Sunday, February 8, 2009

Pakistan identified as biggest foreign policy test

Pakistani soldiers target militant positions in the tribal region, an increasing threat to the country's new and fragile democracy. Washington's newly appointed special envoy is due to arrive in Islamabad today, as Barack Obama's administration tackles what may turn out to be its greatest foreign policy challenge: a nuclear-armed country hurtling towards chaos.According to Obama's aides, Pakistan is the nation that really "scares" him. The country is threatened by a growing Islamist insurgency, economic collapse and a crisis of governance as it struggles to establish democratic rule. The Obama administration believes Pakistan is key to its objectives of pacifying Afghanistan and going after al-Qaida and has appointed a pugnacious diplomatic troubleshooter, Richard Holbrooke, as a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan."We often call this situation Afpak," said Holbrooke at a conference in Munich yesterday, before flying to Islamabad. "There will be more focus on Pakistan," he said. "A new and fragile democracy has emerged ... but the situation in Pakistan requires attention and sympathy."Leaks of a US military review, conducted under David Petraeus, the American general in charge of the region, say he has concluded that Pakistan, not Iraq, Afghanistan or Iran, is the most urgent foreign policy issue facing Obama.Pakistan is al-Qaida's headquarters, while its tribal territory, which runs along the Afghan border, is used by the Taliban to launch attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan. Some Pakistani extremists who previously focused on Afghanistan, have now turned inwards, spawning a vicious Pakistani Taliban movement which challenges the writ of the state. Obama warned in a television interview this month that the spillover of the war in Afghanistan risks "destabilising neighbouring Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons".The security situation in Pakistan seems to deteriorate daily. Last week's headlines, for instance, included: a bombing of a religious procession in the central town of Dera Ghazi Khan, which claimed at least 27 lives; government helicopter gunship attacks that killed 52 militants in the Khyber area of the tribal region; the kidnapping of a senior UN official by gunmen; and the beheading of a Polish engineer who was abducted five months ago. A videotape of the execution was released last night by his captors.
A year ago democracy was restored after eight years of military rule but many believe the government is in a state of paralysis, as an unwieldy coalition and a cabinet of about 70 ministers jockey for position - ever wary of the army, which has ruled Pakistan for most of its existence. Government decision-making is concentrated in the hands of President Asif Zardari, creating a log-jam, critics say."Yes, we have a million problems. We had lots of inherited issues and perhaps a slowness to get the government off the ground," said Farahnaz Ispahani, a member of parliament for the Pakistan People's party, which leads the coalition. "But I do feel that we're slowly and gradually moving towards better governance."However, the government has been unable to forge a political consensus on the fight against terrorism, with opinion divided between political parties, who favour military action against the extremists and those who want to negotiate, even within the ruling coalition.As a result, no clear direction has been given to the army. In tandem with the security crisis, the economy, which was saved from bankruptcy late last year by an IMF loan, is plagued by inflation and a collapse in economic activity."The civilian leadership is weak and fearful of the inevitable in Pakistan, that it oversteps the mark and runs the risk of being removed [by the army]," said Rashed Rahman, a political analyst based in Lahore. "It's a non-functional government."The army has repeatedly shown that it will not bow to civilians on national security, refusing a government order last year, for instance, to place the top spy agency, the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence, under government control.Armed extremists appear to be able to spread unchecked, with a Taliban-style mini-state now existing 100 miles from Islamabad, in Swat valley. Many Pakistanis are asking whether the country's armed forces are unable or unwilling to take on the jihadists, who are rapidly pushing their influence out from their base in the tribal area."We always say that we have one of the most powerful armies, yet how come we cannot even cut off the supply routes [for the militants] in Swat?" said Bushra Gohar, a member of parliament for the Awami National party, part of the ruling coalition. "We are patronising terror. The training camps and safe havens are still there. This has to stop."The top priority for Washington will be getting Pakistan to take more concerted military action in the tribal territory. The Obama administration is promising more non-military aid, with a plan to triple social and economic assistance to $1.5bn a year.Western diplomats believe the military's top brass, including army chief General Ashfaq Kayani and head of the ISI, Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, are committed to fighting the extremists, but that there are problems further down the ranks.The deep confusion in Pakistan also envelops the role of the US and other western powers, who many believe are secretly supporting the extremists, in order to destabilise Pakistan. And while most Pakistanis do not agree with the Taliban's methods, their message of enforcing Islam resonates.Mosharraf Zaidi, a columnist for The News, a Pakistani daily, said: "Nobody knows what to believe. There is no clarity in Pakistan about who's behind the extremists. For one group of people it's Raw [the Indian intelligence agency], for another group of people it's the CIA, for another group of people it's the ISI. In that scenario, the idea that there's political will in Pakistan to solve this is absurd. You can't have political will when you don't even know who the enemy is."

SWAT VALLEY....Headmaster flees a ‘living hell’

PESHAWAR: Sitting on a cold floor in a mud house on the outskirts of provincial capital, Akbar Ali fights back tears about getting his five children and pregnant wife out of "hell" in turbulent Swat valley.When extremists came to his village, his life as a respected local headmaster fell apart. Today he hears that Aligrama has become a ghost village, overrun by rebels and damaged by army shelling.The displaced say civilisation as they knew it has collapsed in the picturesque and historic valley.A lucrative tourist industry for Western and Pakistani holidaymakers after skiing and mountain hikes - decimated."The lives of ordinary people in violence-hit Swat get worse and worse. It's like living in hell. There's no trade. Nobody's safe. Militants rule most of the area and anybody who opposes them is killed," he said.
"Everything in Swat is destroyed, they are bombing schools, killing notables and targeting government employees."All women's institutions are closed. There is no entertainment, no CD or music shops, and most hairdressers are closed," he added.
Ali's nightmare began about 14 months ago when Taliban warned him to close the girls' section of his village school, the 41-year-old said."Masked militants armed with rocket launchers, small and heavy weapons started patrolling our village.
"First they told us to sack the female staff at school and then ordered us to close the female section or face the consequences," he told this news agency.
"So we were forced to shut the classes where some 135 female students were getting an education. This created panic among the boys and the number of students dropped from 435 to 125," he said.Six months ago, he fled Aligrama for nearby Mingora, the main town in the region. The militants closed in again, killing teachers and bombing schools, so he left restive Swat in January and followed five of his brothers to the city.Local residents say 41 families from troubled Swat are living in the village of Mosa Zai, on the outskirts of the provincial metropolis where Ali has found refuge.
Ordinary families renting houses or staying with relatives in the city - which has a population of 2.5 million people in addition to 1.7 million Afghan refugees, according to local authorities - say they were caught between the security forces and Taliban.Local officials said last week that 20,000 people had fled Swat recently. Witnesses talk about men, women and children walking down from the mountains in the freezing cold often with just the clothes on their backs.
"Ten people were killed in our village and dozens more wounded in fighting in recent months," Ali said."The Taliban killed an elected women councillor and her husband, and beheaded two others 'spying' for the government. Six people died in government shelling in various incidents."Every time there was fighting, there was a curfew but the victims were innocent civilians"."Almost the entire village has evacuated. Only those with nowhere to go have stayed," he said.People newly displaced here told Ali, the village had fallen to the militants and Taliban fighters were in control of five kilometres (three miles) of road heading to the towns of Kabal to Kanju.
He said anyone who opposes the militants is liquidated."Not even the police can protect us, police can't leave the police station, they're living like prisoners in police stations," he added.Local residents say the government has lost control of most if not the entire valley. Ali further said militants were demanding land tax and rents previously collected by local administration officials."We cannot trust either party as both - Taliban and the security forces - treat civilians as sub-human," Ahmad Gul, another resident from Aligrama said.As a man, Ali said he would have been happy to face death, but that he had to keep his wife and children from danger.Here, his wife gave birth to her sixth baby, a healthy girl, and he was just happy that mother and children were safe and well."We have suffered enough. Every family in Swat has buried loved ones and the death toll is still rising

UN begins relief work for people from Swat

The United Nations (UN) relief organisations have begun their relief activities for the people affected by the ongoing military operation in Swat, a private TV channel reported on Sunday. The details released by the UN said its relief subsidiaries, the WHO, the UNHCR, the WFP and UNICEF were sending relief goods to Swat. Twelve trucks carrying food, medicine, tents and other essential items have arrived in Mingora from Peshawar, the channel added. The UN coordinator in Pakistan said half of the population in Swat had been affected by the military operation and people had deserted their homes and were living in camps. daily times monitor

Two Taliban Are Killed in Revenge by Afghans

KABUL, Afghanistan — On Saturday, something typical happened in eastern Afghanistan: Two Taliban guerrillas assassinated a top local politician.But on Sunday, something very unusual occurred, according to witnesses and Afghan intelligence officials.
Hundreds of people from around the district of Dara-e-Noor joined with the local police to corner the Taliban assassins. A firefight broke out. Eventually the wounded Taliban were captured. But instead of turning them over to the authorities, the villagers trussed the men to a tree and punched and kicked them to death.
Revenge killings are not unusual in Afghanistan; when the Taliban executed accused murderers in Kabul before the American invasion they would shout, “In revenge, there is life!”But such killings against the feared Taliban are relatively rare. The episode in Dara-e-Noor represented an uncommon response from local villagers, one motivated at least in part by an angry fear that Afghanistan’s deeply corrupt judicial system would turn the killers loose.The mob dragged the wounded assassins away from their hideout and made quick work of them, Hassan Khan, a local tribal elder, said in a telephone interview. “The people punched them with their fists and kicked them with their legs and whatever they had in their hand” until they were dead, he said.“The people were very angry and upset because of the atrocious actions” of the killers, Mr. Khan said. “So when people get angry, no one can stop them.”
Conditions may have been ripe for such an unusual reprisal, some in the community said. The politician who was assassinated, Qazi Khan Mohammed, the secretary of the Nangarhar Provincial Council, was a highly respected local leader. And the region around Dara-e-Noor has always been home to people loyal to a powerful anti-Taliban commander named Hazrat Ali.Moreover, it was not only villagers who appeared to rejoice in the killing of the assassins. The Afghan intelligence service issued a statement on Sunday that almost seemed to endorse the revenge killing, which, however popular in Dara-e-Noor, was contrary to the rule of Afghan law.“Such action, and the rapid decision by people against the criminals, shows the hatred and anger against the Taliban and terrorists,” the statement said. ( Its account also varied slightly from that of the villagers and the police, saying that one attacker was killed by the provincial secretary’s bodyguards on Saturday and that the other assassin was arrested but then killed on the orders of tribal elders.)It may not have been such a surprise that the Afghan intelligence service would highlight an illegal, extrajudicial killing. Three months ago the head of the service, Amrullah Saleh, appeared on national television and criticized the judicial system as freeing kidnappers and other criminals.While local vigilantes had the upper hand in Dara-e-Noor, the Taliban took credit for a deadly attack at the other end of Afghanistan, in restive, opium-dominated Helmand Province.There, two American servicemen were killed Sunday by a two-stage roadside bomb, according to the provincial governor’s spokesman. He said the Taliban had structured the bomb in such a way as to make whoever defused the smaller charge on top of the device think the danger had passed.
In reality, said the governor’s spokesman, Dawood Ahmadi, a much larger explosive was hidden beneath. As the men tinkered with what they believed was an already defused bomb, the much larger bomb on the bottom exploded, killing the two Americans, both advisers to the Afghan police, Mr. Ahmadi said. An Afghan policeman was also killed, while an interpreter and two other police officers — one of them the acting district chief — were wounded, he said.Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, said the Taliban were behind the blast, which he described as a trick device. “We will carry out more attacks against NATO and Afghan forces all over Afghanistan in the future,” he said.An American military statement said only that “two coalition service members” were killed in the blast, along with an Afghan national policeman and an Afghan civilian.

Afghan leader cites cross-border terror as major threat, praises better ties with Pakistan

MUNICH - Afghan President Hamid Karzai called cross-border terrorism one of the greatest threats confronting his country and said improved ties with Pakistan were helping to combat the problem.

Speaking Sunday to a gathering of world leaders and top security officials, Karzai praised new U.S. administration's more regional approach to fighting terror and welcomed President Barack Obama's appointment of Richard Holbrooke as a special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"Security can ... not come to Afghanistan, or to the region, or to the international community without better coordination with our neighbors," Karzai said.

He also repeated his call to integrate moderate Taliban back into Afghan society, inviting them to participate in fall elections.

"We will invite all of those Taliban who are not part of al-Qaida, who are not part of terrorist networks, who want to return to their country, who want to live by the constitution of Afghanistan, who want to have a normal life, to come back to their country," Karzai said.

For his part, Holbrooke described the Afghan campaign as "one theater of war straddling an ill-defined border."

"We have to think of it that way and not distinguish between the two," he said.

Violence in both Pakistan and Afghanistan has risen steadily since U.S.-led forces drove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in 2001. Many militants fled to Pakistan's border regions, where they have established bases and continue to attack U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistan's new government, elected last year, appears keener to crack down on Taliban bases on its side of the border used by extremists — a commitment welcomed by both Afghanistan and the United States.

The extremists are also blamed for a surge in suicide attacks on Western, government and military targets within Pakistan, including last year's devastating blast at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.

"Our neighbors are suffering with us," Karzai said, citing the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, as well as the violence in Pakistan.

But, he said Afghanistan's diplomatic ties with its neighbors are getting stronger.

"There is greater understanding with Afghanistan and its neighbors in the region," Karzai said, a message reinforced by Pakistani Foreign Minister Makhdoom Quershi, who spoke of a "new era of understanding and cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Marine Corps Gen. James Jones, Obama's national security adviser, said that was news he was "very happy" to hear.

"Working relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan ... have to be effective if we're going to solve this problem," Jones said. "We've learned over time that problems in Afghanistan are not just uniquely confined to one country — it's a regional problem set."

The U.S. has been pushing for allies to send more troops to the region — a theme struck forcefully at Sunday's closing session by British Defense Minister John Hutton.

"(NATO cannot) consistently ... look to the Americans for all the heavy lifting," he said, adding other alliance members "should be looking to do more."

"Combat roles right now are ... the most precious contribution to the campaign," he said. "We kid ourselves if we imagine that other contributions right now are of the same value."

But German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung stuck to Berlin's contention that there should be added focus on civil reconstruction.

"There will be no development without security, but without development we won't have security either," Jung said. "We won't win with military alone."

To this end, he said Germany was increasing its commitment to train Afghan police forces and was stepping up reconstruction aid.

Jung said Germany thought the number of troops in Afghanistan was sufficient, given NATO's roughly 55,000 forces there and the fact that Washington was preparing to double American troops to about 60,000.

NATO's top official chastised European nations on Saturday for refusing to commit more troops to Afghanistan, in comments that appeared directed at Germany and France.

Taliban courts in Swat and Dir

Situation in Swat and Dir is dismal, as writ of the state is being challenged by the Taliban, who according to a press report, have set up their high court in Kabal, upper Swat. Harassed by the militants, people are taking their cases to the Taliban High Court (THC), and they are beheading people who defy the Taliban or try to leave the village and hanging the corpses from the lampposts to terrorize the people. This means that they are using people as human shield because if they leave the area, the security forces can pound and eliminate them. People of Swat being sick and tired of the situation staged a rally in Chakdara against the Taliban's expanding role in Dir. Like in other parts of the province, legal fraternity on Friday completely boycotted the court proceedings in Peshawar against the use of derogatory statements by Swat Taliban against lawyers in which Taliban had stated that lawyers should be killed and the courts in Swat closed down. Meanwhile, a meeting of the lawyers chaired by Peshawar High Court Bar Association President Abdul Latif Afridi was also held. He told the meeting that the lawyers were the most dignified community of the society and yet they receive threats. The Taliban have been emboldened by the support from some political parties and a section of the people. Qazi Hussain Ahmed of Jamaat-i-Islami and Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam have never condemned the actions of the militants who have been challenging the writ of the state, destroying girls' schools and barbers' shops. These leaders and leaders of Tehrik-e-Insaf and Pakistan Muslim League-N have opposed every action against the militants and always ask the government to negotiate with the militants. But they never spell out the methodology and name the militants with whom the government should hold negotiations. Or if negotiations fail, what next should be done? In the past, central as well as provincial governments had signed agreement with the local Taliban but they are not willing to wean from enforcing their perception of sharea. They also insist they will cross the international Pak-Afghan border to help their Afghan brothers. But such acts have created problems for Pakistan, as international community suspects that Pakistan state has a hand in encouraging the militants. Leaders of the above political parties do not realise that army action is imperative when civil administration and police fail to control the situation, which is provided in the Constitution. They should understand that the 1973 Constitution was unanimously adopted by all hues and shades. There was consensus that no law can be made contrary to Islamic injunctions. If the above leaders and militants wish to change the Constitution they have to have two-third majority in the assemblies. Since Jamaat-i-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam do not see any possibility of having that majority they want to use the pressure of the militants to enforce their perception, which is at variance with the broad majority of the people of Pakistan. They should declare in no unequal terms if they want to bring about a change through peaceful or through violent means. The latter course is, however, fraught with dangers, and these politico-religious parties would get nothing out of it, as the militants would not accept their leadership. Anyhow, there is awareness among the people. Awami National Party (ANP) women Parliamentarians constituted a jirga to look after the affectees of Swat military operation in Swat and would visit the valley to meet with political leaders and displaced persons. Provincial leaders, President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani should establish their camps in Swat to boost morale of the security forces and also convey the message to the militants that the nation is united against them.

U.S. soldiers killed while disabling bomb in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan-- Two U.S. soldiers were killed while trying to disable a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan Sunday.The U.S. military said it is trying to gather more details about the incident.The soldiers were part of a convoy of coalition soldiers accompanying Gulab Mangal, the governor of Helmand province, to a village where he intended to talk to residents about alternatives to opium farming.The convoy came upon two bombs stacked on top of each other, said journalist Abdul Tawab Qureshi.When the soldiers tried to disable the bombs, the second one went off, he said. The blast also killed a translator and an Afghan police officer.Mohammed Nader, the police chief of the province's Nad Ali district, was critically wounded.Over the years, opium and heroin, both derivatives of the poppy, have served as a major source of revenue for the insurgency, most notably the Taliban movement that once ruled Afghanistan.Though southern Afghanistan still provides about two-thirds of the world's opium and heroin, poppy cultivation has dropped by 20 percent to its lowest level since 2006.