Posts Tagged ‘ Russia ’

Pakistan: US Participation a Must in Russia-initiated Afghan Talks

As Reported by Ayaz Gul for The Voice of America

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN —
Pakistan says that Russia-sponsored international talks on Afghanistan must involve the United States for bringing peace to the war-riven country, because Washington is the “biggest stakeholder” there.

Moscow plans to host this week (April 14) a new expanded round of multi-nation “consultations” it has recently launched with the stated goals of developing a “regional approach” for promoting Afghan security and a government-led national reconciliation with the Taliban.

But the U.S. administration has already refused to take part in the conference, questioning Russian intentions and motives.

Speaking to a local television station before the Moscow talks, the Pakistani prime minister’s foreign policy aide, Tariq Fatemi, stopped short of admitting the absence of Washington will not allow the multi-nation process to achieve its mission.

“They [U.S] have their troops present [in Afghanistan], they have invested one trillion dollars there, they are the biggest stakeholder, they have lost hundreds of their soldiers, so they have their interests there,” Fatemi explained.

While Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, China, India were represented in the last round of talks in Moscow earlier this year, former Soviet Central Asian states have been invited for the first time to attend the April 14 conference.

“We hope and desire that when any such peace initiative will enter into a next stage, America will have to be made part of it,” Fatemi told Aaj TV when asked whether the Russian-initiated process could bring peace to Afghanistan without Washington.

Pakistan believes Russia is “positively” using its influence with the Taliban to encourage them to join peace talks and Islamabad is supportive of any such efforts, Fatemi insisted.

“Russia has told us its major concerns are that if civil war conditions are there in Afghanistan, it can become a center for terrorist organizations like Islamic State, or Daesh, who will then try to infiltrate into bordering Central Asian states,” the Pakistani official explained.

The Taliban’s attacks on rival IS fighters in a bid to prevent them from establishing a foothold in the country apparently encouraged Russia to support the insurgent group. But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Sunday again warned Moscow against maintaining contacts with the Taliban.

“Anyone who thinks they can help themselves by helping the enemy of their enemy is mistaken. Anyone who thinks that they can differentiate between good and bad terrorism is mistaken,” Ghani said.

Speaking at a news conference in Kabul, Ghani acknowledged Russia is also threatened by terrorism and sympathized with victims of recent terrorist attack in that country.

“We have an intense dialogue with all our interlocutors because a stable Afghanistan is to everybody’s benefit and unstable Afghanistan hurts everyone,” Ghani said when asked whether Kabul plans to attend Moscow talks on Friday. He added he wants Afghanistan “as a center of cooperation” in all efforts aimed at stabilizing his country.

The Russian foreign ministry, while regretting Washington’s refusal to attend the coming talks, had also underscored the United States is an “important player” in settling the Afghan conflict.

“So [the United States] joining the peacekeeping efforts of the countries of the region would help to reinforce the message to the Afghan armed opposition regarding the need to stop armed resistance and to start talks,” it maintained.

Meanwhile, Fatemi said Pakistan has also stepped up diplomatic efforts to ease tensions with Afghanistan and is seeking implementation of a proposed mechanism the two sides agreed to in talks last months that were mediated by Britain.

The mechanism, he explained, would allow establishment of a “channel of communication at different levels” between Islamabad and Kabul to help remove “any misunderstanding” and deal with any terrorist incident on either side of their shared border.

“Talks [between the two countries] at the Army level and at different other levels are currently underway, and at a final stage, if needed, foreign ministers of the two countries will also engage in frequent meetings,” Fatemi said.

Afghanistan and Pakistan each deny allegations they harbor and support anti-state militants engaged in terrorist attacks on their respective soils. Tensions have lately risen because of Islamabad’s unilateral border security measures to prevent terrorist infiltration.

Kabul disputes portions of the 2,600-kilometer border between the two countries and is opposed to fencing them, saying it will further add to problems facing divided families.

Fathers and Sons and Chechnya

By Juan Cole for Informed Comment

dagestan

 

The anger and embarrassment visible in the interviews given on Friday by the uncle and the aunt of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon bombers, are entirely understandable.

But I see clues here to family dynamics that may be important in understanding what happened. In Ivan Turgenev’s 1862, novel, “Fathers and Sons,” the old man’s son, Arkady, comes back home after studies with a friend, Bazarov, after both had adopted the radical philosophy of Nihilism. Their radicalism roiled the family for a while, until Bazarov’s death. (Later, in 1881, Nihilists assassinated Tsar Alexander II).

The key back in 2013, I think, is Maret Tsarnaeva’s assertion that the father, Anzor, ‘worked in the enforcement agencies’ in Russian Chechnya. ‘We were,’ she said, ‘lucky to get him out of Kyrgyzstan alive,’ presumably because radical Muslims were trying to track him down and take revenge on him there. She also seems to imply that he was given asylum in the US easily, precisely because he had been an ‘enforcer’ in Grozny against the Muslim fundamentalist rebels, and so there was no doubt that his life was in danger from them.

It is possible that she is saying that Anzor Tsarnaev was a soldier or security policeman for the pro-Russian Chechnyan government of Akhmet Kadyrov, established in 1999 in the course of the Second Chechnya War against the Islamic Peacekeeping Army, which had invaded Daghestan.

The uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, said that the bombings had nothing to do with religion, that that charge is a fraud, he said, because he knew the family and the boys as children (i.e. he knew them to have been raised as secularists). Someone, he said, ‘radicalized them.’

Most ex-Soviet Muslims are secular and many don’t believe in God or think religion is important. Their families lived under a Communist regime for some 70 years, with its campaigns of official atheism and anti-religious indoctrination in schools. In the ex-Soviet Muslim-heritage republics, there are huge struggles between those happy in their secularism and those who are attempting to recover a Muslim identity. That struggle has played out in Chechnya as well as in Uzbekistan.

This is the transcript of Ruslan’s remarks

“I want to speak on behalf of Tsarnev. First, the only purpose here is just to deliver condolences and to share grief with the victims here. Those who were injured – this boy this Chinese girl, the young 29-year-old girl – I’ve been following this from day one.

I can never imagine that somehow the children of my brother would be associated with that so it is atrocity. I don’t know this family . I don’t know how to share that grief with the real victims.

They never lived here. The last time I saw them was December 2005.

I never knew they had any ill will towards United States. Being losers, hatred to those who were able to settle themselves – these are the only reasons I can imagine why they did this. Anything else, religion, is a fraud. I’ve seen thm when they were kids.

Somebody radicalized them but its not my brother who spent his life bringing bread to their table fixing cars. He didnt have time or chance, He’s been working.

My family has nothing to do with that family.

Of course we are ashamed! They are children of my family! Who had little influence of them. i just wanted my family to be away from them.

Again I say what I think was behind it . BEING LOSERS! not being able to settle themselves. That they were hating everyone who did.

They came early since 2003. They came to Cambridge when they moved to the States. They came to Cambridge. They immigrated. They received asylum. They LIVED there. My family had nothing to do with that family for a long time. Last time I spoke to them was 2009.

I say I teach my children. I respect this country I love this country. This country which gives chance to everyone else to be treated as a human being .
They never been in Checnya. They had nothing to do with Chechnya. They were not born there. One of them was born in neighboring country.

I saw them only this morning when I was contacted at 7 a.m. with the orders. When they said have you seen the pictures I opened up internet and I saw a picture of [Dzhakhar].

I said, ‘You’re alive! Turn yourself in and ask for forgiveneess. The victims from the injured and from those who died. Ask forgiveness from these people.” He put a SHAME on our family. He put a shame on the entire Chechnyan ethnicity cause now everyone blames Chechnyans. They shamed entire ethnicity. TURN yourself IN and put yourself in the discretion of these people.

(Reporter asked: do you consider them terrorists) I would, I would. From now on, I ask you to respect our property. Again, with the families of those who suffered, we share the grief with them. I’m ready to bend in, we seek forgiveness. Thank you.”

I think what he was saying is that the Tsarnaevs were secular Chechens, as the majority of ex-Soviet Muslims are. That the family was not interested in religion or religious nationalism is supported by the reports that the two boys liked to party.

In her interview, Maret Tsarnaev seemed to me to say that the father of the two, Anzor Tsarnaev, had worked as an ‘enforcer’ for the Russian authorities, I take it as a policeman or security official [i.e. siloviki]. That was the reason, she said, that he had to flee to Kyrgyzstan. That is, far from being rooted in the Muslim fundamentalist wing of the Chechnya rebellion, as many are assuming, the family appears to have been part of the Russian Kadyrov-Putin establishment and opposed to religious radicalism there.

She also said that the father had ridden Dzhokhar and Tamerlan very hard, and that the latter had dropped out of college and gotten married, and the father had not taken it well. Their mother also seems to have been troubled,having been busted a couple years after coming to the US for stealing $1600 worth of clothing.

So you have young men from a secular, ex-Soviet Muslim family that had perhaps fought the Chechen fundamentalists. And you have young men who felt they had failed their father.

And they had started praying five times a day and listening to radical sermons, and they finally commit suicide by terrorism (they seemed to be acting Thursday night as if they were ready to die), in a cause toward which their father had been unsympathetic. (It is even possible that he had to flee in 1999 because of his identification with the Russian side).

This sounds to me like a classic father-son struggle, and a tale of adolescent rebellion, in which radical Muslim vigilanteism appears mainly as a tool for the young men to get back to their father, and perhaps to wipe off the shame they had begun feeling about the family having been on the wrong side of the Chechnya fundamentalist uprising. They were playing the nihilists Arkady and Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. The shame of the secular uncle may have been mirrored from the other side in the shame of the newly religious-nationalist adolescents.

US-Pakistan Tensions Deepen as Obama Snubs Zardari at Nato Summit

As Reported By Ewen MacAskill for The Guardian

The rift between the US and Pakistan deepened on Monday as the Nato summit in Chicago broke up without a deal on Afghanistan supply routes.

Barack Obama, at a press conference to wind up the summit, made no attempt to conceal his exasperation, issuing a pointed warning to Pakistan it was in its wider interest to work with the US to avoid being “consumed” by extremists.

Seldom in recent years have the tensions between Washington and Islamabad been on public show to the extent as at the Chicago, overshadowing the two-day Nato summit.

The main point of friction is Pakistan’s closure of Nato supply routes to Afghanistan in protest over drone attacks and a US air strike in November that killed two dozen Pakistani troops.

Obama refused to make time during the two-day summit to see the Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari for a face-to-face bilateral meeting. In a press conference, Obama made a point of stressing that the only exchange he had with his Pakistani counterpart was short. “Very brief, as we were walking into the summit,” Obama said.

The US president said he “did not want to paper over the cracks” and that there has been tension between the US-led international force in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the last few months.

But ultimately, it was in the US interest to have a stable, democratic and prosperous Pakistan, Obama said, adding it was in the interest of Pakistan to work with the US to ensure it is not consumed by extremists.

There are fears in the US that the Pakistan government is unstable and that the government could fall, to be replaced by hardliners. The risk for Obama is displaying his annoyance with Pakistan at the Chicago summit is that Zardari could leave the summit feeling humiliated and even less willing to play a positive role over Afghanistan.

Obama declined to meet Zadari one-to-one because Pakistan is refusing to re-open its Afghanistan border to Nato, which means the US and others are having to resupply their military forces through the slower and more expensive routes from the north and Russia.

The president claimed that he never anticipated the Pakistan supply line issue being resolved at the summit and, taking a more optimistic view of the stand-off, he said they were making “diligent progress”.

“We think that Pakistan has to be part of the solution in Afghanistan. Neither country is going to have the kind of security, stability and prosperity that it needs unless they can resolve some of these outstanding issues,” Obama said.

The British prime minister, David Cameron, at a press conference in Chicago, reflected the irritation with Pakistan, describing the blocked routes as “frustrating”. Cameron said he expected a deal eventually but not at the summit.

In its final communique, Nato formally committed to its withdrawal of the 130,000-strong force from Afghanistan based on a timetable agreed earlier by Obama and Karzai. All international combat troops would be withdrawn by the end of 2014. But the communique said a smaller force would remain to help “train, advise and assist” the Afghan army.

The communique does not say how many troops will be left but US commanders in Kabul are looking at a Nato force of around 15,000-20,000. Reflecting the public mood in Nato countries tired of the war, the comminque said the withdrawal timetable is “irreversible”.

Obama, at the opening of the second day of the Nato summit on Monday morning, showed his displeasure with the Pakistan government by singling out for mention the Central Asia countries and Russia that have stepped in to replace the Pakistan supply route and made no mention of Pakistan. Zardari was in the room at the time.

To ram home the point, the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, also held a meeting at the Nato summit with senior ministers from Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Panetta expressed his “deep appreciation” for their support.

Zardari has demanded an apology from the US for the killing of the 24 Pakistani troops in November in return for reopening supply lines. He is also proposing that the tariff for each vehicle be raised from $250 to $5,000. The US is bitter about this, noting the amount of American military and other aid that goes to Pakistan annually.

In his wrap-up press conference, Obama stood praised the Chicago police for their handling of the demonstrations but also defended the rights of the protesters. “This is part of what Nato defends: free speech and freedom of assembly,” Obama said.

Rights Violations: Pakistan Maintains Discreet Silence Over Syria Protest

By Saba Imtiaz for The Express Tribune

As the chorus against the Syrian government grows louder, Pakistan remains silent on the issue of human rights abuses in Syria. According to Amnesty International, over 1,500 people have been killed since March in the protests against Syrian President Bashar alAssad’s regime. Pressure against Syria appeared to grow over the weekend from Arab states, as the Gulf Cooperation Council asked for an immediate end to bloodshed.

On Monday, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah issued a written statement on the situation. “What is happening in Syria is not acceptable for Saudi Arabia. Syria should think wisely before it is too late and issue and enact reforms that are not merely promises but actual reforms. Either it chooses wisdom on its own or it will be pulled down into the depths of turmoil and loss.” Soon enough, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain had recalled their ambassadors from Damascus for ‘consultations’.

In April, Pakistan joined China and Russia in voting against a resolution by the UN Human Rights Council condemning the violence in Syria. Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN Zamir Akram was quoted as saying, “My country has always believed that ‘naming and shaming’ is an approach which is counterproductive.”

Three months and over a thousand dead bodies later, no public statement has yet to be made on the situation in Syria. The Foreign Office spokesperson did not respond to a query till the filing of this report.
According to former foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, Pakistan’s silence is a product of “historical links between the Bhutto and alAssad families”.

President Bashar’s father, the late president Hafez alAssad, was believed to be a close ally of former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Murtaza and Shahnawaz Bhutto travelled to Syria in 1979 to seek support for their campaign to save Bhutto and were offered asylum by the elder alAssad. Murtaza spent several years in Syria before returning to Pakistan in 1993. In 1981, a Pakistan International Airlines flight was hijacked and forced to land in Kabul, and then Damascus. The hijacking is widely believed to be the work of the Al Zulfikar Organisation.
Kasuri said that given the high death toll, “the government of Pakistan needs to make its position clear [and say] that it stands with the people of Syria.”

Pakistan’s silence, according to former foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmad, shows lack of a foreign policy. “Foreign policy is a reflection of a country’s internal state of affairs. If the state is in disorder, it has no foreign policy. Forget Syria or any other Arab country – Pakistan has enough problems at home and has no time to focus on international issues. No one is going to pay any attention to what Pakistan says because it has no credibility. No country is looking to Pakistan for support.”

Pakistanis for Peace Editor’s Note– The writer makes some valid points about Pakistan’s foreign policy or lack thereof. Being complicit also in the suppression of the civilians in Bahrain by providing troops as illustrated in this article shows that the country is often found on the wrong side of terrorism, women and religious minorities rights, and democratic and human rights. Not a good equation and no excuse for any of it any way one looks at it.

U.S.-Pakistan Ties And The Curse of Secrecy

By Myra MacDonald for Reuters

When President Barack Obama telephoned Pakistan’s president to say U.S. forces had found and killed bin Laden, he offered him a choice. He could say Pakistan helped find bin Laden, or that it knew nothing, according to a senior western official. Pakistan initially chose to stress the former – that it had helped – but later shifted to condemning what it called the U.S. violation of its sovereignty.

The story illustrates the complicity between the United States and Pakistan in their deliberately ambiguous relationship. This ambiguity has its uses. It allows Washington to keep working with Pakistan in the face of angry questions at home about why Osama bin Laden was living there. And it lets Pakistan cooperate with the United States, for example on drone attacks, while trying — not particularly successfully — to minimize the domestic backlash.

But the result of that ambiguity has been a disconnect between the leadership of both the United States and Pakistan and their own people, who have little knowledge of the understandings being reached in the many high-level meetings between the two countries (and which will continue despite the deep distrust on both sides.)

As Christine Fair says in her interview with NBR, ”the Obama administration has had no illusions about Pakistan.” When it took office, it had full knowledge of Pakistan’s reluctance to eradicate militant groups, and indeed of the rapid expansion of its nuclear programme. But she added, “the Obama administration, like past administrations, has been willing to look the other way when it deems necessary.”

And for all the furious debate in both countries about the state of U.S.-Pakistan relations, “the leaderships of both countries know that they need each other in ways that are both humiliating and difficult to explain to publics that are ever more outraged and appalled by the perfidy of the other.”

The problem with this pattern of public fury and private reconciliation is that it leaves very little room to build trust between the two countries and almost no scope for properly informed public debate. Some secrecy is of course needed in war and diplomacy. But with the United States and Pakistan, it has become the automatic default position.

This secrecy and complicity did not just start with bin Laden and drone strikes. It goes way back to U-2 spy planes flying over the Soviet Union – Gary Powers, shot down in Russia in 1960, took off from Peshawar. It goes back to the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979-1989, when Washington knew Pakistan would be forced to lie to the Soviet Union about its involvement for fear of inviting Russian retaliation on its own soil. It goes back to the United States turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s expanding nuclear weapons programme in the 1980s.

The United States is now talking about establishing new ground rules for the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. So how about introducing some openness into those new ground rules?

Consider one example where transparency just might be less damaging than secrecy.

The United States, which has begun tentative direct talks with representatives of the Taliban, wants Pakistan to facilitate the process of reconciliation. So does Pakistan (though they may not see eye-to-eye on how it should work.) As far as I understand from conversations with officials from various countries, including from Pakistan, these talks are not about reaching a straight-forward power-sharing agreement with the Taliban that would allow U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan. Rather they are one part of a wider and complex process meant eventually to bring all Afghan parties into a broad political settlement.

Yet such is the secrecy around the talks that there is a serious risk that if enough people believe the Taliban are about to return to power, their opponents will prepare for civil war, building up arms and funding in a way that makes this a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, writes here about his visit to the country in March, “there is a desperate need to clarify U.S. intentions. From President Hamid Karzai to his opponents to non-political Afghans, I found everyone asking what our long-term goals are. Afghanistan is a traumatized nation after 30 years of conflict. Doubts about American intentions lead to conspiracy theories, hedging strategies and even talk of civil war if too much haste to reach a political settlement means the Taliban could be returned to power — something that many Afghans who suffered under the Taliban’s savage rule are determined to resist at all costs. ”

I have written before that there is rather greater strategic convergence between the United States and Pakistan than appears on the surface. Both want stability in Afghanistan. Pakistan – rather than wanting to reinstall a Taliban government in Kabul – has been insisting for a while it wants a stable and neutral Afghanistan. Both the United States and Pakistan want stability in Pakistan- such a statement of the obvious that it is often overlooked.

Meanwhile, India – always the elephant in the room in discussions about Pakistan – has begun a slow but steady attempt at peace-making – its focus nowadays being very much on doing what it takes to build its economy. Pakistan desperately needs to salvage its own economy – a view, analysts say, also promoted by army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, who sees the country’s security as coming from its economic strength. If a political settlement in Afghanistan and an India-Pakistan thaw were to open up trade across the region, all three countries would benefit and the gain of one would not necessarily be at the expense of the other (this idea at the moment is largely aspirational – but the fact that it is on the table at all shows how much times have changed.)

So arguably, both the United States and Pakistan are roughly on the same page on what needs to happen. Yet their relations are a tactical and emotional disaster. Those long decades of secrecy have not helped. As Najam Sethi wrote in his column, the “carefully contrived and mutually agreed ambiguity has now run aground.”

If something needs to change in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, there is one approach that has not been tried yet. Try breaking that habit of confining neary everything to secret understandings between military and political leaderships, and instead trusting the people of the countries affected — and that includes Afghanistan — to have a properly informed debate about what is the best way to bring stability to the region.

World To Valentine’s Day: I Love You, I Love You Not

By Kristin Deasy for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty

The East is coy when it comes to celebrating Valentine’s Day, with some countries banning it as a Western imposition, while activists in other countries use the traditional day of love to play politics.

In Iraq, three youth groups have called for a Valentine’s Day rally in Baghdad’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square, which like many regional capitals bears the same name as the Egyptian square that made headlines recently during the country’s uprising.

Following the lead of countries like Egypt and Tunisia, where protesters took to the streets demanding political reform, these young Iraqis are using Facebook to call for an end to the political deadlock and rampant corruption in the country. The corruption watchdog Transparency International lists Iraq as the fourth-most corrupt country in the world.

“We chose February 14, Valentine’s Day, to prove to the world that we have made the Valentine’s Day of Iraq. We are here today to express our love for Iraq. Iraqi protester Nawf al-Falahi told Reuters today.

“Our demand is not a difficult one, we demand reform of the situation,” Falahi added. “There has been no tangible change since 2003 and until now, there is no development. We want [the government] to fulfill the promises they made before the election, their promises were rosy. We want them on the ground. This is the only thing we want.”

For these protesters, any thought of celebration is cut short by the condition in the country. “We are so upset. We can’t celebrate Valentine’s Day, because we have a lot of problems,” one woman tells RFE/RL’s Radio Free Iraq, “like the shortage of items on our monthly ration card, a lack of electricity, and poverty.”

Iraq’s protests come as an opposition demonstration is set for today in neighboring Iran, where the opposition Green Movement has defied a government ban to call for a march in solidarity with protesters in Egypt and Tunisia.

Supporters of the Iranian rally have been posting a “V” on their personal Facebook profile pages in a nod to the “V for victory” sign used by the opposition during the country’s 2009 antigovernment protests and, perhaps, also in recognition of the coinciding holiday.

Valentine’s Day is generally seen as a Christian holiday, but it is actually pagan in origin, arising out of the ancient Roman Lupercalia festival. Early efforts by Christian leaders to “Christianize” the pagan feast led to its observance as a feast day honoring a legendary third-century Roman priest allegedly named Valentine.

Over time, however, the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day moved from a day of Christian piety to a more all-embracing celebration of love, particularly the love between couples.

This is a point of concern for authorities in many Islamic countries, who cleave to traditional moral values not typically associated with the modern celebration of Valentine’s Day.

The Uzbek newspaper “Turkiston” wrote on February 12 that “forces with evil goals” were behind “making the ‘lovers’ day popular,” while in Kazakhstan last week a youth group symbolically destroyed Valentine’s Day cards for local media to protest the attempt to introduce a “foreign” holiday.

Over in Russia’s Belgorod region, officials banned St. Valentine’s festivities for the sake of the people’s “spiritual safety,” with one local government spokesman telling reporters that “we could just as well have introduced a Vodka Day.”

Updating The Language Of Love

Iran, meanwhile, forbids unmarried couples from socializing publicly, a policy that tends to have a chilling effect on most Valentine’s Day plans.

But the policy is difficult to enforce on the country’s swelling — and often defiant — younger generation. For example, a Tehran-based author who wishes to remain anonymous is currently at work on a book, “The Persian Dating Glossary,” which includes the explanation of various Persian slang words used to circumvent Iran’s dating restrictions, including “doostmamooli,” a word that roughly translates to “regular friend” and is used to refer to someone with whom there is absolutely no romantic involvement.

The word evolved from the more ambiguous “doost,” which literally means friend but also serves as the basis of weightier words like boyfriend, girlfriend, and best friend.

So this year, Iranian authorities issued a particularly strict warning against “producing any products related to Valentine’s Day, including posters, brochures, advertising cards, boxes with the symbols of hearts, half-hearts, or red roses.”

The Islamic authorities’ worst fear is being realized in Thailand, where 14 couples from around the world are set to compete in a marathon kissing contest to see who can keep their lips locked the longest.

The event is to challenge a German couple, who last year set the world record of the longest continuous kiss, which lasted over one full day.

“We successfully broke the world’s record with seven couples still kissing after 32 hours, 7 minutes, 14 seconds,” contest organizer Somporn Naksuetrong told Reuters. “Anyhow, the contest is still continuing, as only one couple will be named as the new record holder. We still don’t know how long the contest will last.”

A Pakistani Take

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, Valentine’s Day draws a mixed reaction. Young women browse in a shop decorated with Valentine’s Day gifts in Peshawar.
“If we look at it from the religious point of view, then it should not be celebrated because this is based on a Christian celebration,” says Ajab Khan, a young student at Peshawar’s Institute of Management Sciences. “But if you look at it from a different perspective, then I think there is no harm in it because people are happy to go out and give each other presents.

Khan points out that in the English city of Southall, commonly known as “Little India, where many South Asian festivals are held, whether its Eid, the Hindu festival of Holi, or a Christian celebration, “the whole Asian community is happy with it. So why shouldn’t we be a part of it as well in Pakistan? I don’t think it can harm anyone or will affect our religion.

“In my opinion, it’s good to celebrate it and it’s not only for couples. You can give presents to your friends, or even give a rose to your mother.”

The holiday brings back memories for Maskeen Aka, who lives in the Pakistani city of Karachi. He associates it with an ancient Pashtun custom called “rebaar,” in which a messenger would be sent — usually a child — with affectionate greetings or to share news between loved ones.

The practice has slowly disappeared in Pakistan thanks to the growing availability of telephones and Internet technology, but Aka sees a hint of it in the observance of Valentine’s Day.

“I am almost 50 years old now,” he says. “I have also done [rebaar] for some time. Rebaar means to ask about one’s health. In old times, life was very simple and there were no letters or telephones. So it was used to find information, and there would occasionally be messages sent back from the other side, and that was how it came into being.”

‘No Life Without Love’

In Central Asia, Valentine’s Day is a new holiday there because it was not observed under the former Soviet Union.

These countries tend to take a more pragmatic approach, with flower shops and candy stores upping their prices today in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

A Kyrgyz student, Ermek, explains his reasons for observing the holiday while buying flowers for his girlfriend at a Bishkek market, saying, “We need such a holiday, a day of love.”

“If people don’t love each other, how will they get married? There is no life without love,” Ermek says. “I know my girlfriend loves roses, and that’s why I’m buying them.”

It seems that regardless of what countries celebrate the controversial Valentine’s Day, love is what makes the world go ’round.

Will India Win Coveted UN Seat?

By Sunil Sharan for The Huffington Post

Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao says Pakistan is hypnotically obsessed with India but she and her bosses too are fixated on a coveted prize, a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council. The mandarins of New Delhi must be pleased as punch to have had over to visit leaders of all five permanent member countries in quick succession. Inexorable appears the march but will India find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? And, if it does, what are the implications for itself as well as for Pakistan?

First in was David Cameron of Britain, who arrived during the summer and offered unstinting support, whetting local appetite for the main American course. And, did he fail to disappoint? No sir, Barack Obama set the cat amongst the pigeons by endorsing India for the seat, the first time ever by the US. India rejoiced while Pakistan recoiled.

But a careful examination shows him adhering closely to what he told Bob Woodward in the book, Obama’s Wars. In lieu of the seat, he expects India to resolve Kashmir. At a press conference with Manmohan Singh, Obama characterized Kashmir as a long-standing dispute making the latter stutter that the K-word was not scary. Only then did Obama hand over the endorsement in India’s Parliament but couched in such diplomatese that countless local hair were split over when “the years ahead” would dawn.

Next waltzed in Nicolas Sarkozy of France. The French, like the British, have consistently seen merit in India’s case. Sarkozy though, true to type, proved an enigma. He first tagged on the applications of Africa, the Arabs and pretty much the rest of the world onto India’s, befuddling his hosts, who are willing to concede as equal aspirants only “self-appointed frontrunners” Germany, Japan and Brazil. Just as they were about to give up on him, Sarkozy warmed the cockles of India’s heart by throwing in 2011 as early as when it could make it.

But soon came the caveat. Sarkozy, just like Obama before him, cautioned that with great power status came great responsibilities. Whereas Obama wanted India to be more mindful of human rights violations of countries such as Iran and Myanmar, Sarkozy wanted India to send military forces to keep world peace. With India already being one of the foremost contributors to UN peacekeeping missions throughout the world, the mandarins of New Delhi must have been left wondering what more was being asked of them.

No matter, three down, two to go. By now the state jets were landing at Delhi airport almost on top of one another. Wen Jiabao, the leader India was least looking forward to, came with the master key to entry. Shortly before his visit, WikiLeaks revealed China’s opposition to any council expansion. Indian hopes were up nevertheless but Wen remained inscrutable, willing only to acknowledge an understanding of India’s aspirations. No one in India knew quite what to make of him and since Wen was off to Pakistan next, all the country could do was wait with clenched teeth to hear what he would say there.

Rounding off the passage to India was Dmitry Medvedev. Relations between Russia and India have frayed considerably since the heady days of the cold war, so much so that Russia has waffled on India’s bid. Medvedev signaled that the waffle still needed baking, voicing support for India while reiterating that reforming the council was tough and required consensus.

All the while Pakistan protested vociferously against what it deemed an indulgence of Indian hegemonism. But what will India gain with a permanent UN seat? Could it block Pakistani claims on Kashmir? True a permanent member wielding veto power can stonewall but the veto seems unattainable for seekers since they themselves have forsaken it. And, while India sees red when the K-word is uttered in the UN by Pakistan, no ascension to permanency can make it strangle the latter. Nor can it efface any past security council resolutions.

So then, what is it? Nothing comes to mind but the obvious, the acceptance that any arriviste craves. Even that appears a false hankering because ever since its early years, Gandhi’s legacy and Nehru’s charisma burnished the country with global influence disproportionate to its economic and military capabilities. A bee once in one’s bonnet is hard to get rid of though. And, as every journey must have a fitting end, India has found a destination to its liking.

Flush with cash, New Delhi wants to beef up its military. All of the recent visitors bar China are major suppliers of defence equipment to India. As bees flock to honey, they arrived armed with catalogues of the most terrifying stuff. Inherent was a delicate diplomatic quid-pro-quo. The more arms you buy from us, the more we will push your candidacy. As Islamabad keeps raising the bar for India’s seat, so too will India have to up its arms binge.

Lost in Pakistan’s current rhetoric was its vote in October to put India in the security council for two years beginning January 1, 2011. Once on, we will never get off is the new mantra of India’s brave. India seemingly returned the favor by taking in stride the sale of Chinese nuclear reactors to Pakistan. Is there more afoot than meets the eye?

Every country is entitled to its obsession. Pakistan’s is obvious. By continually thumbing its nose at a NATO mired in Afghanistan, it has put the K-word in spotlight, albeit on the backstage. A deal has been blessed by the powers that be. Both the seat and Srinagar are not far away.

The writer edits a website on India: http://www.scooptime.com.

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