Sunday, July 6, 2008
My first trip to Kabul was in 2001. I arrived as Northern Alliance soldiers were fighting Taliban gunmen in and around the Afghan capital. Those who resisted were killed, and those captured were more likely to be executed than taken prisoner.
There was a power vacuum in Kabul, a brief moment when one set of rulers had fled and the next had not yet taken over. This can be a liberating time for a photographer. There were no clear rules, no central authority that might restrict you from taking pictures. I've returned to Afghanistan nearly every year since then.
Today, at first glance, the dusty stalls and kebab joints of Kabul, with their bearded men and covered women, look much the same - in at least one important way - as they did when the Taliban were forced to flee.
Ordinary people seem stoic under the circumstances, which are better than they were in 2001 but still deeply uncertain.
Generations of conflict have numbed the senses. From the Russian occupation during the 1980s, through the years of Taliban rule in the 1990s, and now the intensifying coalition war against the Taliban insurgency, violence has become ingrained in their lives. After a recent period being embedded with the U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan, I stopped in Kabul to wander the streets and take photos of a city forever in transition. The Western presence was something not tolerated during Taliban rule, so there have been some changes.
A new shopping mall, with escalators in a city where constant electricity is a luxury, offers Western-style clothes, gold jewelry, a cafe. A fast-food establishment, mimicking American chains, offers fried chicken and fries instead of lamb kebab and rice.
Meanwhile, refugees and internally displaced civilians, left homeless by decades of war, have created a beggar society, with the sick and disabled desperate for food and work. The cost of housing in urban Kabul is very high compared with that in the countryside, and many people live in crumbling buildings and makeshift tents.
There is also, on a hill overlooking the city, an Olympic-size pool built by the Soviets in the 1980s. It is said that the Taliban forced criminals off the platforms to their deaths at the bottom of the pool.
Now, as then, it contains little or no water.
With unemployment at about 40 percent, a large number of idle men have little to do. Snooker clubs, where men play and smoke cigarettes, are popular. So are small video arcades. Most popular are the Indian and Pakistani movies that dominate the theaters; there, for the price of a ticket, viewers can watch increasingly revealing scenes of women.
Drug addicts crowd into a dilapidated section of the old city, smoking hashish and shooting heroin. Drug addiction is on the rise in Afghanistan, fed in part by a flow of refugees from Pakistan, who find no work but can buy the drugs cheaply. War or no war, West or no West, Afghanistan remains the world's largest producer of opium, an industry that the Taliban continue to profit from.
The newly resurgent Taliban continue to push for greater influence, and not just in the remote regions near the Pakistan border. A recent assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai during a military parade in Kabul killed three people. Then the Taliban freed 1,200 inmates in a brazen attack on a prison in the southern city of Kandahar.
The Taliban, clearly, are still strong in Afghanistan. So war, as it has been for generations, is never far away.
The Group of 8 and man-made hunger
Thirty countries have already seen food riots this year. The ever higher cost of food could push tens of millions of people into abject poverty and starvation.
To a large degree, this crisis is man-made - the result of misguided energy and farm policies. When heads of the Group of 8 leading industrial nations meet in Japan this week, they must accept their full share of responsibility and lay out clearly what they will do to address this crisis.
To start, they must live up to their 2005 commitment to vastly increase aid to the poorest countries. And they must push other wealthy countries, like those in the Middle East, to help too. They must also commit themselves to reduce or do away with their most egregious agricultural and energy subsidies, which contribute to the spread of hunger throughout the world.
In the last year, the price of corn has risen 70 percent; wheat 55 percent; rice 160 percent. The World Bank estimates that for a group of 41 poor countries the combined shock of rising prices of food, oil and other raw materials over the past 18 months will cost them between 3 and 10 percent of their annual economic output.
Some of the causes are out of governments' control, including the rising cost of energy and fertilizer, and drought in food exporters like Australia. Higher consumption of animal protein in China and India has also driven demand for feed grains.
Wrongheaded policies among rich and poor nations are also playing a big role. Of those, perhaps the most wrongheaded are the tangle of subsidies, mandates and tariffs to encourage the production of biofuels from crops in the United States and the European Union. According to the World Bank, almost all of the growth in global corn production from 2004 to 2007 was devoted to American ethanol production, pushing up corn and animal feed prices and prompting farmers to switch from other crops to corn.
Long-standing farm subsidies in the rich world have also contributed to the crisis, ruining farmers in poor countries and depressing agricultural investment. Rich countries are not the only culprits. At least 30 developing countries have imposed restrictions or bans on the export of foodstuffs. Importing countries are now stockpiling supplies, which takes more food from global markets.
So far there is no sign that the leaders of the developed countries are ready to do what is needed. The United States and Europe have refused to curtail their bio-fuel subsidies or their lavish farm subsidies. They are also falling far short of their aid commitments.
At the 2005 G-8 summit meeting, leaders said that by 2010 wealthier nations would increase annual development aid to poor countries by $50 billion. Yet aid has increased by only $11 billion.
We welcome Bush's pledge to provide $5 billion this year and next to "fight global hunger," but much more must be done. The U.S. remains the stingiest of rich nations when it come to foreign aid.
In a letter to heads of state of the G-8, Robert Zoellick, the World Bank president, estimated that the bank needs $3.5 billion to provide immediate food aid and seed and fertilizer in poor countries. The International Monetary Fund and the World Food Program estimate they need $6.5 billion more in the short term to help feed vulnerable populations. This does not even count the need for essential longer-term investments to increase farm productivity in poor nations in Africa and elsewhere.
As Zoellick wrote, the food crisis is a test of the world's willingness to help the most vulnerable. The leaders gathered in Japan must rise to the challenge.
'Green' marketing loses buzz and credibility
Bioplastics: The challenge of viability
Consumer beware: When are organic cosmetics really organic?
Rich G-8 nations looking for help on energy prices
Strain builds as BP sues its Russia partner
America's oil addiction: Chronicle of a crisis foretold
'King Coal' bails out of a hot market
South Korea cuts back on energy use
BUSINESS OF GREEN
Designing cars for low-carbon chic
Waste-to-energy plants a waste of energy, recycling advocates say
Rolls-Royce is driving for the green
Appliance users are looking for ways to save energy
At $100 for tank of gas in U.S., some choke on 'fill it'
Sarkozy's Union of the Mediterranean falters
Parlez-vous 'purchasing power'?
French hopes in Tour de France lost in final rush
SAINT-BRIEUC, France: While all of this cycling-mad nation loves the spectacle of the Tour de France, many fans here despair that no Frenchman has won the Tour since 1985, when Bernard Hinault, born near this village on the northern Brittany coast, captured his fifth yellow jersey.
The French these days console themselves with stage victories, and on Sunday it looked, for the longest time as if a French rider might win, as a long breakaway containing first two and then four French riders stayed away until the final few kilometers.
There was a French victory, for the Crédit Agricole team, but it came in the person of Thor Hushovd, the team's Norwegian sprinter. A winner of the Tour's final stage on the Champs-Élysée in 2006, Hushovd finished the 164.5-kilometer stage, or 102 miles, in 3:45:13, for an average speed of 43.8 kilometers an hour on a blustery and intermittently rainy afternoon.
Australia beats France 40-10
BRISBANE, Australia: Matt Giteau kicked 20 points and created all four tries in a virtuoso performance at No. 10 to guide Australia to a record 40-10 win over France on Saturday.
The Australians outscored France 74-23 in a two-test sweep that exposed the lack of depth in the touring squad missing the cream of players from the top French clubs.
While the French dominated possession, they lacked cohesion and turned over the ball to an Australian lineup intent on building its attack under new coach Robbie Deans.
New Zealand beats South Africa 19-8
WELLINGTON, New Zealand : New Zealand extended its world-record home winning streak to 30 matches when it beat South Africa 19-8 in the opening game of the Tri-Nations rugby series Saturday.
The All Blacks chipped away at South Africa's world champion status and No.1 world ranking, outplaying their opponents in most aspects of a match played in wet, windy and bitterly cold conditions.
South Africa, which has not won a match in New Zealand in 10 years, looked to the match as a chance to prove the validity of its top world ranking, which came as a package with its victory in last year's World Cup in France.
New Zealand's scrum was superior to South Africa's, its previously troubled lineout was sound and its loose-forward trio, a perceived weakness, was vastly more constructive than South Africa's.
"This was a very important match for us," said Rodney So'oialo, who replaced Richie McCaw in two crucial roles as New Zealand's No. 7 and captain. "We worked very hard for this all week and we got the result we wanted.
Baghdad car bomb kills six
BAGHDAD: A car bomb killed six civilians and wounded 14 other people in the Shaab district of northern Baghdad on Sunday, police said.
One woman was among the dead and three policemen were wounded in the attack, which targeted a police patrol.
There has been a relative lull in violence in the Iraqi capital.
In other violence, a roadside bomb killed up to seven family members of a senior Iraqi Kurdish official in Diyala province, police said.
The bomb hit a convoy carrying Mohammed Ramadan and his family in Jalawla, 115 km (70 miles) northeast of Baghdad. It killed his wife and two or three of his sons. Police were unclear of the number and identity of the other family members.
Israel to exhume Hezbollah bodies for prisoner swap
British lawmakers to check on possible prisoner transfers
Kristof: A national cleansing
When a distinguished American military commander accuses the United States of committing war crimes in its handling of detainees, you know that the country needs a new way forward.
"There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes," Antonio Taguba, the retired major general who investigated abuses in Iraq, declares in a powerful new report on American torture from Physicians for Human Rights. "The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account."
The first step of accountability isn't prosecutions. Rather, we Americans need a national Truth Commission to lead a process of soul-searching and national cleansing.
That was what South Africa did after apartheid, with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and it is what the United States did with the Kerner Commission on race and the 1980s commission that examined the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Today, we need a similar Truth Commission, with subpoena power, to investigate the abuses in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
We already know that the U.S. government has kept Nelson Mandela on a terrorism watch list and that the U.S. military taught interrogation techniques borrowed verbatim from records of Chinese methods used to break American prisoners in the Korean War - even though we knew that these torture techniques produced false confessions.
It's a national disgrace that more than 100 inmates have died in U.S. custody in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo. After two Afghan inmates were beaten to death by U.S. soldiers, the American military investigator found that one of the men's legs had been "pulpified."
Moreover, many of the people we tortured were innocent: The administration was as incompetent as it was immoral. The McClatchy newspaper group has just published a devastating series on torture and other abuses, and it quotes Thomas White, the former Army secretary, as saying that it was clear from the moment Guantánamo opened that one-third of the inmates didn't belong there.
McClatchy says that one inmate, Mohammed Akhtiar, was known as pro-U.S. to everybody but the U.S. soldiers who battered him. Some of his militant fellow inmates spit on him, beat him and called him "infidel," all because of his anti-Taliban record.
These abuses happened partly because, for years after Sept. 11, many of our national institutions didn't do their jobs. The Democratic Party rolled over rather than serving as loyal opposition. We in the press were often lap dogs rather than watchdogs.
Yet there were heroes, including civil liberties groups and lawyers for detainees. Some judges bucked the mood, and a few conservatives inside the administration spoke out forcefully. The New York Times's Eric Lichtblau writes in his terrific new book, "Bush's Law," that the Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner, James Ziglar, pushed back against plans for door-to-door sweeps of Arab-American neighborhoods.
The book recounts that in one meeting, Ziglar bluntly declared, "We do have this thing called the Constitution," adding that such sweeps would be illegal and "I'm not going to be part of it."
Among those I admire most are the military lawyers who risked their careers, defied the Pentagon and antagonized their drinking buddies - all for the sake of Muslim terror suspects in circumstances where the evidence was often ambiguous. At a time when we as a nation took the expedient path, these military officers took the honorable one, and they deserve medals for their courage.
The Truth Commission investigating these issues ideally would be a nonpartisan group heavily weighted with respected military and security officials, including generals, admirals and top intelligence figures. Such backgrounds would give their findings credibility across the political spectrum - and I don't think they would pull punches. The military and intelligence officials I know are as appalled by U.S. abuses as any other group, in part because they realize that if our people waterboard, then our people will also be waterboarded.
Both Barack Obama and John McCain should commit to impaneling a Truth Commission early in the next administration. This commission would issue a report to help us absorb the lessons of our failings.
As for what to do with Guantánamo itself, the best suggestion comes from an obscure medical journal, PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases. It suggests that the prison camp would be an ideal research facility for tropical diseases that afflict so many of the world's people. An excellent suggestion: The U.S. should close the prison and turn it into a research base to fight the diseases of global poverty, and maybe then we could eventually say the word "Guantánamo" without pangs of shame.
Suicide bomb kills at least 10 near Islamabad mosque
Five blasts shake Georgia conflict zone
Barratt to write down land holdings
The fog of credit default swaps
NEW YORK: Everybody knows that the market for credit default swaps is one of the hottest investment arenas around. At the end of last year, according to the Bank for International Settlements, the fair value of credit default swaps outstanding totaled $2 trillion, up from "just" $133 billion three years earlier.
But when it comes to detailing how much of these instruments public companies hold, disclosure is mighty scant. That makes the credit default swap market also one of the foggiest out there.