peter MacKay Fingers Iran

Peter MacKay accuses Iran of giving weapons to the Taliban for use against NATO forces in Afghanistan.

MacKay, who is not known to suffer the burden of excessive credibility, failed to explain why Shiite Iran would be interested in helping a fundamentalist Sunni radical group in neighbouring Afghanistan. Nor did he provide any evidence of Iranian weaponry nor any credible military expert to verify his claim.

If MacKay is to be believed, however, it's curious that he didn't explain just what he's going to do about the threat to Canadian forces. Maybe he and Harpo ought to fly right into Tehran and tear a strip off the mullahs and ayatollahs who run Iran. Perhaps he ought to seal off the Iranian border. Surely he's got to do something. Or not.

A few months back I saw an interview with a Canadian army ordinance expert who lamented that there was such an abundance of discarded explosives and other materials littering Afghanistan that the only key part to build IEDs, or Improvised Explosive Devices, in short supply were the household batteries required to power the detonators. Those, he said, were being brought in quite easily from Pakistan.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Keeping the Brit Army in the Dark

A former employee of a British security contractor in Iraq says his company deliberately withheldfrom British officials information about the infiltration and corruption of the police services.

The company, ArmorGroup, was hired to train Iraqi police in the Basra area. One of its employees, turned whistle-blower, says the company told its employees not to pass on intelligence they acquired in their daily visits to the Iraqi police stations. Colin Williamson told British MPs about a source he cultivated within the Iraq police.

"This officer was a brilliant source of information in the Basra region. At one stage I was moved to a very dangerous place in the city called the Old State Building. This officer used to let me know in advance when there would be a mortar attack on the base. Each time he gave me prior warning I would go to a certain company commander, a major in the British army, and in turn warn him about it."

He added: 'I am convinced this man's information saved lives and yet our official line was not to tell the military about any intelligence we came across regarding the police and the militias. He was so well informed that on one occasion when he rang he said: 'You are about to be attacked at any moment' and before he could put down the phone the mortars came in."

...we were told not to report back any intelligence we picked up there, not to hand it over to the British military. Why? Because our bosses and probably, in turn, the FCO didn't want to expose how corrupt and infiltrated by the militia the police were."

The British Army has now turned the Basra region over to Iraqi security forces, the very outfits said to now be dominated by sectarian militias.

Maybe "Another Hole In The Head" Isn't Such a Bad Idea?

The Guardian reports a study of wounded Vietnam vets has found that certain types of head wounds appear to prevent soldiers from developing post traumatic stress disorder.

The unexpected side-effect emerged from a study of nearly 200 former US soldiers in Vietnam, which found that those who had suffered shrapnel injuries to specific regions of the brain did not go on to develop the psychiatric illness.

Jordan Grafman, a senior researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Maryland, and his team took brain scans of 193 veterans, all of whom had brain injuries from fragments of shrapnel, either from incoming shells or from explosive devices rigged up to booby traps.

They also scanned 52 war veterans who had been in combat but did not suffer any brain injuries.

"Some of our patients could remember events that were very traumatic, such as attacking villages and seeing comrades dying, but it didn't seem to affect them in the same way," said Grafman, whose study was published in Nature Neuroscience yesterday.

Following the brain scans the veterans were divided into two groups, depending on whether they had a history of PTSD or not. When they looked at the distribution of brain injuries among the two groups the doctors realised that troops with damage to one of two parts of the brain were extremely unlikely to have PTSD.

One of the brain regions involved was identified as the amygdala, an almond-sized bundle of neurons in the seat of the brain that is important for interpreting fear and anxiety.
The second region is known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or vmPFC, a larger structure found nearer the front of the brain, which is also thought to be involved in processing fear.

...none of the 50 men who suffered damage to the amygdala had ever experienced PTSD. Those who sustained a shrapnel wound to the vmPFC were also less likely to have PTSD, with 18% affected. In comparison, some 48% of those with no brain injuries and 40% of men with any other kind of brain injury had been diagnosed with PTSD.

The Light of Day Scorches Count Rudy

Republican presidential contender Rudy Giuliani has the nerve of a canal horse. He shot to an early lead among the Republican field, competing against the other candidates and - himself.

The more you know about Count Rudy, the less there is to like, much less admire. As the Republican race began, Giuliani had two advantages - the 9/11 terror attacks and the fact that most Repugs really knew very little about him. They admired him as "America's Mayor," the tough, little guy who could get'er done.

Now they're coming to learn that a lot of what they've been told about the little troll just isn't so and that there's also a lot to Rudy & Co. they haven't been told about. Niggly little things like why the New York firefighters sent into the doomed, World Trade Center towers on 9/11 didn't have functioning, two-way radios that could have warned them to get out in time.

Here's how Rudy stumbled when he tried to dodge the controversy on This Week with George Stephanopolous:

STEPHANOPOULOS: They make two main charges. Number one, that those firefighters in the north tower, many of them lost their lives because their radios didn't work. They also say you ended the recovery efforts too soon.
GIULIANI: Well, the radios that you're talking about weren't put online for three, four, five years after. So, it would have been impossible for me to have those radios ready. It took the city two or three more years...

STEPHANOPOULOS: But they had malfunctioned in 1993.

GIULIANI: But even with the new equipment, it took another two or three years for those radios to be put online. So it would have been impossible for us to have gotten them online before that, given the fact that it took so long afterwards.

Typical Rudy, just ignore the facts. The firefighters' radios didn't work in 1993. Even if it had taken "another two or three years for those radios to be put online" as Giliani stammered in response, why the department would have had them in 1996, 1997 at the latest, and the tragedy didn't happen until when? That would be 2001.

So there must be some other answer, right? There is but you won't get it from the lips of Count Rudy.

The High Cost of Tax Cuts

What if you called the fire department and only one guy showed up? A fire truck with one firefighter and that's it. Ridiculous, never happen, right?

That is happening in cash-strapped towns in Massacheusetts. From the Boston Globe:

At a fatal fire in Gloucester earlier this month, a single ladder operator drove to the blaze alone - a situation that officials there say is common. In the financially troubled town of Randolph, firefighters have been forced to ride alone as well, said Captain Jim Hurley.

And firefighters in other communities say they routinely roll to fires with as few as two people onboard ladder trucks or fire engines, leaving one to go into the burning home alone while the other mans the water pumps outside.

The combination of municipal employee healthcare costs, pension costs, and rising utility rates, as well as voters' reluctance to approve property tax increases through Proposition 2½ overrides, means that Massachusetts communities have had little choice but to make cuts to services, including fire protection.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Karoshi - Death by Overwork

It's a phenonmenon that's typically Japanese - death by working.

The official stats show that the average Japanese worker puts in 1,780 hours per year, just under the 1,800 logged by American workers. What doesn't enter into these calculations, however, are the hundreds of hours of "free overtime" expected to a lot of Japanese workers. From The Economist:

" in three men aged 30 to 40 works over 60 hours a week. Half say they get no overtime. Factory workers arrive early and stay late, without pay. Training at weekends may be uncompensated.

During the past 20 years of economic doldrums, many companies have replaced full-time workers with part-time ones. Regular staff who remain benefit from lifetime employment but feel obliged to work extra hours lest their positions be made temporary.

The survivors of Karochi victims are now going to court. When they succeed they can recover upwards of $1-million from the employer and a $20,000 annual payment from the Japanese government.

"...a recent court ruling has put companies under pressure to change their ways. On November 30th the Nagoya District Court accepted Hiroko Uchino's claim that her husband, Kenichi, a third-generation Toyota employee, was a victim of karoshi when he died in 2002 at the age of 30. He collapsed at 4am at work, having put in more than 80 hours of overtime each month for six months before his death. “The moment when I am happiest is when I can sleep,” Mr Uchino told his wife the week of his death. He left two children, aged one and three.

As a manager of quality control, Mr Uchino was constantly training workers, attending meetings and writing reports when not on the production line. Toyota treated almost all that time as voluntary and unpaid. So did the Toyota Labour Standards Inspection Office, part of the labour ministry. But the court ruled that the long hours were an integral part of his job. On December 14th the government decided not to appeal against the verdict.

The ruling is important because it may increase the pressure on companies to treat “free overtime” (work that an employee is obliged to perform but not paid for) as paid work. That would send shockwaves through corporate Japan, where long, long hours are the norm.

Blair's Not Alone

Henry VIII must be rolling in his crypt. A story in the Sydney Morning Herald reports that Roman Catholics have reclaimed their spot as the dominant faith in England.

CATHOLICS have overtaken Anglicans as Britain's most dominant religious group, reflecting great waves of migration from Catholic countries.

More people are now attending Mass every Sunday than are worshipping with the Church of England, confirming that the established church has lost its spot as the most popular Christian denomination after more than four centuries of unrivalled influence following the Reformation.

Leading figures warned on Saturday that the Church of England faced becoming a minority faith and that the findings should act as a wake-up call.

Hoover Wanted to Arrest 12,000

The International Herald Tribune reports on a newly released document showing that FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover hatched a plan in 1950 at the outbreak of the Korean War to suspend Habeas Corpus and lock up 12,000 people he considered "disloyal."

Hoover sent his plan to the White House on July 7, 1950, 12 days after the Korean War began. It envisioned putting suspect Americans in military prisons.

Hoover wanted President Harry Truman to proclaim the mass arrests necessary to "protect the country against treason, espionage and sabotage." The FBI would "apprehend all individuals potentially dangerous" to national security, Hoover's proposal said. The arrests would be carried out under "a master warrant attached to a list of names" provided by the bureau.

The names were part of an index that Hoover had been compiling for years. "The index now contains approximately twelve thousand individuals, of which approximately ninety-seven percent are citizens of the United States," he wrote. "In order to make effective these apprehensions, the proclamation suspends the Writ of Habeas Corpus."

In September 1950, Congress passed and Truman signed a law authorizing the detention of "dangerous radicals" if the president declared a national emergency. But no known evidence suggests any president approved Hoover's proposal.

Top US Quotes of 2007

The Boston Globe has an interesting piece on the Top 10 Quotes of 2007. Here are a few of the paper's picks:

"(I have) a wide stance when going to the bathroom." - Idaho Senator Larry Craig

"I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because some people out there in our nation don't have maps and I believe that our education like such as in South Africa and Iraq and everywhere like such as and I believe that they should our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S. or should help South Africa and should help Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future for our children." - Miss Teen USA contestant Lauren Upton of South Carolina .

"That's some nappy-headed hos there." - Morning radio host Don Imus

"There's only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun and a verb and 9/11." - Delaware Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Joseph Biden on Republican Rudy Giuliani

""I'm not going to get into a name-calling match with somebody who has a 9 percent approval rating." - Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, delivered this zinger while talking about Republican Vice President Dick Cheney

"I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history." - Former president Jimmy Carter

Tony Blair Converts

No big deal, really. Tony Blair has switched sides from Anglican to Roman Catholic. The missus and kids are all RC anyway so Tony was just joining the flock. However the former Brit p.m. was so thrilled with his conversion that he went to the Middle East and took a picture of himself standing in front of his handiwork.

Canada's Misfit of The Year

For reminding us just how greasy Conservative leadership gets (and why we threw his party into the sewer). Canada's Misfit of the Year - Lyin' Brian Mulroney

For showing us that new Conservatives can be just as arrogant as the old bunch. First runner-up, our very own Furious Leader, the Smugmeister himself, Little Stevie Harper.

For showing us that honesty, integrity and mental stability are optional in a Conservative cabinet - Second Runner Up - EnviroMin, Mad Dog the Bali Buster, John Baird

For showing Canadians that the Conservative party is so lacking in talent that a guy who looks (and acts) like this guy can get into Cabinet, Third Runner Up - Tony Clement.

Ferdinand's Puppies Together Again

Ferdinand Porsche, that'll be Herr Doktor Porsche to the likes of you, left a rich legacy known worldwide today in the names Porsche and Volkswagen. Now his namesake company is poised to acquire a controlling interest in its much larger, lower-end sibling.

The automotive pioneer's grandson, Wolfgang, heads Porsche and soon hopes to head Volkswagen. VW, by the way, is 14-times as big as Porsche so the takeover is a Herculean chore. Wolfgang told the New York Times that uniting the companies is essential to keep VW from falling into the wrong hands:

“My father and my grandfather would have been very pleased to see this, but that wasn’t the reason we did it,” Mr. Porsche said at Porsche’s headquarters in a rare interview. “It’s a nice side effect.”

Porsche, he said, needed to bring Volkswagen into the fold to ensure that others do not get their hands on it. The two carmakers already collaborate in building sport utility vehicles and in developing hybrid engines. Porsche plans to use a Volkswagen assembly plant to stamp out the body of its eagerly awaited four-door sedan, the Panamera, due in 2009.

The takeover, which was the brainchild of Porsche’s chief executive, Wendelin Wiedeking, is intended to lock in that partnership. By acting when it did, Porsche headed off private equity investors, which it says were circling Volkswagen in 2005.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Paranoia Politics

Americans have come to hate and distrust their government as perhaps never before in their nation's history. From AlterNet:

"Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University released a little-noticed study showing that one-third of Americans now "believe in a broad smorgasbord of conspiracy theories" revolving around government complicity in everything from the 9/11 attacks to the Kennedy assassination. The same survey last year found that "anger against the federal government is at record levels."

...the feelings are not motivated merely by a fear of the next bogeyman around the corner. The sentiments are symptoms of a deep crisis of confidence in our public institutions -- a crisis that is a predictable reaction to a government that now all but admits it breaks laws, hides information and disregards the public.

We have seen troops sent to war based on manipulated intelligence. We have discovered phones wiretapped without warrants. Just last week, we found out the CIA destroyed tapes of potentially illegal torture sessions. So many scandals now plague the government, it is hard to remember them all. And they have all happened with almost no consequences for the perpetrators.

Industries essentially bribe politicians with campaign contributions. Government employees regularly move into six-figure jobs lobbying for the industries they once regulated. Presidential candidates of both parties take time off from their small-town stump speeches about the middle class to hold big corporate fundraisers in New York penthouses and D.C. law firms. All of it is legal and treated as ho-hum by the media.

When [media] lobbyists recently pushed the government to relax ownership regulations and allow for further media consolidation, FCC chairman Kevin Martin provided just one week's notice for a required public hearing on the issue. Officially, the FCC held the hearing to consider public input about the proposed rule change. But Martin later told Congress that before the hearing ever happened he was already putting the finishing touches on his New York Times op-ed formally endorsing the media consolidation plan. And surprise! This week, the FCC officially ratified Martin's deregulation scheme, making it the law of the land.
Like so much of our government's behavior these days, it was kabuki theater at its most obscene -- an obscure yet powerful agency getting caught leaking profit-making secrets to lobbyists, and then telling the public its hearings are all a put-on, taking place well after the corrupt deals have already been cut."

This is possibly George w. Bush's greatest accomplishment, completing the corporatization of his nation's government. Halliburton has taken over much of the military's role on a massive-profit basis, routinely fleeces the government on its billings and then shelters all that revenue in offshore tax havens. Defence spending has returned to the levels of the height of the Cold War with no rival superpower worthy of the name. Tax dollars are pumped, by the truckload, into shoring up mortgages for predatory lenders who would otherwise have to bear the losses of their greed even as those tax dollars come increasingly from the working class whose children will also pay for the deficits now racked up year after year by a tax cut and spend like mad government.

Bush may be America's Battista. No wonder he's so admired by our own Furious Leader, Stevie Harper. No wonder Stevie is such an adherent to paranoia politics.

Republicans talk of "class war" as some despicable tactic exploited by politicians seeking to enrage the masses, the great unwashed. Some day, rank-and-file, average Americans may wake up and realize they've been on the receiving war of a very real, very powerful and very destructive class war that their alleged president has been waging against them, almost from the first day he took office.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Bite This, Steve

You can tell a lot about a politician by how it approaches the topic of global warming.

For the purposes of this discussion we'll leave out the deniers. They're going the way of the dinosaurs, at least the honest ones are. Most of the rest have slithered over into the "we get it camp", sort of.

The other two groups are the leaders, Group A, and the fearmongers, Group B.

The leaders are those who do what legitimate politicians are supposed to do - lead. They're the sort who come to the fore in tough times such as depressions or wars. They rally the people, rationally explain the problem, what must be done about it and why remedial action is necessary, worthwhile, even desirable. In a word, they're "leaders." They generate awareness and consent. That's Group A.

Then there's the other kind, Group B. This is the bait and switch type of lowlife. In the face of challenges they begin with denial and, as that option closes, invoke the next option, delay. To buy as much time as possible to do nothing, they pull out their tried and true weapon - fear.

This is the face of our very own Furious Leader, Stephen Harper. Have a Merry Christmas, he says, warning that, come the New Year, we'll all be wearing sackcloth and ashes as the government is forced to choke the very joy of life out of us in order to reduce industrial carbon emissions.

Hey Stevo, the Europeans are way ahead of us on climate change and just how are they doing anyway? Have they reverted to living in mud huts and eating grass? No? Why not? Maybe it's because they're focusing on ways to deal with the carbon problem that actually minimize the economic and social consequences. Maybe because they've explained to their people the positive side to this. Maybe because they're not working to protect something as environmentally vile as the Tar Sands.

Now no one is saying the Euros are there yet but they're a long way further down the road than we are, sitting on our fence watching them fade into the distance.

So Steve, take your fearmongering and shove it. Either lead or quit. Better yet, just quit. We'll all be better off without you.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Today's Quiz

Okay kids, this one's for the lawn furniture. All of the guys pictured above are evil but one of them is also really dumb - as in dumb as a post. And the winner is?

Don't Go, Oh Please, Stay, Please?

George w. Bush went before the cameras today to say that he is (finally/temporarily - your choice) concerned about Afghanistan.

"My biggest concern is that people say, 'Well, we're kind of tired of Afghanistan and, therefore, we think we're going to leave,'" Bush said at the White House. "That would be my biggest concern."

Bush and, in a separate appearance Condi Rice, then proceeded to positively gush over the wonderful contributions being made, as Shrub put it, by "the Brits, the Canadians, the Dutch, the Danes and other countries."

Hey, wait a minute. The line about "...we're kind of tired of Afghanistan and, therefore, we think we're going to leave," doesn't that sound exactly like what Bush himself said in 2002 when he decided he'd rather go play quagmire in Iraq? The guy's like a trained chimp except, perhaps, without the diaper.

Republican Glad Tidings

Rudy Giuliani seems to have fallen from his perch in the belfry. A New York Times poll indicates Rudy or "The Mayor" as much of the American media now calls him, has plummeted from numbers in the low 30's down to Mitt Romney territory in the low 20's. The Rude Man is sick at the moment. His aides say it's a touch of the flu but I have it on reliable sources he got ill from drinking bad blood.

And the Mad Mormon Romney has been outed by the Daily Kos. For some time now Romney has been peddling the line how he's down with civil rights issues. He's reminded anyone within listening range how his daddy, George, marched with Martin Luther King.

In a speech he gave from the George (HW) Bush presidential library, entitled "Faith in America," Romney threw out this line:

" I saw my father march with Martin Luther King. "

And, later, on NBC's "Meet the Press," Romney let out this one:

"You can see what I believed and what my family believed by looking at our lives. My dad marched with Martin Luther King. My mom was a tireless crusader for civil rights."

Turns out that was plain old-fashioned, Mormon bullshit. Outed by David Bernstein of, Mitt's spinmeisters threw themselves into overdrive and claimed that George Romney and Martin Luther King did indeed march together in June. 1963 just not on the same day or in the same city.

Whew. That's like Romney saying his kids didn't go to Iraq but were serving America anyway by working on his campaign. This guy is almost as creepy as Count Rudy.

Another Pipeline, How Boring!

It's not the pipeline itself that's interesting but who owns it and who doesn't.

Russia has struck a deal with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan for a pipeline to carry natural gas from the Caspian Sea to Russia. The deal puts an end to a Western bid intended to route the pipeline under the Caspian so that it wouldn't have to go through Russia.

The pipeline agreement increases Europe's dependence upon Russia for natural gas supplies, leaving the EU more vulnerable to potentially having a significant part of its fuel supply cut off at Russia's whim. Russia has already shown its willingness to use its energy exports to political advantage with countries like the Ukraine.

Good Dope, Bad Dope - All In The Mind?

When you gaze at the symphony on stage you probably don't expect to be looking into the faces of a bunch of drug users but, guess again.

In the 60's, it was all psychodelic drugs aimed at "expanding consciousness." Today what are becoming in vogue are drugs to focus consciousness and, according to the LA Times, they becoming increasingly widespread among society's movers and shakers:

Despite the potential side effects, academics, classical musicians, corporate executives, students and even professional poker players have embraced the drugs to clarify their minds, improve their concentration or control their emotions.

"There isn't any question about it -- they made me a much better player," said Paul Phillips, 35, who credited the attention deficit drug Adderall and the narcolepsy pill Provigil with helping him earn more than $2.3 million as a poker player.

The medicine cabinet of so-called cognitive enhancers also includes Ritalin, commonly given to schoolchildren for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and beta blockers, such as the heart drug Inderal. Researchers have been investigating the drug Aricept, which is normally used to slow the decline of Alzheimer's patients.

They are all just precursors to the blockbuster drug that labs are racing to develop."Whatever company comes out with the first memory pill is going to put Viagra to shame," said University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe.

In the real world, there are no rules to prevent overachievers from using legally prescribed drugs to operate at peak mental performance. What patient wouldn't want their surgeon to be completely focused during a life-or-death procedure? "If there were drugs for investment bankers, journalists, teachers and scientists that made them more successful, they would use them too," said Charles E. Yesalis, a doping researcher and emeritus professor at Pennsylvania State University. "Why does anyone think this would be limited to an athlete?"

In the world of classical music, beta blockers such as Inderal have become nearly as commonplace as metronomes.

The drugs block adrenaline receptors in the heart and blood vessels, helping to control arrhythmias and high blood pressure. They also block adrenaline receptors in the brain. "You still have adrenaline flowing in your body, but you don't feel that adrenaline rush so you're not distracted by your own nervousness," said Dr. Bernd F. Remler, a neurologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

But cosmetic neurology, as some call it, has risks. Ritalin, Adderall and other ADHD drugs can cause headaches, insomnia and loss of appetite. Provigil can make users nervous or anxious and bring on headaches, while beta blockers can cause drowsiness, fatigue and wheezing.

In an article published today in the journal Nature, Morein-Zamir and University of Cambridge neuroscientist Barbara J. Sahakian say that clear guidelines are needed to decide what's fair. It may be reasonable to ban the drugs in competitive situations, such as taking the SAT. But in other cases, they wrote, people such as airport screeners, air-traffic controllers or combat soldiers might be encouraged to take them.

With a slew of memory enhancers in development, the issues are not academic.

Memory Pharmaceuticals of Montvale, N.J., for example, is eyeing drugs to combat those pesky "senior moments" that are considered a normal part of aging."If there were drugs that actually made you smarter, good Lord, I have no doubt that their use would become epidemic," Yesalis said. "Just think what it would do to anybody's career in about any area. There are not too many occupations where it's really good to be dumb."

One thing is obvious. If "cosmetic neurology" becomes accepted it will, in reality, become all but mandatory. It will reach the point where not to use the products brings sharp, and potentially career diminishing, consequences.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Dutch To Leave Afghanistan, July, 2010

The Dutch government has announced that it will pull the Netherland's 1,600 soldier contingent out of Afghanistan's Oruzgan province in July, 2010. The force has been in Oruzgan, alongside the Australian contingent, since 2006. Holland originally agreed to a 2-year committment but that was recently extended for a further two years.

It seems the Dutch are intent on leaving Afghanistan in 2010 regardless of whether NATO can find another nation to send troops to replace them. 12-Dutch soldiers have died while serving on this mission.

Some Fun For the Snowbound

On God and Spirituality

I just finished viewing a panel featuring Hitchens and Dawkins discussing why there is no God and what should be done to spread the word. Very interesting, intensely intellectual discussion.

In case you haven't noticed, their message is spreading. A lot of people are going down the path to hard atheism.

Since you asked, I'll tell you what I think. I don't know, I really don't.

Listening to the views expressed by these leading atheists I was struck by one fatal flaw that has plagued mankind since the beginning of civilization - the firm belief that we're at the centre of everything. It's a powerful urge, given that the religious and the atheists both lapse into it at every turn.

Remember when we had to believe that the planets, including our sun, rotated around the earth? We just had to be the centre of everything. Most of the monotheistic faiths have an idea of their God looking just like - why, me! Oh, c'mon Buddha sure does.

What if we're really way too dumb to get it? We don't expect humans in a vegetative state to be able to intellectualize very much. But what if, in the greater scheme of things, our greatest minds are just a tiny notch above that? What if we're all severely mentally challenged on some galactic scale and are just too damn dumb to know it?

We're still puzzling a lot of things out. Get into quantum physics and the string theory and some of the experts predict there are eleven dimensions, seven more than the mere four that we humans are capable of recognizing. If they're right, you inevitably have to ask what's behind Doors 5 through 11, eh?

We've learned so much over the past century and we're still just scratching the surface of the body of universal knowledge. So, my question is, what's the rush? Do we really have some, make that any legitimate need to resolve this God v. no god question now? Maybe we should just put it all on the back burner for another millennium or so until we get answers to all those questions that we're just now discovering that we didn't even know existed a decade ago and that aren't mentioned anywhere in anyone's holy book.

Now we've used religion as a crutch to try to deal with some of the great, unanswerable questions that have plagued man since he first looked up at the starry night sky. Maybe we were taking unfair advantage of religion, sort of like the dad who says "because" when the kid asks "why." But that would just be another typical human failure, not proof that there is no God.

Religion is curious. Everybody belongs to the right one and all the others are wrong. Look at Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We all share the same, Old Testament God, we just use different prophets to persecute the innocent. Neat trick, eh?

So I think that, for now, I'm going to remain firmly agnostic. But I'm always willing to change my vote just as soon as you can tell me where it all began, I mean really began, and what's behind those seven doors.

And a very merry Christmas to you all.

Canadian General Supports Afghan Detainee Transfers

Canada's army says it would have to pack up and go home if it had to stop handing over its detainees to Afghan prison authorities. What a load of utter nonsense!

From the Globe & Mail:

Listing a long series of possible embarrassments and defeats, Brigadier-General André Deschamps outlined what he says would be the dire consequences, including losing the war, should a Federal Court judge rule in favour of a request by human-rights groups to issue an injunction banning the transfer of detainees to Afghan prisons because of the risk of torture or abuse.

Gen. Deschamps sketches a variety scenarios. Taliban fighters might surrender in droves, he warns, if they knew Canada would release them because it could not either hold them or transfer them. "The insurgents could attack us with impunity knowing that if they fail to win an engagement they would simply have to surrender and wait for release to resume operations," he said in a sworn affidavit.

Gen. Deschamps, the chief of staff of Canada's Expeditionary Force Command that runs combat operations in Afghanistan, goes so far as to suggest the Taliban might win the war, at least in Kandahar, if the court were to grant the injunction.

Come on, Deschamps, get real. There's absolutely no reason NATO can't organize a compound for all ISAF detainees. Secretary general de Hoop Scheffer has a lot of alliance member countries that don't want to fight but could be cajoled into running a detention facility.

It's what we did in Korea. Back then we knew better than to hand over North Korean or Chinese prisoners to the South Koreans. Unless he's an idiot, this guy Deschamps knows there are several alternatives to handing detainees over to the Afghans. His over the top approach of "our way or Armageddon" reflects a deeply politicized armed forces.

Hey Steve, Pack a Lunch, Take Baird and Clement With You

It's Christmas, a notoriously bad time for the Grinch. Canadians have just handed our Furious Leader Stevie his lump of coal. The Globe & Mail reports that, after opening what appeared to be a real lead in the polls, Harper has once again let it tumble through his oily fingers.

"The Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey puts the Tories at 30-per-cent support, in a statistical tie with the Liberals, who are up four points to 32 per cent.
Support for the Tories dropped across all regions and demographic groups.

The striking shift comes in the wake of several controversies which may be taking a toll on the governing party:

• Former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney's admission that he accepted cash-stuffed envelopes from arms lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber.

• Heavy criticism of Canada's position at the climate-change summit in Bali.

• The political fallout from a critical shortage of medical isotopes due to the shutdown of the Chalk River nuclear reactor.

The telephone poll of just over 1,000 Canadians was conducted Thursday through Monday and has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points 19 times in 20."

Once again the Canadian public tells the CPC that Harpo and his ways are really, really creepy. The guy just doesn't get it. If they had a real leader, one whom Canadians could accept, they would have a majority government by now. That leader, however, would have to be a progressive conservative and stop trying to shove and kick our country out to the far right. Steve, only you and the other nutjobs live out there. Look, you blew $31-million on polling. You oughta know better.
Then again, if the Libs had a popular leader, we'd be in a majority now.

Afghanistan's Child Soldiers

Afghan boys are being pressed into service with the Afghan National Police, various militias and, of course, the Taliban.

A report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs states that these young boys routinely suffer physical and sexual abuse.

Abdul Qader Noorzai, head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in Kandahar Province said, "Children are used for different purposes. The majority of them experience sexual abuse, others do all kinds of jobs such as cooking, cleaning, day patrols and even fighting."

In Kandahar Province, Canada's bailiwick, it's estimated that some 200 boys under 18 are serving with the Afghan National Police and the police auxiliary.

Under-age males have also been seen working for private security companies, particularly in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, said a senior government official who insisted on anonymity.

"The auxiliary police and private security contractors widely use child soldiers while the government and the AIHRC do not have the capacity to monitor, investigate and stop them," the official said.

Afghan officials also accuse the Taliban and other anti-government elements of deliberately using children for various military and illegitimate purposes. The Taliban use boys as foot soldiers and force children to engage in violent acts, they say.

Over 7,500 child soldiers went through Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programmes between April 2003 and June 2006 under Afghanistan's post-Taliban peace building arrangements, according to the UN.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

It's Not Just China's Toys or Its Water or Its Air That's Poisonous

China may be poised to become the world's biggest economy but it's being hammered by environmental threats along the way. Combined, these threats may well be enough to derail China's economic miracle.

Well known by now are China's severe problems with water supply and quality, it's horribly polluted air, and all the problems detected in its exports. Now, according to Spiegel Online, word is getting out about China's poisonous food supply:

Chinese journalist Zhou Qing, a critic of the regime, unearthed political dynamite in his two-year investigation of China's food industry. He interviewed grocers, restaurant owners, farmers and food factory managers for an exposé for which he won a prize as part of the German "Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage" in 2006.

His book is a dark account of a ruthless food mafia that stops at nothing to maximize its profits, for example by using contraceptives to accelerate the growth of fish stocks, lengthening the shelf-life of cucumbers with highly toxic pesticide DDT, using hormones and poisoned salt in food production and putting absurd amounts of antibiotics in meat.

Zhou said uncontrolled greed had caused a food disaster of unimaginable proportions. "I can only warn you never to go in a restaurant." The danger of food producers being taken to task for their actions is slight. Everything disappears in China's endless bureaucracy, he said.

Zhou's claims may sound exaggerated, but they're borne out by recent developments. In early December the Shanghai city council slapped an export ban on products made by the Shanghai Mellin Food Company after cancer-causing substances were found in its pork products.
In July the former director of the state food and drug supervisory authority, Zheng Xiaoyu, was executed after being convicted of taking bribes to award licences for forged drugs, some of which had lethal side effects.

The children are the biggest sufferers, said Zhou. Poisoned baby food has led to severe diseases and physical deformities. Zhou writes that 200,000 to 400,000 people fall victim to poisoned food each year. A third of cancer cases, which are increasing at double-digit rates, can be attributed to food, he writes.

"Ordinary people don't know about it. If the people knew about it there would be a revolution. The wrath of the people would be unstoppable."

For thousands of years the power of China's rulers hinged on their ability to feed the people. "Revolutions aren't caused by political differences, they're caused by a lack of bread."