Monday, February 2, 2009

Afghanistan is no Vietnam...Mullen

WASHINGTON — The top U.S. military officer cautioned Monday against comparing the Pentagon's renewed focus on Afghanistan to the Vietnam War, citing terrorism and a non-occupation strategy as "dramatic differences" between the two conflicts.
"Afghanistan is much more complex," said Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
He added: "I certainly recognize — and having been in Vietnam myself — that there are those who make comparisons. I would be pretty careful about that though, for lots of reasons."
Mullen's comments came as the Pentagon prepares to deploy an additional 15,000 Army and Marine troops to Afghanistan this spring and summer in the Obama administration's military campaign to shut down the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Ultimately, an estimated 60,000 U.S. troops could be in Afghanistan over the next year as Obama starts ordering soldiers from Iraq. There are currently about 32,000 American troops in Afghanistan.
Speaking to a Washington meeting of the Reserve Officers Association, Mullen stopped short of predicting how long U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan. He said the main difference between Afghanistan and Vietnam is that "we are not an occupying force."
"We have no intention of that," Mullen said. "There isn't any of the 42-plus countries who are there that have that intention. ... That said, we cannot send a message to the Afghan people that we are."
Chief among the concerns, Mullen said, is making sure Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for al-Qaida leaders who moved to lawless Pakistan tribal regions in the post-9/11 hunt for Osama bin Laden.
"We cannot accept that al-Qaida leadership which continues to plan against us every single day — and I mean us, here in America — to have that safe haven in Pakistan nor could resume one in Afghanistan," Mullen said.
Efforts to eliminate government corruption and develop the poor nation also marks a contrast between the U.S. mission in Afghanistan from Vietnam, Mullen said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates met Monday with President Barack Obama, but White House spokesman Robert Gibbs would not say whether the two discussed troop levels in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon released a long-awaited study Monday describing crumbling security and a peak in violence in Afghanistan in spring and summer of 2008.
The quarterly status report, required by Congress, focused mostly on data available between April and September 2008 but included some year-end details, including:
_Between January and December 10, 2008, 132 U.S. personnel in Afghanistan died as the result of hostile action, up from 82 in 2007.
_The Afghan National Army Air Corps is beefing up its reconnaissance and gunship fleets and added 27 new helicopters and cargo planes by the end of December.
_As of December, NATO had provided only 42 Operational Mentor Liaison Teams out of 103 promised to train the Afghan National Security Forces.
The shortfall of the teams impacts the training of the Afghan forces, the report noted.
_The annual Failed State Index, published by the Fund for Peace, showed worsening governance in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2008.
Mullen also said the global financial crisis is threatening U.S. security options abroad, forcing a delicate balance between national security and federal budget cuts.
"I am extremely concerned that in fact one of the outputs of this financial crisis will be an increase in instability," Mullen said.
He added: "Clearly, in listening to our new president, it's going to have an impact on the budgets in our government."

Waste, fraud in Iraq being repeated in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — Waste and corruption that marred Iraq's reconstruction will be repeated in Afghanistan unless the U.S. transforms the unwieldy bureaucracy managing tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure projects, government watchdogs warned Monday.
The U.S. has devoted more than $30 billion to rebuilding Afghanistan. Yet despite the hard lessons learned in Iraq, where the U.S. has spent nearly $51 billion on reconstruction, the effort in Afghanistan is headed down the same path, the watchdogs told a new panel investigating wartime contracts.
"Before we go pouring more money in, we really need to know what we're trying to accomplish (in Afghanistan)," said Ginger Cruz, deputy special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction. "And at what point do you turn off the spigot so you're not pouring money into a black hole?"
Better cooperation among federal agencies, more flexible contracting rules, constant oversight and experienced acquisition teams are among the changes urged by the officials in order to make sure money isn't wasted and contractors don't cheat.
Cruz, along with Stuart Bowen, the top U.S. official overseeing Iraq's reconstruction, delivered a grim report to the Commission on Wartime Contracting. Their assessment, along with testimony from Thomas Gimble of the Defense Department inspector general's office, laid out a history of poor planning, weak oversight and greed that soaked U.S. taxpayers and undermined American forces in Iraq.
Bowen, who has made 21 trips to Iraq since he was appointed in October 2004, said the U.S. has financed a wide array of projects in Iraq — from training the Iraqi army and police to rebuilding the country's oil, electric, justice, health and transportation sectors.
Some of these projects succeeded, Bowen told the commission at its first public hearing, but many did not. Violence in Iraq and constant friction between U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad were also major factors that undercut progress.
A 456-page study by Bowen's office, "Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience," reviews the problems in an effort the Bush administration initially thought would cost $2.4 billion.
The U.S. government "was neither prepared for nor able to respond quickly to the ever-changing demands" of stabilizing Iraq and then rebuilding it, said Bowen. "For the last six years we have been on a steep learning curve."
Overall, the Pentagon, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have paid contractors more than $100 billion since 2003 for goods and services to support war operations and rebuilding projects in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Congress created the bipartisan panel a year ago over the objections of the Bush White House, which complained the Justice Department might be forced to disclose sensitive information about investigations.
There are 154 open criminal investigations into allegations of bribery, conflicts of interest, defective products, bid rigging and theft in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, said Gimble, the Pentagon's principal deputy inspector general.
Gimble noted that contracting scandals have gone on since the late 1700s when vendors swindled George Washington's army.
"Today, instead of empty barrels of meat, contractors produced inadequate or unusable facilities that required extensive rework," Gimble said. "Like the Continental Forces who encountered fraud, the (Defense Department) also encounters fraud."
Gimble's office found that a small number of inexperienced civilian or military personnel "were assigned far-reaching responsibilities for an unreasonably large number of contracts."
He cited an account tapped frequently by U.S. military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan to build schools, roads and hospitals. More than $3 billion was spent on these projects, which were not always properly managed.
"In some instances, there appeared to be scant, if any, oversight of the manner in which funds were expended," Gimble said. "Complicating matters further is the fact that payment of bribes and gratuities to government officials is a common business practice in some Southwest Asia nations."
In "Hard Lessons," Bowen said his office found fraud to be less of a problem than persistent inefficiencies and hefty contractor fees that "all contributed to a significant waste of taxpayer dollars."
Styled after the Truman Committee, which examined World War II spending six decades ago, the eight-member panel has broad authority to examine military support contracts, reconstruction projects and private security companies.
In addition to examining flawed contracting, the commission will also study whether battlefield jobs handled by contractors such as aircraft maintenance and motor pools should be reserved for military and government employees.
The panel has until August 2010 to produce a final report. It can refer to the Justice Department any violations of the law it finds.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who pushed for formation of the commission, urged members to be aggressive and to hold people accountable.
"Harry Truman has been rolling in his grave for the last five years," said McCaskill, referring to the former Missouri senator (and later president) who led the Truman Committee. "A report is not going to be enough. You're going to need a two-by-four."

Germany to send troops to France as army ties deepen

PARIS - German troops will be stationed in France for the first time since World War Two when German forces occupied much of the country, a source said on Monday, a sign of ever closer military ties between the two historic foes.

A battalion of some 450-800 soldiers will probably be stationed near the northeastern city of Strasbourg, but France and Germany are still negotiating over the precise location, the diplomatic source told Reuters.

"The question of whether this will happen has basically been decided, it's now about the 'how' and 'how many' and 'where'," the source said.

Relations between Germany and France used to be bitterly hostile as a result of the 1870 Franco-German conflict and two world wars, but the former enemies now run a bi-national brigade and have shaped the core of Europe's joint defence strategy.

"The prospect of seeing German troops settle in France again regularly makes my grandfather splutter," wrote a French reader on the website of newspaper Liberation when the idea was first floated by President Nicolas Sarkozy last November.

For the online commentator it was something to welcome:

"What an extraordinary symbol of Franco-German reconciliation" read the post.

Sarkozy proposed the move amid negotiations over the future of the 5,000-strong French-German brigade, which has been on missions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan since it was founded 20 years ago.

The brigade's main units are currently stationed in the German towns of Donaueschingen, Muellheim and Immendingen. But their future looked uncertain after France said it would recall some of the troops to plug gaps left by military cutbacks and a strategic re-shuffle of regiments at home.

"Now we have to agree on a location and what kind of unit will be offered. Talks are taking place at the highest level," the source said.

The troops are likely to settle in Alsace or Lorraine, regions that were alternately claimed by Germany and France for centuries and now form part of France.

Germany favours the Alsatian towns of Colmar and Illkirch as a new home for its battalion, while France would prefer the towns of Metz or Bitche in Lorraine, but may be willing to settle on Illkirch, the source said.

Sarkozy and Merkel are expected to announce further details of the plan this weekend at a security conference in Munich, German media reported.

Clinton sworn in to new U.S. Post

Ironies pile up as Clinton sworn in to new U.S. post

WASHINGTON--The ironies and memories piled up fast on Monday when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with husband Bill Clinton at her side, was publicly sworn-in to her new post by Vice President Joe Biden.

"Never did I think, Madame secretary, that I would swear you in as secretary of state," said Biden, once considered a front-runner for the top diplomatic job until President Barack Obama tapped him as his number two.

"Never did I think I'd be sworn in as vice president," he said to laughter at a State Department ceremony attended by several hundred of Clinton's friends and colleagues as well as four former secretaries of state.

Clinton noted the strange twists of fate that led them there.

"For me this has been an amazing personal journey," said the former first lady, who was the early favourite for the Democratic presidential nomination last year until Obama beat her in a gruelling campaign.

Biden also ran for president last year, but bowed out after early losses to Clinton and Obama.

"As Joe laughingly referenced, neither one of us thought we would be standing here together doing what we are now doing. Life has that funny way of unfolding and politics is even stranger," she said.

Clinton placed her hand on a Bible held by her husband, the former president, as she repeated the oath administered by Biden. She was sworn in privately on January 21 after she was confirmed by the Senate.

She acknowledged four former secretaries of state who attended the ceremony -- Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Madeleine Albright and Lawrence Eagleburger -- and made special note of some of her colleagues from Congress there.

Clinton singled out Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "who after all presided over my confirmation hearing."

"I look forward to working with all of you -- particularly the appropriators," she said, alluding to the powerful members of Congress who dole out money for the State Department and other government agencies.

Handful of extremists can’t take country hostage: President Zardari

ISLAMABAD: Urging the need for financial support from US, President Asif Ali Zardari on Monday made it clear that a handful of extremists cannot make the country hostage at any cost.
President Zardari expressed these views during a meeting with US congressional delegation in Aiwan-e-Sadr on Monday.
The delegation comprised Representatives John F. Tierney, George Miller, Chris Van Hollen, Chris Welch, Christopher Murphy and Ron Kind.
A. Rehman Malik, Advisor to PM on Interior, Shaukat Tarin, Finance Advisor, Nawabzada Malik Amad Khan, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Anne W. Patterson, US Ambassador in Pakistan were also present in the meeting.
Sources told Online that a host of issues including war against terror, US drone attacks, bilateral relations and regional situation was discussed in depth in the meeting.
Sources said, the President made it clear to them that Pakistan has paid a heavy price in terms of life and property after becoming ally in the war against terrorism.
He made them realise that the war could not be won without the financial support of US.
Sources said the President pointed out that situation in Swat was not encouraging, adding "we have will and ability to fight out terrorists and we will use the strategy of minimum collateral damage."
President said US must immediately stop drone attacks "as they are proving counterproductive," adding US must safeguard the interests of Pakistan in war against terrorism.
He told the delegation that he anticipates that US President Barrack Obama to take positive measures regarding Pakistan's problems.
Meanwhile Chief Minister NWFP Amir Haider Khan Hoti also met President Asif Ali Zardari.
Hoti briefed President on various issues relating to security situation in Swat, government steps and others, sources say.
President Asif Ali Zardari expressed his assurance that government will not hold talks with miscreants

— An eye-opener for ANP-

PESHAWAR: Known for changing political parties, the resignation of Khwaja Muhammad Khan Hoti from federal cabinet was not a bolt from the blue. However, his criticism of the party policies is an eye-opener for the ANP leadership before awarding tickets to the novice and well-off candidates for Senate elections.According to a provincial office-bearer of the ANP, the party had received more than 60 applications for the upcoming Senate elections, majority of whom belonged to influential and resourceful families. Out of eleven vacant seats, the ANP is expected to win six in case it makes adjustment with independent MPAs and other parties.Taking a U-turn from its old track, the Awami National Party had awarded tickets to newcomers but wealthy candidates for 2008 general elections and after securing maximum seats in the province, the nationalist party then inducted resourceful politicians both in the federal cabinet as well as provincial cabinet. Ignoring experienced parliamentarians and diehard loyalists of the ANP like late Abdul Mateen Khan, Arbab Muhammad Zahir Khan, Muzafarul Mulk, Pir Haider Ali Shah and Pervez Khan in the federal cabinet from the ANP quota had earned a wide flak for the party leadership but the influential Nawabzada was given berth in the federal cabinet as federal minister for social welfare and special education in its first phase.Similarly, the ANP had preferred the newcomers to the old party activists in the NWFP cabinet whereas important portfolios were awarded to those who had either joined the party before the polls or after elections.The favour began with the nomination of Syed Masoom Shah as personal secretary to the NWFP Chief Minister Ameer Haider Hoti, who is serving political advisor to the chief minister. After having a long association with the students’ wing of the Pakistan People’s Party, Masoom Shah had joined former NWFP chief minister Aftab Sherpao when he formed his own faction of the PPP. However, he joined the ANP before 2008 elections and was awarded party ticket for PF-21 Charsadda where he lost to Sikandar Sherpao.NWFP Minister for Agriculture Arbab Ayub Jan had a track record of changing parties since coming into electoral politics in 1985. After switching over from PPP to ANP and then National Awami Party Pakistan (NAPP), Arbab Ayub Jan was the central president of the NAPP before re-joining the ANP. He contested the 2008 general elections on the ANP ticket and won. Provincial Minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs Barrister Arshad Abdullah had joined the ANP before general elections 2008 who had contested 2002 elections on the PPP ticket against Sangeen Wali Khan, son of Khan Abdul Wali Khan, on PF-18 Charsadda. He was fortunate enough to win elections on the ANP ticket and secure a berth in the provincial cabinet while superseding Bashir Umerzai and Fazl Ghafoor Khan — hailing from the same district who had been associated with the party since long.
Another lucky MPA Hidayatullah from Dir Upper district was blessed with a ministerial job. He was previously associated with the Jamaat-e-Islami. But when the JI boycotted the general elections, he applied for the ANP ticket, which he got. He won the elections. He is now Minister for Livestock in the NWFP cabinet.Provincial minister Qazi Asad from Haripur, Mian Nisar Gul Kakakhel from Karak and Amjad Afridi from Kohat had won 2008 elections in independent capacity but after joining the ruling ANP they were inducted in the provincial cabinet. Mian Nisar Gul had won the 2002 general elections from the platform of Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf but put his weight behind the MMA government for almost five years. Qazi Asad was elected to the provincial assembly on the PML-Q ticket in 2002 general elections but was re-elected to the NWFP Assembly in independent capacity and was inducted in the provincial cabinet as minister for higher education on the ANP quota. Likewise, the PPP had also accommodated those in the provincial cabinet on its quota who had either associated with other political parties in past or won the elections as independent candidates.

Pakistan army 'advances in Swat'

Pakistan's army says it has retaken high ground from Taleban militants in a district of the north-west where many civilians died in weekend fighting.Charbagh district near Mingora, the main town in Swat valley, has been the scene of a major battle since Saturday.Witnesses said five more bodies were found on Monday, taking the number of dead civilians since Saturday to 25.The clash is the latest in an operation against an increasingly powerful Taleban insurgency in the valley.The military launched its offensive last week in response to a public outcry over the Taleban's growing strength in Swat.The militants have tightened their hold on the scenic valley, banning girls' education, setting up their own courts and killing those they oppose, sometimes beheading their victims.
'Died down'
"There has been heavy fighting in the area, and the militants resisted fiercely, so civilian deaths cannot be ruled out," an official at the army's media centre in Mingora told the BBC on Monday.He said that security forces had retaken all strategic heights in the Charbagh area, but that fighting had died down for the moment.Witnesses in Charbagh said five more bodies, all of them of non-combatant residents, were discovered in the area on Monday morning.On Sunday, officials in Mingora confirmed that 20 civilians had been killed since Saturday night.The army also said on Sunday that at least 16 militants and two soldiers had been killed in the battle.Meanwhile, residents of Mingora's north-western suburban neighbourhood of Sangota reported seeing eight bodies whom local people had been unable to identify.
In Mingora's southern neighbourhood of Rahimabad, witnesses said a beheaded body of a policeman was found.Correspondents based in Mingora said thousands of people were moving out of Charbagh area to escape the fighting.In some cases the fleeing families were leaving behind their dead, they said.

American U.N. Official Is Abducted in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A senior United Nations official was abducted and his driver was killed Monday morning in the southwestern city of Quetta, according to United Nations and Pakistani officials.The United Nations identified the official as John Solecki, an American, who was heading the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan Province.“We are confirming that an unfortunate incident happened this morning when Mr. John Solecki was abducted,” Amena Kamal, the spokeswoman for the United Nations in Islamabad, said by telephone.Ron Redmond, the spokesman for the United Nations refugee office in Geneva also confirmed the abduction but gave no details. The agency has 49 staff members in Quetta, where it has worked since 1980. It provides support to some 400,000 Afghan refugees in 10 villages and camps, agency officials said.There were no immediate claims of responsibility.A Pakistani security official said that such a high-profile kidnapping was unusual in Quetta and that he believed that Mr. Solecki probably had been seized for ransom or by the Taliban.Mr. Solecki had been in Pakistan for about two years, Ms. Kamal said. She said he was headed to work Monday morning when his vehicle was intercepted by gunmen. The driver was shot during the abduction and died on the way to the hospital, she said.Television images showed the white Toyota vehicle of Mr. Solecki rammed against a wall by the roadside — apparently as a result of the driver losing control of the vehicle after it came under fire. The police cordoned off the street after the incident.
Ms. Kamal said there had been no prior threats.
United Nations officials said the aid agency was in touch with the Pakistani government to try to obtain Mr. Solecki’s release.Wazir Khan Nasir, an official in the Quetta police, was quoted by Pakistani television as saying that Mr. Solecki did not have armed guards with him.Baluchistan Province borders Afghanistan and it has seen a low-level insurgency spearheaded by nationalists who are demanding more autonomy and a greater share in the province’s natural resources.At the same time, the Taliban have also maintained their presence in several districts of the province, especially the border areas.