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February 22, 2010
Weekly W. Bank protest in Bil’in celebrates 5th anniversary

Every Friday since 2005, Palestinian protesters rally in the West Bank town of Bil’in against the barrier erected by the Israeli government that effectively cuts off Palestinians there from their agricultural land.

Last Friday, the fifth anniversary of the Bil’in demonstrations, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and former Prime Minister Nabil Shaath joined 1,000 marchers from the West Bank, Israel and abroad.

The protests concern the 420-mile barrier, which Israel began constructing in 2002 — partitioning the West Bank from the rest of the country. About 10 percent of the barrier is 25-foot tall concrete sections, and the other 90 percent is mostly electronic fencing.

Israel claims the barrier is necessary to protect its citizens from Palestinian terrorism, while Palestinians call it an illegal land grab.

In the town of Bil’in, the wall has split apart the olive grove landholdings of villagers.

But this year, the Israeli military has begun to move part of the wall near the town, in compliance with a 2007 Israeli Supreme Court decision. However, local villagers claim the new route will only return one-third of their land.

Heather Sharp reported for the BBC from Bil’in:

Some of the remainder [of the land] had previously been designated Israeli state land and allocated for the expansion of a Jewish settlement. Mahmoud Samarra, 64, says he will get only a tiny fraction of his 93 dunums (23 acres) of land back. He points over the hill beyond the coils of barbed wire and the towering mesh of the fence. “It was like paradise,” he says, describing how he planted olive trees with his children and watched them grow over 17 years.

The protests continue, buoyed by the decision of the Supreme Court. Bil’in residents want to maintain media attention on their situation, even as another weekly protest in nearby Ni’in — which sprung up in 2008 — competes for the spotlight.

A joint Palestinian-Israeli activist organization, The Alternative Information Center, quoted Mohammed Khatib, one of the protest leaders:

The Israeli court had already ruled two years ago that the Wall here should be rerouted, but it is our struggle, not their court, that forces the Army to implement this decision now.

The International Court of Justice in the Hague ruled that the Wall should be dismantled in its entirety, and not just partially like the Israeli court had ordered. Today the demonstrators made an important step towards the implementation of this decision.

The protests often turn violent. Israel blames demonstrators who throw rocks at its soldiers, and Palestinians point to the belligerence of the Israeli army toward the protesters — including night-time raids on the houses of suspected participants.

Israeli military spokeswoman Avital Leibovich explains why the protests deteriorate into violence:

Those rocks they’re throwing can kill people…damage costing hundreds of thousands of shekels has been done to the fence and 77 Israeli soldiers have been injured in the past two years.

They go to the fence and tear it down, then we have no choice but to show up and defend the fence. And then they start throwing rocks.

Mepeace.org describes the violence from the Palestinian perspective:

Over its five years of protest, Bil’in has seen a sharp increase in violence and repression, with regular night raids targeting protest organizers, thousands injured by riot-dispersal equipment alongside real bullets, and the death of a Palestinian man last year after a tear-gas canister was shot at him from a high-velocity gun. Basem Ibrahim Abu Rahmeh was 29 years old when he was killed.

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February 19, 2010
Marijuana laws loosen gradually around the globe

During a recent rise in drug violence along the Mexican border, many critics of the drug war have called for a change in U.S. policy toward marijuana use.

Worldfocus compares current marijuana policy throughout the U.S. to policy in Europe and the rest of the world.

The American decriminalization of marijuana has been a gradual process, with New Jersey becoming the 14th state to allow marijuana for medical use in January.

This map shows 15 states that allow medical marijuana, including Maryland — a state not often included because the law there only reduces penalties for medical marijuana use.

Following New Jersey’s change, Emily S. Rueb wrote in the New York TimesCity Room about the potential for medical marijuana in New York:

But though 14 states have now legalized medical marijuana, New York, which has relatively liberal possession laws and actually passed a medical-marijuana law in 1980 but never put it to use, remains forbidden ground for those who seek to relieve their symptoms with cannabis. This year, however, supporters of medical marijuana in Albany and elsewhere hope to harness what they see as growing momentum.

In an October 2009 Gallup poll, 54 percent of Americans said they were opposed to legalizing marijuana, while 44 percent — a historical high — said they were in favor of legalization.

Across the Atlantic, countries such as the Netherlands are famous for allowing the personal use and sale of marijuana, while many other European nations have decriminalized the drug to varying levels.

The Czech Republic legalized the cultivation of up to five marijuana plants for personal use on January 1. Here’s a map showing the range of European marijuana restrictions:

The status of marijuana laws in Europe. (Iceland not to scale). Map: Wikimedia Commons

Europeans’ attitudes towards marijuana decriminalization are not as simple as some might assume. In his blog Travel as a Political Act,  travel writer Rick Steves discusses the real Dutch view of marijuana policy:

The Dutch are not necessarily “pro-marijuana.” In fact, most have never tried it or even set foot in a coffeeshop. They just don’t think the state has any business preventing the people who want it from getting it in a sensible way. To appease Dutch people who aren’t comfortable with marijuana, an integral component of the coffeeshop system is discretion. It’s bad form to smoke marijuana openly while walking down the street. Dutch people who don’t like pot don’t have to encounter or even smell it.  And towns that don’t want coffeeshops don’t have them. Occasionally a coffeeshop license will not be renewed in a particular neighborhood, as the city wants to keep a broad smattering of shops (away from schools) rather than a big concentration in any one area.

In Latin America too, drug laws have begun to loosen up, after decades of zero-tolerance policies. Mexico recently decriminalized the possession of up to 5 grams (0.18 oz.) of marijuana for personal use.

Global Voices blogger Issa Villarreal writes about the popular response to Mexico’s shift:

Reactions are mixed, but certainly two things always came up in discussions: the situation of violence and murder in several Mexican cities related to the narco and drug trafficking, and also the haste approval. It can be said that an important part of the distribution of the story was “hand to hand” through social networks and re-publishing in independent media, but not properly from newspapers, which also carries some critique. Among the discussions, the difference between legalization and decriminalization was a frequent one, considering that the latter holds specific limits of use.

Also from Global Voices, Juliana Rincón Parra writes about citizen groups around the world pushing for legalization:

There are groups of people advocating for the legalization of drugs, but what would that actually mean? From Hungary to Colombia, from youth to teachers, from cops and clergy, individuals and groups are taking to citizen media to put forth their arguments regarding this potentially controversial subject.

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February 17, 2010
Mysterious Dubai murder leaves questions unanswered

Al-Bustan Rotana Hotel in Dubai where Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was murdered on January 20. Photo: christiankloeppel on Flickr

A story of murder and intrigue is dominating the news in Israel and beyond.

News commentators, law enforcement officials and political leaders are scrambling to piece together evidence leading to the identification of the perpetrators.

At least 11 members of the group suspected of the murder of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai on January 20 used European passports, according to Dubai police officials. Another six suspects have yet to be identified.

Six of the suspects held British passports, while the others used Irish, French and German documents to enter the UAE. Both the British and the Irish governments have said the passports were fake and want to investigate further.

The Irish and German counterfeit documents even had the wrong number of digits and letters.

There are conflicting reports from the Dubai police, and it is unclear whether al-Mabhouh was injected with a lethal drug or strangled in his hotel room.

Hamas, the Islamist group in control of the Gaza Strip, and al-Mabhouh’s family have blamed the Israeli national intelligence agency, Mossad, for the assassination. But Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman claims there is no proof that Israel was behind the crime.

Worldfocus has culled together a selection of comments on the web. From Aidan Maconachy Blog:

It is certainly true that the Dubai assassination has a number of characteristics in common with Mossad operations in the past. In addition the al-Mabhouh assassination occurred at a time when Israel is being accused of engaging in a subversive, undeclared war in the region.

From War in Context, :

There’s no conclusive proof yet that this was a Mossad operation but the images [of the suspects] do at least carry suggestions that the individuals involved had taken measures to conceal their identities.

For instance, this crew all seem to go to an optician who specializes in retro-frames – hunky ugly ones that stand out until the operative stops wearing them or switches to an everyday designer frame. The woman, minus blond wig and ruby lipstick would also lose her signature look. Six shaved/cropped heads – again, a few months of hair growth and they’ll be harder to pick out.

As Dubai police indicated in their briefing, this team even went to the lengths of avoiding using cell phones. Add all this up and this looks like an operation meticulously designed to be clandestine.

From Elder of Ziyon:

Everyone is blaming everyone else for the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai - but almost everyone blames the one country that there is no evidence for (yet).

The latest: Dubai police extradited two Palestinian Arabs from Jordan and arrested them in connection with the murder, and one of them is a [Palestinian Authority] official. So Hamas is accusing the PA of working with the Israelis in planning the hit.

The PA, meanwhile, says that Hamas members themselves must have been involved, and that Israeli intelligence has penetrated the highest leadership positions of Hamas (something that Hamas itself has been investigating.)

Dubai police had meanwhile given out photos of eleven people they say were involved, plus a very neat videotape showing parts of the operation.

Watch a Gulf News compilation of CCTV footage of the hit squad’s movements in the Dubai hotel:

- James Matthews

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February 16, 2010
‘March of Anger’ protests against violent Mexican drug war

Mexico City civil rights groups honor the 15 teenagers killed in Ciudad Juárez on January 31. Photo: Flickr user diegohg.

On February 13, around 1,300 Mexicans took to the streets of Ciudad Juárez to protest the continued presence of the armed forces in the northern border city.

Civil rights groups say the deployment of 6,000 combat troops has worsened the drug-related crime wave and have organized a “March of Anger” to voice their opposition.

Ciudad Juárez is now infamous as the murder capital of Mexico and last year 2,660 people were killed in the city. Most deaths are the result of cartels fighting over drug-smuggling routes into the U.S.

On January 31, armed men gunned down 15 innocent teenagers at a party, triggering a response against the incessant bloodshed from civil rights groups. President Felipe Calderón initially said the youths had connections to drug gangs but later retracted his accusation.

The demonstrations took place just after the president visited Ciudad Juárez and vowed to refine his strategy against organized crime. Calderón also announced the deployment of a further 3,000 federal police officers to the city.

Bloggers in Ciudad Juárez and elsewhere have commented on the weekend’s protests. Worldfocus translated a few excerpts:

From S.O.S. Juarez, one of the organizing civil rights groups:

The state’s failure to provide public safety forces organizations out onto the streets and to take up the demands of the relatives of those massacred [on January 31]. We need to stand up for our rights and defeat the fear that has paralyzed a large swathe of society…[T]he protesters held three minutes of silence and, in a symbolic gesture representing hundreds of executions, threw themselves on the floor to remember the thousands killed. The fallen are the result of a senseless war declared by an illegitimate government [a reference to the contested 2006 general election].

From Chihuahua Resiste, on the reaction of one bereaved relative:

A central figure [of the protests] has been Luz María Dávila, the mother of two of the victims of the [January 31] massacre. Last Thursday she became known to the world when she squared up to President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa and demanded swift justice for her children.

From Pocamadrenews, a blog that calls for further action against the rising violence:

Although there have been other protests in Juárez and other cities, I believe it is time to come together in solidarity and organize a national strike movement. This will create further pressure because protest marches achieve very little.

From Poverty News, a blog that comments on the allure of the drug trade for Ciudad Juárez’s youth:

Safety prevents many children from even receiving an education in Ciudad Juárez. Even if the streets were safe many families could not afford the costs for education that is not free for that region of Mexico. All of this this makes entering the drug trade an attractive option to earn a lot of money fast for pre-teens without an education.

- James Matthews

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February 16, 2010
Drone war forces resurgent al-Qaeda to rely on franchises

Influential al-Qaeda-linked Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Worldfocus takes a look at the evolution of al-Qaeda into a fragmented network of jihadi terrorist elements, often united more by philosophy than by concrete linkages between AfPak and cells in Iraq, Yemen, North Africa and beyond.

The escalated drone war in northwest Pakistan has brought attention to the attenuated al-Qaeda core that moved from Afghanistan in late 2001.

But two events in late December — a failed Christmas Day bombing and a suicide attack on CIA operatives in Afghanistan — have led analysts to re-assess al-Qaeda’s perceived decline in popularity and power.

The somewhat resurgent organization is highly decentralized and relies more on a brand name and local franchises than on ideological, communications and operations control by the group’s top leaders.

An Asia Times commentary article from 2004 addresses the al-Qaeda brand name:

Legitimized by President George W Bush’s administration’s declaration of war, al-Qaeda has now become a global phantom, plagued by its own reputation and in need of solid ground. Indeed, the post-September 11 security environment finds al-Qaeda lacking not only a physical safe haven as it had in Afghanistan, but also the critical manpower and expertise that it had in the moments prior to September 11.

This, by any means, is not the end of al-Qaeda, however. The ultimate power in such groups is not necessarily the leadership, but always the cause that defines the legitimacy of the group and the leadership that guides it. Bin Laden’s existence, perhaps as it always has been, is largely political and symbolic - but will nevertheless remain a powerful source of his straining influence on various members of the global umma. Thus the “war on terror”, although controversial in many minds, has undermined both the conventional and unconventional abilities of al-Qaeda and its global entities…

In sum, the power of the al-Qaeda cause, once inherited and customarily altered from the Muslim Brotherhood, has remained close to the political spirit of many radical variations of Islam. The twist here is that the elimination of the “physical” al-Qaeda nexus and the resulting decentralization of its regional elements into like-minded, local leadership groups may ultimately prove more of stratagem advantage versus US policy than a vulnerability.

Then a 2005 BBC article examined the terrorist organization as a global, corporate franchise:

Most newspaper reports encourage us to visualize al-Qaeda as an army, with a high command; or perhaps as a multinational organization, with bin Laden as its chief executive officer and men like Ayman al-Zawahri as his senior management.

We are told that the Bali bombings, like those in London, Madrid and half a dozen other places since the attacks of 11 September 2001, “bear all the hallmarks of” al-Qaeda - formulaic language that has not varied since the days when the violence of the IRA and ETA was at its peak.

The implication is that its senior figures order these attacks, and that local operatives carry them out…

Just as you can buy the franchise for, say, a Holiday Inn or an Intercontinental Hotel, so you can adopt the principles of Osama bin Laden and set up your own deadly group, murdering those you identify as the enemies of the faith - and anyone else, of course, who happens to be passing at the time.

And an AP article from July 2009 compares al-Qaeda’s expansion to fast food franchising:

The al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, is perhaps the best example of how al-Qaeda is morphing and broadening its reach through loose relationships with local offshoots. The shadowy network of Algerian cells recruits Islamist radicals throughout northern and western Africa, trains them and sends them to fight in the region or Iraq, according to Western and North African intelligence officials who asked to remain anonymous because of the nature of their jobs. In turn, AQIM gets al-Qaeda’s brand name and some corporate know-how.

“The relationship with the al-Qaeda mother company works like in a multinational,” says Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France’s former top counterterrorism judge and an expert on North African networks. “There’s a strong ideological link, but the local subsidiary operates on its own.”

Another Western intelligence official compares AQIM to a local fast food franchise, “only for terrorism.”

The cover of The Guardian Weekly from September 11, 2009. Photo: Wikipedia

The Guardian published a piece in September 2009 — on the 8th anniversary of the September 11 attacks — about the organization’s perceived decline:

Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida is under heavy pressure in its strongholds in Pakistan’s remote tribal areas and is finding it difficult to attract recruits or carry out spectacular operations in Western countries, according to government and independent experts monitoring the organization…

Its activity is increasingly dispersed to “affiliates” or “franchises” in Yemen and North Africa, but the links of local or regional jihadi groups to the center are tenuous; they enjoy little popular support and successes have been limited.

Lethal strikes by CIA drones – including two this week alone – have combined with the monitoring and disruption of electronic communications, suspicion and low morale to take their toll on al-Qaeda’s Pakistani “core,” in the jargon of western intelligence agencies.

Interrogation documents seen by the Guardian show that European Muslim volunteers faced a chaotic reception, a low level of training, poor conditions and eventual disillusionment after arriving in Waziristan last year.

“Core” al-Qaida is now reduced to a senior leadership of six to eight men, including Bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, according to most informed estimates. Several other Egyptians, a Libyan and a Mauritanian occupy the other top positions. In all, there are perhaps 200 operatives who count.

Yet, after a failed Christmas Day bombing and a successful Khost attack on CIA operatives, The Economist ran a piece last month that refuted assumptions about al-Qaeda’s imminent demise:

ONLY a few months ago, intelligence experts were saying that al-Qaeda and its allies were in decline, both militarily and ideologically. But two bombs less than a week apart, one failed and the other successful, have put an end to such optimism.

The talk of al-Qaeda’s downfall did not come from thin air. In the view of many analysts, the network’s central leadership had been decimated through drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal belt; al-Qaeda’s Saudi branch was all but defeated; its brethren in Iraq were marginalized; and those in other regions could mount only local attacks. Al-Qaeda had failed to land a blow in the West since the London bombs of 2005. Funds were dwindling, and more Muslims were eschewing global terror.

Though still dangerous, “al-Qaeda is under more pressure, is facing more challenges and is a more vulnerable organisation than at any time since the attacks on 11 September 2001,” declared Mike Leiter, the director of America’s National Counterterrorism Center last September.

Such assessments are being hurriedly revised. Mr Leiter, Barack Obama’s favorite spook, is now among those having to explain why his newish organization, which is supposed to fuse all information on terrorist threats, failed to connect several partial warnings about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The Nigerian student, who moved from London to Yemen last year, tried to set off explosives sewn into his underpants on board a Northwest Airlines flight, carrying 290 people from Amsterdam, as it prepared to land in Detroit on Christmas Day.

For more on al-Qaeda in Yemen, listen to Worldfocus Radio: Yemen’s Multiple Wars.

- Ben Piven

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February 15, 2010
U.S. policy toward Cuba remains largely unmodified

Prior to entering office, President Barack Obama spoke of the need for a new approach to U.S.-Cuba relations and a sea change from the past.

As reported by The New York Times, in a speech May 2008, Obama said:

John McCain’s been going around the country talking about how much I want to meet with Raúl Castro, as if I’m looking for a social gathering or I’m going to invite him over and have some tea. That’s not what I said, and John McCain knows it. After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions.

Last April, the Obama administration lifted some restrictions on Cuban-Americans, including regulations on travel and on sending money back to Cuba.

However, the nearly fifty-year-old embargo on Cuban trade and travel with the United States remains intact. Moreover, President Obama renewed the embargo for another year this past fall.

The relationship between Cuba and the United States has received little attention lately.

Let’s look at what bloggers are saying about life in Cuba and the state of U.S.-Cuba relations today.

U.S. Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s (R-FL) is staunchly opposed to the Communist government in Cuba and an advocate for Cuban-Americans. Susannah Vila of Global Voices discusses Diaz-Balart’s decision to not run for reelection:

As is the case with many of the Obama administration’s accomplishments during its first year, advancements in relations between the US and Cuba have been subtle.  Yet small changes in policy may mean bigger shifts in behavior, especially when it comes to Cuban-Americans and the voting booth.

Bloggers in Miami and Cuba are buzzing over the news that US Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart will not run for reelection in the fall. Diaz-Balart, a Republican, is a staunch supporter of the trade embargo against Cuba, and he took this as an opportunity to highlight his role in codifying the blockade. As a senior member of the House Rules Committee, the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Legislative and Budget Process, and the Co-Chairman of the Florida Congressional Delegation, Diaz-Balart’s absence will definitely be felt.

Melissa Lockhart of Foreign Policy Blogs writes how 2010 could be the year that change is realized, even after a slow down in the political will to open relations with Cuba:

The Congressional push to open up Cuba for travel by U.S. citizens was buried at the end of last year in the urgency (at the time) of the health care reform debate. The bill’s sponsors—including Representatives Bill Delahunt (Democrat) and Jeff Flake (Republican)—intend to dig it out and press forward, starting now. The problem at the moment is the Democrats’ reluctance to actually bring the bill to the floor for a vote. The votes may be there (across party lines), but the issue isn’t at the top of their agenda and is one that splits the caucus.

Unfortunately, the momentum that came from Obama’s lifting of travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans last year is now slowed, and the issue has faded from the ever-shifting public attention. Meanwhile, there is bipartisan opposition to the bill as well, and funds channel to members of both parties from opposition, pro-embargo (often Cuban-American) groups. So bipartisanship is not necessarily a relevant asset at all for the backers of this bill.

In her blog Generation Y, well-known Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez discusses the difficulties Cubans face because of their own government’s travel restrictions:

I know how it feels. I know how hard it is to go to the Cuban consulate in any country and be asked to sign your name in support of freedom for the Interior Ministry’s five agents – prisoners in the United States – while they do not even ask you if there’s anything they can do to help you. I have listened to a young man cry at an embassy in Europe while a bureaucrat repeats that he cannot return to his own country because he exceeded the eleven months he is allowed to be away. I have also witnessed it from the other side, the denial received by many here who apply for the White Card needed to board a plane and leave this Island. The travel restrictions have become routine and some have come to believe it should be this way, because to know other places is a perk that they give us, a prerogative that they award us.

Read Sanchez’ interview with President Obama.

In her blog KubaSepia, another Cuban blogger, Katia Sonia, writes about Cuban President Raul Castro and her desire for change:

The new president was surprised by several labor leaders who led an entourage to his ailing brother.  These ideas were conceived to disrupt the roots of the Castros’ base, and strip them of absolute power.  This was an opportunity for the state to fulfill its role of channeling and ensuring the full and total development that the individual needs. Nothing changed. Raúl Castro made two or three stuttering interventions that plunged the nation into the expectation of CHANGE — the possibility of increasing diplomatic relations with the United States; ignoring reality he declared that the world financial crisis would not reach the islanders or their currency exchanges — all designed to buy time.

For more on Cuba, visit our Worldfocus extended coverage page: Cuba after Fidel.

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February 12, 2010
Drones continue to eliminate major foes in NW Pakistan

A Predator armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. Photo: USAF

This week, the Pakistani Taliban finally confirmed what the Pakistani army had claimed many days ago — that Hakimullah Mehsud was killed last month in a missile strike by U.S. drones.

While there are conflicting reports about which strike dealt Mehsud the mortal blow, the Pakistani Taliban are left leaderless for the second time in six months.

As the late Mehsud’s faction — as well as various other Taliban-affiliated groups — scramble to defend themselves from unmanned aerial vehicles, some policymakers are wondering whether these assassinations are strategically sound.

Although many of President Barack Obama’s harshest critics at home have lavished praise on the administration for its escalation of the drone campaign, some naysayers now contend that the U.S. may be killing high-value targets before being able to extract information from them — in northwest Pakistan, as well as in other anti-terror arenas such as Yemen.

Marc Thiessen explains this problem in Foreign Policy:

The Predator has become for President Obama what the cruise missile was to President Bill Clinton — an easy way to appear like he is taking tough action against terrorists, when he is really shying away from the hard decisions needed to protect the United States.

To be sure, unmanned drones are critical in the struggle against al-Qaeda. They allow the United States to reach terrorists hiding in remote regions where it would be difficult for special operations forces to reach them, or to act on perishable intelligence when the only choice is to kill a terrorist or lose him. Constantly hovering Predator (or Reaper) drones also have a psychological effect on the enemy, forcing al-Qaeda leaders to live in fear and spend time focusing on self-preservation that would otherwise be used planning the next attack. All this is for the good.

The problem is that Obama is increasingly using drone strikes as a substitute for operations to bring terrorist leaders in alive for questioning — and that is putting the country at risk…

With every drone strike that vaporizes a senior al-Qaeda leader, actionable intelligence is vaporized along with him. Dead terrorists can’t tell you their plans to strike America.

Meanwhile, Dawn reports that the Obama administration’s recent budget proposal includes a 75 percent increase in funds for the drone campaign, which also includes new, more advanced crafts.

View our interactive map showing approximate locations of all U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan since 2004:

See larger map. [Yellow = pre-2008 strikes / Red = 2008 strikes / Green = Obama administration strikes]

In a Sydney Morning Herald analysis piece America’s Deadly Robots Rewrite the Rules, Paul McGeough writes:

The changed ground rules making extrajudicial killing more acceptable are a product of post-September 11 thinking. In 2001 Bush overturned President Gerald Ford’s 1976 prohibition on assassinations by US intelligence agencies - but there’s something else in the works, too…

But, as critics of the drone wars struggle to get traction in public debate, it is curious that in the absence of any negative reaction to Obama’s expansion of his remote killing program last year, the former Bush administration was under attack for revelations that it had considered dispatching more traditional hit-squads abroad to take out al-Qaeda operatives.

Forty-four countries now use unmanned aircraft for surveillance - only the US and Israel deploy them as killers.

In the first weeks of his presidency Obama reportedly wrestled with the moral and strategic implications of the program. But, as reported in The New York Times, he pointedly declared to one of his earliest Situation Room gatherings: “The CIA gets what it needs.”

The American Civil Liberties Union explained in a Freedom of Information application last month: “It appears … that lethal force is being exercised by individuals who are not in the military chain of command, are not subject to military rules and discipline; and do not operate under any other public system of accountability or oversight.”

A Democrat’s targeted killings, it seems, are not quite the same as those of a Republican.

The first drones flew before the September 11 attacks - searching for Osama bin Laden. Now the US Air Force estimates that about 15 per cent of its $US230 billion ($260 billion) arms-procurement program will be spent on robot equipment within five years.

Predators can fly [420 miles], then hover for 30 hours at a stretch, feeding real-time video and other data through 10 simultaneous streams to controllers in 10 locations. Priced at $4.5 million, Predators carry sensors that intercept electronic signals and listen in on phone conversations - and they carry missiles. The newer Reapers cost $17 million and can fly nearly [3600 miles].

The US Air Force now has more drone operators in training than fighter and bomber pilots.

A recent article from the Associated Press argues that two main factors have enabled the drone war to take off: the drawdown of troops and resources in Iraq and the Obama administration’s increased intelligence-sharing with the governments of Pakistan and Yemen:

Intelligence officials and analysts say the drawdown of troops in an increasingly stable Iraq is part of the reason for the increase in drone strikes. The military once relied on drones for around-the-clock surveillance to flush out insurgents, support troops in battle and help avoid roadside bombs.

With fewer of those missions required, the U.S. has moved many of those planes to Afghanistan, roughly doubling the size of the military and CIA fleet that can patrol the lawless border with Pakistan, officials said.

“These tools were not Obama creations, but he’s increased their use and he has shifted the U.S. attention full front to Afghanistan,” said Thomas Sanderson, a defense analyst and national security fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The article goes on to explain the second reason for the drone war’s escalation:

Obama has also abandoned terms like “radical Islam” and “Islamo-fascism,” rhetoric that was seen as anti-Muslim by many in the Arab world and which [Yemen's Ambassador to the UN] al-Saidi said made it harder for governments to openly cooperate with Washington.

View our original post: U.S. intensifies drone attacks on Pakistan’s tribal region

- Ben Piven

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February 11, 2010
China surges past competitors in clean energy technology


Solar panels in Shanghai. Photo: Flickr user jcrakow

China, the world’s largest producer of wind turbines and solar panels, is rapidly becoming the leading global manufacturer of clean energy.

According to the U.S. News and World Report, China also provides almost 97 percent of the world’s supply of rare-earth materials, which are used in many electronics and may be the future of clean technologies. China is also the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter.

Some critics are concerned that, as the the U.S. and other countries become less dependent on oil, they may become increasingly dependent on China for alternative energy technologies.

A New York Times article by Keith Bradsher analyzes these concerns and how this shift may be more positive for the Chinese economy than for the planet:

These efforts to dominate renewable energy technologies raise the prospect that the West may someday trade its dependence on oil from the Mideast for a reliance on solar panels, wind turbines and other gear manufactured in China.

“Most of the energy equipment will carry a brass plate, ‘Made in China,’” said K. K. Chan, the chief executive of Nature Elements Capital, a private equity fund in Beijing that focuses on renewable energy.

President Obama, in his State of the Union speech last [month], sounded an alarm that the United States was falling behind other countries, especially China, on energy. “I do not accept a future where the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders.”

Foreign Policy blogger Elizabeth Balkan writes how a Chinese solar company plans to build a U.S.-based manufacturing plant to take advantage of the market demand and government incentives. She explains what this could mean for China-U.S. green energy cooperation:

Suntech, the world’s largest solar energy company in terms of photovoltaic module production, said it could cut transport costs and emissions by building closer to its market. The cost of shipping heavy renewable units, combined with the fact that the U.S. and EU currently constitute the majority of clean tech demand, makes local manufacturing facilities a sensible strategy for long-term growth.

Political considerations were also not lost on the company. Appealing to both green jobs enthusiasts and those who perceive China as taking manufacturing jobs from the U.S., Shi said he is hopeful that “initiating manufacturing in the U.S. will drive further growth of green jobs.”

A study last year by the Georgia Tech Research Institute concluded that China would surpass the United States in technology and science by using demand for clean energy as a catalyst for economic growth:

The study’s indicators predict that China will soon pass the United States in the critical ability to develop basic science and technology, turn those developments into products and services – and then market them to the world. Though China is often seen as just a low-cost producer of manufactured goods, the new “High Tech Indicators” study done by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology clearly shows that the Asian powerhouse has much bigger aspirations.

“For the first time in nearly a century, we see leadership in basic research and the economic ability to pursue the benefits of that research – to create and market products based on research – in more than one place on the planet,” said Nils Newman, co-author of the National Science Foundation-funded study. “Since World War II, the United States has been the main driver of the global economy. Now we have a situation in which technology products are going to be appearing in the marketplace that were not developed or commercialized here. We won’t have had any involvement with them and may not even know they are coming.”

Blogger CC Huang at ResponsibleChina.com, writes citizen participation in China’s clean energy push:

Another way in which China could be an example to other countries is rooted in the habits of its citizens. The 2009 Greendex survey showed that China ranked third in terms of environmentally friendly consumer behavior. Chinese citizens drink boiled tap water instead of bottled water, use bikes for transportation more often than cars (China scoring highest overall in the transportation category), and practice energy-saving activities when it comes to housing.

Of course, China is still very much a coal-guzzling economy. Due to the massive amounts of coal found within China’s borders, this might not change anytime soon. Also, as China still has a ways to go before being fully “developed,” consumption is likely to increase.

For more on clean energy developments in China, check out our Worldfocus signature video on Chinese knockoff electric cars and multimedia features at the Asia Society’s China Green.

Also, The Green Leap Forward, by energy analyst Julian L. Wong, who appeared on Worldfocus Radio: Red China Goes Green, takes a look at the most recent solar power developments in China.

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February 10, 2010
Costa Rica elects first female president

Laura Chinchilla, 50, has already served as vice-president and minister of justice. Photo Costa Rican Ministry of Justice

On Sunday, February 7, Costa Rica elected Laura Chinchilla as the country’s first female president.

Chinchilla, of the ruling National Liberation Party (PLN), received 47 percent of the vote. Her principal rival, Ottón Solís of the Citizens Action Party, won 25 percent.

The election was held without incident and Chinchilla, a former vice-president, has committed to the free-market policies of current president, Oscar Arias. She has also pledged to combat drug-trafficking and its associated violent crime.

Despite smugglers increasingly using the country as a staging post for drugs en route from South America to the US, Costa Rica is one of Latin America’s most stable nations. The country abolished its army in 1949 and is today renowned as a tourist destination.

Costa Rican bloggers commented on the smooth election process. (Original blogs in Spanish, with translations by James Matthews.)

From Elecciones 2014-2018-Costa Rica, a blog monitoring the electoral race:

The elections took place with a festive atmosphere, as has been the tradition in this Central American nation over the last 50 years - Costa Rica is considered one of the most solid and longstanding democracies in Latin America.

There was, however, a mixed reaction to the election result and many commentators questioned Chinchilla’s strong links with the incumbent president.

From Wolverine, commentary on Costa Rica:

[Chinchilla] is now our president. Let’s give her a chance to demonstrate her independence [from outgoing President Oscar Arias] and prove that she is capable of holding the office of president of Costa Rica, and exceeding the expectations of the people.

From Conoche San José de Noche, an opinion blog:

Let’s have faith in the great support that [Chinchilla] has from a big sector of the country. Let’s hope that she will return that support with intelligent policies that will tackle the country’s biggest problems - crime, poverty and unemployment. It is no secret, however, that if the PLN’s strongman, Oscar Arias, has been unable to make inroads on these problems, it will be a difficult task for [Chinchilla].

Other bloggers expressed outright disappointment at the election of a president from the governing party.

From El Mae del Bajo:

I had hopes for a surprise. There was a festive atmosphere on the streets and it seemed that we possessed greater political maturity. I didn’t believe the polls…It was our opportunity to remove these neoliberals from power - I don’t want to live in this Costa Rica of few haves and many have-nots. Unfortunately, it was not enough to convince the indecisive and to spread the word.

Chinchilla herself is no stranger to social media and thanked her supporters on February 7 via Twitter:

Thank you Costa Rica, thank you social networks, thank you Twitterers!!!!

- James Matthews

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February 9, 2010
Nigeria moves to end power vaccum left by ailing president

Umaru Yar’Adua at the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Photo: Andy Mettler/World Economic Forum on Flickr

The Nigerian national assembly voted today to install Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan as interim leader until ailing President Umaru Yar’Adua is fit enough to return to office.

Yar’Adua has been in Saudi Arabia since November 2009, where he is receiving medical treatment for a heart condition. His absence has left the country without a formal leader, and has led to a breakdown in a government cease-fire with fighters in the oil-producing Niger Delta.

In addition, there has been renewed sectarian violence in the central city of Jos, where almost 400 people were killed in two days of clashes between Muslims and Christians in November 2008.

Questions remain over the legality of Jonathan’s appointment as temporary leader, a measure approved by both houses of the assembly. According to Nigeria’s constitution, Yar’Adua must make a written declaration that he is unfit to govern - a move which he has not yet taken.

In Nigeria, bloggers have commented on living in a country of 150 million without a formal leader and the political uncertainty that it has unleashed:

From Nigerian Curiosity, the “musings of a concerned Nigerian”:

A ‘rule of law’ President all the way in Saudi Arabia does not help the average Nigerian and the confusion this absence leaves in its wake only compounds issues. What is beyond confusion, nevertheless, is that the political disorientation Nigeria currently experiences will not soon abate.

From Grandiose Parlor, commentary on Nigeria:

The president has broken his contract with the Nigerian people who voted him into office … [T]here are just too many controversies surrounding his medical stay in Saudi Arabia to warrant forgiveness from the Nigerian people. Dead or alive, Alhaji Umaru YarAdua is no longer fit to govern Federal Republic of Nigeria.

The leadership crisis has also triggered criticism of Nigeria’s political class. From Adeola Aderounmu’s blog, Thy Glory O Nigeria..!

Those who own and run Nigeria don’t care about the millions living in poverty and desperation … [S]ince we don’t have democracy in Nigeria and since those who run Nigeria do not give account to anyone, the rest of us can remain in coma with the runaway fake president. Welcome to Nigeria, a country ruled by mad politicians and gangsters called godfathers. They are sharing money, bribing themselves back and forth and everything is so uncertain.

The author of Nigerian Curiosity has also predicted that any statement from Yar’Adua on his capacity to govern will be questioned from many quarters:

This disturbing reality - questions about Yar’Adua’s capacity - lends itself to any letter that might be issued and signed by him. Already, there is a court case alleging that the 2010 budget introduced during the President’s absence has a forged signature on it. Hence, it is likely that any letter supposedly signed by the President to the National Assembly will equally be questioned and rightly so as it remains unclear whether President Yar’Adua is in a position, healthwise, to perform such functions. And, if he is capable, then how long will he be gone for? Will this time be added to the almost 80 days he has been gone? The questions are limitless …

- James Matthews


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Blogwatch summarizes what bloggers and news sources are saying about the international news of the day. We’ll link to informative and bold voices that place the headlines in the context of the global conversation.


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