04 August 2009

discrimination [for better or worse]

NYT: Pakistani Army undertakes extra-judicial killings in Swat, uses indiscriminate violence
Beneath the surface of relative calm, there is the sense that a new and more insidious conflict may be afoot, one that could take many months to play out before the fate of this once-prosperous region is ultimately decided.

NYT: Mullahs in Punjab siding with landowners, status quo

Pakistan encompasses four provinces — Baluchistan, Sindh, Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province (which includes the Swat Valley) — each with its own languages and culture. The western mountains are tribal and so remote that in some areas, Pakistan’s Constitution does not even apply. It is from those badlands that the Taliban swept outward to neighboring Swat, itself a multi-ethnic patchwork. Baluchistan, another border area, has its own struggle for national autonomy. Sindh is mostly agrarian, with Karachi, an economic hub, at its southern tip.

Punjab, the fourth and most strategic province, is the country’s heart — home to the powerful military as well as much of Pakistan’s governing class; social upheaval here would drag the whole country with it. In my travels in this province, none of the mullahs were talking about revolution. In fact, the social justice discussions that have driven political movements in the wider Islamic world — Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Sadr Army of Iraq’s Moktada al-Sadr, for example — were notably absent.

Instead, I have found a surprisingly comfortable coexistence between the mullahs, the landlords and the political elite (the latter two are often one and the same). Even the harder-line preachers, among the sternly traditional Muslims known as Deobandis, have stuck to a bland, nonconfrontational line.

One leader of a Deobandi seminary in Kabirwala, a town in southern Punjab, told me that the land was distributed as God had intended, and that the only problem with the landlords was that some were insufficiently Islamic, though now that was improving.

History explains much of the feudal outlook of the clerics in Punjab. They tend not to oppose the establishment in part because the state itself made them powerful. In the 1980s, the military dictator Zia ul-Haq gave land and money to Deobandis, a policy the United States supported because it needed both Mr. Zia and fervent jihadists in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Mr. Zia also crushed social ferment throughout Pakistan, and the debate on class and social justice that went with it, stifling political growth. To this day, Pakistan retains a colonial-style system of patronage: I-will-vote-for you-because-you-are-important-and-I-think-you-might-be-able-to-help-me-in-my-time-of-need.

At the same time, the Zia government elevated the mullahs, once unimportant men seen mostly at weddings and funerals. They became powerful players with their own political space — a kind of middleman between state and populace, not breaking their ties to the elite that had empowered them...

This is not to say that all are nonviolent, just that their violence does not challenge the state or the social order. The leader of Sipah-e-Sohaba, an ultra-orthodox Sunni political party, whose military wing believes Shiites to be apostates and has been killing them since the 1990s, was allowed to contest an election from a prison cell in 2002. (He won.) Another militant group, Jesh Muhammed, which supports Pakistani claims to Kashmir, operates unhindered in the city of Bahawalpur. And Hafez Saeed, a cleric whose associates are believed to have carried out the attack on Mumbai, India, last year, gives weekly sermons here in Lahore...

Even in Swat, the Taliban’s takeover didn’t happen overnight. At first, some landlords lent tacit (if worried) support, donating food and money to the seminary where Fazlullah, the main Taliban leader, began his political movement. The government itself made peace deals with the Taliban. Only later did conditions worsen, with militants seizing ever more power, and eventually overrunning the landlords. The military has since fought to eject them, but it is not clear how effectively.

NYT: Christians targeted by mob violence
The attack in this shabby town in central Pakistan — the culmination of several days of rioting over a claim that a Koran had been defiled — shows how precarious life is for the tiny Christian minority in Pakistan.

More than 100 Christian houses were burned and looted on Saturday in a rampage that lasted about eight hours by a crowd the authorities estimate was as large as 20,000 strong. In addition to the seven members of the Hameed family who were killed, about 20 people were wounded.

The authorities, who said the Koran accusation was spurious, filed criminal charges in the case late Sunday and apprehended at least 12 people. Officials said a banned Sunni militant group, Sipah-e-Sohaba, was among those responsible for the attacks, the third convulsion of anti-Christian mob violence in the region in the past four weeks...

While some Christians rise to become government officials or run businesses, the poorest work the country’s worst jobs, as toilet cleaners and street sweepers.

It was the poorest class who lived in Christian Colony, a small enclave of bare brick houses where the mob struck Saturday. Its residents work as day laborers and peddlers in the market, often earning far less than the minimum wage, $75 a month...

The Hameeds were having breakfast when the mob descended, wielding guns, hurling stones and shouting insults (“Dogs!” “American agents!”) through their window. The Hameeds did not appear to have been singled out but had the misfortune of living where the mob entered the neighborhood and happened to be home at the time...

The rampage began Thursday in a nearby village when Christians at a wedding party were accused of burning a Koran. Few here believed that, and state and federal officials who looked into the case said it was false. Still, local mullahs seized on the news, filing a blasphemy case against the Christian family...

Pakistan’s blasphemy law has been criticized as too broad, and many legal experts say it has been badly misused since its introduction in the 1980s by the military dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. Anyone can file a charge, which is then often used to stir hatred and to justify sectarian violence.

“The blasphemy law is being used to terrorize minorities in Pakistan,” said Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister of minority affairs, in an interview in Gojra on Sunday...

Christians here protested all day on Sunday, blocking the roads and refusing to bury the Hameeds until the authorities filed a criminal case. Late Sunday the authorities did, and the bodies were buried. That was little comfort to the Hameeds.

USAT: COIN in Afghanistan
A few miles away, but seemingly a world apart, sits another walled cluster of homes. Here, the Marines arrive the next day to a reception that may not be warm, but isn't lethal. Afghans talk with Marines; children beg them for sweets. A villager notices Marines hoisting themselves over a wall, gets their attention, and points out a shortcut.

The contrast between the two housing compounds in Afghanistan's Helmand River valley, a longtime stronghold of the Taliban militant group, illustrates the challenges facing Marines as they implement a new strategy that emphasizes winning the trust of the local population...

By providing security, rather than just focusing on killing insurgents, the Marines hope to convince locals to turn on the Taliban and eventually hand control over to the Afghan army and police — mirroring the tactics that helped turn the war in Iraq a few years ago.

"We win when the people really believe that the government is here to help them," says Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss, the battalion commander. "We can't kill our way out of an insurgency. All security does is create a vacuum. It takes the Taliban out. We'll show them that our brand of security is a lot nicer than the Taliban's."...

Trouble spots can be especially hard for the Marines to identify because they often co-exist with relatively peaceful areas — as happened with the two unnamed compounds that Garrett's unit encountered near the village of Hassan Abad, about 400 miles southwest of Kabul.

In an insurgency, "every village has its own microclimate," says John Nagl, a counterinsurgency expert at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.

Nagl says control of a particular area — "even (a) neighborhood or street," he says — can hinge on a variety of factors including how long Afghan security forces have been there, whether there are any insurgent bases nearby, and even what tribe the local population belongs to.

WP: Congo conflict morphs as it drags on
For the most part, though, people in eastern Congo have not died in a blaze of bullets or in large-scale massacres. More often, the conflict has set off a chain reaction of less spectacular consequences that begins with fleeing through an unforgiving jungle and ends with a death such as Mihigo's. In eastern Congo, people die from malaria and diarrhea, from untreated infections and measles, from falling off rickety bridges and slipping down slopes, from hunger and from drinking dirty water in the hope of surviving one more day.

Arguably, people die because of the wider social impact of the conflict. Entire villages have been scattered across hundreds of miles, atomizing extended family networks that people depend upon in difficult times. The conflict has overwhelmed already-dysfunctional government hospitals and left roads rutted and overgrown, isolating people in villages like Walikale from help.

At the moment, the conflict in eastern Congo is surging once again. Since January, at least half a million people have fled a U.N.-backed Congolese army operation targeting Rwandan rebels, which Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to discuss in a visit to Congo this month. The rebels are retaliating against villagers with whom they have lived for years.

BBC: Somali refugees suffering in Kenyan camp
CSM: Rwandan refugees must return from Uganda

AP: internally displaced living, demonstrating in Bogota park
Since March, more than 2,000 people displaced by violence in rural Colombia have occupied the green hillocks and red-brick squares of Third Millennium Park, which was to be a jewel of Bogota's urban renaissance as a military crackdown on leftist rebels brought greater safety to the nation's main cities.

Instead, the park and its tent city are a reminder that the five-decade-long conflict still afflicts the countryside, causing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes and generating the world's worst internal refugee problem, according to United Nations statistics.

The occupants of Third Millennium Park are demanding that President Alvaro Uribe's government heed a court order to provide them with food, education and jobs...

The Bogota tent city, because it's so public, offers a certain comfort, he said.

"Here, we are safer than anywhere else."
NYT: captured FARC computer files implicate Venezuelan government aiding and abetting
Econ: Afro-Colombians fight racism

NYT: the crime rate is down in the US, defying explanation
No single lens — sociological, econometrical, liberal or conservative — seems an adequate one through which to view crime. The economy, which seems as if it should be fundamental, has never been a good predictor; the Prohibition era was far more violent than the Great Depression. Adding prison beds has not helped; the incarceration rate has marched grimly upward for decades, while the crime rate has zigzagged up and down, seemingly oblivious. Years ago, criminologists thought demographics explained a lot — remember the warnings about thousands of cold-blooded, teenage “superpredators” in the mid-1990s? — but demographics cannot shed light on what is happening now. Improved policing deserves credit for bigger declines in certain cities, but not the overall national trend...

While the decline may not have taken hold in the minds of the public, it has undermined a cherished belief, particularly among liberals, in root causes — that criminals are born of misery and the limited options of poverty. “There are people that are putting up with an awful lot of suffering, and they’re not complaining all that much,” said Andrew Karmen, a criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
USAT: yet surge in concealed weapons permits applications 'in anticipation of crime increase'
if crime does go up, SV urges us to remember the sequence of events.

NYT: Iran takes 3 hikers into custody
SV hoping for the quick release of Josh, Sarah, and Shane

01 August 2009

editorial prerogatives [i confess]

TAL: fine print (i.e., the glue that keeps a regime together, even if some parts don't realize it)
Act 1: In Tehran in 2004, Omid Memarian confessed to doing things he’d never done, meeting people he’d never met, following plots he’d never heard of. Why he did that, and why a lot of other people have confessed to the same things, is all in the fine print.
(Act 2, on health care also recommended.)

NYT: cut to: mass trial for demonstrators and pro-reformists in Iran today
The Iranian authorities opened an extraordinary mass trial against more than 100 reformist figures on Saturday, accusing them of conspiring with foreign powers to stage a revolution through terrorism, subversion and a media campaign to discredit last month’s presidential election...

Some of the main charges seemed to come out of a confession by Muhammad Ali Abtahi, a cleric who served as vice president under the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami. Mr. Abtahi, one of Iran’s most widely read bloggers, was arrested shortly after the election, and word later emerged that he had appeared in a tearful videotaped confession. Such confessions are almost always obtained under duress, human rights groups say...

Some senior government officials touted Mr. Abtahi’s confession as proof of the opposition’s malign intent. But the confession, which was disjointed and at times almost incoherent, seemed to be a kind of compromise with what his interrogators wanted him to say. At one point, Mr. Abtahi said, “I think there was the capacity for what the deputy prosecutor called a ‘velvet revolution,’ but I don’t know if the intention was there or not.”

Vanity Fair: translating Sarah Palin's exit announcement into English

31 July 2009

kafka in korea [they can't stop it]

WP: violence during protest 40th-day mourning of Neda, other demonstrators killed in Iran
The clashes were some of the most intense in recent weeks, suggesting that the anger that fueled demonstrations in the days after last month's disputed presidential election continues to run deep. With President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad scheduled to be sworn in for another term next week, Thursday's demonstrations showed that almost 50 days after his apparent victory, authorities have not been successful in stamping out unrest...

Security forces worked aggressively Thursday to put down the protests, knowing that any major defeat in the streets could give new energy to the opposition. Police fired tear gas, attacked demonstrators with batons and smashed car windshields. But the protesters fought back, battling hand-to-hand with security forces in some of the most violent confrontations of the summer. In one case, three members of the much-feared voluntary militia known as the Basij were beaten with their own batons after a group of opposition activists pulled them off their motorcycles near a park. The motorcycles were set on fire, witnesses reported...

Even as security forces cracked down, the government was trying to appease opponents. Police announced Thursday that they had paid damages to hundreds of people who had been mistreated during previous demonstrations, doling out $50,000 in total.

Earlier in the week, the government closed a major prison where arrested protesters had been held, citing substandard conditions. The closure came after reports emerged in recent days that three detainees had died, and it was interpreted as a gesture of reconciliation by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But opposition leaders said more was needed to heal the deep rifts in Iranian society.

NYT: meanwhile, signs of fissure within the ruling coalition
Some opposition supporters were heartened by the turnout on Thursday. “You see they never thought this many people would turn out in the heat like this,” said a 45-year-old woman at the cemetery, where thick crowds of people chanted slogans deriding President Ahmadinejad as a dictator and calling on him to resign. “They can’t stop it now.”...

Public anger is rising at a difficult time for Mr. Ahmadinejad, who won the election on June 12 in a landslide that opposition supporters say was rigged. This month Mr. Ahmadinejad refused a direct order from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to drop a contested cabinet appointment. That provoked many hard-liners, who have warned that he may not last as president if he does not show more respect for the revered Ayatollah Khamenei. The deputy ultimately withdrew, but Mr. Ahmadinejad then named him chief of staff. Some on both sides of Iran’s political divide have linked the prison abuse to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s flouting of Ayatollah Khamenei’s authority, hinting that a broader lack of accountability is the problem. Lawmakers have complained that they were not given access to the those arrested after the election, who are widely believed to be under the control of the Revolutionary Guards. Many in the opposition say the election amounted to a coup by the guards, where Mr. Ahmadinejad spent formative years.

“This is the only way that we can stop everything from falling into the hands of the Revolutionary Guards,” said a 29-year-old physiotherapist who came to the cemetery. “You see, now they don’t even take notice of the clerics, it’s gone that far.”

NYT: (dated) Kenya's electoral violence yet to be reckoned with
“If we don’t deal with the impunity from this last election, the next one will be horrible,” said Maina Kiai, a former government human rights official.

Mr. Kiai says that ethnic gangs are rearming themselves across the country, this time with guns, not machetes. He contends that unless the culprits are punished for the killings last year, which included hacking up old men and burning toddlers to death, the next time there is a disputed election, which he thinks there surely will be, people will be emboldened to wreak havoc again...

In the days following the election, in December 2007, in which the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, was declared the winner over Raila Odinga, the opposition leader who is now prime minister, rival gangs rampaged across Kenya’s slums, in the hillsides and throughout many towns. Initially, a lot of violence appeared to be spontaneous outrage, vented along ethnic lines, though upon closer inspection, some of it seemed to have been organized, at least by local leaders and village elders. But what remains murky, many political analysts here say, is the extent to which top politicians were directly involved.

WP: North Korea's gulags
The camps have never been visited by outsiders, so these accounts cannot be independently verified. But high-resolution satellite photographs, now accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, reveal vast labor camps in the mountains of North Korea. The photographs corroborate survivors' stories, showing entrances to mines where former prisoners said they worked as slaves, in-camp detention centers where former guards said uncooperative prisoners were tortured to death and parade grounds where former prisoners said they were forced to watch executions. Guard towers and electrified fences surround the camps, photographs show...

Nor have the camps become much of an issue for the American public, even though annotated images of them can be quickly called up on Google Earth and even though they have existed for half a century, 12 times as long as the Nazi concentration camps and twice as long as the Soviet Gulag. Although precise numbers are impossible to obtain, Western governments and human groups estimate that hundreds of thousands of people have died in the North Korean camps...

Like several former prisoners, Jung said the most arduous part of his imprisonment was his pre-camp interrogation at the hands of the Bowibu, the National Security Agency. After eight years in a government office that handled trade with China, a fellow worker accused him of being a South Korean agent.

"They wanted me to admit to being a spy," Jung said. "They knocked out my front teeth with a baseball bat. They fractured my skull a couple of times. I was not a spy, but I admitted to being a spy after nine months of torture."

When he was arrested, Jung said, he weighed 167 pounds. When his interrogation was finished, he said, he weighed 80 pounds. "When I finally got to the camp, I actually gained weight," said Jung, who worked summers in cornfields and spent winters in the mountains felling trees...

The number of camps has been consolidated from 14 to about five large sites, according to former officials who worked in the camps. Camp 22, near the Chinese border, is 31 miles long and 25 miles wide, an area larger than the city of Los Angeles. As many as 50,000 prisoners are held there, a former guard said.

There is a broad consensus among researchers about how the camps are run: Most North Koreans are sent there without any judicial process. Many inmates die in the camps unaware of the charges against them. Guilt by association is legal under North Korean law, and up to three generations of a wrongdoer's family are sometimes imprisoned, following a rule from North Korea's founding dictator, Kim Il Sung: "Enemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations"...

Prisoners are denied any contact with the outside world, according to the Korean Bar Association's 2008 white paper on human rights in North Korea. The report also found that suicide is punished with longer prison terms for surviving relatives; guards can beat, rape and kill prisoners with impunity; when female prisoners become pregnant without permission, their babies are killed.

Most of the political camps are "complete control districts," which means that inmates work there until death.

There is, however, a "revolutionizing district" at Camp 15, where prisoners can receive remedial indoctrination in socialism. After several years, if they memorize the writings of Kim Jong Il, they are released but remain monitored by security officials...

An Myeong Chul was allowed to work as a guard and driver in political prison camps because, he said, he came from a trustworthy family. His father was a North Korean intelligence agent, as were the parents of many of his fellow guards.

In his training to work in the camps, An said, he was ordered, under penalty of becoming a prisoner himself, never to show pity. It was permissible, he said, for bored guards to beat or kill prisoners.

"We were taught to look at inmates as pigs," said An, 41, adding that he worked in the camps for seven years before escaping to China in 1994. He now works in a bank in Seoul.

The rules he enforced were simple. "If you do not meet your work quota, you do not eat much," he said. "You are not allowed to sleep until you finish your work. If you still do not finish your work, you are sent to a little prison inside the camp. After three months, you leave that prison dead."

An said the camps play a crucial role in the maintenance of totalitarian rule. "All high-ranking officials underneath Kim Jong Il know that one misstep means you go to the camps, along with your family," he said.

NYT: tent city governance, enforced by a chief
The chief emerges from his tent to face the leaden morning light. It had been a rare, rough night in his homeless Brigadoon: a boozy brawl, the wielding of a knife taped to a stick. But the community handled it, he says with pride, his day’s first cigar already aglow.

By community he means 80 or so people living in tents on a spit of state land beside the dusky Providence River: Camp Runamuck, no certain address, downtown Providence.

Because the two men in the fight had violated the community’s written compact, they were escorted off the camp, away from the protection of an abandoned overpass. One was told we’ll discuss this in the morning; the other was voted off the island, his knife tossed into the river, his tent taken down...

“I was always considered the leader, the chief,” Mr. Freitas says. “I was the one consulted about ‘Where should I put my tent?’ ”

By late June the camp had about 50 people. But someone questioned the role of Mr. Freitas as chief, so he stepped down. Arguments broke out. Food was stolen.

“There was no center holding,” recalls Rachell Shaw, 22, who lives with her boyfriend in a tidy tent decorated with porcelain dolls. “So everybody voted him back in.”

The community also established a five-member leadership council and a compact that read in part: “No one person shall be greater than the will of the whole.”

It is now late afternoon in late July, a month after nearly everyone signed that compact. The community remains intact, though the very ground they walk on says nothing is forever. Here and there are the exposed foundations of fish shacks that lined the river long ago.

Some state officials recently stopped by to say, nicely but firmly, that everyone would soon have to leave. The overpass poses the threat of falling concrete, and is scheduled for demolition.

29 July 2009

alternatives [packing heat]

NYT: updates on protests in Iran

BBC: troops, Islamists fighting in northern Nigeria
Nigeria's security services have been flooding Maiduguri, the city worst affected by the violence, the BBC's Caroline Duffield reports.

They surrounded the area housing the headquarters of Mohammed Yusuf's group, known as Boko Haram. The group is also referred to locally as the "Taliban", though it has no known links to the Afghan militants.
AP: thousands are displaced
Soldiers in tanks and armored cars besieged the shelled compound of a radical Islamist sect and sporadic gunfire exploded as hundreds of innocents fled on the third day of fighting in Nigeria's northern city of Maiduguri.

Relief official Apollus Jediel said about 1,000 people had abandoned their homes Wednesday, joining 3,000 displaced this week in four states caught up in the violence...

Reporters on the ground say the trouble started with militants attacking a police station in Bauchi state Sunday. Then they attacked police in Kano, Yobe and Borno, of which Maiduguri is the capital.

But President Umaru Yar'Adua disputed that, saying troops struck first.

''I want to emphasize that this is not an inter-religious crisis and it is not the Taliban group that attacked the security agents first, no. It was as a result of a security information gathered on their intention ... to launch a major attack,'' the Nigerian leader told journalists before he left Tuesday night for a state visit to Brazil.

WP: meanwhile, in Niger Delta, situation tenuous
Two weeks before the government is set to begin disarming as many as 10,000 militants in a 60-day amnesty program, it has revealed little about how it will reintegrate participants into society or address the demands for increased development and oil revenue that Niger Delta militants say drive their campaign of attacking oil installations and holding foreigners hostage.

The offer's vagueness is fueling fears that it will fail to lure militants and instead trigger a full-scale military offensive that could ensnare civilians living on the remote creeks where militants keep their camps.

BBC: Taylor remembered
HuffPo: (Rob Blair): and defended
Meanwhile, to many Liberians, Taylor remains a hero. For foreigners like myself, this is not an easy thing to understand. At times, his popularity seems a byproduct of his savagery. During the Liberian civil war, recruits for Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) were often heard chanting a grim refrain: "He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I'll fight for him." A decade later, this mystique has not dissipated in many pockets of the country. While we in the international peanut gallery gape at the spectacle of the trial - a murderer defending indefensible acts - many Liberians continue to endorse Taylor and his charismatic brutality.


NYT: Islamists in the borderlands between Somalia and Kenya
The Shabab has already penetrated refugee camps inside Kenya, according to camp elders, luring away dozens of young men with promises of paradise — and $300 each. It has carried out cross-border attacks, kidnapping an outspoken cleric in May from a refugee camp 50 miles inside Kenya. Last Wednesday, in one of its boldest cross-border moves yet, a squad of uniformed, heavily armed Shabab fighters stormed into a Kenyan school in a remote town, rounding up all the children and telling them to quit their classes and join the jihad.

“If these guys can come in with their guns and uniforms in broad daylight,” said one of the teachers at the school, “they must be among us.”...

The raging war in the country next door, between Somalia’s weak transitional government and the Shabab, is rapidly becoming a proxy war — with Western arms and money keeping the transitional government alive, while Arab and Pakistani jihadists with links to Al Qaeda fight for the Shabab.
BBC: meanwhile, EU to train Somali anti-piracy force

NYT: redrawing boundaries in the Sudan
The new ruling includes important concessions for both sides, giving the government in the north control of the region’s richest oil fields, but consolidating control of the remaining region under the Ngok Dinka, an ethnic group loyal to southern Sudan and likely to vote to join it in a coming referendum.

Both sides in the conflict — President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s government in the north, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which controls the semiautonomous south — said Wednesday that they would accept the ruling, which was hailed by representatives of the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.

LAT: interview with Gen. McChrystal on strategy
[Q:] Do you think there has been too much focus on counter-terrorism?

[A:] I think there hasn't been enough focus on counterinsurgency. I am certainly not in a position to criticize counter-terrorism. But at this point in the war, in Afghanistan, it is most important to focus on almost classic counterinsurgency.

I don't want people to think it is inflexible; it should be uniquely adapted to the conditions in each part of the country...

[Q:] Are there safe havens in Afghanistan for insurgents?

[A:] It would be how you define a safe haven. If you said a safe haven is a location where you are never under threat, you can't be bombed, you can't be attacked, then you could define that there are no safe havens in Afghanistan.

But I would tell you practically speaking, there are areas that are controlled by Taliban forces. There are places ANSF [Afghan] and coalition forces cannot go routinely, insurgents are free to operate and free to impose a shadow government. While they are not typical safe havens, the insurgency is more comfortable than we want them to be. And so over time those are areas we intend to reduce.

[Q:] But those areas are not the first priority? If the population is sparse or rural you may wait on that.

[A:] Absolutely it is a case of prioritizing. Our intent is to prioritize first on those areas where we have significant population centers; in some cases those are also places with a heavy insurgent presence. But it is to protect the population. If the insurgents are in very remote areas with very little population, they don't have access to what they need for success, which is population. So we will seek to separate them from the population.

WP: recruiting and training police in southern Afghanistan
"It's a challenge to get people down here," said Hix, adding that units that deploy to southern Afghanistan often suffer higher rates of unauthorized absences. "The guys think there is a monster down here." Drug use in the forces is another problem, according to U.S. and Afghan officers. "We lose 5 to 10 percent of every class in the police force to opiate use," Hix said.

Training the police and army poses other challenges, he said. Police officers and soldiers -- the vast majority of them illiterate villagers -- require extensive training, but during a war only so many can be pulled away from their jobs at any one time.

Building training and other facilities for the forces and providing them with equipment remain slow because of red tape and contracting rules, he said. It takes 120 to 180 days to start work on a training facility and often more than a year to 18 months to field new equipment, such as the 1,000 Humvees on order for the Afghan army in the south. "We can't swing the money cannon quickly enough to adapt," Hix said.

Still, Hix said, the Afghan forces have made significant progress in the south. In the past year, the training capacity for regional police has doubled and the rate of those absent without leave has halved.

Despite the problems, Hix said that replacing foreign forces with homegrown ones is the only viable long-term solution, in part because the latter cost far less. "We should not be substituting U.S. troops for Afghans, which is what we are effectively doing now . . . in trying to secure and stabilize Afghanistan," he wrote in an e-mail.

AJE: Taliban distributes code of conduct
The book, with 13 chapters and 67 articles, lays out what one of the most secretive organisations in the world today, can and cannot do.

It talks of limiting suicide attacks, avoiding civilian casualties and winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the local civilian population.

Al Jazeera's James Bays, reporting from the capital, Kabul, said every fighter is being issued the pocket book entitled "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Rules for Mujahideen".

AP: ceasefire agreement reached with small Taliban unit in Afghanistan
Seyamak Herawi, a spokesman in President Hamid Karzai's office, said the agreement will allow a road construction project to move forward and permit presidential candidates to open offices in the region ahead of an Aug. 20 election...

The agreement covers the Bala Morghab district of northwestern Badghis province, an area where the Afghan government has little or no control. The cease-fire, agreed to Saturday, was reached with the help of tribal elders.

Afghan election coverage
WP: Hazaras, a minority ethnic group, may be a bloc swing vote
During various periods in history, the Shiite Hazaras have been forced from their lands and slaughtered in bouts of ethnic or religious "cleansing." In more recent times, they have often been relegated to lowly jobs as cart-pullers or domestic servants...

But the group now stands poised to play a decisive role in the Aug. 20 presidential and provincial council elections.
NPR: an interview with Holbrooke
NPR: the leading opposition: Abdullah

NYT: landowners won't return to Swat
About four dozen landlords were singled out over the past two years by the militants in a strategy intended to foment a class struggle. In some areas, the Taliban rewarded the landless peasants with profits of the crops of the landlords.

Some resentful peasants even signed up as the Taliban’s shock troops. How many of those peasants stayed with the militants during the army offensive of the last several months, and how many moved to the refugee camps, was difficult to assess, Pakistani analysts said...

The landlords, many of whom raised sizable militias to fight the Taliban themselves last year, say the army is again failing to provide enough protection if they return.

Another deterrent to returning, they say, is that the top Taliban leadership, responsible for taking aim at the landlords and spreading the spoils among the landless, remains unscathed.

If it continues, the landlords’ absence will have lasting ramifications not only for Swat, but also for Pakistan’s most populated province, Punjab, where the landholdings are vast, and the militants are gaining power, said Vali Nasr, a senior adviser to Mr. Holbrooke, the American envoy.

“If the large landowners are kept out by the Taliban, the result will in effect be property redistribution,” Mr. Nasr said. “That will create a vested community of support for the Taliban that will see benefit in the absence of landlords.”

NYT: settlements in West Bank not so militant
But appearances are deceiving. Modiin Illit and its sister community, Beitar Illit, are entirely ultra-Orthodox, a world apart, one of strict religious observance and study. They offer surprising potential for compromise.

Unlike settlers who believe they are continuing the historic Zionist mission of reclaiming the Jewish homeland, most ultra-Orthodox do not consider themselves settlers or Zionists and express no commitment to being in the West Bank, so their growth in these settlement towns, situated just inside the pre-1967 boundary, could be redirected westward to within Israel.

Their location also means it may be possible, in negotiations about a future Palestinian state, to redraw the boundary so the settlements are inside Israel, with little land lost to the Palestinians. And the two towns alone account for half of all settler growth, so if removed from the equation, the larger settler challenge takes on more manageable proportions.

WP: straddling the Arab-Kurdish conflict in Iraq
Louis Khno is a city councilman whose city is beyond his control. In his barricaded streets are militiamen -- in baseball caps and jeans, wielding Kalashnikov rifles, with the safeties switched off. They answer to someone else. Leaders of his police force give their loyalty to their ethnic brethren -- be they Kurd or Arab. Clergy in the town pledge themselves to the former. Khno and his colleagues to the latter.
WP: Iraqi troops raid Iranian camp

AJE: ceasefire in the Philippines
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) called the ceasefire on Saturday, two days after Gloria Arroyo, the Philippines president, ordered the army to suspend its offensives in the south in an attempt to restart peace talks.

An order was issued to the estimated 12,000 members Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces to "support and co-operate with efforts to revitalise and strengthen ceasefire mechanisms on the ground"...

The MILF broke a five-year-old ceasefire in August last year and launched attacks across the southern island of Mindanao, where they have been waging a bloody war since 1978...

The two sides are expected to meet next week in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, to prepare for the resumption of talks and the return of about 60 monitors from Malaysia, Brunei, Libya and Japan, who pulled out in November 2008...

Mohaqher Iqbal, the head of the separatists' peace panel, told the Reuters news agency that his group would discuss government plans to return more than 300,000 displaced families to their homes before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in late August.

AJE: attack in southern Thailand blamed on separatist group
The attacks come amid a spike in violence during a five-year insurgency in the area that has left at least 3,700 people dead.

Since last month, at least 40 people have been killed and more than 100 wounded in violence in the region.

The deadliest recent incident was the killing of 10 Muslims at a mosque in Narathiwat in early June.

Most of the violence in Thailand's south has been blamed by authorities on Muslim armed separatist groups.

However, no group has claimed responsibility for the latest attacks.

The fighters in Thailand's southern provinces have not specifically stated their motives, but they are thought to be fighting to establish an independent state in the three Muslim-majority provinces.

The latest rebellion in the former ethnic Malay sultanate began in January 2004 when fighters raided an army base, killing four soldiers.

WSJ: the suspension of democracy in Honduras: anticipated and actual
But in fact, a close look at Mr. Zelaya's time in office reveals a strongly antidemocratic streak. He placed himself in a growing cadre of elected Latin presidents who have tried to stay in power past their designated time to carry out a populist-leftist agenda. These leaders, led by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, have used the region's historic poverty and inequality to gain support from the poor, but created deep divisions in their societies by concentrating power in their own hands and increasing government control over the economy, media and other sectors.
NYT: Zelaya poised to return
Since Mr. Zelaya arrived [in Nicaragua] on Friday to taunt the de facto government that exiled him a month ago, hundreds of Hondurans have answered his call to join him just across the border in Nicaragua.

Arriving here in mud-caked jeans and ripped shirts, after sleeping on soaked mountaintops and hiding among the coffee plants from patrolling helicopters, they have set up camps in the border towns of Las Manos and Ocotal.

They are teachers, students, the self-employed and laborers. Many said they came to support Mr. Zelaya because his policies benefit the poor...

The de facto government in Honduras responded to Mr. Zelaya’s presence by calling for a 24-hour curfew in the border departments that began Friday. At checkpoints on major roads to the border, soldiers stopped traffic to conduct searches while more soldiers and police officers in riot gear blockaded roads before the border.

The soldiers have turned back hundreds of protesters.

LAT: Swedish rockets sold to Venezuelans found in the FARC's possession; Colombia 'angry'
Sweden has asked Venezuela for an explanation of how the weapons ended up in FARC hands.

The disclosure does not prove that the Chavez government sold or willingly gave them to rebels, said Jane's Americas analyst Anna Gilmour. Venezuelan arsenals, she said, are notorious for "seepage" by corrupt officers, who resell arms and munitions as contraband.

LAT: eh, global warming helped the Incas expand their empire?
A several-degree increase in temperature allowed the Incas to move higher into the Andes mountains, opening up new farmland and providing a water source through the gradual melting of glaciers at the top of those mountains, paleoecologist Alex Chepstow-Lusty of the French Institute of Andean Studies in Lima reported online Monday in the journal Climate of the Past.

WP: at a loss for how to fight the cartels in Mexico
Mexico, nearly twice Colombia's size, faces a more daunting challenge, many officials and analysts said , in part because it sits adjacent to the United States, the largest illegal drug market in the world. In addition, at least seven major cartels are able to recruit from Mexico's swelling ranks of impoverished youth and thousands of disenfranchised soldiers and police officers...

"No one has told us what alternative we have," said Interior Minister Fernando Gómez Mont, gently slapping his palm on a table during an interview. "We are committed to enduring this wave of violence. We are strengthening our ability to protect the innocent victims of this process, which is the most important thing. We will not look the other way."

Drug-related deaths during the 2 1/2 years of Calderon's administration passed 12,000 this month. Rather than shrinking or growing weaker, the Mexican cartels are using their wealth and increasing power to expand into Central America, cocaine-producing regions of the Andes and maritime trafficking routes in the eastern Pacific, according to law enforcement authorities.

In Mexico, neither high-profile arrests nor mass troop deployments have stopped the cartels from unleashing spectacular acts of violence.

NYT: studying soldiers' brains to answer questions on sensing danger
Everyone has hunches — about friends’ motives, about the stock market, about when to fold a hand of poker and when to hold it. But United States troops are now at the center of a large effort to understand how it is that in a life-or-death situation, some people’s brains can sense danger and act on it well before others’ do...

Small differences in how the brain processes images, how well it reads emotions and how it manages surges in stress hormones help explain why some people sense imminent danger before most others do...

“Not long ago people thought of emotions as old stuff, as just feelings — feelings that had little to do with rational decision making, or that got in the way of it,” said Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. “Now that position has reversed. We understand emotions as practical action programs that work to solve a problem, often before we’re conscious of it. These processes are at work continually, in pilots, leaders of expeditions, parents, all of us.”...

The men and women who performed best in the Army’s I.E.D. detection study had the sort of knowledge gained through experience, according to a preliminary analysis of the results; but many also had superb depth perception and a keen ability to sustain intense focus for long periods. The ability to pick odd shapes masked in complex backgrounds — a “Where’s Waldo” type of skill that some call anomaly detection — also predicted performance on some of the roadside bomb simulations.
WP: returning brigade seems exceptionally violence-prone
Soldiers returning from Iraq after serving with a Fort Carson, Colo., combat brigade have exhibited an exceptionally high rate of criminal behavior in their home towns, carrying out a string of killings and other offenses that the ex-soldiers attribute to lax discipline and episodes of indiscriminate killing during their grueling deployment, according to a six-month investigation by the Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper.

During their deployment, some soldiers killed civilians at random -- in some cases at point-blank range -- used banned stun guns on captives, pushed people off bridges, loaded weapons with illegal hollow-point bullets, abused drugs and occasionally mutilated the bodies of Iraqis, according to accounts the Gazette attributed to soldiers who said they witnessed the events. The unit's casualty rate was double the average for Army combat teams deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, the paper said.

WP: (EJ Dionne) get rid of metal detectors for pro-gun senators!
Congress seems to think that gun restrictions are for wimps. It voted this year to allow people to bring their weapons into national parks, and pro-gun legislators have pushed for the right to carry in taverns, colleges and workplaces. Shouldn't Congress set an example in its own workplace?

WP: projecting nationalism back in time: Macedonians claim Alexander the Great as their own

GDN: come out, come out: the gay games in Copenhagen

21 July 2009

disorderly conduct [analog societies]

NYRB: Roger Cohen: Iran's past and future

I was still using a notebook then. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, had not yet pronounced foreign correspondents "evil" agents, thus granting heavenly sanction to their manhandling, expulsion, or arrest, which duly followed. Like everyone that morning I was perplexed. The Iranian government proceeds with cautious calculation. The revolution's survival has not been based on caprice. Had this government really invited hundreds of journalists to a freedom fest only to change its mind? I lingered when I could, ran when I had to, bumping into another railing young woman in tears. As we stood talking, a middle-aged man approached. "Don't cry, be brave and be ready," he told her.

I will call him Mohsen. He showed me his ID card from the Interior Ministry, where he said he'd worked for thirty years. He'd been locked out, he said, as had other employees, many of whom had been fired in recent weeks. We ducked into a café, where patriotic songs droned from a TV over images of soldiers and devout women in black chadors—had we just witnessed an election or the imposition of martial law?—and Mohsen talked about his brother, a martyr of the 1980–1988 Iran–Iraq war, and how he himself had not fought in that war, nor endured a sibling's loss, to see "this injustice against the Revolution, conscience, and humanity."

Iran's dignity had been flouted, he said, the alleged election results emerging from the Interior Ministry plucked from the summer air. Why, I asked, had he admonished the young woman? "Because the best decisions are needed in the worst of conditions and crying is not the answer." Mohsen told me he'd also admonished the police: "I asked them: if Ahmadinejad won, why is such oppression needed?"

LRB: Slavoj Žižek:...and what it portends for the future of democracy? (hint: Ahmadenijad = Berlusconi = Kung Fu Panda

What all this means is that there is a genuinely liberatory potential in Islam: we don’t have to go back to the tenth century to find a ‘good’ Islam, we have it right here, in front of us. The future is uncertain – the popular explosion has been contained, and the regime will regain ground. However, it will no longer be seen the same way: it will be just one more corrupt authoritarian government. Ayatollah Khamenei will lose whatever remained of his status as a principled spiritual leader elevated above the fray and appear as what he is – one opportunistic politician among many. But whatever the outcome, it is vital to keep in mind that we have witnessed a great emancipatory event which doesn’t fit within the frame of a struggle between pro-Western liberals and anti-Western fundamentalists. If we don’t see this, if as a consequence of our cynical pragmatism, we have lost the capacity to recognise the promise of emancipation, we in the West will have entered a post-democratic era, ready for our own Ahmadinejads. Italians already know his name: Berlusconi. Others are waiting in line.

Is there a link between Ahmadinejad and Berlusconi? Isn’t it preposterous even to compare Ahmadinejad with a democratically elected Western leader? Unfortunately, it isn’t: the two are part of the same global process. If there is one person to whom monuments will be built a hundred years from now, Peter Sloterdijk once remarked, it is Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean leader who thought up and put into practice a ‘capitalism with Asian values’. The virus of authoritarian capitalism is slowly but surely spreading around the globe. Deng Xiaoping praised Singapore as the model that all of China should follow. Until now, capitalism has always seemed to be inextricably linked with democracy; it’s true there were, from time to time, episodes of direct dictatorship, but, after a decade or two, democracy again imposed itself (in South Korea, for example, or Chile). Now, however, the link between democracy and capitalism has been broken.

Kung Fu Panda, the 2008 cartoon hit, provides the basic co-ordinates for understanding the ideological situation I have been describing. The fat panda dreams of becoming a kung fu warrior. He is chosen by blind chance (beneath which lurks the hand of destiny, of course), to be the hero to save his city, and succeeds. But the film’s pseudo-Oriental spiritualism is constantly undermined by a cynical humour. The surprise is that this continuous making-fun-of-itself makes it no less spiritual: the film ultimately takes the butt of its endless jokes seriously. A well-known anecdote about Niels Bohr illustrates the same idea. Surprised at seeing a horseshoe above the door of Bohr’s country house, a visiting scientist said he didn’t believe that horseshoes kept evil spirits out of the house, to which Bohr answered: ‘Neither do I; I have it there because I was told that it works just as well if one doesn’t believe in it!’ This is how ideology functions today: nobody takes democracy or justice seriously, we are all aware that they are corrupt, but we practise them anyway because we assume they work even if we don’t believe in them. Berlusconi is our own Kung Fu Panda. As the Marx Brothers might have put it, ‘this man may look like a corrupt idiot and act like a corrupt idiot, but don’t let that deceive you – he is a corrupt idiot.’
Gdn: speaking of Berlusconi, buried treasure on sexploit tape
The Silvio Berlusconi tapes released this week have focused, not surprisingly, on lurid discussions of threesomes, condoms and staying power. But today Italy's prime minister was facing the bizarre possibility that the most explosive secret in the recordings was neither sexual nor financial, but archaeological...After noting that the lake is adorned by a fossilised whale, Berlusconi purportedly adds: "Underneath here, we found 30 Phoenician tombs from 300BC."

Baltimore Sun: a feud that spawned a gang
Back one day in 1966, at a house party in North Baltimore's Pen Lucy neighborhood, two teenage boys asked the same girl to dance.

One boy lived on Old York Road, the other on McCabe Avenue.

The two fought, first inside, then on the street, and a feud began that turned two neighborhood groups into gangs that terrorized a collection of blighted blocks for more than three decades.

Street wars between the Old York and Cator Avenue Boys and the McCabe Avenue Boys would become legendary and deadly. Corner disputes turned into drug disputes, and battles with knives, fists and bats turned into fights with rifles, revolvers and automatic handguns.

Police now say the two gangs are all but gone, their victims memorialized in a park, their leaders eviscerated by the law and their own hands, and residents living in the old turf proclaim a new day...

The recent violence brought back memories to a man who grew up on Old York Road in the 1960s and was one of the boys who had asked the girl to dance. He's 56 now, an Air Force veteran and a college graduate with an accounting degree. He has two children and runs his own consulting business.

Back in the day, he was an original lieutenant for the Old York and Cator Avenue Boys. He asked that his name not be used because he still has relatives in Pen Lucy and they fear for their safety...

He chose the suburbs over the inner city, but about a decade ago he took his 10- and 12-year-old sons to a family gathering in the old neighborhood.

There, he saw some men he used to hang with, now in their 40s but still strung out on the corners, still trapped in the old game, one that had long passed them by with violence and heroin. One son looked up incredulously and said, "Dad, do you know these bad people?"

Stunned, the man looked down and answered: "They're not bad people. They're people who made bad choices."

As he thinks back at the violence that engulfed Pen Lucy, he's sorry about the fight over the girl - she rejected both suitors, but that didn't seem to matter to boys fighting for honor - and wonders if any of the members of the gangs even know why they started fighting.

He suspects that the pattern in Pen Lucy was and is repeated all over the city. A simple dispute escalates, turns to drugs and guns, then jail and death.

Slate: race, racism, the law, and policing in the US
I know Gates and find it very hard to imagine him engaged in "disorderly conduct." But many police officers demand more than orderly conduct; they demand submission and deference. Given the difficult and dangerous jobs they do, they usually deserve it. But it would be naive to imagine that there are no power-hungry bigots wearing the uniform. Anyone, particularly a black person, needs only to encounter one such rogue officer to find himself in serious jeopardy—at that point a few hours in custody is about the best one can hope for. Maybe Gates, who is well-acquainted with the history of American racism, raised his voice in anger or fear. Maybe he even unfairly berated Crowley. But there's no way that the slight, 58-year-old Harvard scholar, with his cane, posed a threat to public order that justified his arrest.

Rather than improve those neighborhoods and help the people who live in them join the prosperous mainstream, we as a society have given police the dirty job of quarantining them. Frankly, we should expect that a disproportionate number of power-hungry bigots would find such a mandate attractive. And an otherwise decent and fair-minded officer, faced with the day-to-day task of controlling society's most isolated, desperate, and angry population, might develop some ugly racial generalizations and carry them even to plush and leafy neighborhoods such as those surrounding Harvard Yard. Yet when the inevitable racial scandal surfaces we, like Capt. Renault in Casablanca, are shocked, shocked to find racial bias in law enforcement and quick to blame individual police officers, rather than ourselves.
HuffPo: Brandon Terry: 'disorderly conduct' and vicious cycles
But if we can step back and see how easily this happened to someone like Gates, arguably the most famous academic in the country, it should encourage us to be more vigilant about the toll that continuing racial disparities in law enforcement are taking on blacks, particularly the working class and poor, in America. The disproportionate policing of amorphous criminal statutes like "disorderly conduct" and "disobeying the lawful order of a police officer" have served to introduce thousands of otherwise law-abiding people into the criminal justice system. This puts undue stress and costs on police forces and communities, undermining the capacity to stem crime at its roots. When applied to juveniles in particular, this type of policing only stigmatizes and alienates youth, exposing them further to deleterious influences that ultimately encourage them to turn away from school and legitimate employment.

NYT: Chavez's nepotism in Barinas; kidnappings skyrocket
Barinas offers a unique microcosm of Mr. Chávez’s rule. Many poor residents still revere the president, born here into poverty in 1954. But polarization in Barinas is growing more severe, with others chafing at his newly prosperous parents and siblings, who have governed the state since the 1990s. While Barinas is a laboratory for projects like land reform, urgent problems like violent crime go unmentioned in the many billboards here extolling the Chávez family’s ascendancy...

The governor of Barinas, Adán Chávez, the president’s eldest brother and a former ambassador to Cuba, said this month that many of the kidnappings might have been a result of destabilization efforts by the opposition or so-called self-kidnappings: orchestrated abductions to reveal weaknesses among security forces, or to extort money from one’s own family...

“In the meantime, while the family wraps itself in the rhetoric of socialism, we are descending into a neo-capitalist chaos where all that matters is money,” said Alberto Santelíz, the publisher of La Prensa, a small opposition newspaper.

One reason for the rise in kidnappings is the injection of oil money into the local economy, with some families reaping quick fortunes because of ties to large infrastructure projects...

More than a decade into the Chávez family’s rule in Barinas, the state remains Venezuela’s poorest, with average monthly household income of about $800, according to the National Statistics Institute. Kidnapping, once feared only by the wealthy, has spread in Barinas to include the poor. In one case this year of a 3-year-old girl kidnapped in the slum of Mi Jardín, the abductor, when told that the only thing of value owned by the girl’s mother was a refrigerator, instructed her to sell it to pay the ransom.

Kidnapping specialists here said the abductors were drawn from two Colombian rebel groups, a small Venezuelan guerrilla faction called the Bolivarian Liberation Front, other criminal gangs and corrupt police officers. Just a fraction of the kidnappings result in prison sentences.

Gdn: Rio's gangs treat members in makeshit medical clinics, to avoid hospitals and arrest

SWJ: SV defers to this extensive round-up on Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Georgia, and Honduras

Wired: Twitter, Google, YouTube execs deploy to Iraq

Cohen is a former Condoleezza Rice protégé now thriving under Hillary Clinton. Between puffs of flavored tobacco smoke drawn from a hookah, he explains that using technology to spread democracy has become a cornerstone of what diplo-nerds are calling 21st-century statecraft. Cohen chose this group for several reasons: to expose them to the changed reality of Iraq so they could spread the word back home, to inspire Iraqis to pursue capitalism with the fervor of a tech startup, and to initiate a few projects that will actually help Iraq rebuild. David Nassar, a VP at Blue State Digital—which handled online aspects of Barack Obama's campaign—is along to offer ideas on elections. Raanan Bar-Cohen, vice president of Automattic (the company behind WordPress), is an advocate for blogging and the open source movement. Richard Robbins, AT&T's "director of social innovation" (a title he invented), represents the big mobile firms. And there are three people from Google (including YouTube's Walk) because—well, because it's Google.

Cohen's fear is that taking a bunch of Web 2.0 suits into a nation shattered by war will be seen as an absurd boondoggle, mocked in the press as war tourism for Twittering geeks. The way to counter this, he says, is to produce "deliverables." In Cohen's personal word cloud, that's a noun set in 36-point type. "The technology that's second nature to you is going to be really important to countries like this," he tells the group. "You have a chance to contribute to this country in this early form of nation-building."

On one hand, it's ludicrous. What can makers of social networks and video sites do to fix an economy that's as broken as Saddam's statue? On the other hand, Silicon Valley types like to think they know how to make the world better. This trip isn't about profits or investing opportunities—as new markets go, Iraq falls somewhere between Antarctica and Somalia in desirability. They're motivated by a mix of curiosity and Obama-inspired patriotism. (If George Bush were still president, some of them might not have come.) There is also the guilt factor. "It's the least we can do for fucking up their country," Heiferman says.

Just how fucked up is Iraq? The executives get an overview in a series of briefings from State Department and military officials in embassy meeting rooms. Not all bad. Just mostly bad. Violence is down, but danger still lurks outside the Green Zone. The economy is a wreck. Electricity comes and goes.

"This is an analog society," says an Army major charged with expanding the communications infrastructure.

LAT: American Al-Qaeda recruit turns informant
His account highlights Al Qaeda's penchant for bureaucracy: personnel files, applications and evaluations. Over four months, Vinas took three courses from an Arab instructor, alongside 10 to 20 students. The curriculum encompassed the use of firearms such as the AK-47 rifle; explosives theory and the assembly of bombs and suicide vests; and the use of rocket-type weapons.

NYRB: Hochschild on the historical continuity of rape and enslavement in the Congo

WP: Aung San Suu Kyi could face 5 more years of detention because American broke into her property
Suu Kyi was charged in May after a U.S. citizen from Falcon, Mo., eluded the tight security surrounding the villa where she was detained in Rangoon by swimming across a lake to the house...

They say that despite 13 years of house arrest -- imposed by the military junta that rules Burma after Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won an overwhelming electoral victory in 1990 -- she remains the government's most formidable opponent.

NPR: (one of) Escobar's legacies: a theme park and hippos