The Black Rod

The origin of the Usher of the Black Rod goes back to early fourteenth century England . Today, with no royal duties to perform, the Usher knocks on the doors of the House of Commons with the Black Rod at the start of Parliament to summon the members. The rod is a symbol for the authority of debate in the upper house. We of The Black Rod have adopted the symbol to knock some sense and the right questions into the heads of Legislators, pundits, and other opinion makers.

Name:
Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

We are citizen journalists in Winnipeg. When not breaking exclusive stories, we analyze news coverage by the mainstream media and highlight bias, ignorance, incompetence, flawed logic, missed angles and, where warranted, good work. We serve as the only overall news monitors in the province of Manitoba. We do the same with politicians (who require even more monitoring.) EMAIL: black_rod_usher@yahoo.com

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Tories didn't need dirty tricks to deliver a message

Somebody play the theme from Deliverance.

The Liberals got caught with their pants down and they're squealing like pigs.
Weeeee.

What kind of crazy world is this when the federal Conservatives launch attack ads, then admit they did it?Amateurs.

It's not like the good old days when the Liberals could launch a smear against Stephen Harper without leaving any fingerprints, then watch it unfold as "news."

Oh, what fun that was.


It was mid-December, 2005, in the midst of the last federal election campaign, when a Canadian Press reporter travelling with Conservative leader Stephen Harper was approached by -- how did they describe him -- "an opponent of his social policies."

It was the day before the first leaders debate on T.V. and just after the Liberal communications director had said parents getting monthly child care payments would just spend it on beer and popcorn.

Psst, said the tipster. (Okay, we made that up for dramatic effect - ed.)

The "opponent of (Harper's) social policies" told the Canadian Press reporter that a friend of his had been surfing the Internet when he stumbled upon a speech made by Harper to an American think tank. It was shocking and the Canadian public needed to know. He would direct CP to the speech on one condition---he wouldn't be identified.

The reporter passed the tip to CP's election desk in Ottawa. They spoke with the tipster who said he was a concerned citizen without any political affiliation. They ran the story.

1997 Harper speech resurfaces mid-campaign
Canadian Press
December 14, 2005

OTTAWA - An eight-year-old Stephen Harper speech, which praises American conservative values, disparages Canada as a "welfare state'' and says the jobless aren't worried because they have generous benefits, could provide fresh ammunition to his critics.
The speech was delivered to a 1997 Montreal meeting of the Council for National Policy, a little-known right-wing American think tank.

CBC's Ottawa reporter Keith Boag quoted from the speech on the National that night. CTV gave the story some context on its website.

1997 Harper speech resurfaces mid-campaign
Updated Wed. Dec. 14 2005 11:34 PM ET
CTV.ca News Staff
Just in time to give his political foes ammunition to use during Thursday's leaders debate in Vancouver, an eight-year-old speech has resurfaced, threatening to trip up Conservative Leader Stephen Harper.

The Liberals professed themselves surprised at the "news" but wasted no time jumping on the CP "scoop."
As CP eventually reported:
The story was immediately leapt upon by the Liberal war room as evidence the Conservative leader is outside mainstream Canadian opinion.
By the following day, the Liberals were sending out backgrounders under the following Editor's Note: "A CP story yesterday highlighted a speech given by the Honourable Stephen Harper to the Council on National Policy.'' But then, in their arrogance, the Liberals slipped up.

CP learned from one of their reporters, Alexander Panetta (who was in town to cover the debate) that the tipster was in Vancouver working with Paul Martin's team preparing to tackle the other party leaders. They contacted Mr. Tipster with a follow-up question.

Was the Liberal Party behind his tipping the news agency about the speech?
Uuuhhh, he said.
The jig was up.

CP ran a story detailing how thery got suckered by Alex Munter, a well-known gay activist from Ottawa (where Panetta, who reported on the gay marriage debate, would have known him well).

Anonymous tip on old speech leads back to Liberals
Bruce Cheadle Canadian Press, December 18, 2005
WA (CP) An eight-year-old Stephen Harper speech dug up by Liberal researchers cracks a rare window into campaign war-room strategy, media manipulation and the ethical quicksand that sometimes underlies an election leak.
This is a tale that reflects well on no one.
In its simplest terms, the Liberals used a third party to put a buffer between them and a story that was unflattering to the Conservative leader.

Now that's how to put out a smear.
Use a cut-out.
Feign shock and anger.
You don't just buy an ad.

In fact, if the Liberals have their way, you can't just buy an ad like the ones the Conservatives want to run Super Bowl weekend.

It turns out that one of their stalwart financial contributers is James Patterson, the man behind Telecaster, the private agency that screens TV ads.

Canadian television stations let Telecaster tell them what's safe to air.

Swearing is a no-no. So too, apparently, were Conservative ads during the last election campaign which showed Liberal MPs admitting their own attack ads against Stephen Harper had gone too far. Telecaster canned them before their aired.


The Liberals may have thought that the Conservatives could never get attack ads past their boy. And maybe they're right. But the news media have repeated the Dion ads a thousand times, giving the Conservatives a million dollars of free ad time.

The ads were a pre-emptive strike. They gave the Conservatives the initiative in Day One of Question Period. They were Topic #1 on Mike Duffy's first show after his heart surgery. They were the top of the fold on every major newspaper.

Did they work?

We'll let Canwest columnist Greg Weston have the last word:
"...Harper's strategists apparently believe they can kill two political issues with one set of attack ads, portraying the Liberals as eco-delinquents and Dion as an ineffective leader who got nothing done as environment minister... Like everyone, Dion only gets one chance to make a first impression with voters, and the Conservatives seem only too happy to introduce Dr. Did Little."

Ouch. That hurts. No wonder the Liberals are squealing.
Weeeeee.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

War in Afghanistan 2007, Week Four

A NATO official has dropped a bombshell about Canadian policy in Afghanistan which may have deadly implications for the troops in the field.

Mark Laity, the senior civilian NATO spokesman in Kabul, told the Greek news agency AKI that the Canadian forces administering Kandahar Province are following the example of British forces and signing controversial peace deals.

Under the deals, known as the Helmand Protocol, the International Security Assistance Forces surrender control of provincial districts to councils consisting of local clerics and tribal elders. Nato troops and Taliban fighters are supposed to withdraw from the districts. The councils chose their own police chiefs and pledge loyalty to the central government. They are in charge of keeping Taliban insurgents out.

Yeah, sure.

The first such deal was signed last October in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province, which the Brits administer. The British are expanding the idea to the Sangin and Nawzad districts of Helmand. And now, according to Laity, to the Panjwai and Zhari districts of Kandahar, the two areas where Canadian forces successfully fought pitched battles last September to free from Taliban domination.

The peace deals have been criticized by Afghan and other NATO allies as being a virtual surrender to the Taliban. Instead of leaving, as required, Taliban forces use the areas to rest and recover after battles, and to plan future attacks. In their propaganda they brag of having defeated the British, inspiring new recruits.

A journalist in Pakistan friendly to the Talibian recently wrote about Musa Qala this way:

(Dec 7, 2006, Rough justice and blooming poppies, By Syed Saleem Shahzad) The British were based in the governor's office and faced daily attacks. The British garrison was subsequently relieved by a Danish infantry team, which came under renewed Taliban attacks. After a month, the Danish forces handed control of the base back to British forces, who in mid-October left the village.

They had struck a deal with the Taliban and handed over everything to pro-Taliban tribal elders. Now the area is free of NATO forces and the Afghan National Army (ANA) and is a strategic back yard for the Taliban from where revenue is generated and disbursed, arms stockpiled and pro-Taliban forces regrouped.

British military officials say the deals are actually victories for Nato forces. They marginalize the insurgents and let NATO avoid the bloody fighting that costs military and civilian casualties.

Reconstruction projects are under way in Musa Qala; schools are open, and buildings damaged by fighting are being rebuilt.

"That is not a bad achievement and credit goes to the local elders for standing against the Taliban." said British army Lt. Gen. David Richards.

An extension of peace deals to Kandahar may explain the sudden timidity of Canadian forces. During the recent Operation Baaz Tsuka, NATO generals said they had an estimated 700 taliban boxed in. But instead of cleaning house, and winning a decisive victory, the Canadians showed no interest in finding the insurgents.

Last Saturday night, the Canadians were in a three hour firefight with Taliban fighters. The Canadians called in heavy artillery, tanks and air support. A NATO spokesman the next day said, ""There was no indication that anyone was injured in that, Taliban or otherwise.''

But if you have a three hour gunfight and don't kill anyone---YOU LOST.

The true test of these peace deals may be just around the corner. In a month or two, the annual spring offensive will begin. NATO generals have said that Kandahar remains the "holy grail" for the Taliban. They're expected to put all their strength into capturing Kandahar City to prove they can defeat NATO. Canadians will be in the bullseye.

If Taliban fighters find their movements curtailed and NATO alerted to their attacks by village elders, then the policy will be judged a success.

But if the assault is fuelled by weapons and ammunition stockpiled in Kandahar and Helmand province and conducted by insurgents who have been biding their time in villages protected from NATO interference by the peace deals, then the British and Canadian generals who approved them should be cashiered.

In February, Lt. Gen. Richards is being succeeded as head of NATO forces in Afghanistan by four-star American General, Lt. Gen. Dan McNeil. Afghan officials expect, or maybe just hope, that he will put an end to these peace deals. There are already hints that officers are expecting a more hardline approach to fighting the Taliban.

An airstrike was launched on a compound near Musa Qala this week. NATO officials said they believed a senior Taliban leader and his deputies were killed. This follows the current policy of cutting the head off the snake---killing or capturing leaders and trying to win over the leaderless footsoldiers. And anyway, the guy wasn't supposed to be there anyway according to the deal.

On Monday, Squadron Leader Dave Marsh, the spokesman for ISAF's Regional Command South, based at the Kandahar airfield, told Radio Free Europe that precision bomb strikes against Taliban leaders have been replaced by arrests conducted mostly by British special forces. They must have made an exception for Musa Qala.

And in eastern Afghanistan, when insurgents fired rockets at U.S. soldiers in Paktika province from Pakistan's North Waziristan, American planes dropped four bombs on their heads. Pakistan protested the cross-border attack and said one of its soldiers at a border post was killed. Oops, sorry. What was he doing standing next to the guys with the rockets in the first place? The message got through. The U.S. isn't fooling around any more.

Apart from these incidents, military action was slow across Afghanistan this week.

The firefight involving Canadians happened at a fortified position known as Strong Point West which defends Route Summit, the road being built to connect Panjwai district with Highway One, the country's main road connecting Kabul and Kandahar City. Think an Asian TransCanada Highway, as one reporter dubbed it.

To see for yourself what Strong Point West looks like, go to: http://www.windsorregt.ca/windsors_in_afghanistan.htm
8 rows down, second from the left.

We'll be hearing a lot more about Route Summit in 2007. It is the front line of the war in Kandahar province. At least three Canadian soldiers died last fall defending construction crews. And the Taliban will be trying to cut the highway to isolate Kandahar.

Route Summit is one of the reconstruction projects that Canadian politicians pretend they don't know about when they question Canada's mission in Afghanistan. It is just as vital to the future of Kandahar as the Kajaki Dam in Helmand province (discussed in The Black Rod, Week Three).

The road is 4.5 kilometres long. Canada is building 1.4 km. at a cost of half a million dollars (U.S.) Germany is paying to pave the other 3.2 km. and the U.S. is building a bridge over the Arghandab River.

The hope is that the road will revitalize the local economy by letting farmers sell their crops of grapes and wheat at markets in Kandahar City and Kabul. Currently a lot of farmers grow marijuana because there's a ready market from drug lords in the area.

Col. Fred Lewis, deputy commander of the task force in southern Afghanistan, told The Canadian Press, that farmers could make more than double from farming grapes--once the road is opened and if the drug lords let them.

"An Afghan farmer gets $200 a month for farming opium but my understanding is when he farms grapes he gets $500 a month. The ones making all the money are the drug lords," he said. "When you're making in the millions, are you willing to have a gang along who shows up at two in the morning who says to Farmer Smith: 'You're growing opium next year, right?' "

Suicide Bombers

The Taliban's winter campaign of suicide bombing faltered badly this week.

* In Kandahar province last weekend, Afghan police conducted raids arresting 11 people preparing a wave of suicide bombings. Nine people were arrested in a bomb-making factory, preventing the deaths of scores of innocent victims. A second raid nabbed two alleged suicide bombers in Kandahar City, the capital.

* On Friday, police in Lashkar Gar, the capital of Helmand province, got a tip about a suicide bomber. They spotted him and tried to get him to surrender. When he refused, they shot him and he detonated the explosives vest he was wearing. He went boom.

* A suicide bomber on foot blew himself up in Khost province when he realized he wouldn't make it past a checkpoint to a U.S. military base. Eight people---two police and six laborers--were killed.

Hat Tip to Uruzgan weblog http://oruzgan.web-log.nl/uruzgan_weblog/ for catching that we had it wrong when we reported (in Week Three) about a suicide bomb attack in Uruzgan province. We said the only casualty was the bomber who blew himself up 30 yards from a convoy. In actuality, it was a remotely detonated car bomb which blew up and five Dutch soldiers in the convoy were wounded, some seriously. One may have been blinded.

A senior Canadian officer in Afghanistan wrote about the incident in his blog:

The story of the week also goes with the most dangerous event of the week. Two days ago, up north in the province of Uruzgan, a convoy of Dutch vehicles was hit by a large roadside bomb hidden in a vehicle parked by the side of the road. Despite being in an armoured vehicle, five Dutch soldiers were wounded.
Later in the field hospital, when asked about their experience, one described seeing the engine block of the bomb vehicle fly past his head on one side and the license plate fly past on the other. The license plate clipped his face, causing a nasty wound. In retrospect, he was glad it wasn't the engine block.

The Taliban extended their suicide bomb attacks to Pakistan this week, apparently in retaliation for a government air raid on a border village hosting Taliban fighters.

On Monday, a car rammed a convoy at a checkpost in North Waziristan and exploded, killing four soldiers and one woman bystander, raising concerns that the peace deals (them again) with pro-Taliban villages in the region were disintegrataing. And on Friday, a suicide bomber on foot killed himself and a security guard when he was stopped from getting into a nightclub in the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. The attack came just hours before a reception to mark the 58th Republic Day of Pakistan's neighbour India, which may have been the actual target.

Little Fighting

Compared to last week, there was little action across Afghanistan, but it appears Afghan police were in the thick of what there was.

* As mentioned earlier, Canadians at Strong Point West in Kandahar were attacked, with no casualties on either side.

* A Taliban ambush Tuesday on a two-vehicle convoy of police in Uruzgan province left nine Afghan border police dead.

* The same day Uruzgan police engaged Taliban fighters in a five-hour gunfight, killing 12. Two police were killed and the local police chief was wounded in the battle.

* Thursday, a band of insurgents attacked a police post in Paktika province but was fought off, leaving 12 dead behind.

And in a classic situation of chickens coming home to roost, a member of Parliament who was a former Taliban government official was assassinated in Kabul by his former colleagues on his way to Friday prayers.

Maulavi Mohammed Islam Mohammadi, was the Taliban's governor of Bamiyan province when the fifth-century statues of Buddha were blown up with dynamite and artillery in March 2001. He was elected in 2005 as MP from the northern province of Samangan.

He always blamed foreign fighters for the destruction of the historic statues which the Islamic fundamentalists considered idolatrous and anti-Muslim.

"It was foreigners like Chechens and Arabs with the Taliban who made the decision. They were crazy people," Mohammadi told The Associated Press at the time. "Even though I was governor, I had no power."

Updates

* Another nod of appreciation goes to reader R.G., who provided more information on the news (see Week Three) that anthrax was discovered in a house where an official Taliban spokesman was arrested. The BBC story he directed us to stated:

"A biological substance, anthrax, was also seized from those arrested. They planned to send the substance in envelopes addressed to] government officials. The envelopes would have exploded once opened."

* And the saga of the Heroes of Helmand has made headlines throughout the U.K., even if it has been ignored by Canada's news media.

You can read interviews with the daring Royal Marines who strapped themselves to the stabilizer wings of Apache helicopters to go back into the middle of a firefight to rescue a downed soldier. Best of all, you can see the official photos of the Apache helicopters with the tied-on soldiers at:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/01/22/napache122.xml

The fact that the mainsteam media in this country hasn't latched onto the Helmand heroes speaks volumes about the slant it is taking to the war.


Anything negative is news. Anything positive is impossible.

This week the world was informed once again how big Canada's contribution to Afghanistan has been. And once again the mainstream news media buried the news, if it carried it at all.

This week the world was informed once again how big Canada's contribution to Afghanistan has been. And once again the mainstream news media buried the news, if it carried it at all.In an interview with The Guardian, Lt. General David Richards said the Canadian-led Operation Medusa last September had turned the tide of the whole conflict.

"The people need to have faith in the fighting prowess of the side they back. No faith, no support; they just will not take the risk of backing the wrong side. This we achieved in early September in the pivotal battle of Medusa in which the Taliban set out to defeat Nato/ISAF in a conventional battle as a precursor to entering Kandahar and then bringing down Karzai's government. We killed over a thousand Taliban fighters in the battle and they, publicly and uniquely, acknowledged they had been forced to conduct a 'tactical withdrawal'.

It was the biggest defeat of Taliban forces since the stunning US victory over them in 2001. It achieved the moral superiority over our enemy that is so crucial in war and reassured the population that we could not be beaten militarily."

Compare the coverage this interview received with the blanket coverage of every word ever uttered by murder suspect Robert Picton, and you can see the MSM's priorities.

But, believe it or not, there was one ray of light in the way the press covers the war against the Taliban.
Early in the week, when reporting on the Taliban's plan to open schools to counter the success of the central government's schools in the country, Reuters added this final paragraph.

The Taliban operate across large parts of the Afghan south and east but they have been unable to hold or administer any significant territory if challenged by Nato and US forces.

It's more than the Canadian papers ever concede, but it's a start.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Taliban cries "Uncle"

With the mainstream media in the country obsessing on the Pickton trial, the biggest story out of Afghanistan has gone unreported.

The Taliban announced last Sunday that they have decided to open their own schools! The first classes start in March.

The significance of this can't be overstated. It's a clear signal of defeat. This is bigger than the military thumping they got from NATO forces during Operation Medusa last September.

Three weeks ago, The Black Rod noted that Mullah Omar, in his first interview in five years, talked about the Taliban's purported concern for the education of girls. And we red-flagged the significance of this surprising declaration. http://blackrod.blogspot.com/2007/01/war-in-afghanistan-2007-week-one.html

"Girls schools were either too few or were nonexistent before we took over," he said. "We were preparing a strategy for girls' education in accordance with the Sharia."

The mere fact he's claiming that the Taliban planned schools for girls shows that education is a fault line in the battle for the allegiance of Afghan citizens. And the Taliban knows its losing on the issue.

Now we see just how huge that fault line has grown.


Education has become a top priority of the largely illiterate villagers of Afghanistan. Obviously the Taliban's campaign of murder and intimidation of teachers has not gone over well. So, if you can't beat 'em, or kill 'em, or scare 'em, you better join 'em.

The Taliban say they've set aside $1 million (U.S., of course) to start 10 schools in the six southern provinces nearest Pakistan. The teachers will likely come from religious schools in Pakistan.

"Taliban are not against education. The Taliban want Shariah (Islamic) education." Abdul Hai Muthmahien, the chief spokesman for the insurgents, said to Associated Press.

"The aims are to reopen schools so children who are deprived can benefit and secondly, to counter the propaganda of the West and its puppets against Islam, jihad and the Taliban," he told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.

The new schools' curriculum will be based on the Koran and the Sunnah, which means they will be heavy on indoctrination and light on academics.

When they were in power, only about one million boys went to school, where the focus was on the study of the Koran and Mohammed's life. The Taliban regime forbade the teaching of geography, physics, maths, biology and modern history.

They banned girls from schools in Kabul. In the hinterland, girls could go to school until they turned 8 and only to study the Koran. The new schools will be boys only at first, with minor girls allowed later (Thank you Mullah Omar).

Oxfam says that currently in Afghanistan more than five million girls and boys are attending schools across the country, still less than half the children in the country. About 200,000 children are out of school because of Taliban intimidation.

Last year the Taliban burnt down almost 200 schools and killed 41 teachers. The Taliban target schools to show villagers the government is weak and can't protect them. In many areas, say analysts, schools are the only symbol of government authority.

But the anti-school campaign only antagonized Afghans for whom education is a promise of a better future.

NATO troops noticed something very different about kids in Afghanistan. Canwest reporter Peter Goodspeed reported on this earlier this month:

(Published: Saturday, January 13, 2007)
On tours of the dusty countryside, Canadian soldiers always draw crowds of curious children, Gen. Fraser says."But in Afghanistan, when they swarm around you, what do they ask for? A pencil -- not candies, like kids in most other places -- but a pencil! They want to learn."

And schooling can be very subversive--- if you're an insurgent.

Last week the Aspen Daily News carried a story about Julie Bolz, a former lawyer now doing humanitarian work in Afghanistan... (emphasis ours)

"...education has a ripple effect, Bolz said. She related the story of a 9-year-old Afghan girl who lived in the village where the American Friendship Foundation built its first school. The girl begged her father to let her attend the school, but the man, still skeptical, wouldn't have it.

The girl went to school anyway and learned to read her native language. When her father, who was illiterate, received an important letter, the girl confessed her secret and read the letter to her father. Instead of getting angry the grateful father hugged his girl.

Word of the girl's knowledge spread through the village and within six months, enrollment at the school jumped from about 400 to 1,000."

It's this momentum that is killing the Taliban's fortunes in the country. And which they hope to counter with Taliban schools.

They haven't got a chance.

As, year by year, millions of boys and girls get an education, they will drift further and further from the medieval mindset of the hardline Islamic terrorists.

And this is what Canada's mission in Afghanistan is all about.

In the meantime, we have to provide the muscle behind the government's own efforts to protect the schools in the country, like the new Neighbourhood Watch program they're setting up.

They call them Education Protection Commissions, which will be set up in each district to mobilize the local community to protect the local school. Each commission consists of the district government chief, the local security commander, the director of education, a cleric and a village elder. Most schools will have two or three people on guard. In the event of an attack, they will alert local residents by sounding an alarm or by phone.

The new programme is already showing its merit, Mohammad Seddiq Patman, the deputy minister of education, told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting:

" We've seen fewer attacks in the past few months," he said. "Even when there are attempts, local people prevent the attacks by cooperating with the local authorities.

In one such incident in Helmand last month, the commission's guards alerted villagers when insurgents tried to burn down a school.

They all rushed to the scene, and not only prevented the fire but captured the attackers as well," said Patman.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Coming Wave of Made-in-Manitoba Movies

With the Sundance Film Festival ongoing and the Oscar nominations announced Tuesday, everyone is talking movies.

Why should we be different?

Early last week (on the coldest days of the winter so far, wouldn't you know it) the advance team from the independent thriller The Horsemen was expected in town to do the prep work before shooting starts at the end of the month.

Director Jonas Akerlund has to brave the wind chill in Winnipeg for two and a half weeks before the stars arrive, Dennis Quaid and Ziyi Zhang. Well, you knew it was a dangerous job when you took it.

The one saving feature is that the movie is sure at least to break even.

Ziyi Zhang--- yes, she of Hidden Tiger Hidden Dragon, Flying Daggers, and Memoirs of a Geisha---is such a star in the East that she'll carry the flick by her lonesome over there.

Zhang, it's said, plays Kristin, "a dangerous and manipulative young teenager" who forms a small gang with four boys to avenge the victims of injustice. Dennis Quaid plays "a bitter and hardened detective", still grieving his dead wife, who discovers a shocking connection between himself, the suspects of a series of murders and, believe it or not, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Some have described the movie as in the same vein as "Se7en". Ziyi has said its more like "Silence of the Lambs".

If it sounds dark, you have to realize that producer Brad Fuller is the man behind remakes of The Texas Chainawaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror and The Hitcher, just out. He's developing a retelling of The Birds, plus a prequel to Friday the 13th. "Nuff said?

In an interview before The Horsemen was given the green light, he was asked by IGN FilmForce:

Q. What is the one project that you've always wanted to do, but have yet to be able to?
A. David Callaham wrote a script called Horsemen that is a challenging movie to get made because it is so dark and has a brutal ending. But at the same time, it is one of the most compelling scripts I have ever read.

Blending dark and brutal with compelling from a first script by a 24-year-old (when it was sold) is the job of Jonas Akerlund, whose best claim to fame is as a director of music videos.

Have you seen Madonna's Jump? Ackerlund.
Ray of Light? Ackerlund.
Videos by The Rolling Stones, Blink 182, Jane's Addiction, Christina Aguilara, U2, Roxette, Smashing Pumpkins, Moby, Paul McCartney? Ackerlund.
He also directed the movie Spun, which was universally panned.

So the heat's on this time, which is a good thing if you're shooting a movie in Winnipeg in the winter.

Ziyi Zhang has been in New York since October honing her English. Reportedly, she's not bad. She supposedly had a meeting with Spike Lee and spoke English fluently without the need for an interpreter.

The Horsemen will be shooting into mid-March. Ziyi is bringing something to North America to remind her of home----her mom. Her mother is coming over for Chinese New Year, which this year is Feb. 17, 2007. That's a Saturday, so its likely she will be flying back to New York instead of spending Chinese New Year's Eve in Winnipeg's Chinatown. And, FYI, this is the Year of the Dog, and Feb. 17 brings the Year of the Pig.

Now, for all the extras out there, here's a round-up of what's happening with all those movies shot in Winnipeg this past year:

* The Good Life is one of 16 movies up for the Grand Jury Prize (dramatic film) at Sundance.

It doesn't stand a chance.

It's up against against "Grace Is Gone," the John Cusack movie that was the first film to be snapped up at Sundance. The Weinstein Co., Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics were in an all-night bidding war with tshe Weinsteins winning the worldwide rights for $4 million.Cusack plays a father who takes his kids on a cross-country tour of American to delay tellilng them their mother was killed in Iraq. It had the audience weeping buckets at its screening Saturday.

The Good Life, which wrapped last April, is set in a Nebraska town (Omaha as portrayed by Winnipeg) obsessed with football. A "mostly normal" young man (Mark Webber) doesn't share the football fever and has his life shaken up by a mystery woman (Zooey Deschanel). Harry Dean Stanton plays a movie theater owner and Bill Paxton plays a Judy Garland fan. Don't ask.

* Full of It , which wrapped in June, is set for release March 2.

Here's how Yahoo movies describes it:

A habitual liar wakes up one morning to find his tall tales have come true. A 17-year-old desperately tries to fit in at a new school by telling elaborate lies to impress the school's most popular kids. But when the lies start turning to truths and the teen becomes the big man on campus, he suddenly finds himself facing a whole new set of problems that he never expected.

The other movies coming out that day include Zodiac, the story of the search for the mysterious Sixties serial killer, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo.

* Can you say "roadkill"?

You Kill Me, starring Ben Kingsley, Tea Leoni and Luke Wilson, will play the Cannes Film Festival in May a year after in wrapped shooting in Winnipeg. The Independent Film Channel's entertainment division acquired the North American rights for You Kill Me to be one of only about six movies given a full-court press in 2007.

Quality over quantify is the name of their game.

IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring called the movie "exactly what we've been looking for over the past several months to launch us in this new direction ... This is a film with enormous commercial potential. It is a big movie with a great cast and this acquisition signifies an aggressive new direction for IFC Films. With our First Take label providing a lucrative option for smaller, critically acclaimed indie and foreign fare, IFC Films is in the position to acquire and release movies of a much larger scale."

The movie will get a nationwide release June 22. It's described as:

"The story of Frank, a hit-man from Buffalo (Kingsley) whose drinking is getting in the way of his killing. He's sent to the west coast to dry out where he lands a job at a mortuary and meets Laurel (Tea Leoni), who is a relative of one his hits. Wilson plays his sponsor at AA."

* The Lookout, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the (now grown-up) kid from Third Rock from the Sun, wrapped in May and may be the most anticipated movie shot in Winnipeg last year.

It will have its world premiere March 9 when it opens the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Conference & Festival in Austin, Texas.The movie was directed by screenwriter Scott Frank, who wrote it between Get Shorty (Travolta) and Out of Sight (George Clooney and Jennifer Lozez), which got him an Oscar nomination in 1999 for best screenplay. While waiting to take the director's chair, Frank co-wrote Minority Report (Tom Cruise), Dawn of the Dead, The Interpreter (Nicole Kidman) and did some polishing on Saving Private Ryan.
The deadbeat.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a janitor with a brain injury from a car crash who get's recruited by a mobster to take part in a heist at the bank where he works. Isla Fisher, the horny girl that stalked Vince Vaughn in Wedding Crashers, plays a bad girl who befriends JGL and Jeff Daniels plays his blind roommate. Hottie Carla Gugino plays a thearapist. She could play a telephone poll and we'd watch, but we digress.

Miramax releases the film nationally March 23.

In the eight years its taken to get the script made, the casting has included stars like Ryan Gosling and Leonardo DiCaprio, both of whom were named Oscar nominees Tuesday.

* And, looking ahead, British actor Ralph Fiennes is set to make his directorial debut with Snow Country, production to start in September with shooting in Toronto, Winnipeg and the Actic.

The movie, based on a Japanese novel, tells the story of a love affair between a wealthy white man and a teenaged Inuit girl being raised in a convent. Churchill was scouted as a possible location, but lost out to Rankin Inlet.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A new policy at the Winnipeg Free Press: Facts are Optional

Just when you think the Winnipeg Free Press can't sink any further --- it sinks further.

This week we learned that henceforth at the venerable daily newspaper, facts are optional.

Columnist Gordon Sinclair wrote a blistering attack Thursday on Mayor Sam Katz (no surprise there) based on an Executive Policy Committee vote to close Elmwood Community Centre.


"...the mayor and his chosen councillors voted to close Elmwood Community Centre."

Why?

"The real reason appears to be that Elmwood...is an easy target."

If only Manitoba Public Insurance funded community centres it could reduce car theft, he bleats.

"Places like Elmwood." ... "Next week city council will vote on the closure of Elmwood Community Centre."

Except that city council isn't voting on the closure of Elmwood Community Centre.

Mayor Sam Katz "and his chosen councillors" have never voted to close Elmwood Community Centre.

And who knows if Elmwood Community Centre - known properly as East Elmwood C.C. - is an easy target or a hotbed of potential car thieves. You see, it doesn't matter.

Because the column wasn't about the closing of a community centre. It was purely about another attack on Mayor Sam Katz, facts be damned.

In his next column on Saturday, Sinclair offhandedly, in paragraph 16 (of 24) said that, "for the record", two days earlier he "mistakenly" called Kelvin Community Centre, which is facing closure and being voted on, Elmwood Community Centre.

Whatever.


Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that's even remotely true!-- Homer Simpson

At the Winnipeg Free Press under publisher Andrew S. Ritchie and Editor Bob Cox, facts have become irrelevant.

Use 'em, don't use 'em; suit yourself.

You want to make up a quote to sex up the front page? Go ahead.
You want to claim Sam Katz is under investigation when he's not? Here's some space on the front page.
So what's stopping you? Ethics?

The mainstream news media like the Winnipeg Free Press call themselves professionals to distinguish themselves from upstart citizen journalists, aka bloggers. They don't write in their pyjamas and they have editors to ensure the high quality of their journalism, they huff.

Yet, when a prominent columnist wrote an entire column about something that obviously wasn't true, where were the editors?

Where was Bob Cox?
Didn't Deputy Editor Patrick Flynn notice?
Was Deputy Editor #2 Margo Goodhand on coffee break?

Did a single editor earn his pay and say, "Hey guys. Isn't it Kelvin Community Centre ? I thought it was Kelvin. Let's doublecheck."

Fact-checking. How overrated.

Obviously the employees of the Free Press don't read it any more than the thousands who have dropped their subscriptions.

And the next day, didn't a single reporter point out the mistake? Anyone on the City Hall beat?

We can't say anyone did.

There was no correction.
No "Our Mistake" buried on page 2.
No apology, especially to the readers in Elmwood.

Not even a mention in Bob Cox's blog. You know, the one where he wrote, way back last June, he was "going to relate and explain what is really happening inside our newsroom”, "the debates, the criticism, the controversies." and "... it's important for us to be open if we want to maintain our readers' trust."

Maintain readers' trust. Ha ha ha. What a kidder.

Trust is not built on slipping a correction two-thirds of the way into a column and hoping nobody notices the difference.

The Winnipeg Free Press recently fired a part-time columnist for throwing his weight around in a personal dispute by threatening to write about it.

Yet when Gordon Sinclair uses his bully pulpit to attack the Mayor with false facts, editor Bob Cox becomes Silent Bob.

And that's a fact.

Friday, January 19, 2007

War in Afghanistan 2007, Week three

There was more exciting action, more intrigue and more twists in Afghanistan this week than in a full season of 24. It's still too early to start cheering, but there are indications of major developments that favour the NATO mission to stamp out the Taliban insurgency and bring peace to the beleagured country.

A brief sampling of what happened during week three of the War in Afghanistan, 2007:

* NATO troops are abuzz with the story of the most daring rescue mission of the war, one that will be celebrated in British military books for generations

* Six Pakistani nuclear scientists were kidnapped and their captors said they were taking the men to a Taliban commander on Afghanistan's border

* And the governor of an Afghan province next to Pakistan said a Taliban spokesman was captured in a house containing packets of anthrax.

Have you read any of these stories in your local newspaper or seen them on any national television newscast?

Early Monday morning in Helmand province a British force of 200, led by Royal Marines, assaulted Jugroom Fort. A walled compound ringed by watchtowers, it sits on the east bank of the Helmand River in Garmsir district.

Intelligence officers had been watching it for more than two months and suspected Taliban leaders who were orchestrating the insurgency across Garmsir were hiding there.

Just after dawn, the British troops crossed the Helmand river in Viking amphibious vehicles. Scimitar tanks, Apache gunships and 105 mm artillery provided cover fire. The Brits broke into the compound, but were met by heavy defensive fire. After four men fell, the British force fell back.

To their horror, they discovered Lance Corporal Matthew Ford, 30, one of the wounded, had been left behind. Reconnaissance aircraft spotted his body outside the fort walls.

Refusing to leave his body to be mutilated by the insurgents, the commandos decided by launch a recovery mission.

The pilots of the Apache helicopters suggested an operation so dangerous its only diagrammed during training and never practised or demonstrated.

In a scenario straight out of the 1965 movie Flight of the Phoenix, two Marines would strap themselves with carabiners to the short stabilizer wings of each of two helicopters. They would cling to bolted handholds used by maintenance crews as the Apaches returned to the fort under enemy fire.

One helicopter landed inside the fort, and one outside. A third gave covering fire. The Marines jumped off the helicopter nearest to Ford, and strapped his body to the underside of their machine. The attack helicopters then took off and returned safely to base.

There was a time that a story of such tremendous courage would have been splashed across the front pages of every newspaper in the country. That was when bravery was a value to be celebrated by all Canadians.

Last year the mainstream news media feasted on a story that a Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan was a coward who had wanted to come home, a story based only on his distraught girlfriend's interpretation of what he told her. But tales of astounding courage and self-sacrifice are not newsworthy in the eyes of the MSM.

Instead, the Globe and Mail runs another front page story hinting at the doom and destruction awaiting Canadian troops in the coming feared Taliban Spring offensive.

"Taliban plot new offensive on NATO/ Militants vow to hit Kandahar territory" (Jan. 18, 2007)

"The Taliban have promised another season of death in southern Afghanistan, saying their fighting strength is undiminished by recent NATO attempts to destroy their leadership."

Oh yeah? Keep reading to see how the facts show the direct opposite.

Scientists Snatched

Another story not carried in the Canadian press is of the Pakistani nuclear scientists. We've pieced the story together from accounts in Pakistani, British and Indian news agencies.

Last Sunday night, at least 20 armed men kidnapped the scientists from their camp office near a uranium mining field in Karak district of Pakistan. They set off in three trucks towards the Orakzai Agency, one of seven federally administered tribal areas in northwest Pakistan where a local leaders hold absolute sway.

The BBC says police located the kidnappers a half hour later. In the gunfight that followed, one police officer and two kidnappers were killed. Two others were wounded and arrested. The rest escaped.

Among the dead and wounded were two men from North Waziristan, a tribal area bordering Afghanistan. One of the injured kidnappers told police the scientists were being taken to the seminary of Taliban commander Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani in North Waziristan.

Now, why does a Taliban commander want nuclear scientists?

Anthrax Mystery

And what is a Taliban spokesman doing in a house with packets of anthrax?

On Wednesday, the governor of Nangarhar Province ( in the eastern end of Afghanistan) distributed photos of Taliban spokesman Mohammed Hanif who had been arrested Monday night after crossing over from Pakistan. Governor Gul Aghar Sherzai dropped the bombshell that packets of anthrax were found in the house where Hanif was arrested.

While Hanif has been a wealth of information on the Taliban's internal splits (more about that in the analysis portion of The Black Rod), there hasn't been another word released about the anthrax.

But we wonder whether there was any connection to the discovery by Afghan soldiers this week of about 60 gas masks in Paktika province.

Paktika

Last week we told you how NATO aircraft decimated a small army of 200 Taliban insurgents who crossed over from Pakistan with trucks filled with ammunition. More details have come out.

A top US general said the men had been recruited by Jalaluddin Haqqani (yes, the same Haqqani mentioned earlier). They were untrained and unequipped, some wearing plastic bags on their feet instead of winter boots.

"It is clear to me that some of these men were just either collected in a poor part of a village or perhaps from a Madrassa or perhaps from a refugee camp and told to come fight," said Maj-Gen Benjamin Freakley, who didn't mince words.

"The message to the enemies of Afghanistan and the enemies of world peace would be that you can come at us with two people, 20 people, 200 people, 2,000 people, you'll be defeated and your young men will needlessly be killed."

Freakley said it was likely the insurgent fighters meant to attack a new military outpost that has affected insurgent infiltration routes.

But is this an indication that the Taliban has to depend on untrained fighters recruited from the poorest of the poor or pressganged into fighting for a cause they don't believe in? What does that say about the steady boasts, highlighted regularly in the Globe and Mail and elsewhere, that the new Taliban has thousands of highly trained recruits ready to fight NATO forces?

And to make matters even worse for them, Afghan soldiers in Paktika discovered 40 trucks filled with weapons and explosives in mountain caves. This will put a dent in the spring offensive planning.

Fight for Kajaki Continues

In nearby Helmand province, British troops were on the attack again this week, trying to clear the area around the vital Kajaki Dam of insurgents. One Royal Marine was killed. Thomas Curry, 21, became the first coalition soldier killed in 2007. The operation killed 30 Taliban fighters according to local police.

Kandahar Kham

Canadian forces in Kandahar province continued to sweep the area for Taliban fighters even as thousands of refugees have started returning to their homes, believing that the Canadian-led NATO incursion last fall has succeeded in driving out insurgents.

Murray Brewster of The Canadian Press went into the countryside without army protection to get a firsthand look at the conditions and attitudes of the people. He wrote:

But four of us - myself, a colleague from the Globe and Mail newspaper and two CTV journalists - travelled to what had been, until a few weeks ago, Taliban territory - land over which Canadian troops have fought and died. And we went without the protection of the Canadian army.
We wanted to cover the return of refugees and to independently verify what the military claimed was happening.
After an hour's drive in an SUV through the desert on recently paved black top road, we arrived in Bazar-e Panjwaii to find a bustling town centre. Street-side stands were full of fruits, vegetables and goods; kids and adults buzzed along the narrow mud streets and past our dust-caked windows on bicycles.
Here was the place where so much Canadian blood had recently been spilled. It was the place the Taliban had used as a staging area for attacks into Kandahar itself. Yet there was such life and a peaceful resonance coming from the place on the day we visited.
"This is the tangible benefit of all of the pain and suffering last fall", Gavin Buchan, the political director of Canada's provincial reconstruction team, said in an interview days later.
"The fighting that happened last August and September set the conditions for all that has followed."

No matter where the reporters went or who they talked to they found the same optimism and relief that the Taliban had been driven off.
Amazingly, this has not made the front pages where only stories about the 'feared Taliban Spring Offensive' are considered news.

But we're not finished with Kandahar yet. Even though there was less fighting here than in Helmand and Paktiki provinces, the week's developments may be more far reaching.

* British SAS soldiers conducted a lightning raid on a heavily fortified compound in Helmand province Wednesday and snatched a key Taliban commander, Mohammed Nabi, without a shot being fired.

It turns out Nabi actually leads insurgents in Kandahar, but scrammed ahead of Canadian troops conducting their latest operation, Operation Falcon's Summit. He had enough of them in September when fighting them and losing in Panjwayi district.

The word is obviously getting out.
You Don't Mess With The Canadians.

*And Wednesday night, Nato-led troops arrested 20 insurgents and killed their leader, Mohammed Amin, in Kandahar. He wasn't just your average Johnny Jihad-come-lately commander.

In October, Amin told Britain's Sky News that the Taliban was planning attacks on citizens in England and other European countries that supported the NATO mission.

"It's acceptable to kill ordinary people in Europe because these are the people who have voted in the Government.
"They came to our home and attacked our women and children."
"The ordinary people of these countries are behind this - so we will not spare them. We will kill them and laugh over them like they are killing us and laughing at us."

Who's laughing last?

Suicide Wave

The Taliban has apparently launched its first ever Winter Offensive, which consists of a series of suicide bombings.

Sunday--Zabul Province--A suicide bomber detonated his explosives as a convoy of contruction workers passed. One dead---the stupid bomber.

Tuesday--Kabul--A suicide bomber crashed through the front gate of a U.S. military base, but a security guard and interpreter stopped him from detonating the explosives in the car. However the car exploded as bomb experts were moving it to defuse the explosives. Five people in a nearby office were hurt by flying glass when the explosion blew their windows in.

Thursday---Paktika province (again)--A suicide bomber on foot blew himself up in a market, killing one Afghan soldier.
Thursday -- Nangarhar province--- A suicide bomber drove into an army patrol, killing one soldier.
Thursday --Kandahar--- Afghan police arrested three men in an explosives filled car soon after they drove across from Pakistan.

"They told us that they have centres in Pakistan, where people are recruited and trained as suicide bombers," Mohammad Anway, an Afghan border security official, told Reuters.
"The car was full of explosives and they had plans to distribute some of the material to their men and carry out attacks in Kandahar," he said.

Friday -- Uruzgan province --- A suicide bomber in a car blew himself up next to a NATO convoy north of Tirin Kot, the capital . He was 100 feet away when the car exploded and was the only casualty.

Analyzing the Week

One word repeats itself thoughout the week.

Pakistan. Pakistan. Pakistan. Pakistan.

And, believe it or not, that's the good news.

Whether it was the accumulated diplomatic pressure by NATO states on Pakistan to stop Taliban training, planning and recruitment in border areas....
Or the accumulated shame of the drip, drip, drip of the evidence that Pakistan is a haven for Taliban fighters...
Or the visit to Afghanistan by US defense secretary Robert Gates...
Or the provocation of the attempted kidnapping of Pakistani nuclear scientists...

But Pakistan has turned up the heat on Taliban insurgents and their Pakistani pals.

And that can't be good news for the coming 'feared Spring Offensive.'

* Only two days after the nuclear scientists were kidnapped, Pakistan launched air strikes against suspected hideouts of Taliban insurgents in the Tribal Agency of South Waziristan. Helicopter gunships fired rockets and swept the area for 90 minutes, killing at least 30 "foreign fighters" including many from Uzbekistan and Chechnya. There was some suspicion that some Europeans were among the dead.

A military statement said "foreign terrorists and local facilitators" were occupying a complex of five camps in the mountain forest of Zamazola which is located opposite Barmal district in the Afghan province of Paktika.

"Their activities were under surveillance for the past few days and upon confirmation, this hideout was busted ... through a precision strike in which gunship helicopters also participated" it said (obviously as translated colourfully).

Local councillors from the Tribal Agency called a protest rally in the village of Tank to attack the government air strikes. One reporter's account said "Maulana Fazlur Rahmana's JUI-F, which is the strongest political party in both South and North Waziristan bordering Afghanistan and is the biggest component of the clergy-led MMA government in the NWFP, joined the protest meeting in force and its local leaders Maulana Niaz Muhammad Qureshi and Maulana Jamaluddin (Haqqani, yes, him again) made speeches."

"Innocent people have been killed in the attack," said Maulana Merajuddin, the cleric-turned parliamentarian, who had helped broker a peace agreement between the government and militants in his native Waziristan agency, told the newspaper Dawn in a telephone interview.

"Those were poor labourers involved in wood-cutting. It's now up to the people to decide whether the peace agreement still holds," he said.

One leader promised retaliation in a week to ten days.

* The police chief in Pakistan's southwestern province Balochistan said Thursday that a major operation against Taliban suspects will soon be launched in the province. Provincial police chief Tariq Mahmood Khosa told a news conference the operation will be conducted in Quetta and also other parts of the province by special teams created for this purpose. He vowed to arrest any Taliban militants hiding there.

Khosa said Pakistani police in recent months have arrested 400 Taliban, and 300 of them have been handed over to Afghanistan.

The remaining 100 were being questioned by Baluchistan police, and would also be handed over soon, he said.

To provide Afghan and NATO forces a wealth of intelligence information, we're sure.

* Pakistan's ambassador to the United States said this week Pakistan will close four refugee camps near its border with Afghanistan to help prevent Afghan insurgents from gunrunning and seeking a safe haven in the country. Two will be closed around March and the other two later.

Just in time for the "feared Taliban Spring Offensive.

"On the one side NATO troops are disrupting the movement and supply of Taliban forces in Afghanistan, killing and capturing their military leaders, and moving checkpoints and police into areas previously controlled by insurgents.

On the other, Pakistan is starting to squeeze Taliban fighters and their supporters, throwing their fundraising and planning into disarray, not to mention losing dozens of fighters to Pakistani gunships.

This sure looks like a completely different picture than the one being painted daily in the major newspapers and on the national newscasts, doesn't it?

But we saved the best for last.

Dr. Mohammed Hanif was a regular source for reporters covering the Taliban and he was always being quoted, by name, from his base in Pakistan. In many ways he was like Baghdad Bob, always quick to deny NATO successes even in the face of direct proof.

But when Afghan authorities arrested him Wednesday as he was sneaking into Nangahar province, he turned out to be a hidden treasure of information. And he's been talking, talking, talking about what he knows.

* He said Taliban leader Mullah Omar is hiding out in Quetta under the protection of retired ISI chief Hamid Gul. ISI is the Pakistani intelligence agency that backed the Taliban up to and after the U.S. drove them from power in 2001.

* Time magazine reports that "Afghan investigators say that under questioning, Dr. Hanif... told them that the organization would never have been able to challenge Afghan military and NATO forces without the direct assistance of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency. "This means that according to his confession, the ISI of Pakistan is directly involved in funding, arming and supporting the Taliban and other opposition groups against the government of Afghanistan," says NDS (National Defence Services) spokesman Sayed Ansari."

* He is said to have told his interrogators that the recent surge of suicide attacks in Afghanistan were carried out by men trained at a fundamentalist madrassah in Pakistan's Bajur agency, not far from the Afghan border in Waziristan. (Time, Jan. 17, 2007)

* According to Afghan security sources, cited in the Saudi newspaper 'al-Watan', Hanif says the Taliban is split into three groups, who don't always get along well. One group consists of former members of the Taliban regime in Kabul who are fighting to keep from getting arrested.

The second group is linked to Islamic extremists in Pakistan. And the most violent and dangerous group is linked to Al Qaeda.

* Hanif also allegedly said that Mullah Omar has ordered the killing of one of his top military commanders, Mullah Dadullah, for having helped Americans, indirectly, kill one of the Taliban's most important leaders, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani. Osmani was killed by an airstrike in December after a British monitoring aircraft pinpointed his location by tracking his satellite phone.

This offers some support to a little noticed paragraph in a Chicago Tribune report on Osmani's death by Kim Barker Tribune foreign correspondent published December 30, 2006:

An Afghan intelligence source this week said Osmani was killed five minutes after he left a meeting with another senior Taliban military commander, Mullah Dadullah. The source said Dadullah and Osmani were trying to reconcile a split in Taliban leadership.

At the time British newspapers said Osmani, who headed Taliban operations in six provinces, was said to be part of a triumvirate within the Taliban with Mullah Dadullah and Mullah Omar.

If Omar, like Tony Soprano, has ordered a hit on Dadullah, then....

Oooh, this could be gooood.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Centreventure's cinematic solution to spiff up downtown Winnipeg

CentreVenture's latest plan for revitalizing downtown Winnipeg is breathtaking.

Not breathtaking like when a stunningly beautiful woman walks into the room.

But breathtaking like when your boat overturns in Lake Winnipeg and you're going down for the third time.

The plan as outlined to city council Thursday consists of spending all the money in CentreVenture's bank account over the next three years and heading for the exit doors before the public starts asking questions.

Left behind to distract the mob, if all goes well, will be three new parkades, some spruced up parks and maybe some flashing neon lights along Portage Avenue. It ain't the bright lights of New York's Broadway, but it'll do in a pinch.

And, boy, is CentreVenture in a pinch.

Its clear that CentreVenture has openly abandoned its designated role in revitalizing downtown Winnipeg.

"The CentreVenture mandate is to lead and encourage business investment and development downtown, and enhance the use of heritage buildings and land in the downtown area." says Destination Winnipeg.

"The City shall promote downtown development to stimulate revitalization . . . by implementing a visionary downtown plan (CentrePlan) through an action-oriented development corporation (CentreVenture) to provide clear direction, coordination, planning and implementation, and strong leadership for the downtown. . ."
says the city's own strategic white paper, Plan Winnipeg 2020 Vision.

Yet there's no mention of interesting projects on the horizon in the three-year plan pitched to City Hall.

Nothing about the rock and roll museum/nightclub proposal for the decrepit Metropolitan Theatre that CentreVenture put on ice last July.

Nothing about the water-park proposal floated by the Winnipeg Convention Centre way back in 2004 when two other water-parks plans had been announced.

Nothing about the worst kept secret in the city, a proposed 38 storey condo tower for 100 Main Street which would be the tallest building in Winnipeg.

We guess that even a hint of what developers have in mind would only serve to excite the rabble needlessly.

Hell, we were excited by the Aspers' proposal to build a new media tower just off Portage and Main (complete with Broadway-style lights and electronic billboards that Centreventure wants to see) only to have our hopes dashed when they scrapped the plan and sent the message that real businessmen invest in Toronto, not Winnipeg.CentreVenture sure got the message.

And if they needed any reminder, they just had to read the Winnipeg Free Press story (Jan. 15, p. B4) on downtown office space."Vacancy rate downtown one of highest in two decades" read the sub-head."The biggest problem is that when tenants move out, there is no one waiting to replace them," wrote reporter Murray McNeill.

So any announcement of new office space available in a refurbished CentreVenture building only means a possible reshuffling of addresses, and not the growth that revitalizes a city centre.

The agency has, instead, turned to the movies for a solution. And we can even pinpoint the year.

1989.

CentreVenture has realized that the patient shows no vital signs. Put away the paddles. But if they can dress and manipulate the corpse for awhile, they may convince everyone they're still players.

Does Weekend at Bernie's sound familiar?
No?

Then how about Field of Dreams.

Build it and they will come.
Build parkades, and they will come downtown.
Build world-class parks, and they will come.
Put up some flashy lights, and they will come.

Or at least it will look like something's happening downtown, and that's the next best thing.

To be fair, maybe the parks thing isn't completely a CentreVenture idea. In October, newly elected mayor Sam Katz "challenged" CentreVenture "to find new innovative ways of developing more world class destination parks downtown." Well, you don't say no to the mayor.

Katz had in mind the success of the skateboard park at the Forks which was built in partnership with the Burns Family Foundation. We're pretty sure he wasn't thinking about the shoplifting epidemic at the Forks that followed the park's opening.

But the concept of "world class destination parks" has diminished in CentreVenture's plan into a new stage for Old Market Square, a skating oval on Argyle Street, and a dog park off Pioneer Avenue which come with a hint of a doggie spa and hotel. World class, we presume.

Oh, and our own Broadway, (now renamed Broadway Promenade by Centreventure), needs a walking path.

Note to CentreVenture: Broadway already has two walking paths. One is known as the sidewalk on the north side and other is called the sidewalk on the south side. Don't knock yourselves out overthinking this one.

But what about the parkades? Goodness knows, everyone is always complaining about parking downtown.

Yep. They are. And the parkades will be built. (Winnipeg currently runs three parkades-- Winnipeg Square Parkade, Millennium Library Parkade, and Civic Centre Parkade--and owns 8 surface parking lots downtown run by the Winnipeg Parking Authority.)

The driving force for more parking structures is the high-end condo developments that were built in the CentureVenture development zone and which served as the symbol of the agency's success in its early years.

The developers figure if there was more assured parking, then maybe, just maybe, they would build more condos. And Centreventure feels this is a risk worth taking. What's the downside? More parking?

The true downside is what CentreVenture has designated The Dead Zones.

What are The Dead Zones, you ask? Bottom line--Portage Avenue downtown and Main Street from Higgins to Portage.

Pretty much the area CentreVenture was created in 1999 to revitalize.


Now they've put a nifty new name to the area and buried it in a ton of verbiage on how the agency plans to woo developers.

It's good to see they haven't lost their sense of humour.We've heard this joke before, only the punchline was different. But it still cracks us up.Rewind to the year 2000.

The location--Higgins and Main.
The producer---The Winnipeg Development Agreement, which was sort of like CentreVenture's richer step-sister.


The opening of Thunderbird House also represents a vital step forward for the development of North Main Street, and is a testimony to the importance of strong partnerships between the community and government.

Who said that?

Councillor Dan Vandal.


The opening of Thunderbird House also represents a vital step forward for the development of North Main Street, and is a testimony to the importance of strong partnerships between the community and government.

Who said that?

Lloyd Axworthy, the then-federal minister responsible for the Winnipeg Development Agreement.


Six years later, that "revitalization" is in shambles.

Parts of the building are falling off. Its tens of thousands of dollars in hock to the city for back taxes. A colony of sniffers terrorizes bus riders across the street. The management has decided that the prostitutes and gang members brought to the building for social programs are not such a great attraction for tourists, who have been staying away by the tens of thousands. Today, Dan Vandal is back at City Hall.


And Lloyd Axworthy is back in the downtown revitalization business thanks to oodles of University of Winnipeg cash and the expertise of Mr. Crocus Fund, himself, Sherman Kreiner.

Lifeguard....over here....we're goin' down.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

War in Afghanistan 2007, Week Two

The second week of 2007 was hugely successful for NATO forces in Afghanistan. As usual, we'll examine the action and the analysis of the mission.

The Action

Paktika Surprise

Paktika is a province of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan and to the east of Kandahar (where Canadians lead the NATO mission). It was the scene of a major Taliban defeat this week in a battle that may foreshadow a more active role by Pakistan in disrupting the easy passage of insurgents across the border.

Taliban forces, driven out of Kandahar in the fall, have been putting pressure on Paktika in operations that have not made the radar of the Western press until Friday.

In 2006, the governor of Pakita was killed by a suicide bomber; he was the highest ranking political figure to be murdered by the Taliban all year. During first week of January this year, a suicide bomber (the year's first) tried to drive his car into a NATO convoy in Paktika. Troops opened fire and he detonated his explosives, killing only himself. Last Monday, another suicide bomber blew himself up as two Afghan army vehicles passed by, again killing only himself.

This week U.S. reconnaissance units spotted a couple of hundred Taliban fighters massing in the neighbouring North Waziristan area of Pakistan, where power has been virtually ceded to Taliban and Al Qaeda forces. UAV's watched as a fleet of lorries drove the men to the border and into Paktika, Afghanistan, in two columns, accompanied by several pick-up trucks later found to be full of ammunition. Pakistani forces helped monitor the fighters.

Coalition forces waited until the columns had gone just over a mile into Afghanistan. Then they pounced. Apache helicopters decimated the columns with their missiles and machine guns (645 rounds per minute) and attack aircraft dropped 500 and 1000-pound bombs on the surprised Taliban fighters. The fighting, if you can call it that, lasted over 9 hours as helicopters tracked survivors of the ambush through the mountains as they tried to escape.

Pakistani forces had been alerted to the convoys and rained artillery and mortar fire on the trucks at the Afghanistan border. The estimate of the dead ranged from 150 (the initial estimate), to 130 (revised estimate) to 80 (Afghani defence ministry).

"We think that we killed at least 130 fighters from what we have been able to ascertain through visual recognition," said Lt Col Paul Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for US forces in Kabul, said in the usual convoluted military jargon. He said military officials lowered the estimate during the day after reports made at night under combat conditions were further evaluated.

The BBC reports that the bodies of 25 Pakistani guerillas killed in the ambush were brought back to North Waziristan for burial in their respective villages. Another 50 wounded men were in local hospitals.

Interrogation of the few prisoners taken will decide the debate over whether the insurgents were headed to attack a target or to stash the ammunition in preparation for the annual spring offensive which should start in about six weeks.


Helmand Triple

The fighting in Helmand province, immediately west of Kandahar, has been just as fierce, and immensely more significant to the success of the NATO mission of reconstruction in Afghanistan.

This week we heard the details of a pitched four-day series of running firefights which may be the most important coalition victory yet even if the Canadian press hasn't caught on.

The Battle for Kajaki Dam started New Year's Day. 150 British troops--- Royal Marine Commandos backed by two Apache helicopter gunships and a special forces reconnaissance team--- swept through Kajaki and the nearby neighbourhood of Kajaki Olya, house by house, driving out Taliban fighters who had set up a training camp in the area.

British military officials said the enemy dead could be measured in "dozens". An agency close to the insurgents, Arab Islamic Press, said the figure was close to 100. The only casualty to NATO forces was one soldier who was shot in the hand.

But in this case it isn't the casualty count that's important. It's the prize.

By clearing out Taliban fighters from the area, the Brits have opened the way to complete the Kajaki Dam project, the single most important infrastructure project in southern Afghanistan.

When it was operational, the dam was the biggest single source of electricity in all of Afghanistan. In 2003 its two turbines seized up. Temporary repairs kept the dam functioning at a fraction of its capacity. Seven months ago Taliban attacks completely halted the project to replace the generators and build new transmission lines.

When finished, the dam will provide power for 1.8 million people! At the same time it will triple the area that can be irrigated in Helmand province, which means local farmers can grow food instead of poppies which thrive in soil too dry to grow wheat. This would be an immense blow to drug dealers who fund the Taliban and supply fighters.

"We're going to have the contractors mobilized in February and we're going to finish the hydroelectric in 2007 -- by the end of this year," James Franckiewicz, director of USAID's Office of Infrastructure, Engineering, and Energy in Afghanistan, said . "I would guess [it will be] around the summer of 2009 before the transmission line and road construction is completed."

"There is about 190 kilometers of transmission line that we are going to build down there. And we're going to build about 90 kilometers of access road from the main regional ring road up to Kajaki Dam site. The upgrade of the hydro-electric plant and the transmission line will give a reliable electricity supply for both Lashkar-Gah and Kandahar and a few villages that will be services along the transmission line."

Security will be provided by a series of fortified roadblocks built by Royal Engineers this month.

But that's not all that's been going on in Helmand.

On Wednesday, Scots Marines, backed by Estonian and Danish troops, took on 50 Taliban fighters in houses and ditches near the town of Gereshk in their fiercest battle yet in Afghanistan. At times the fighters were only 40 yards apart.

As NATO forces built checkpoints to keep the Taliban away from Gereshk, at the request of local elders, they were ambushed. NATO troops stormed a compound and fought the insurgents house to house before the Taliban, in long flowing robes and black turbans, were routed with the help of two Harrier jump jets and a couple of thousand-pound bombs. Then they found what the insurgents were protecting---a bomb-making factory.

And on Thursday, in the largest pre-planned operation in Helmand since British troops got there, between 60 and 100 Taliban fighters were killed when NATO forces attacked two compounds in a village near the town of Garmsir in the middle of the night. Snipers pinned down the insurgents as Apache gunships went to work. Among the dead was a local Taliban commander.


Kandahar Quiet

Canadian forces expanded their presence west to the Jalai district of Kandahar, a former Taliban stronghold. They met no resistance, which is the gold standard of the current mission, Operation Falcon's Summit. They've begun setting up checkpoints and clearing the roads of IED's.

One Canadian soldier was injured while on a regular patrol elsewhere in Kandahar. Master Cpl. Jody Mitic, a sniper with 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, stepped on a landmine. He lost both his feet.

Villagers who left during the Canadian-led Operation Medusa last September have started returning to Kandahar by the hundreds, another sign that Taliban influence has been squeezed out. But its meant an increase in the need for humanitarian aid which remains slow in coming. (More on that in the analysis section.)

Analysis

Virtually every newspaper in Canada recently carried the same pessimistic story about Afghanistan.

Afghanistan 'sliding into chaos'
Vancouver Sun, Montreal Gazette

Afghan mission 'doomed to fail'
Ottawa Citizen

Afghanistan headed for chaos
Edmonton Journal

"... a new article in the prestigious international journal Foreign Affairs warned Afghanistan is "sliding into chaos" and that the NATO-led coalition is doomed to fail without a dramatic change in strategy.Author Barnett Rubin, a respected global authority on Afghanistan, says no amount of military sacrifice by NATO countries can produce dividends in Afghanistan without a massive, co-ordinated infusion of economic aid and a willingness to dismantle Taliban command centres in Pakistan..."

The article is basically a repeat of everything that's been written about Afghanistan in the past year. As such, it's significance is more in what it reveals of the inner biases of the mainstream press through what they report and what they don't.

The Press is determined to put a negative spin on every story out of Afghanistan. This is the Vietnam template.

Deep, deep, deep in the Foreign Affairs story was this nugget:

"In a telephone interview Friday, Rubin praised the "sacrifices" of Canadian troops and of diplomat Glyn Berry, whom he met before Berry was murdered by a Taliban bomb last year.
Rubin credits Canada's military for turning back "a frontal offensive by the Taliban" in Panjwaii last summer and for rescuing Afghanistan from what he considers "a tipping point."
"The insurgents (had) aimed to capture a district west of Kandahar, hoping to take that key city and precipitate a crisis in Kabul," he writes.

Say what?

Why didn't we see headlines reading:

Canada Saved Afghanistan: Expert
We Did It, We Beat 'Em
NATO Tipped The Scales, Beat Back Terrorist Threat

Because that would suggest we're winning. That we can win. That Canada's role in Afghanistan is a good one.

And that would defeat everything the Press has tried to say since the start of the mission.

That theTaliban can't be defeated.
That Canada should pull out now.
That we can't win.
That it's wrong to stay.


Want more proof? Read this week's Maclean's magazine article headlined "Talking to the Taliban".

Reporter Adnan R. Khan says that Taliban fighters in Kandahar want a negotiated ceasefire with Canadian troops. Why?

Because they're demoralized and desparate. They've been outgunned and outfought by NATO forces. Their only fallback is booby traps and suicide attacks, which they admit are not enough to defeat NATO.


In other words...we're winning.
The Taliban has split. Some want a ceasefire, and maybe to give peace a chance. Other, hardliners, want to fight and die, win or lose. Even the ceasefire crowd can't be trusted, says Khan who talked to Taliban fighters in Kandahar and in Pakistan.

"For many, a ceasefire would only be temporary, a strategic cessation of hostilities to buy them time to rest, rearm, and re-strategize...The offer, as genuinely rooted as it is in the suffering of villagers in Panjwai, is clearly a ploy to gain time for Taliban fighters at a time when their resources are depleted."

The current campaign in Kandahar is to seize the moment and seduce the waverers over to the government side by offering them jobs as auxilliary policemen and turn them into the government's eyes and ears in remote villages.

Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor explained it best:

"As we clear village after village, we're putting police detachments in those villages, so there are Afghan police being placed through the whole zone. We're also moving the Afghan army into strongpoints, so this whole area is going to be dominated by the Afghan police and the Afghan army.
If there is a return in the spring of more Taliban into that area, we will know about them almost instantly, because we will have police and army in that area, and the Taliban will find it a lot more difficult penetrating that area than they did in the past
."

The plan is to train and deploy 11,000 auxilliary policemen across the country in the next 12 months. They are being recruited from the villages where they will be stationed. They are given the most minimal training in weaponry. Every two weeks another 200 are put into the field.

Critics worry that the auxilliary police are really tribal militias in disguise. American trainers admit that they estimate one in 10 of the trainees are Taliban.

But NATO, especially the Canadian-led Kandahar forces, are willing to take a chance that this move will turn the tide.

We'll know better with the return of the annual spring offensive about six weeks from now.