Thursday, February 5, 2009

Pashtun Leader Warns Of Security Breakdown In Swat Valley

KABUL –- Pashtun anti-Taliban leader Afzal Khan, who lives in Pakistan's volatile Swat Valley, has told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan that the police authority "has collapsed" in the region.Khan said on February 3 that unless military authority is established in the Swat Valley, "we will have a revolution." He said that the violence is so pervasive that "going to the mosque is virtually the same as to going to the trenches." Khan, 82, has survived numerous assassination attempts by the Taliban, and is thought to be at the top of the Taliban's latest hit list. He met recently with the head of the Pakistani military, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who told him that when it comes to stabilizing the region, military force is the "last option." The Swat Valley, where for two years local Taliban have been trying to establish Shari'a law, is at the center of the Pakistan government's efforts to root out extremism. Pakistan is struggling to stem growing Islamist influence and violence in the northwest, but the Afghan government has accused it of failing to do enough to rein in Taliban and Al-Qaeda loyalists. Meanwhile on February 4, Pakistani Taliban in the Swat Valley released 29 paramilitary soldiers and policemen they had captured in a raid on a police station.The militants destroyed a police station in the village of Shamzoi, and captured the 29 men after a siege of more than 24 hours, police said earlier. The released men -- the 23 members of the paramilitary Frontier Corps and six policemen -- were reportedly unharmed. A Taliban spokesman, Muslim Khan, said the Taliban had released the captives after they had promised to quit their jobs and not act to against the militants.The military says dozens of militants had been killed in recent days, but residents said about 40 civilians had also been killed, many in shelling and air attacks by government forces aimed at the militants.

Afghan finance minister resigns to run for presidency

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday accepted the resignation of his finance minister, who announced that he would run in the August presidential election, the president's office said.
Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi, finance minister for several years, announced Wednesday that he would stand in the elections, only the second-ever presidential vote in the war-torn country's history.
Ahadi "sent his resignation to the president after he announced his candidacy for the elections," a statement from Karzai's office said.
"The president accepted the resignation of... Anwar Ul-Haq Ahadi, appreciating his services and wished his success," it added.
Ahadi has become the first high-profile candidate to officially throw his hat into the ring for the presidency. Karzai has vowed to run for a second term but is considered weakened by rising unrest and government corruption.
Former Afghan interior minister Ali Ahmadi Jalali and Ahadi's predecessor as finance minister, Ashraf Ghani, are tipped as the main challengers to Karzai, but have yet to officially announced their candidatures.

PESHAWAR:The city before the danger zone

By Ayesha Akram
I could see my husband tensing up as we drove past Attock and into Peshawar city. The early afternoon sunlight glinted off our windscreen and highlighted his knuckles, white from tightly grasping the steering wheel. My husband is a Pathan, born and bred in Peshawar. A number of his relatives still live there, though his immediate family moved away when he was about seven years old. This was the first time I was travelling with him to his native city, and he was noticeably worried.
I hadn’t been to Peshawar for years, and was excited at the prospect of drinking kawa, a strong and traditional Peshawar green tea, eating Afghan tikkas – pieces of fatty meat barbecued with only a salt marinade – and shopping in the Barra markets, where goods smuggled from China and Afghanistan are sold at ridiculously low prices.

My eagerness was tempered, however, by recent news of Peshawar’s increasingly tottering stability. In 2008, the city was the victim of four suicide bomb blasts, which cumulatively killed 99 and wounded another 226. The North-West Frontier Province was struck 29 times by suicide bombers, and 16 others hit targets in the adjacent Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Many of these blasts took place in crowded market places and near places of worship, where they took dozens of lives.
Though the Peshawar of today is hardly a tourist spot, not too long ago the city was constantly inundated by visitors from other parts of Pakistan. Even after they moved away, my husband’s family would often make weekend trips here: the women spent days at the crowded marketplaces, and the men entertained themselves by chewing mutton tikkas and trying on Pashtun waistcoats, shawls and traditional headpieces called kullas.
Peshawar was established by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in the 16th century. For much of its history, the city was one of the main trading centres on the Silk Road, a meeting place of cultures from South and Central Asia and the Middle East. Today, though lorries can still be seen weaving their way through the city, getting around Peshawar has become incredibly dangerous. Last December, more than 200 lorries were torched in a single attack.
On our way to the house of a family friend – a retired Army brigadier – we had to cross the Ring Road, an infamously unsafe thoroughfare where a majority of the attacks on Nato lorries have taken place. My husband wanted to race our car across it, but a traffic jam slowed us to a tortoise’s pace. As we edged forward, I caught sight of a couple of Humvees on the side of the road, burnt almost to a crisp.
Safely sipping kawa at our destination, we mentioned crossing the Ring Road. The brigadier almost dropped his tea cup. “What do you mean?” he asked. “Why did you travel on that road? Don’t you know that no one, not even people like me who live in Peshawar, goes there?”

He went on to explain that many more parts of the city were now no-go areas, where not even residents of the city would venture. “Previously, if one of my servants lost a family member or relative I would make it a point to attend the funeral. But now the situation is different,” he said. “I make it clear to them that I can’t leave, and they understand my predicament.”
The brigadier insisted that we leave our car and have his driver take us back to our hotel. On the way, the driver regaled us with tales of Budaper, the part of the city where he was born. Today all of the area’s residents own guns and only travel in groups. “It’s survival of the fittest,” he said, speaking in rapid-fire Pashto. “We have to save our skins, and the only way to do this is to become stronger by becoming armed.”
Two hours later, a friend informed us that a sniper attack had taken place on the Ring road.

Even the city centre felt different. Though crowds still thronged the streets, and vendors still screamed out their wares, there was a change in the way people were walking. The women had pulled their chadors lower down over their faces; in most cases only their eyes were uncovered. Instead of congregating in street corners for random chit chat, the men were mostly hurrying along their ways, avoiding idle gossip. Even the children seemed different – less likely to wander from their mother’s sides.
We happened to be visiting one month after the Imam Bargah, a place of worship for Shiite Muslims located in the middle of a bustling marketplace, was attacked. Its ceiling and walls were destroyed, and eight people were injured. We were walking through the same marketplace when curiosity got the better of me. Grabbing my husband’s arm, I pulled my chador further down my face and hurried into the side street leading toward the Imam Bargah. Rubble was still piling up outside the crumbled building; passers-by had to struggle to climb over mini-mountains of stone and cement.
An aged man was standing quietly in a corner, leaning on a stick with one of his legs bandaged up to his knee. I learnt he was the caretaker of the Iman Bargah and had been injured in the blast.

“I heard the bomb blast,” he said, speaking in a slightly raspy voice. “And then bricks came falling down toward us. A brick hit me on my head and I fainted.”

When he came to, he was lying on a hospital bed. I wondered why he still lived in the area – wasn’t he afraid of another attack? “I am scared but this place is my home and I have to rebuild it,” he said, becoming more animated as he talked on this subject. “I can’t leave my home.”
Ayesha Akram is a senior executive producer at Express News, a TV channel in Pakistan.

Pakistan's Muddled War

Militancy in Pakistan has been spreading inward from the lawless tribal region along the Afghan border. The Pakistani Taliban has seized large swaths of territory (CSMonitor) in North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Militants have also increasingly mounted attacks in Peshawar, the provincial capital, as well as on trucks transiting the city to supply NATO forces in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani says Pakistan remains committed to fighting terrorism (FT) using dialogue, development, and deterrence. Yet experts say after nearly ten months of effort, the government has done little to inspire confidence. CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey told, "intellectually, both the civilian government and the military are committed to their plan, but in implementation they are falling short."
Pakistani security shortcomings include inadequate training and equipment, as well as a lack of mobility to fight insurgents in difficult terrain. Worries remain about the army's willingness to take on militants, a problem described (PDF) by Hassan Abbas, a fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. The government's lack of control over the military and the intelligence service, the ISI, compounds problems. South Asia expert Bruce Riedel told that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari "has only notional control over the Pakistani army and the Pakistani intelligence services, which remain fixated on their eternal enemy, India, and which believe that India wants to create a client state in Afghanistan in order to encircle Pakistan." Of all the tasks the United States faces, persuading the Pakistani army to dismantle its militias "is the hardest," writes Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria. Zakaria and many other regional experts say pacifying and stabilizing Pakistan are critical to victory in the war in Afghanistan.
Washington has signaled deep concerns about mushrooming Pakistan-Afghan problems, as some experts warn of the prospect of a failed Pakistani state. The Obama administration appointed Richard Holbrooke as special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan with the mandate to coordinate U.S. strategic goals in the region. Holbrooke was due to make his first official trip to the region in early February to help contribute to the broad policy reassessment under way. Some news reports say the Pentagon's latest review (CBS) of the Afghan strategy recommends the United States focus on regional stability and eliminating Taliban and al-Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan, rather than on achieving lasting democracy in Afghanistan.
However, Democrats in Congress, as well as Vice President Joe Biden, have pushed for greater engagement with Pakistan that focuses on development. The Enhanced Participation with Pakistan Act of 2008, if passed, would triple U.S. nonmilitary aid to Pakistan, granting $7.5 billion over five years in assistance for development projects. In a recent CFR meeting, Markey said Washington should focus on shoring up Pakistan's political structure and its development, with less emphasis on military considerations.
Any diminished U.S. military ties would occur against a backdrop of foundering government efforts to clear areas dominated by militants. Pakistan's strategy is becoming greatly unpopular as military operations using helicopter gunships, heavy weapons, and artillery are displacing thousands (BBC). And so far, they have failed to keep the Taliban out. Military analyst Shuja Nawaz told the army does not have the numbers to hold onto contested areas and has to repeat clearing operations.
While Pakistan's inability to rein in militants poses a threat to NATO and U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan, U.S. actions add to the Pakistani government's woes, say experts. In a recent interview with CNN, Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani called on the United States to stop air strikes in the tribal region. Washington, since early last year, has been using unmanned drone aircraft to take out suspected terrorists. Gilani said the airstrikes were "counter-productive" and helped in uniting the tribal people with the militants. Many in Pakistan also see the United States as a fickle partner intent on short-term gains in the region. As this interactive timeline notes, the two countries share a tumultous relationship marked by periods of estrangement and occasionally harsh sanctions.

Moscow Moves to Counter U.S. Power in Central Asia

MOSCOW -- Russia is reasserting its role in Central Asia with a Kremlin push to eject the U.S. from a vital air base and a Moscow-led pact to form an international military force to rival NATO -- two moves that potentially complicate the new U.S. war strategy in Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, Russia announced a financial rescue fund for a group of ex-Soviet allies and won their agreement to form a military rapid reaction force in the region that it said would match North Atlantic Treaty Organization standards. That came a day after Kyrgyzstan announced, at Russian urging, that it planned to evict the U.S. from the base it has used to ferry large numbers of American troops into Afghanistan. Russia said the base may house part of the planned new force instead.

The steps mark Russia's most aggressive push yet to counter a U.S. military presence in the region that it has long resented. They pose a challenge for the administration of President Barack Obama, which sees Afghanistan as its top foreign-policy priority and is preparing to double the size of the American military presence there.

The developments also underscore the difficulties for Mr. Obama as he seeks to build a closer relationship with Moscow. Russia is signaling that it will be a tough defender of its interests, especially in its traditional backyard of the former Soviet Union. Though its huge cash reserves are rapidly draining because of falling oil prices, the greater needs of its poorer neighbors are still giving it an opening.

"Russia would like to reassert itself in the region, and it is using the financial crisis as an opportunity," said Nikolai Zlobin, senior fellow at the World Security Institute, a Washington think tank.

Russian paratroopers are to form the core of the new military force, which is planned to be about 10,000 men. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the force will be ready "to rebuff military aggression," fight terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime, and handle natural and technological disasters.

"These are going to be quite formidable units," Mr. Medvedev said. "According to their combat potential, they must be no weaker than similar forces of the North Atlantic alliance."

When Kyrgyzstan said Tuesday that it intended to shut the base to U.S. troops, Moscow announced that it was extending the country $2 billion in loans plus $150 million in financial aid. That's a tidal wave of cash for Kyrgyzstan, whose budget is barely more than $1 billion, and whose populace has been harried by electric shortages, rising food prices and rampant unemployment.

The Kremlin also is discussing aid packages to Armenia and Belarus, other former satellites hit hard by the financial crisis.

The seriousness of the Kyrygz push to close the Manas air base stunned Pentagon officials, who noted Bishkek had made similar threats before. "Frankly, we thought it was a negotiating tactic, and we were ready to call their bluff," said a military official. "But it's becoming clearer that, no kidding, they want us out."

U.S. officials now say they expect the Kyrgyz parliament to formally approve ending the deal this weekend, which would give the U.S. six months to vacate under the countries' agreement.

The loss of the Manas base would be a major blow to the escalating U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. In 2008, 170,000 American personnel passed through Manas on their way in or out of Afghanistan, along with 5,000 tons of equipment.

"We have contingencies, and it's not fatal, but there's no way around the fact that this would be a real blow," said a senior Pentagon official. "It could also leave us more dependent on Russia, which is not a place we'd like to be."

The main U.S. supply route into Afghanistan runs through Pakistan, and militants have mounted a wave of attacks recently designed to prevent goods from entering Afghanistan. This week, militants demolished a key bridge on the route, forcing the U.S. to temporarily halt all shipments through Pakistan.

With Pakistan increasingly tenuous, U.S. officials have had to turn to Russia for help. The U.S. already ships large quantities of fuel through Russia, and senior military officials hope to start sending more supplies.

The Kremlin has long criticized the U.S. for maintaining bases in Central Asia, saying Washington initially promised a temporary move after the terrorist attacks of 2001.

On Wednesday Russia stressed that it supports the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan, but that Washington needs to work more closely with Moscow and Central Asian countries.

Pakistan: Suicide bomb kills 24 near Shiite mosque

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A suicide bomber blew himself up among worshippers streaming toward a Shiite Muslim mosque in central Pakistan, killing 24 people and wounding dozens more.The attack in the city of Dera Ghazi Khan on Thursday risks sparking sectarian fury in a country already battling rising militancy along the Afghan border and tension with India over the Mumbai terrorist attacks.The bomb detonated as a crowd approached the mosque for an evening prayer ceremony. Television footage showed bystanders and emergency workers trying frantically to help victims lying in the darkened street.Athar Mubarak, the city police chief, said the bomb contained metal balls and nails. As well as the 24 dead, another 40 people were wounded, he said.
"Evidence collected from the spot indicates that a suicide bomber blew himself up in the crowd," Mubarak said.Hasan Iqbal, the city's top administrator, said he believed that the Shiite gathering was deliberately targeted. He wouldn't say whether Sunni extremists were likely behind it and there was no immediate claim of responsibility.
However, relations between this Muslim nation's strong Sunni majority and Shiite minority have already been tested by a series of attacks attributed to sectarian extremists.Much of the violence has been in Pakistan's northwest, where the Taliban and other violent Sunni groups have gained ground.In the deadliest recent incident, a car bomb killed 29 people and wounded scores near a Shiite mosque in the regional capital, Peshawar, in December. On Tuesday, a grenade attack killed at least one person at a Sunni mosque in the town of Dera Ismail Khan.Meanwhile, a suicide attacker detonated an explosive-laden car near a police station in Mingora, the main town in Pakistan's Swat valley, wounding a dozen officers and destroying part of the building, said Dilawar Khan Bangash, the police chief.Bangash said militants also fired three rockets before the attack and one damaged a nearby hotel.
Pakistan is under pressure to clamp down on a string of Islamist extremist groups, including one suspected by archrival India and in Western capitals of being behind the November attacks in Mumbai that killed 164 people and nine assailants.

Afghanistan a key priority for UN in 2009

The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's surprise visit to Kabul and his meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai repeated the world body's firm support to the war-ravaged country.Ban Ki-Moon described the current year in Afghanistan as challenging by saying, "It is clear that Afghanistan will continue to face many challenges in 2009."However, Ban stressed that "for the United Nations, Afghanistan remains a key priority in 2009."He emphasized on enhancing international efforts in the rebuilding process of Afghanistan and bringing peace and development in this country."We must bring tangible changes in the lives of Afghans," the world body's chief noted.Ban, who earlier exchanged views with President Hamid Karzai on the security situation and upcoming presidential elections in Afghanistan, also repeated UN's firm support to Afghanistan by adding, "Again I assure you the full support and cooperation and commitment of the United Nations.""I am here to demonstrate and convey my strong commitment and support for peace, stability and development of Afghan people," he said.The visit of UN chief took place amid increasing security incidents and deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan where the U.S. and its allied nations have called for boosting military strength.

9 militants killed in clash near Peshawar

PESHAWAR,: Nine militants were killed in a clash with police following their attempt to kidnap a nazim on the outskirts of Peshawar on Wednesday morning.Three security personnel and two volunteers of the local peace committee were injured in the two-hour clash with Lashkar-i-Islam militants in Bazidkhel, which is adjacent to tribal areas.Local people said the militants had recently sent messages, asking them to pay a monthly ‘donation’ of Rs5000 each to help them carry out their activities.
Peshawar SSP (Operations), Abdul Ghafoor Afridi, told Dawn that on Wednesday morning a group of 10 militants tried to kidnap Union Council Nazim Fahim-ur-Rehman from his house, but police foiled the attempt. He said the militants surrounded the nazim’s house.“Members of his family told them that he was not at home,” the SSP said. When the attackers saw police personnel who had been posted there to protect the nazim, they opened fire.Security personnel fired back and four of the militants, who were in a car, were killed while the others who were in another car and on a motorcycle tried to escape. Police engaged the fleeing militants in a graveyard near Shadkhel, killing five of them. One of the militants escaped.

Taliban burns 10 trucks on Afghanistan-Pakistan supply route

Peshawar, Pakistan -- A day after blowing up a crucial land bridge, Taliban militants torched 10 supply trucks returning from Afghanistan to Pakistan on Wednesday, underscoring the insurgents' dominance of the main route used to transport supplies to Afghan-based U.S. and NATO troops.

Months of disruptions on the route from the Pakistani port of Karachi through the historic Khyber Pass have forced NATO and American military authorities to look for other transit options. About three-quarters of the supplies for Western forces in Afghanistan -- mainly food and fuel -- are ferried through Pakistan by contractors, usually poorly paid, semiliterate truckers. Many now refuse to drive the route because of the danger.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, said last month during a visit to the region that routes outside Pakistan had been found, but he provided no details and gave no timetable for their use. The supply question has taken on added urgency with the planned deployment of up to 30,000 more U.S. troops in the Afghan theater in the next 18 months.

The complications of moving supplies through Central Asia were also highlighted Tuesday when the government of Kyrgyzstan said it would close a U.S. air base important to the Afghan war effort. U.S. officials said talks were underway to keep the base open.

Kyrgyzstan's announcement could bode ill for American efforts to negotiate passage through countries bordering Afghanistan, such as Uzbekistan, particularly if it was clear that the U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization were over a barrel.

In response to dozens of Taliban attacks, the Pakistani military launched an offensive late last year in the Khyber tribal agency, which borders Afghanistan, and subsequently declared the Khyber Pass secure. But, as has happened before when the Pakistani army carried out short-term operations in the tribal areas, militant attacks resumed almost immediately after the troops left.

Initially, the Taliban hijacked vulnerable, slow-moving lines of heavy trucks. After Pakistani authorities beefed up their military presence on the roads, the insurgents took to attacking the truck stops in Peshawar, where hundreds of vehicles are backed up at any given time, waiting to cross the Khyber Pass. More than 100 trucks were burned in an attack last year.

Tuesday's bombing of a 100-foot-long bridge over a dry riverbed about 15 miles west of Peshawar stranded hundreds of truckers.

Pakistani and U.S. officials said the bridge was expected to be repaired soon and that some trucks had been able to cross via a makeshift road.

NATO and U.S. officials in Afghanistan have said the disruption to the supply lines is militarily insignificant so far. Weaponry is transported to Afghanistan by air, although dozens of Humvees have been lost in militant attacks on the supply routes in Pakistan. NATO says it keeps a 60-to-90-day supply of fuel and other goods, but shortages of everyday items, varying from raisins to razor blades, are being felt on bases throughout Afghanistan.

After the bridge attack, militants appeared to be trying to keep Pakistani forces off balance. A Pakistani soldier was wounded Tuesday night when suspected insurgents fired rockets at a base near Landi Kotal, along the Pakistani-Afghan border.

Elsewhere in Pakistan's volatile northwest, Taliban insurgents freed about 30 police officers and paramilitary troops who were captured after their base in the Swat Valley was overrun late Tuesday. The defenders surrendered when they ran out of ammunition.

The freed men said they had agreed to quit their jobs and expressed gratitude to the Taliban for setting them free rather than beheading them, often the fate of captured members of the security forces. A Taliban spokesman said the release was a "humanitarian gesture."

The freed captives also complained that the Pakistani army had failed to come to their rescue during a 24-hour siege of their remote outpost in the Shamozai district, despite pleas for help. Four officers died in the Taliban attack.