Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Obama takes measured approach to Afghanistan, Pakistan

WASHINGTON - There was no backslapping from President Barack Obama for the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan on Wednesday, two countries that represent perhaps the United States' most urgent foreign policy headache.

Obama took a pragmatic, arms-length approach to dealing with both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, stressing support for their democratically elected governments but avoiding becoming wrapped up in personalities.
It is a strategy born in part from having seen that personalities had limits in President George W. Bush's friendships with Karzai and Zardari's predecessor, Pervez Musharraf.Gone are the weekly videoconferences with Karzai that Bush held. And the Obama administration is not limiting its Pakistani contacts to Zardari, the widower of slain Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. It is also talking to opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, among others.After their meeting at the White House on Wednesday, Obama was careful to stick to diplomatic language in his message across that both the Afghan and Pakistani presidents need to do more to confront the threat posed by the Taliban and al Qaeda."I'm pleased that these two men, elected leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan, fully appreciate the seriousness of the threat that we face and have reaffirmed their commitment to confronting it," Obama said as both Karzai and Zardari stood silently at his side.
Casting a cloud over the talks were the deaths of dozens of Afghan civilians, apparently from U.S.-led airstrikes.
Karzai was once the darling of Washington's foreign policy establishment for daring to lead turbulent post-September 11 Afghanistan.
He is now viewed with some skepticism, including by Vice President Joe Biden, who as a senator in February 2008 walked out of a dinner with Karzai because the Afghan leader did not seem to be taking U.S. concerns about corruption seriously.
Obama raised the issue again with Karzai, telling him he wanted to see "concrete results" on stamping out corruption in Afghanistan, according to U.S. national security adviser, Jim Jones.Washington has other concerns as well. Many of the problems Karzai inherited when he took power remain unsolved and he has been unable to extend his government's reach beyond the capital, Kabul."Embracing Karzai like he was the Thomas Jefferson of Afghanistan and having weekly conversations with him was no longer a feasible approach," said an Obama administration official.
Zardari is viewed as having reacted too slowly to the real internal threat in nuclear-armed Pakistan -- the Taliban -- and instead has engaged in the usual Pakistani fixation on its arch rival, India.
"There's a recognition that Pakistan has traveled a great distance and Zardari deserves credit," said the American official. "But there is also a great deal of concern about the weakness of the government, the unpopularity of the government."
All this is happening as the United States is sending more troops to Afghanistan, a move ordered by Obama as part of his campaign pledge to bolster the fight in the country where the September 11 plot was born."This is in a sense throwing the dice and hoping a surge will make things easier in Afghanistan. But it's hard to see a lot of light at the end of the tunnel, particularly with the border with Pakistan," said Dennis Kux, a former U.S. diplomat who has traveled extensively to the region.
Obama has little choice but to deal with Karzai for the time being. Elections are scheduled in Afghanistan in August and no credible opponent has emerged.

India to get Afghan transit trade route

WASHINGTON: Pakistan and Afghanistan signed on Wednesday a memorandum of understanding to begin talks on a transit trade agreement which will ultimately allow India to use the Wagah-Khyber route for trade with Kabul.

The memorandum of understanding commits the two ‘countries to achieving a trade transit agreement by the end of the year, which we believe will have great economic benefits for both peoples,’ said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who hosted the Afghan and Pakistani presidents for the first round of the second trilateral talks.

‘This is an historic event. This agreement has been under discussion for 43 years without resolution,’ she said.

‘Afghanistan and Pakistan have reached an important milestone in their efforts to generate foreign investment and stronger economic growth and trade opportunities.’

Secretary Clinton also used the opportunity to regret the loss of innocent lives in US bombings, saying that ‘she wanted to convey to the people of both Afghanistan and Pakistan that ‘we will work very hard with your governments and with your leaders to avoid the loss of innocent civilian life. And we deeply, deeply regret that loss’.

Later, the Afghan and Pakistani foreign ministers signed the memorandum before Presidents Asif Ali Zardari and Hamid Karzai went to the White House for a trilateral summit with President Barack Obama.

‘Pakistan and Afghanistan are conjoined twins. Our suffering is shared. Our joys are always shared,’ said President Karzai while talking to the media after Secretary Clinton.

‘The life that we live is affected by the opportunities that we have and the lack of opportunities that occurs because of the circumstances in which we live today.’

‘Today we sit here as three democratic states, enjoined in the history of democracy, looking forward to working together,’ said President Zardari while responding to his remarks.

Although India is not mentioned in the memorandum of understanding, it will be the main beneficiary of a transit trade agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan as Kabul’s major trade partner.

Both India and Afghanistan have long insisted that Pakistan open its land route for transit trade between the two countries which do not have a common border.

But Secretary Clinton said that the opening of a transit trade route will also open new opportunities for both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

‘When … I look at the map of the world and see how strategically located both countries are, this is an agreement that will bring prosperity to both countries along the trade routes and beyond,’ she said.

‘Nothing opens up an area to economic development better than a good road with good transit rules and an ability to transport goods and people effectively.’

The agreement, she said, would also help bring more foreign direct investment into Afghanistan and Pakistan, because that’s always the first question: ‘How do we get our goods to market? How do we get them to another economy in another country?’

Secretary Clinton brought a high-powered delegation to the talks which included Director CIA Leon Panetta, Director FBI Robert Mueller, Pentagon’s Under-secretary for Policy Planning Michele Flournoy, and chief of the US Central Command General David Petraeus.

The Pakistani delegation, headed by President Zardari, also included Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, three ministers, several advisers and the DG ISI.

Bilawal Zardari, two ministers, advisers and the DG ISI left after the first round so did the CIA and FBI chiefs and Afghan intelligence and military officials.

Only the two presidents, their foreign ministers and envoys in Washington attended the second round with Secretary Clinton who was assisted by the US special envoy Richard Holbrooke.

Secretary Clinton said that Wednesday’s discussions focussed on concrete initiatives to expand economic opportunities and trade, to bolster the agricultural sector as an essential source of revenue and jobs in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The three countries also discussed measures to help build the industrial sector in Pakistan, to create more jobs and opportunities for people. They also discussed measures to improve joint cooperation on security.

‘We do not believe either Afghanistan or Pakistan can achieve lasting progress without the full participation of all of your citizens, including women and girls. The rights of women must be respected and protected.’

President Zardari urged the US, ‘the world’s oldest and most powerful democracy’, to nurture democracies in other countries.

‘We thank the United States for its support for democracy, for security in Pakistan, and look forward to further support,’ he said. The president said that Afghanistan, Pakistan, and United States were all victims of terror.

‘I am here to assure you that we shall share this burden with you all, for no matter how long it takes and what it takes, democracies will deliver,’ he said. ‘My democracy will deliver.’

The Pakistanis, he said, stood with ‘our brother Karzai and the people of Afghanistan against this common threat … this is a cancer. It needs to be done away with.’

The president said that Pakistan carried a huge burden of confronting al Qaeda and Taliban together, ‘but we are up to the challenge because we are a democracy, and democracy is the only cure to this challenge.’

Mr Zardari said that as the United States was making progress after seven years of engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan will too.

He said that democracy in Pakistan was only seven months old and during this period, the government had performed better than the dictatorships in the past years.

Mr Zardari said that Pakistan would need high level of support in the days to come and would also be far more transparent in its actions.

‘Democracy will avenge the death of my wife and thousands of other Pakistanis and citizens of the world. Pakistani democracy will deliver. The terrorists will be defeated by our joint struggle,’ he said.

Afghan President Karzai welcomed the US promise to minimize civilian deaths in the fight against the Taliban, hoping that the US could work together with Pakistan and Afghanistan to reduce and eventually completely remove the possibilities of civilian casualties.

‘Afghanistan would like to assure the United States, its most valued strategic ally, and Pakistan, its neighbor, brother and friend’ that it would do its best to defeat the terrorists.

Obama hails unity over al-Qaeda

US President Barack Obama has said after meeting his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts that they are united in the goal of defeating al-Qaeda.
Speaking in Washington, Mr Obama said the goal was to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda" and its allies.He also pledged greater resources to help civilians in both countries and try to avoid civilian casualties.
Dozens of civilians are thought to have died in US air strikes on Taleban targets in Afghanistan on Tuesday.
Earlier, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she "deeply, deeply" regretted the deaths, adding that the US would work hard to avoid such "loss of innocent life".
Meanwhile, Pakistan's army was engaged in bloody operations to reverse a Taleban advance in its northern provinces on Wednesday.
The bottom line at the summit was more American troops for Afghanistan and more aid for Pakistan, with the Obama administration deepening its involvement in the search for stability, the BBC's Kevin Connolly reports from Washington.
Mr Obama said his counterparts fully appreciated the gravity of the security threats posed by militants.America, he said, was on the side of people in Pakistan and Afghanistan and had a comprehensive strategy for the region, with civilian and military components.He said he expected more setbacks and violence to come, but there was a lasting commitment to defeat al-Qaeda.The US would, he added, offer unwavering support to the governments of both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"We have learned time and again that our security is shared," Mr Obama added. "It is a lesson that we learned most painfully on 9/11, and it is a lesson that we will not forget." It's too late now, the incompetent politicians of this blighted land have made the things go beyond the point of no return
Amir, Pakistan
How can the Taleban be defeated?
Senior US officials have expressed uncertainty over the commitment of the military in Pakistan, a nuclear power, to defeating militants based in its border region.
Speaking earlier after talks with Mrs Clinton, President Asif Ali Zardari said Pakistan would help Afghanistan and the US to fight the threat posed by the Taleban and al-Qaeda.
"For no matter how long it takes and what it takes, democracies will deliver, my democracy will deliver," he told reporters.
"People of Pakistan stand with the people of the United States and the people of Afghanistan."

Fierce gunbattles in Swat, Malakand

MINGORA/BATKHELA: Forty-seven militants, 15 security personnel and 36 non-combatants were killed and several others wounded on Wednesday in fierce clashes and explosions in the Swat valley and Malakand region.

Sources said security forces killed 30 militants near emerald mines and 15 others in Takhtaband area, in the outskirts of Mingora. The ground forces entered from Fizaghat side and recaptured the mines after helicopter gunships and artillery shelled the area.

Thirty-five civilians were reportedly killed either in crossfire between troops and militants and artillery fire or for violating curfew in different areas of Swat when a fresh military offensive was launched. Military sources admitted civilian deaths but did not confirm the number of casualties.

Three security personnel were killed and four others were injured in a roadside blast near Barikot. Three personnel were killed and three injured when militants attacked an FC camp in Kanju.

Sources said the militants still had control over Mingora town. They were patrolling streets and took positions on rooftops. They also occupied local people’s homes and laid mines in Mingora.

A number of bank branches were looted in Mingora and then set on fire. Thousands of people fled the valley while thousands were trapped in their homes because of an indefinite curfew and presence of the Taliban.

Helicopter gunships and artillery pounded militants’ positions in emerald mines, Mingora Bazaar, Takhtaband and Engaro Dheri, in the outskirts of Mingora. The hideouts in Koza Banda and Bar Banda were also targeted in Kabal tehsil.

The sources said fighting was also going on in Manglawar, Charbagh, Khwazakhela and Bahrain.

A curfew was imposed for an indefinite period from Skhakot to Landaki, in Malakand, at 6am on Wednesday when a military convoy bound for Swat passed through the area via GT Road.

Sources said nine soldiers, two militants and one civilian were killed in roadside explosions and exchange of fire in different areas of Malakand on Tuesday.

Six soldiers were killed and three others wounded when a remote-controlled bomb went off near Thana Bypass road, near Chakdara, when the military convoy was on its way to Swat district.

Then militants opened fire on the convoy, triggering an exchange of fire. Two militants were killed and a woman Mahar Pari, wife of Sher Afzal of Bugar Cham, was injured when a stray bullet hit her.

The deceased soldiers included Tawqir, Tahir, Rashid, Nisar, Aimal Qasim and conductor Bilal while the injured were identified as Shaukat, Yousaf, Nisar and Shakoor.

The bodies and the injured were shifted to Chakdara Fort housed by Chitral Scouts. Later the bodies were flown by helicopters and the injured soldiers were admitted to a hospital.

Another three soldiers were killed when three improvised explosive devices exploded one after another along the GT Road, near FG Public School in Batkhela at 8am when the military convoy was passing through the area. Security personnel fired back and the gunbattle lasted an hour.

The convoy was again attacked by three miscreants from the hills near Amandara, the headquarters of Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi, at 12 noon.

Later helicopter gunships shelled the surrounding areas, including Gharibabad and Bar Batkhela, killing one civilian and injuring another.

Operation continues in Swat, mortar attack kills eight

SWAT:Security forces operation continued on Wednesday in Swat after militants seized key government offices in the area.

Meanwhile a mortar attack has killed at least eight people in Swat. According to sources said forces also started operation in Mingora early today to regain the control of government buildings.

Militants and security forces exchanging fire with light and heavy weapons.

Indefinite curfew has been imposed in Swat. Migration of local residents towards safer places from troubled areas has been halted due to curfew.

Meanwhile, power supply remained suspended in the district for the second day, as Mingora grid station that was blown up two days ago by militants had not been repaired.