Buried by a 24/7 deluge of soundbites and analyses of soundbites from three U.S. presidential candidates and their handlers, the media packaged the rest of the world into two huge natural disasters — Myanmar and China.
The manmade geopolitical disaster in the making in both Pakistan and Afghanistan got lost in the shuffle.
A new deal negotiated by Pakistan's new coalition government with the Taliban in the tribal areas on the Pakistani-Afghan border allowed the Taliban to keep their privileged sanctuaries in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, as well as their weapons.
A swap of a handful of Pakistani army and Taliban prisoners was also part of the deal. Pakistan's Ambassador to Afghanistan Tariq Azizuddin was released by the Taliban 97 days after he was kidnapped. A ransom of $2.5 million, confirmed by the Taliban, was denied by the government. And the Pakistani army agreed to cease operations and return to its cantonments.
Some 200 Pakistani army prisoners would then be released, following which the locally recruited paramilitary Frontier Corps, trained and equipped by the United States, would take over.
Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, who has been charged by a Pakistani court with ordering the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and who commands some 20,000 fighters in North and South Waziristan, agreed to cease operations against Pakistani targets beyond FATA in Pakistan's four provinces.
This means he is now free to rejoin overall Taliban commander Mullah Muhammad Omar — and redirect his fighters against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Pakistani officials made clear to their U.S. counterparts they have no interest in stopping cross-border attacks. Predictably, a surge of Taliban attacks against allied forces followed days later. Violent incidents in the Afghan east were up 50 percent over the same period last year.
This left the United States with no alternative but to use, with or without Pakistani assent, unmanned Predator drones that bomb Taliban meetings in mud-baked dwellings spotted by Afghan intelligence agents. The body of one was found beheaded with a note that said he had been executed for spying for the United States. One Predator strike last week killed 14, including an al-Qaida Arab, according to local villagers.
Speaking privately, not for quotation, Pakistani officials say NATO should encourage Afghan President Hamid Karzai to negotiate a deal with Taliban "moderates" for a coalition government — or fight on for another 10 years, with no hope of a clear-cut victory.
From the time they invaded Afghanistan on Dec. 27, 1979, until they withdrew on Feb. 15, 1989, Soviet forces fought the mujahedin resistance fighters with no holds barred. Thousands of civilians were killed by Soviet bombers, helicopter gunships, and raids by Special Forces.
Every major city was occupied by Soviet troops. And they were still defeated by guerrillas backed by the covert alliance of the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.
The Russian ambassador in Kabul, Zamir Kabulov, first arrived in Afghanistan as a young Soviet diplomat in 1977. Looking back over 30 years, he says, "There is no mistake made by the Soviet Union that was not repeated by the international community here in Afghanistan."
Kabulov's assessment: "Underestimation of the Afghan nation, the belief we have superiority over Afghans and that they are inferior and cannot be trusted to run their own affairs . . . a lack of knowledge of the social and ethnic structure of this country, and a lack of sufficient understanding of traditions and religion."
Kabulov concedes smug satisfaction as he sees "NATO soldiers and officers alienate themselves from Afghans . . . by communicating with them from the barrels of guns in their bullet-proof Humvees." In Helmand province, British forces in Kajaki are fighting from positions erected by Soviet troops.
One measures the distance on the road to democracy that remains to be covered when masked men in Herat, using razor blades, lacerated the arms and hands of a female journalist on the same day that media groups expressed concern over the welfare of journalists in Herat province on the Iranian border.
A local TV reporter, Nilofar Habib, had been warned by the same men the previous week she would be executed if she didn't quit her job. And Herat Gov. Said Hossain Anwari beat up the deputy head of the local state-run television station.
An Afghan journalism student, Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh, 24, was sentenced to death for disrupting classes at Balkh University in Mazar-i-Sharif by asking questions about women's rights under Islam. The only people in court besides the defendant were three judges, a court scribe, and the prosecutor.
Transferred to a Kabul court, again without benefit of a lawyer, Kambakhsh said he was tortured and given three minutes to defend himself. His family said 11 lawyers had agreed to take the case and later changed their minds.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists weighed in against the prosecution, arguing Kambakhsh may have been targeted because his brother had written about human-rights violations.
In Kabul, Attorney General Abdul Jabar Sabit threatened to release to the media the names of 22 members of parliament accused of serious crimes, including murder, unless they cooperated with police investigations.
Meanwhile, Pakistan's new coalition government appears to be an on-again-off-again partnership. The Pakistan Muslim League walking out of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party-led alliance dashed hopes for national unity and the revival of democracy. "I left no stone unturned," said Nawaz Sharif. "I was asked to go to Dubai for talks with Asif Ali Zardari [chairman of the PPP and Bhutto's widower]. I went. We had several rounds of talks in Islamabad. Then he asked me to meet him in London. But everything ended in deadlock, so we left the government."
Both Sharif and Zardari shortly will contest by-elections to become members of parliament. Zardari is then expected to replace Yousuf Raza Gilani as prime minister.
Whether Nawaz Sharif will then rejoin the coalition remains to be seen. Without this broad coalition, the political landscape, with food prices soaring, will again look ripe for the kind of military intervention that has ruled Pakistan for half its existence.
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