Conflict update: November 23

South Asia

If it seemed like I was being a little glib yesterday about the escalating India-Pakistan violence in Kashmir, well, that’s how I cope with things that could end in actual nuclear war. But let me be clear, this is starting to get very serious:

Pakistan said Indian troops fired on a bus in the Neelam Valley on Pakistan’s side of the Line of Control in the disputed Kashmir region, killing the nine passengers and seriously wounding nine others. The Indian military also fired on rescue workers in an ambulance trying to reach the wounded, Pakistan said.

In other violence reported on Wednesday, the Indian military also killed three Pakistani soldiers, including a captain, Pakistan said, and Pakistani forces retaliated, killing seven Indian soldiers.

A high-level Pakistani diplomat, Deputy High Commissioner Syed Haider Shah, called the violence “a serious escalation of the situation” and a “grave breach of international and humanitarian law.”

I also feel like, by focusing on the possible eventual outcome of this continued cross-border sniping, I’m downplaying the actual violence and death that’s happening right now, and that’s bad. Whatever else may happen, or not happen, the Indian army killed at least nine civilians today and then tried to kill emergency workers responding to the initial attack. Among other things, this certainly seems to fit the definition of a double-tap strike, which is a war crime, even if, as reported, India’s director general of military operations is feeling “grief” about the whole thing.


The Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) have reportedly severed the road between Tal Afar and Mosul, which means the last major supply line between Mosul and Syria is no more. Now it’s on to Tal Afar itself, where the PMUs’ arrival is not only probably going to cause an international incident, it’s already causing a humanitarian problem:

At least 3,000 families have fled the Turkmen city of Tal Afar west of Mosul as the Shiite paramilitary group known as Hashd al-Shaabi are moving in and encircling the city.

Provincial officials told Reuters they are concerned by the fact that many of these families are fleeing deeper into territory held by ISIS, making it harder to provide them with aid.

Nuraldin Qablan, a representative for the city on the Nineveh provincial council and deputy head of that council, estimates that half of those families have fled towards Syria and the other half toward territory controlled by the Kurdish Peshmerga.

“We ask Kurdish authorities to open a safe passage for them,” he told Reuters on Wednesday.

“People are fleeing due to Hashd’s advance, there are great fears among the civilians,” he added.

After blowing up the third of five bridges that span the Tigris River and connect the two halves of Mosul together yesterday, another US airstrike destroyed the fourth bridge today. Attacking Iraqi forces are undoubtedly planning to use pontoon bridges to cross into western Mosul if and when the time comes, but it will be interesting to see if a decision is made to destroy the final bridge, which could leave civilians stranded along with ISIS personnel. An estimated 68,000 civilians have fled Mosul since the operation started, and about 2000 people a day have been fleeing the city this week.


The Iranian government is admitting that 1000 of its soldiers have been killed in Syria, which means the real figure is likely higher than that. Iran was sticking to a figure of 400 soldiers a few months ago, and it seems likely that if 600 Iranian soldiers had been killed in Syria in the span of three or four months, that would’ve been pretty big news. Iran, even more so than Russia, is in it to win it, but even their level of commitment has to have its limits. Which is not to say they’re anywhere near their limit yet.

Yesterday the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is no pro-government outfit to say the least, reported that “dozens” of civilians attempting to flee eastern Aleppo were being forcibly kept there by the rebels. Then overnight, this happened:

Several families attempted to smuggle themselves out of the besieged section of the city overnight on Tuesday, paying smugglers to take them from the Bustan al-Pasha neighbourhood into the Kurdish-held Sheikh Maqsoud area, before heading into the rebel-held Aleppo countryside.

“Two or three families paid smugglers and were attempting to cross when clashes and gunfire broke out and forced them back,” Aleppo-based journalist Zouhir al-Shimale told Al Jazeera.

Could just be a coincidence, I guess. In happier news, the Syrian government has offered rebels in Aleppo the chance to eat from a bowl of delicious bird seed, set precariously underneath what appears to be an anvil suspended from a rope for some reason…

No, wait, sorry; Assad’s people are apparently inviting the rebels to join them in a friendly football match, I’m sure in the best of faith. Good luck with that.


A Saudi airstrike on the northwestern Yemeni town of Hiran killed 12 people who threatened Saudi security by trying to go to the market. Way to go, everybody. Meanwhile, in the embattled city of Taiz, Amnesty International has accused Yemeni militias loyal to President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi of threatening and otherwise intimidating medical workers in the city. Additionally, they seem to be deliberately stationing men and materiel near medical facilities, which then puts those facilities at risk. This is the sort of thing that the United States, to name just one example, routinely chastises Hamas for doing in Gaza, so let’s see if we have anything to say in this case. The Houthis don’t come out any better in Taiz; they’re preventing humanitarian aid from getting into the city.


Want to do something nice but also get something nice for your trouble? Buy Afghan saffron:

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, selling for as much as $1,200-$1,800 a kilogram, and has long been seen as an alternative crop to opium poppies for poor farmers in a country struggling with the legacy of decades of war and lawlessness.

So far, it has had little impact on the opium trade which the United Nations estimates is worth some $3 billion a year in Afghanistan, source of most of the world’s opium, from which heroin is produced.

Even so, the Afghan saffron industry has grown and is establishing a reputation for quality in a market still dominated by neighboring Iran, which accounts for almost 90 percent of global production.

“There is a huge demand for Afghan saffron,” said Bashir Ahmad Rashidi, head of the Ariana Saffron Company, which exports to countries from France to Turkey, India and the United States.

Just as importantly, it offers work for women whose employment opportunities are otherwise limited.

I think there’s a brand available on Amazon, even.


And now for something completely different

Today is going to be another light blogging day, although when I say “another”–I mean, considering I didn’t start writing until around 6 PM yesterday I think I churned out a decent number of words. But I digress.

I’m sorry to make this All About Me, but today I tried going to a strange new place…


The truth is, I used to be a member at a gym I liked very much, but it went out of business a few months back. One of the reasons I liked it was that I was often one of only 3 or 4 people in the place at any given time, and apparently that’s not a very sustainable business model. Anyway as I say it’s been a few months, most of which I spent resisting the opportunity to join any of the big chain gyms around here, most of which get bad-to-mediocre online reviews at best. I finally did join a big chain gym, though this one gets very good reviews, and I worked out there for the first time today. On the plus side, I was able to find all the equipment I needed to get through the workout routine I was doing at my old gym. On the downside, I got through the workout routine I was doing at my old gym–all the way through, after several months of, you know, not doing that. And now not only do I look like a guy who hadn’t worked out in a few months, I also feel like a guy who hadn’t worked out in a few months, and then did. If I don’t make it, please remember me as a Man of Peace. I don’t really have the credentials for it, but neither did Shimon Peres, and yet here we are.

I’ll probably be back this evening with something more meaningful, after I shepherd my daughter to one of her various after-school activities, but since I’m feeling in a healthy mood I thought I’d do the rare bit of food blogging and share the thing that’s been keeping me alive for the past few weeks. It’s a smoothie, so feel free to get out of the car here if that’s not your thing.

Continue reading

Why we can’t have nice things, part ∞ of ∞

I’m not a huge avocado eater. Don’t get me wrong, I like avocados–on a sandwich they’re nice, they go really well with scrambled eggs, etc. My issue is that I don’t really like cilantro very much, and consequently I don’t eat a lot of guacamole even though I like everything else in guacamole. And, of course, guacamole is still the most common way you encounter avocado these days.

For those of you who can’t get enough of the stuff, well, unfortunately I have to tell you the same thing I told the pesto people once upon a time: you’re (unwittingly, I hope) hurting the environment:

Avocados grow best in the same climate and altitude as the pine and oyamel fir forests in Michoacan, a state that produces 88 percent of Mexico’s avocados. The Associated Press reported Tuesday avocado demand is driving local growers to slash and burn forest to plant avocados, a crop that has enjoyed exponential prices in recent months.

The U.S. is a major importer of Mexican avocados. And over the past several months, demand across the country has increased as some major national avocado growers in California have experienced heat waves that have hurt local production. In a time of increasing trade between the two countries, U.S. consumption is likely boosting prices and encouraging Mexican growers to expand into new territories.

“Even where they aren’t visibly cutting down forest, there are avocados growing underneath [the pine boughs], and sooner or later they’ll cut down the pines completely,” Mario Tapia Vargas, researcher at Mexico’s National Institute for Forestry, Farming and Fisheries Research, told the Associated Press.


Maybe have some salsa instead

Mexico’s natural oyamel forests are almost gone, and the loss of habitat has helped shrink the monarch butterfly population, which, since monarchs are pollinators, isn’t good for a whole host of native flowering plants throughout the monarchs’ migration path. Losing forests anywhere is bad news because trees are a natural carbon sink. Oh, and increased avocado production means more water usage, and we all know where we’re going to wind up when the water starts running out–but if you’d like a preview, Egypt and Ethiopia are in the process of giving you one. The Mexican government is trying to crack down on tree cutters and is offering incentives for people to preserve the native forests, but those incentives are inadequate compared with the price that avocados are fetching these days.

I know, if you’re a big guac lover it’s been rough out there–on the one hand you’ve got presumably deranged people telling you to chuck some peas (!) into your favorite dip, and now on the other you find out that your guac is destroying Mexican forests. I don’t know what to tell you, except that maybe you should think about grabbing a pizza tonight instead of grabbing a burrito.


Your pesto addiction is wrecking an ecosystem

Well, OK, that’s a little harsh, blaming it all on you like that. But apparently the increasing demand for pine nuts here in the US really is doing serious environmental damage. Most of the pine nuts imported into the US (and most pine nuts bought in the US are imported) come from the Korean pine, which grows in forests in eastern Russia. They’re cheaper than Italian pine nuts, so they’re a big seller.

The overcollection of those nuts for human consumption is, surprise, extremely bad news for those forests. The trees themselves are not a conservation risk at the moment (though that could change if pine nut harvesting reaches truly unsustainable levels), but many of the forests’ indigenous animals (including deer, boars, bears, and tigers) depend on the nuts (or on the animals that eat them) for food, and they’re not getting enough of them anymore:

The global demand is making this harvest unsustainable. The entire Korean pine ecosystem could collapse if it continues. We are already seeing the cracks appearing: The shortage of pine nuts in the forests may have contributed to recent incidents of starving bears roaming the streets — and even attacking residents — in Luchegorsk, a Russian town near the Chinese border.

The Korean pine nut pesto you eat today thus carries with it an unseen cost that could shatter an ecosystem bottom to top, seedling to tree, and chipmunk to tiger.

Obviously, people whose livelihoods depend on harvesting pine nuts for the American market aren’t going to stop doing that because of some starving bears, but when we’re talking about the potential collapse of an entire ecosystem, something needs to be done. The only ways to slow down this destructive harvest are for shoppers to find a new source of pine nuts (look for nuts from domestic pines, for example, or pay more for the fancy Italian ones) or another way to make their pesto or whatever else they make that uses pine nuts (I’m guessing, though maybe I’m totally wrong, that pesto is the big driver of the pine nut demand).

Me personally, I’m not a huge pesto fan (although it is really good on fish), but when I do make it I actually prefer using walnuts (and swapping out some/all of the basil for blanched kale, but now I’m digressing).


Seriously, though, this is good stuff

Of course, walnuts raise their own serious environmental concerns, so I guess that’s not really a solution. Maybe you could make pistou (which doesn’t use nuts at all) instead? Or a nice salsa?

Hey, thanks for reading! If you come here often, and you like what I do, would you please consider contributing something (sorry, that page is a work in progress) to keeping this place running and me out of debtor’s prison? Also, while you’re out there on the internet tubes, please consider liking this blog’s Facebook page and following me on Twitter! Thank you!

Extreme Ramadan

During the month of Ramadan, observant Muslims are obliged to abstain from food and drink during daylight hours (as well as things like sex and cigarettes). This is hard enough to do during the fall or winter months, when daylight is shorter, let me tell you. When I was working in the Persian Gulf, which was only for two Ramadans, we non-Muslims tried not to eat or drink in the office out of respect for our colleagues who were observing the fast. Even for the few hours we’d be at work, and work days tend to be a little more irregular during Ramadan as time with family is given extra consideration, this was a challenge. People (me included) would stick a bottle of water in a desk drawer and close the office door to take a drink, because it was freaking hot all day and, dammit, you get thirsty. Then there were the days when you’d have to run home around lunchtime just to eat something, and then come back to the office later. Fasting requires discipline to be sure.

So I have great respect for anybody who keeps the Ramadan fast, particularly if you’re in the northern hemisphere right now when the days are longer. But, man, I especially have to tip my hat to any Muslims living in extreme northern latitudes right now, like Alaska, or Finland, or Iceland, where you’re getting 21 hours of daylight a day. That is pretty incredible. I mean, I guess you can arrange your day so you’re sleeping for part of that time (you probably have to; there’s so little darkness that you’re presumably going to be awake, praying and eating, for most or all of it), but if you’re working a normal schedule then that’s easier said than done (as is training your body to sleep when it’s light out, though I guess all Icelanders have to deal with that).

There’s apparently a scholarly debate within Islam over whether believers at extreme latitudes can be allowed to fast for a set number of hours each day instead of during all daylight hours:

And those in the far north may fast for more a “moderate” length of time – 12, 14 or 16 hours, say – if they need to, according to a fatwa published by Sheikh Dr Usama Hasan, a British Islamic jurist who works for the Quilliam Foundation counter-extremism think-tank.

Other scholars disagree, however. Imam Khalid Latif, the Executive Director at the Islamic Centre at New York University, told the Quartz website that “to have a broad-based assumption that longer fasting days should be shortened is problematic.”

Some fatwas suggest fasting for the daylight hours of Mecca – around 13.5 hours.

On the plus side, I suppose, when Ramadan works its way back around to the northern hemisphere’s winter months, which won’t happen until the mid-2020s, Muslims in Iceland will have very short periods of daylight fasting instead. I don’t know if they’re expected to add more fast hours to the day in that case, but it seems to me that if you diligently fast all day when the days are incredibly long, you ought to be allowed to stick to the same rules when the days are incredibly short.

All in all, though, I’d probably avoid any Muslim smokers living in Iceland at the moment. They might not be in a great mood.

What do vegetarian Muslims do on the Festival of the Sacrifice?

Tomorrow marks the beginning of Eid al-Adha, the festival that concludes the Hajj and is celebrated by Muslims all over the world. The festival commemorates Abraham (Ibrahim) and his willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s command, a story that should be familiar anybody who knows their Bible stories (though the identity of the son differs — Isaac for Jews and Christians but Ishmael/Ismaʿil for Muslims, although the Qurʾan’s rendition of the story never actually specifies which son it is). For those on the Hajj the festival celebration is just incorporated into the full pilgrimage experience, but for those who are not, the centerpiece of the festival is the ritual sacrifice, again in memory of Ibrahim, of the best herd animals (assuming one has the means to do so): cows when applicable, but also sheep, goats, and camels as the case may be. Believers keep a third of the meat they sacrifice for themselves, give a third to family and friends, and are expected to give the other third to the poor, so that nobody goes hungry.

(I was going to include some kind of photo here, but all the photos I could find of Eid al-Adha celebrations — the ones that aren’t just indistinguishable pictures of crowds of people milling around — involve either dead animals or animals that are in the process of bleeding to death. I figured nobody really needed to see that.)

Hence the dilemma in the title of this post, because if you’re a vegetarian who also happens to be a Muslim, what the heck do you do on a holiday devoted to sacrificing animals? The sacrifice is a Qurʾanic obligation, so it’s not just some tradition that can be discarded. According to the Guardian, there are a couple of coping mechanisms (at least in Egypt). Continue reading