30 October 2008

Things Could Be Worse

There is a wide consensus that the United States is on the wrong track. But, while Thanksgiving is still four weeks away, it is worth noting that Americans still have a system worth saving. War, terrorism, governmental instability, and the threat of rampant deadly disease is very much the order of the day abroad.

India was hit yesterday by multilpe terrorist bombs that killed more than sixty and injured more than 300 people. Terrorist incidents are a regular occurance in India, happening monthly or more often, in multiple conflicts ranging from a Maoist insurgency, to violence related to the status of Kashmir, to attacks of nationalist Hindus on minority Muslims.

Northern Somolia was rocked by five suicide bombings.

The attackers struck a presidential palace, government security posts, United Nations offices and an Ethiopian consular unit within half an hour in two regions, with blasts in Hargeisa, capital of breakaway Somaliland, and in Bosasso, Puntland . . . the bombers struck between 10 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., first in Hargeisa, where they hit the presidential palace of Somaliland, an Ethiopian consulate office and a UN office. Several of the buildings were leveled by the attacks.

The president of Somaliland . . . said that his secretary and his adviser were killed in the attack on the palace . . . There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks. [A security official for the government] blamed a militant Islamist group called the Shabab, which the United States considers a terrorist organization.

The Shabab has been waging war against Somalia's weak transitional government, but most attacks have been in south-central Somalia. Hargeisa, in northern Somalia, had been considered an oasis of peace and stability.

The Somaliland government has been credited with setting up a small but functioning democracy, and providing a degree of peace and safety to more than a million people. It was in the middle of presidential and government elections. . . .

The attack may have been timed to coincide with a meeting in Nairobi, capital of neighboring Kenya, between Somalia's transitional leaders and the foreign forces supporting them.

Militant Islamist groups were not invited to the talks and organizations like the Shabab have shunned the discussions. The group says it wants Somalia to be an Islamic state and has demanded the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops.

Ethiopia has backed the transitional government in Somalia and its troops have been targeted in previous suicide attacks claimed by the Shabab.

In the port of Bosasso, two huge blasts rocked the city at two offices of the Puntland security forces, killing a woman employed to clean and wounding six soldiers, residents and officials said.

The first bomb exploded at a security service intelligence office close to the presidential palace in Puntland, according to residents and officials. Two minutes later, another explosion hit an agency office in the Laanta Hawada neighborhood, killing one intelligence officer and wounding six others.

At a news conference, the Puntland president, Mohamud Muse Hersi, blamed the bombings on terrorists [from outside the area].

The U.S. encouraged Ethiopian military involvement in the area, and has provided slight military assistance in select raids on suspected terrorists and pirates, and provided some military assistance to the Ethopians, but has not taken a high profile role in the conflict or devoted major resources to it. There were five failed piracy attempts off the coast of Somolia on Tuesday; the U.S. Navy has helped in these cases to repel pirate attacks.

Rebel Taliban soldiers shot their way into national government offices in Kabul, Afghanistan, the capital, to clear the for a suicide bomber. The attack killed five. Only 39% of Afghans think they are better off now than they were under the Taliban regime, while 36% think that they are worse off.

While overall conditions are not improving in Afghanistan, modern opinion polling has reached all time sophistication there, and education is much improved:

[T]he survey [cited above] was conducted in all 34 provinces and was the largest comprehensive opinion poll ever conducted in Afghanistan. Some 6,593 people aged 18 years and older were interviewed in person by a team of 543 trained interviewers between June 12 and July 2. The margin of error was 2.4 percentage points . . . "the most widely enjoyed amenity is the availability of education for children which is judged by 70 percent of respondents to be good."

"Forty-four percent of respondents report improvements in access to schools in the last two years," it said.

Some 6 million Afghan children, including 2 million girls, now go to school every year, one of the most remarkable success stories in a country hit daily by negative headlines because of rampant violence.

During the Taliban's regime only 1 million boys went to school. Girls were banned from attending classes.

While school attendance of way up, girls are still only half as likely as boys to attend, and more than seven out of eight school aged children missed years of schooling during the Taliban regime. While Americans are debating how to get failing teens to finish high school, and how to pay for college for working and middle class kids, Afghans are struggling to achieve basic literacy for their children at the elementary school level.

When it comes to social issues, one of the hot issues between conservatives and moderates in Afghanistan is whether parents should continue to have the right to sell their school aged girls into involuntary arranged marriages with much older men. Tribal leaders are starting to take the progressive stand of stating that this is a bad thing that gives the country a bad name, against stiff resistance from more traditional factions.

Afghans want a theocracy, which is good, because their U.S. assisted constitution provides for one, making Islamic law the highest law of the land and providing for Islamic decision making by the country's highest court. Converting from Islam to Christianity, for example, is a criminal offense, although it is not a crime to be a Christian or a Jew in Afghanistan.

Asked about the role religious leaders should play in political life, 69 percent of respondents said religious leaders should be consulted on political matters, while around a quarter said politics and religion should not mix.

That number is up from the 61 percent in favor in the 2006 survey.

While American's fret about our soldiers in harms way in two two foreign wars, bodies of villagers in Goma, Congo are everywhere in the wave of raping, killing and pillaging at the hands of government soldiers (not that the rebels are any better). Today is the first day in a week when automatic weapons aren't rattling away in the distance. The fighting is preventing common people from receiving food and aid.

Congolese soldiers are infamous for training their guns on civilians and fleeing at the first sign of a real threat. The looting, pillaging, raping and killing seems to happen every time a city switches hands. . . . Nkunda, a renegade Congolese general, has said he is waging war to protect the Tutsi people. Congolese officials accuse him of being a front man for neighboring Rwanda, which is led by Tutsi, and say that Nkunda is trying to carve out a buffer zone between Congo and Rwanda. Rwandan officials deny this and on Thursday there were high level talks between the two countries.

There are U.N. peacekeepers on hand, but they have been less than successful at securing peace, and have engaged in abuses, like patronizing child prostitutes, themselves. The lastest U.N. forces commander resigned earlier this week after seven weeks on the job.

An earthquake in Pakistan killed 215 people and left homeless a population larger than the entire population of West Washington Park (about 15,000). The area hit is in Southwest Pakistan, in a mountainous area near the borders of Iran and Afghanistan. The earthquake's magnitude, 6.4, was a shadow of the 2005 magnitude 7.6 Earthquake that killed 80,000 people in Northern Pakistan, or the 7.5 magnitude quake in 1935 that killed 30,000 people in the same area as the current quake. One can build structures that survive earthquakes like these, but the people in this part of Pakistan are too poor to afford that kind of housing. The houses in the effected area were made out of mud and stone.

In Thailand, the elected prime minster operates out of the airport, because his own offices have been occupied for months by protestors in a sitaution that is starting to be marked by violent incidents. Earlier this month two people died and more than 400 injured when police and protestors clashed.

The previous prime minister who was removed in a 2006 coup, was convicted last week of "violating a conflict of interest law in a case relating to a real estate deal by his wife, who was acquitted. He had fled to Britain earlier saying he could not get a fair trial in Thailand." Voters approved the current government after the coup. In the background is an ongoing paramilitary conflict between minority Muslims and the majority non-Muslim Thais that has not reached a decisive conclusion.

Our health care system is failing. But, the U.S. is still relatively well off when it comes to infectious deadly diseases as a result of nearly invisible public health measures. This isn't the case in many other countries, even in parts of the Third World where public health systems are visible and relatively functional, like South Africa.

An outbreak of a deadly disease related to the Lassa Virus has been identified after it killed four earlier this month in South Africa. It is typically spread by rodents and by exchanging human bodily fluids.

South Africa already has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world. About 29% of pregnant women attending pre-natal clinics there have HIV. For pregnant women aged 25-29 at the clinics, the rate is 38.7%. Given the state of available AIDS care, the chance of survival to adulthood for children of infected women is poor, and their mothers will almost certainly not live to see their babies become adults. Researchers estimate that one in nine South Africans over age two have HIV. About two in fifteen blacks are infected with HIV. Among white's the HIV infection rate is about one in 166. Three different models put the annual number of AIDS deaths in South Africa at between 336,000 to 350,000 for 2006, in a country of 44 million people. In the U.S., which has a population seven times as great, AIDS kills about 18,000 people a year. The death rate in South Africa from AIDS alone is roughly the same time as the death rate from all causes in the United States.


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