By Erik de Castro As I write this blog, I am on the 38th day of my current assignment to Afghanistan as an embedded journalist with U.S. military forces. I have been assigned here several times since 2001 to cover the war that is still going on 10 years after the al Qaeda attack on U.S. soil. Mullah Omar, popularly known as the one-eyed Taliban, was the first member of the Taliban I met back in 2001. He held press conferences almost daily at the Afghan embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan a few weeks before U.S. forces and its allies attacked Afghanistan to remove the Taliban government. Ten years and several trips back to Afghanistan later, I still havenât seen a lot of Taliban fighters. My present assignment is the time Ive experienced the most encounters between the combined U.S. and Afghan forces and the Taliban. It is remarkable how the Afghan soldiers and Taliban fighters are more aggressive now. The insurgents, though they know their artillery is no match to that of the Americans, are daring enough to attack at every opportunity, be it with small arms, RPGs or, on occasions, IEDs and rockets. Most of the time, it is a Âhit and runÂ kind of attack wherein they flee after firing some shots. Such eagerness, however, could cost lives. In Kunar province last week, U.S. and Afghan military engaged insurgents near Combat Pirtle King close to the Pakistan border. I saw Afghan soldiers unloading from the back of their armored vehicle the bodies of two Taliban fighters killed in the encounter. They also captured a wounded insurgent. The Taliban fighters looked barely out of their teens, had unkept long hair and beard, giving the impression that they have been in the mountains for some time. Afghan soldiers from the joint U.S.-Afghan forces also show the same boldness although their moves are more calculated. On one of our patrols, we saw a white Taliban flag mounted on top of a hill in an area that is known to be a Taliban stronghold. Without hesitation, Afghan soldiers went up the hill to seize the flag as U.S. soldiers watched their backs. There was a fire fight but it was brief as the Taliban immediately fled on motorcycles. ÂAfghan soldiers are good fighters, they are very brave that sometimes I have to tell them to stop pursuing the enemies. They always want to be on the front line. They have so much hate for the Taliban,Â an Army officer said. Not just the Afghan soldiers hate the Taliban. In one of the meetings between U.S. soldiers and residents in a village overlooking a valley where Taliban fighters frequently mount their attacks, a teenage boy came out of one of the bunkers made of sandbags and showed the soldiers an AK-47 rifle. Speaking in the local dialect, a village elder told an army officer ÂThis (the firearm) is the only one we have here. I bought this for 6,000 Pakistani rupees (about $150). I sold a cow to buy this rifle.Â And then he pleaded, ÂPlease give us more like this and we will help you fight them (Taliban).Â When an officer asked what they want in return if they fight the Taliban, the old man said, ÂJust help us repair our well, or build us another one,Â referring to a well which is the source of their daily supply of water for drinking and farm irrigation. When troops conduct patrols and gather biometrics of the males, they sometimes talk to villagers. People act and speak like things are normal. Perhaps because 10 years of war is already so long that it has become their ÂnormalÂ way of life. They just carry on with their daily chores, not minding the presence of soldiers and the sight of firearms. All they care about now are lifeÂs very basic essentials such as clean toilets, water supply and electricity. (Click here to view a selection of iconic images by Reuters photographers from the war in Afghanistan)
* Canada says support building for BoC’s CarneyOct 14 (Reuters) - Canada’s central bank chief says he is ready to serve as head of the Financial Stability Board, the regulatory task force of the Group of 20 leading nations, if the G20 wants him to do the job.”If I’m asked to do it I would serve,” Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney said in an interview on CBC Television.The FSB role would be on top of his day job at the Bank of Canada, he added in the interview, which CBC is broadcasting on Friday evening.CBC said the interview was conducted on Thursday.The FSB, currently headed by Bank of Italy Governor Mario Draghi, is charged with making sure bank regulations are strong enough to prevent financial crises of the type that triggered the economic problems of 2008 and after.Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said Canada’s lobbying on behalf of Carney appeared to be paying off.”I think we’re making progress (in winning support for Carney),” he told reporters in Paris where he and Carney are both attending a G20 finance ministers’ meeting.Carney is a former Goldman Sachs banker who has won widespread respect for his handling of the financial crisis and general praise for his grasp of markets.At a bankers’ meeting in Washington last month, he was at the butt end of a verbal attack by JPMorgan Chase Chief Executive Jamie Dimon for plans by global regulators to impose new capital surcharges and other regulations on the world’s most influential banks.Carney has headed the Bank of Canada since 2008. He also chairs the Committee on the Global Financial System, a group within the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) in Switzerland, that seeks to detect and respond to threats of instability in the global financial system.Switzerland’s Philipp Hildebrand has also been mooted as a candidate to head the FSB.A decision is to be announced at the Nov. 3-4 G20 summit.
* HEOS says will also withhold support from Siskind and KnightBy Sinead CruiseLONDON, Oct 14 (Reuters) - Rupert Murdoch’s multi-million dollar campaign to win back the hearts and minds of News Corporation’s independent investors suffered a new blow on Friday after another key shareholder group called for his eviction from its board.Hermes Equity Ownership Services (HEOS), the shareholder advisory service affiliated to Britain’s largest pension fund, issued a rallying cry to investors to vote against all Murdoch family re-elections to the board of the embattled media group at next week’s annual general meeting on Oct. 21.”The time is right for the company to appoint an independent chairman to rebuild trust, help correct the governance discount, and ensure that the interests of all investors are properly represented,” Jennifer Walmsley, Director of Hermes Equity Ownership Services, said.”We have a battle on our hands to demonstrate the strength of shareholder opposition because so many shares are held by the family or by people affiliated with the family,” she told Reuters.The organisation, which votes on behalf of the BT Pension Fund and more than 20 other institutional clients running $140 billion of assets, has also called for an independent investigation into the phone hacking scandal that led to the closure of top-selling British tabloid The News of the World.Besides seeking the removal of Murdoch and sons James and Lachlan, HEOS — whose members hold 0.5 percent of News Corp’s shares — Hermes is also withholding support for the re-election of directors Arthur Siskind and Andrew Knight, citing concerns for their independence.The statement from HEOS is the latest in a flurry of anti-Murdoch lobbying from corporate governance watchdogs and proxy voting companies all over the world.Earlier this week, Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (ISS) said Murdoch and 10 other News Corp directors should be ousted from board in the wake of the phone hacking scandal, which it said “laid bare a striking lack of stewardship and independence”.The ISS statement prompted News Corp, which has bought back more than $1 billion of its stock since August, to step up its appeal for shareholder support with a letter that reiterated its strong financial performance in the face of the flagging global economy.But Walmsley said investors were growing impatient for fundamental change that would see the infamous ‘Murdoch discount’ gone for good.News Corp shares typically trade below rival media groups because the market applies a discount to reflect Murdoch’s tight control of the company and a tendency to make decisions that shareholders may not support.”There’s an enormous groundswell of opposition and I think there are a lot of investors out there who feel … the governance structures in place are clearly not sufficient to safeguard the interests of minority investors,” Walmsley said.”There is a huge problem with shareholder democracy at News Corp — it breaches what we see as a fundamental shareholder right of ‘one share, one vote’,” she said.The war of words between News Corp and its shareholders over the need for a sweeping purge of its board is likely to revive a debate over whether James Murdoch should be forced to give up his role as chairman of British Sky Broadcasting .Investors in BSkyB — News Corp’s erstwhile bid target — will vote on the make-up of their board next month.
* Incivek is Vertex’s recently launched hepatitis C drugBy Toni ClarkeOct. 13 (Reuters) - IMS Health, which provides prescription data and other services to the pharmaceutical industry, said it is revising estimates of the number of prescriptions written in late September for Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc’s hepatitis C drug Incivek, sending its shares up nearly 7 percent.Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Vertex’s shares had fallen more than 20 percent since Sept. 21 amid concern that prescriptions for Incivek, its key drug, were growing more slowly than expected.”A significant portion of Incivek mail data was not reported to IMS beginning with data week ending 9/23/11 through data week ending 9/30/11,” IMS said in a statement to subscribers after the market closed on Wednesday. “This interruption should be resolved for the week ending 10/7/11.”A spokesman for Vertex declined immediate comment. However, Geoffrey Porges, an analyst at Sanford Bernstein, said that in his conversations with the company, Vertex said revised data “seems likely to align the IMS data with their internal impressions of the market,” namely, continued solid growth.Vertex will report sales from the first full quarter of the drug in the United States when the biotechnology company reports its quarterly earnings later this month.Incivek is one of two recently-launched hepatitis C drugs. It competes with Victrelis, made by Merck & Co . Both drugs promise a higher cure rate for the disease, which infects the liver and can lead eventually to cirrhosis and liver failure.Investors are closely watching the competition between the two drugs to see which will gain greater market share, and are sensitive to any indication that one or the other could be flagging. The initial prescription data from IMS seemed to indicate Incivek prescriptions were flattening, but IMS now appears to have underreported the data.”This is the nature of any drug launch, and no pharmaceutical or biotechnology company marketing analyst with any measure of experience would make judgments about the performance of a launch, and a product’s long-term potential, based on one, two or even three weeks of market audit data,” said Porges, who earlier questioned the validity of the initial IMS data. “We trust that the investment community will be discouraged from doing the same after this correction.”Vertex shares rose nearly 7 percent to $43 in mid-morning trading on Nasdaq.
Martelly, who swept to the presidency by winning an election runoff in March, held separate meetings with former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier at their private residences in Port-au-Prince.He said he had proposed the creation of a council of former Haitian presidents he hoped would assist in building consensus in a country often torn by political faction-fighting, and still struggling to recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake.”As president, I want to work with you and we have to work together,” Martelly told Aristide.Many Haitians have called repeatedly for the country’s divided political class to find common ground to help lift Haiti out of its longtime status as the poorest country in the Americas.Notorious for decades of dictatorship, corruption and instability, Haiti is facing a huge reconstruction task after last year’s earthquake and a cholera epidemic.Martelly, a former pop star with no previous government experience, took office in May. He is facing the challenge of governing with a parliament dominated by rival political parties.Aristide returned home to Haiti in March after seven years in exile. The former Roman Catholic priest was ousted from power in 2004 in an armed rebellion but still commands a loyal following among poor Haitians.Since his return, Aristide has generally avoided public appearances and commenting on local politics.”I am withdrawing gradually from active politics,” Aristide said. “But I remain open to help.”Speaking to reporters before their meeting, Martelly acknowledged previous political differences with Aristide.’A NEW PROJECT’Martelly also sat down for a private meeting with Duvalier in a private hillside villa overlooking Port-au-Prince.Duvalier returned unexpectedly to his Caribbean homeland in January after 25 years of exile in France. He faces charges in Haiti of embezzlement, corruption and crimes against humanity stemming from his 1971-1986 rule.”Your visit is a move in favor of national reconciliation,” Duvalier said, reading a statement after the two men met.”I take the opportunity to call on all political leaders to put aside rancor and for them to understand the need to come together in the face of the numerous challenges we are confronting,” he said.”Baby Doc” Duvalier, the son of Haiti’s feared dictator, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, still has ties with some of Haiti’s small but powerful political elite.On Tuesday, Martelly held a meeting with former President Prosper Avril, who as an army general led a military coup against a transitional government in 1988. He resigned two years later.”We all need to stand together behind a new project,” Martelly said. “All of us need to rebuild our country. And that’s when we’ll be able to talk about a dignified Haiti.”