-TALIBAN PULLS OUT OF TALKS; KARZAI WANTS TROOPS BACK TO BASES…A pair of major developments – just in from Kabul. The Taliban has pulled out of all talks with the U.S. – talks that were the lynchpin of a major diplomatic push to ease tensions as a U.S. and allied withdrawal nears. Muhammad LILA was interviewing an Afghan Member of Parliament when the news broke – he said in pulling out, the Taliban are showing “they represent the true sentiments of the Afghan people, and that the Karzai government has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the people…” That same politician broke down in tears when talking about the weekend massacre. As for Karzai – the Afghan president said that international troops should pull back from rural areas and villages to main bases and that Afghan troops should take the lead for countrywide security in 2013, a year ahead of the current target date. “Afghan security forces have the ability to keep the security in rural areas and in villages on their own,” Karzai said in the statement.
-THE RUNWAY ATTACKER…The Afghan interpreter who set himself on fire yesterday on the runway where Defense Secretary Panetta’s plane landed died of extensive burns today. Muhammad LILA reports a U.S. official said the interpreter had a container of gas in his vehicle and believes the intended target was a group of Marines assembled on the ramp to the tarmac, not Secretary Panetta. Of course we will never know who he was aiming for – but this counts as the 8th so-called “green-on-blue” incident this year – Afghan forces attacking the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan.
-LAWMAKERS ANGRY OVER TRANSFER OF AMERICAN SOLDIER…One of the key things tamping down anger in Afghanistan has been a feeling that the attacker would face justice in Afghanistan. Now Afghan lawmakers are angered over the United States’ move to fly the American soldier accused of killing 16 civilians out of the country. Per Muhammad LILA: U.S. officials say they don’t have proper facilities to detain him locally, and the move gives him access to legal representation. A number of Kandahar MPs are reacting with fury, saying he must be tried in Afghanistan.
-HALF OF AMERICANS SUPPORT FASTER PULLOUT…A new USA Today/Gallup Poll finds half of Americans want President Obama to speed the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. More than one in four of those surveyed say events in recent months, including attacks on coalition forces in the wake of the burning of Korans at a U.S. military base, have persuaded them that the time has come for the troops to come home. The AP posts a provocative piece: “How Afghanistan has turned into Iraq for Obama…The president is entangled in an inconclusive slog in which the U.S. cannot always tell enemy from friend.”
-WHY ARE AFGHANS LESS OUTRAGED THIS TIME?…The NYTimes explores the reasoning behind the difference in public reaction to the massacre of 16 civilians versus the Koran burnings. One member of Afghanistan’s highest clerical body, Hafez Abdul Qayoom, says, “To Muslims, and especially to Afghans, religion is much higher a concern than civilian or human casualties.”
SYRIA, ONE YEAR LATER
-NO END IN SIGHT?…”It feels like this will never end…now there are two armed sides with lots of blood and the regime will not give up.” – Email from Damascus last night.
-WHERE THINGS STAND…Excellent note from Alex MARQUARDT – some excerpts: A year ago today, protests sprang up in the southern city of Daraa over the arrest and torture of local children who had written on a school wall, “the people want the downfall of the regime.” The protests sparked an uprising that has now lasted longer than any other in the Arab Spring, claiming more than 8,000 lives (including thousands of regime forces) and displacing some 230,000 people, according to the UN. A year on, there is no doubt that the Assad regime has the upper hand and there’s little sign it is losing grip. For now. It is remarkably intact; no key officials – civilian or military – have defected. Assad “is very much in charge” senior US intelligence officials told the Washington Post. “That leadership is going to fight very hard…the odds are against them…but they are going to fight very hard…” The growing number of soldiers defecting to the woefully ill-equipped Free Syrian Army is still just a small fraction of the overall forces and the vast majority of those defecting are conscripts. The almost entirely Sunni FSA is at most 20,000 – mostly civilians – against an Assad force commanded by Alawites that the US believes is around 330,000. At every turn, the FSA is forced to retreat when regime forces launch a crackdown… How can AK-47s stop a tank, we’ve been asked time and time again. There is evidence that foreign and extremist al-Qaeda-linked elements are creeping in as we’ve seen in the Damascus and Aleppo suicide bombings…It’s not all bleak for the regime’s opponents. There is certainly a pervading sense that the country’s senior leadership is jittery, that it’s a matter of time before a “big dog” – as a US official recently put it to me – from a top ministry, the military or the security apparatus defects. And that could lead to a cascade of defections. Economic sanctions are hitting hard. The Syrian pound has dropped by around 90 percent against the dollar in the past few months, the electricity goes off every day in Damascus for six hours, food prices have doubled, there are gas shortages and long lines. While that may turn many against the regime, it also makes the opposition unpopular, particularly among the Damascus and Aleppo elites. Could Assad survive this? Possibly. If he falls, is it when another in the regime pushes him out, keeping a similar structure? Or does the regime completely fall apart and the country descend into chaos? With each passing day, this conflict looks increasingly like a civil war…
-ASSAD SUPPORTERS RALLY IN DAMASCUS…While reports say the shelling in the northern town of Idlib continues for the sixth day in a row, thousands of supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad are rallying in Damascus today to protest what they call a year-old conspiracy against their country. The march is a push to overshadow demonstrations planned to mark the anniversary.
-”THIS IS NOT A MOVIE TRAILER”…Jean FIEVET flags a powerful new video about the violence in Syria that was posted on YouTube yesterday. A highly-produced, 3-minute parody of a Hollywood movie trailer, this video uses amateur and media footage highlighting the violence in Syria. It’s jumped from 300 to over 10,000 views overnight.
KONY 2012 FILM GETS ANGRY REACTION
From Bazi KANANI: Since nearly 80 million people around the world have seen the “Kony 2012″ film, a local charity in northern Uganda thought it would be a good idea to let people there see it. The vast majority have no internet access, so the group used a projector to play the film on a hanging sheet. Word of the screening spread through local radio, and thousands showed up Tuesday night in the town of Lira. According to several media reports, many wished they hadn’t. People walked out on the film and at its conclusion some started throwing stones. Some told reporters the film was traumatizing to victims of rebel warlord Joseph Kony. Others were confused and offended anyone would put Kony’s name on t-shirts and bracelets. One person told Al-Jazeera it would be like people wearing an Osama Bin Laden t-shirt in the US after 9/11. The youth organization that organized the event has cancelled plans for screenings in other northern Ugandan communities. Some people in Uganda are now calling for the government to ban the “Stop Kony” t-shirts from entering the country.
SWISS COUPLE RELEASED BY TALIBAN
Habibullah KHAN reports the Swiss couple that was kidnapped from Baluchistan in July 2011 has been released. The couple was held by the Taliban in North Waziristan. It is not clear if a ransom was paid or they were part of a prisoner swap.
INDIA TO SPEED PAST JAPAN IN CAR SALES
The Wall Street Journal reports India is on track to overtake Japan as Asia’s No. 2 vehicle market by 2016. Sales in India are projected to rise to 4.88 million vehicles by 2016 from 2.91 million last year. Sales are forecast at 6.73 million in 2020.
HUMAN FOSSILS COULD BE SIGN OF DIFFERENT SPECIES
The BBC reports the remains of what may be a previously unknown human species have been identified in southern China. The bones, which represent at least five individuals, have been dated to between 11,500 and 14,500 years ago. But scientists are calling them simply the Red Deer Cave people; far more detailed analysis is needed before they can be ascribed to a new human lineage.
From Phoebe NATANSON in Rome: Italian celebrity perfume-maker Silvana Casoli, has created her most heavenly scent yet for a very special client, Pope Benedict XVI. Known for creating a number of perfumes that can be used by both men and women with names like Chocolat Bambola (Chocolate doll) and Vanilla Bourbon, Casoli has designed unique fragrances for famous personalities like Madonna and Sting. Speaking to Rome’s daily paper, Il Messaggero, the aroma designer known as “the Nose” said that the name of the pope’s specially-commissioned scent is top secret and she is not allowed to divulge all its ingredients. She did, however, reveal that she was inspired by the pope’s love of “nature” and used a blend of fragrances from lime-wood, verbena and grass.
KATE – OUT AND ABOUT
The Duchess of Cambridge showed off her sporty side today – played field hockey during a visit to the Olympic Stadium. Earlier in the day Kate was joined by her father-in-law Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall on a visit Dulwich Picture Gallery, one of the U.K.’s oldest public art galleries.