AFPAK MOU a sign of joint effort
Afghan and Pakistani leaders signed a memorandum of understanding in the transit sector Wednesday in what Washington sees as an early sign of regional unity.
In the presence of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, ministers from both countries signed onto a plan that includes cross-border transit arteries that the United States hopes will connect vital trade routes.
Washington has stressed its revamped strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan is a comprehensive one that includes non-military aid and economic reform to supplement military efforts at calming the insurgency.
"We know success will not come from military means alone," Clinton told a delegation Wednesday in Washington.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai joined his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari for a series of trilateral meetings with U.S. officials to coordinate the effort at regional stabilization.
Clinton stressed the non-military objectives in the plan, pointing to the transit agreement as the beginning of a long series of cooperative measures needed for reconstruction.
Zardari, whose government faces an imminent threat from Taliban insurgents, backed the effort to couple diplomacy and democratic reform with military objectives.
"Democracy needs nurturing," he said. "Democracy is the only cure (for instability)."
Karzai, for his part, praised the unified strategy, noting Afghanistan and Pakistan "are conjoined twins," but he raised concerns over mounting accounts of civilian casualties.
Both leaders are scheduled to meet with key lawmakers, U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in what is described as the first of as many as four trilateral meetings to push the unified regional strategy.
Karzai opposition dissolves
Though unpopular both at home and in Washington, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is poised to secure another term as his opposition dissolves.
"Everything points to an easy victory for Karzai," Haroun Mir, director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies, told The Christian Science Monitor.
Karzai entered the race Monday by submitting his formal registration documents to international elections officials. Meanwhile, Gul Agha Shirzai, a main opponent who is a Washington and Afghan favorite, dropped out of the race following a weekend meeting with Karzai.
Former Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali is expected to drop out of the race as well, leaving a dwindling opposition to Karzai's re-election bid, the Monitor reports.
Washington has blasted Karzai for turning a blind eye to government corruption, which critics say contributes to the growing regional insurgency. For his part, Karzai has continued to lash out at the American military, saying mounting civilian casualties are just as destabilizing.
Former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and career diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad are mentioned as possible upsets to Karzai's ambitions, but internal disunity and a weak central government creates a favorable climate for the incumbent.
"Unfortunately, we have been unable to come together," Ghani said. "People did not want to set aside their (personal) ambitions to field a unified candidate."
Without a formal opposition, it appears the Karzai administration and Washington may forge ahead despite lingering tensions.
EU challenged with Afghan effort
The European Union can advance its role in the international security regime through strengthened assistance in governance and the rule of law in Afghanistan.
Europe faces a test in its contribution to Afghanistan, visiting fellow Federiga Bindi wrote in a report for the Brookings Institution. Europe, the report said, is mired in internal disputes over allocating resources and distributing authority regarding plans to contribute to the training effort for Afghan police.
Several European allies agree that while there is a need to boost the contribution for police reform in Afghanistan, separate initiatives could possibly dilute the overall effectiveness.
The Brookings report noted that as the global strategy for Afghanistan evolves, it is becoming clear that a civilian aspect should complement any military effort.
There is a danger this effort could fail if European leaders cannot put ideas into practice, however, as the strategy for Afghanistan becomes more complex.
This is where U.S. military forces need support, the report said, and where European leaders can fill the vacuum.
"The EU can to take up this challenge by focusing on the areas in which it can offer tangible added-value: governance and the rule of law," Bindi said.
Maliki supporters win several provincial posts
The State of Law slate led by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki secured top administrative positions as the provincial governments took shape.
State of Law won major concessions in the January provincial elections, taking the majority of the available seats in several of the Shiite provinces.
As the provincial governments take shape, it appears Maliki supporters have secured their leadership, Iraq's al-Sumaria satellite broadcaster reports.
State of Law candidates were awarded the provincial-governor seats as well as provincial-council presidencies in Baghdad, Diwaniyah and Basra provinces. Governorships were awarded in Wasit, Muthanna, Maysan and Karbala.
The Basra victory follows a crackdown on Shiite militias, which Maliki personally ordered in a unilateral military move in August.
State of Law beat out its longtime Shiite rivals in the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council of influential cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, which lost significant clout in the formation of provincial governments.
Meanwhile, supporters of radical cleric Moqtada Sadr, who emerged in Turkey last week after a two-year exile, secured the governor post in the southern Babel province.
U.N. condemns Iraqi executions
The United Nations expressed its deep concern Wednesday for a decision by the Iraqi government to reinstate the death penalty.
Executions were common in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. L. Paul Bremer, administrator of the Iraqi Coalition Provisional Authority, suspended capital punishment in 2003, though Iraq returned to the practice a year later, notoriously hanging Saddam in 2006.
Despite a respite of roughly 18 months, Iraqi authorities executed 12 people during the weekend, and U.N. officials fear another 115 prisoners face a similar fate.
The U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the latest executions.
"It is a matter of regret that, after a year and half of non-application of the death penalty, executions have resumed," the agencies said.
UNAMI and UNHCR expressed concern that Iraqi legal authorities are negligent in their obligation to practice free-trial procedures as defined by Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iraq signed.
Water source of regional disputes
Iraqi ties with neighboring Turkey and Iran grew tense as all sides bickered over the control of water amid regional drought conditions.
Turkish dams are blocking northern flow from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers while Iran moves to control its own water resources as the agricultural sector suffers.
A trilateral committee from Iraq, Turkey and Syria convened in Istanbul in October to tackle the issue, though little progress was made. Meanwhile, Iraqi Water Resources Minister Abdul Latif Jamal Rashid complained the issue was growing urgent, Iraqi analytical Web site Niqash.org reports.
"The problem is that Iraq still does not have any pact with Turkey and Iran," he said. "Iraq needs agreements with these two countries."
Iraqi lawmakers, however, complained Iran was using the issue to gain diplomatic leverage as it had in the past. The Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s focused in part on territorial disputes over the Shatt al-Arab waterway that forms part of the border with Iran in southern Iraq.
Meanwhile, Iraq suffers from water shortages, which have a negative impact not only on the agricultural sector but also on electrical capacity from hydroelectric dams.
The dispute may also harm relations with neighboring Turkey despite modest efforts to improve bilateral ties.