Thursday, July 2, 2009

Anti-Taliban wave

Dawn Editorial
The results of an opinion poll on the US, Afghanistan and the conflict in Swat should come as no surprise. There is now a sea change in the attitude of Pakistanis towards the Taliban and the government’s belated crackdown on the insurgents. As the findings of the survey by the World Public Opinion Poll show, 81 per cent of Pakistanis think Al Qaeda and the Taliban are ‘a critical threat’ to their country — phenomenally up from 47 per cent 18 months ago. This 18-month period has seen some crucial political and military developments. No wonder it has induced some reassessment of the situation on the people’s part.
The biggest political development was the induction of an elected government last year and Pervez Musharraf’s departure from the scene in August. This in no small way served to create a national consensus on all vital issues, including the war on terror. In fact, Musharraf’s departure removed the unjustified apprehension that it was a war on terror on America’s behalf. That all the leading parties with parliamentary representation agreed to pursue the war on the Taliban with renewed vigour sent out a clear message to Pakistanis and the rest of the world that the government was serious about crushing the menace of terrorism at home and not allow its soil to be used for acts of terrorism elsewhere.

Another major factor has been the series of terror attacks that sent shock waves across the nation. These attacks are too numerous to recount, but there is no doubt some of them will live in memory to serve as a perpetual reminder of the militants’ terrorism. These attacks included the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott, killing 57 people; the attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore in March; and the murder of the renowned religious scholar Maulana Naeemi. This is in addition to what they have been doing for long — waging war on education, especially girls’, by blowing up schools and colleges, blasting mosques and funeral processions and beheading civilians and captured Pakistani soldiers.

Nevertheless, a lot remains to be done. The military operations against the rebels have produced results in Swat but there are challenges to be faced in South Waziristan and Kurram Agency. The government must build on the nation’s support and take the war on terror to its logical conclusion. It must also ensure that an effective political administration is installed in areas that have been cleared of the Taliban.

Pakistan desperately short of money to resettle Swat residents

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Major Western countries, after applauding Pakistan's military crackdown on Islamic extremists in the Swat valley in the country's northwest, haven't pledged the money needed to resettle the population now that the fighting is mostly over, and humanitarian organizations fear that 2 million people will be sent back home before it's safe to go.

Unless the United States and other allies provide the required money to reconstruct Swat, Pakistan risks losing the "hearts and minds" of those who had to flee the operation that fought the Islamic extremists who'd overrun the region. Islamabad doesn't have the money, Pakistani officials said.

The rehabilitation cost is estimated at $2.5 billion, according to Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmed, the head of the military's special unit set up to look after the internally displaced.

The national government is expected to announce shortly that the Swat refugees will begin returning later this month. So far, however, the government in Islamabad has promised only $300 million to the North West Frontier Province, mostly to beef up police in Swat.

Ahmed said he was optimistic that the international community would provide money once Pakistan presented its "game plan" for rehabilitating Swat.

"There is a good understanding that Pakistan is fighting a war that it can't afford to lose," he said in an interview.

In fact, however, the money has yet to be pledged. The United Nations said Thursday that it had managed to raise only $195 million after an urgent appeal for $543 million to deal with the refugee crisis. On the larger challenge of stabilizing and securing Swat, the situation appears dire.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, told a G-8 conference of the eight leading industrial countries in Trieste, Italy, at the end of last month that the true test will be when the refugees go back to Swat.

"Will they have security? Will they be protected? Will the army be able to keep the Taliban from coming back down over the hills?" Holbrooke asked, adding that the bill for reconstruction in Swat will be enormous, "over a billion dollars, maybe over 2 billion."

"The U.S. is by far the largest contributor (of aid) to the refugee relief crisis in Pakistan. I don't mind that ... but other countries are not doing the right amount, in my view," Holbrooke said.

The United States has pledged $310 million for the short-term emergency in Swat.

The refugees from Swat have had to endure squalid conditions through the merciless summer heat living in camps or with friends and family in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. They'll return to a region in which many schools and other public buildings have been destroyed, houses and roads damaged and livelihoods shattered, living in fear that the Taliban could resurface.

Pakistan launched an offensive in Swat and the nearby districts of Dir and Buner in late April that's now in its final stages. The army estimated Taliban strength at 5,000 before the operation began, and it's unclear what's happened to most of them. Further, while the military claims to have killed some 1,600 Taliban militants, it hasn't eliminated the Taliban's Swat leadership.

Some of the displaced say they fear that remnants of the Taliban could attack them when they return or that the leadership could lure new recruits.

The army has a different view.

"You will never get a perfect situation in Pakistan," Ahmed said, "but will you keep 2 million people hostage to one-odd (terrorist) incident? You can't keep these people in camps for endless years. They will develop dependency syndrome.

Unique example of serving IDPs

PESHAWAR: A hairdresser has set a good example by opening a free of cost haircutting shop for the internally displaced persons (IDPs) at the Jalozai camp in Nowshera district.

A Gujranwala-based hairdresser, Shamrez Khan, who also owns two shops in Peshawar, recently opened the decorated shop in Phase 8 of the Jalozai camp. Shamrez, a diploma-holder in haircutting, and his three other colleagues, worked the whole day and mostly children of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) were seen standing in a queue for their turn.

The free of cost haircut is proving a great relief to the IDPs who cannot afford Rs30 to 50 to get their hair cut or those of their children at a barbershop. Shamrez says he will continue the service till the return of the people to their respective areas. He said it was his father’s desire to serve the displaced people in their own capacity and he came to open the shop.

In the tent, there were four rotating chairs with as many fixed mirrors and four people were standing cutting the hair of children while some others were waiting in a queue outside the tent.

The hairdresser said he was using his own conveyance to come in the morning and return to Peshawar in the evening. He had also established the tent and other equipment from his pocket money without getting any help from a welfare organisation or the government.

Talking to The News, Shamrez said it was the first step of its kind in the history of relief work. “I wanted to be the founder of this novel method to help the people in trouble,” he remarked. He said the tent could accommodate four more chairs in case of need. “I can install four extra chairs and hire more workers to cope with the rush,” he added.

The shop was inaugurated by Tahir Orakzai, the camp administrator, and Major Anwar, a military officer working at the camp. Appreciating the step, the IDPs said they would hardly afford buying chocolate or ice cream for their children. So how could they take them to the barbershop to have haircut. “Opening of this free of cost haircut shop will help all of us,” said Dilawar Khan, an elderly man from Bajaur.

Standing in a queue outside the shop, Anees Khan, a displaced boy from Swat, said he did not cut his hair since they left their area mainly because his parents could not pay for that. The 14-year-old said he rushed to the tent as he heard about free of cost haircut.

Jackson seen active in video clip of rehearsal

Pakistan moves troops to Afghan border: report

Pakistan's army has deployed troops to a stretch of the Afghan border to stop Taliban militants fleeing a major US offensive in southern Afghanistan, a military spokesman said Thursday.

Major General Athar Abbas told the private Geo TV that they had "mustered more troops from the other areas of the border" to deploy opposite the Helmand region,

"It is sort of a reorganization," he said, adding that the threat of militants crossing over had been "visualized".

But the spokesman gave no more details.

Nearly 4,000 US marines plus 650 Afghan forces moved into Afghanistan's Helmand province early Thursday to take on the Taliban in one of their strongholds.

Pakistani and US officials have expressed concern that the American troops' build-up in southern Afghanistan could push the militants across the poorly guarded and mountainous border into Pakistan.

Pakistan shares a 2,600-kilometer border with Afghanistan. The section opposite Helmand is around 260 kilometers long and lies in the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan, where US officials believe that the Taliban's top leadership are hiding out.

Amnesty says Israel "wantonly" destroyed Gaza

JERUSALEM, July 2 (Reuters) - Amnesty International said on Thursday Israel inflicted "wanton destruction" in the Gaza Strip in attacks that often targeted Palestinian civilians during an offensive in December and January in the Hamas-run enclave.

The London-based rights group, in a 117-page report on the 22 days of fighting, also criticised the Islamist movement Hamas for rocket attacks on Israel, which it called "war crimes".

Among other conclusions, Amnesty said it found no evidence to support Israeli claims that Gaza guerrillas deliberately used civilians as "human shields", but it did, however, cite evidence that Israeli troops put children and other civilians in harm's way by forcing them to remain in homes taken over by soldiers.

Amnesty International said some 1,400 Palestinians were killed in Israel's Operation Cast Lead, including 300 children and hundreds of innocent civilians, a figure broadly in line with those from the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza and the independent Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.

The Israeli military put the Palestinian death toll at 1,166 of whom 295 were civilians. Thirteen Israelis were killed, including three civilians, during the offensive Israel launched with the declared aim of curtailing cross-border rocket attacks.

Accusing Israel of "breaching laws of war", Amnesty said: "Much of the destruction was wanton and deliberate, and was carried out in a manner and circumstances which indicated that it could not be justified on grounds of military necessity."

Commenting on Amnesty's allegations, the Israeli military said it operated in accordance with international law. It said the report ignored "efforts made by the Israel Defence Forces to minimise, as much as possible, harm to non-combatants".

"In many cases, the Israel Defence Forces exercised measures of caution, including warning the civilian population before an attack," the military said. "The Israel Defence Forces directed its attack only against military targets."

A Hamas spokesman said the Amnesty report did not place enough emphasis on "crimes committed by Israel".

"This report equates between the aggressor and the victim and ignores international laws that guarantee resistance against occupation," the spokesman said.


Israel and Hamas have both rejected accusations of war crimes during the Gaza fighting. Israel has refused to cooperate with a United Nations inquiry that is now gathering evidence, accusing the investigators of prejudice against it.

Amnesty said although rockets fired by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip rarely cause casualties, their use was "indiscriminate and hence unlawful under international law". The rockets often sow fear and panic.

It also accused Hamas and other armed groups of endangering the lives of the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza by firing rockets and locating military equipment near homes.

The report however dismissed Israeli claims that Hamas had used Palestinian civilians as "human shields".

Amnesty said it found no evidence that "Hamas or other armed groups forced residents to stay in or around buildings used by fighters, or that fighters prevented residents from leaving buildings or areas which had been commandeered by militants".

But the report said in several cases Israeli soldiers used Palestinian civilians, including children, as "human shields, endangering their lives by forcing them to remain in or near houses which they took over and used as military positions"

Massive US assault to seize Taleban heartland
Thousands of US Marines stormed into an Afghan river valley by helicopter and land early today, launching the first major military offensive of Barack Obama's presidency with an assault deep into Taleban-held territory.

Operation Khanjar, which the Marines call simply "the decisive op", is intended to seize virtually the entire lower Helmand River valley, a heartland of the Taleban insurgency and the world's biggest heroin producing region.

It is the biggest operation launched by the US Marines Corps since the retaking of Fallujah in 2004 and seeks to break the grinding stalemate between Nato forces and the Taleban in the province.

US commanders stressed this morning their desire to move quickly and decisively with overwhelming force to seize the entire southern Helmand River valley from Taleban control ahead of the delayed Afghan Presidential elections on August 20.

"Where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces," Marine Corps Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marines in southern Afghanistan said in a statement.

He told his staff before the operation: "The intent is to go big, go strong and go fast, and by doing so we are going to save lives on both sides."

The 4,000 men from US 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade enjoy the support of their own integrated air wing, giving them more air support than the entire 8,000 strong British force has had at its disposal.

The US force went into action with the support of 650 Afghan troops, an operation by foreign ground troops on a scale unseen in Afghanistan since the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

The operation would have an initial highly aggressive stage lasting 36 hours, AFP reported.

This morning wave upon wave of helicopters landed Marines in darkness at locations throughout the fertile river valley, a crescent of opium and wheat fields criss-crossed by canals and dotted with mud-brick homes.

Meanwhile hundreds more Marines raced by ground in convoys through the barren desert region that abuts the irrigated areas of the province. Known in the local Pashto language as the ‘Desert of Death’, temperatures reach 50C at this time of year.

Captain Bill Pelletier, a spokesman for the Marines, said no clashes with Taleban troops had been reported, but a Marine had been slightly injured by a roadside bomb.

The operation was aimed at putting pressure on insurgents "and to show our commitment to the Afghan people that when we come in we are going to stay long enough to set up their own institutions," Captain Pelletier said.

He said the US military was prepared for casualties, but stressed that "it is absolutely essential that no civilians be harmed".

"We do not want people of Helmand province to see us as an enemy, we want to protect them from the enemy," he said.

The Marines hope by appearing suddenly and in overwhelming numbers, they can capture some of the Taleban's firmest strongholds with little resistance.

"Towns that were the Taleban heartland will fall. They will fall quickly. And hopefully they will fall without a shot. That's our intent," Brigadier General Nicholson said.

However, the greater challenge will be holding and stabilising such gains against Taleban re-infiltration and convincing a highly sceptical local population that Western forces will offer long-term security and improvements to their lives. The developing symbiotic relationship between the Taleban and Helmand’s drugs mafia will further complicate that process. The province is the largest producer of opium in the world, the raw base for 90 per cent of the heroin used by British drug addicts. Drugs money has become a major source of Taleban funding and hundreds of thousands of local people are involved in the production and harvesting of opium poppy.

The insurgents have proved adept at reinfiltrating behind Western forces using the local civilian populace as cover. It is a problem that has beset the 8,000 British troops who have been thinly spread across Helmand, the country’s largest province and roughly akin to twice the size of Wales, since they were deployed to the region in 2006.

Though Britain has doubled its troop presence since an initial deployment in 2006, they have been too few in number to do more than take and hold a few key islands of territory in the province.

Nato internal documents seen by the Times concede that 5 of the 13 districts of the province currently have no Afghan government presence at all. Ahead of the August elections Western forces are likely to attempt to cut the Taleban’s supply lines southward, across the border to safe havens in Pakistan, whilst deluging the highly populated central parts of the province with Western troops.

The 10,000 Marines in Helmand Province, 8,500 of whom arrived in the last two months, form the biggest wave of an escalation ordered by President Obama.

He has declared the Taleban insurgency in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan to be America's main foreign threat. Insurgent attacks in Afghanistan are at their highest since the militants were toppled in 2001.

Under President Obama the US force in Afghanistan is more than doubling this year, from 32,000 at the start of 2009 to an anticipated 68,000 troops by the end of the year, many of them diverted from Iraq. Other Western countries have about 33,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Addressing Marine commanders days before the assault, Dutch Major-General Mart de Kruif compared it to the D-Day invasion that changed the course of World War Two.

"We have people out there who do not realise that progress is about to come to them," he said. "We have enemies out there who do not yet realise that they are going to lose."

The governor of Helmand province, Gulab Mangal predicted the operation would be "very effective".

"The security forces will build bases to provide security for the local people so that they can carry out every activity with this favourable background and take their lives forward in peace," the governor said in a Pentagon news release.

Local phone masts in the area affected by the operation appeared to have been switched off this morning, though it was not clear whether this was due to US or Taleban action.

Fighters killed in Khyber clashes

Dozens of Taliban-linked fighters have been killed during raids in the Khyber tribal region bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Pakistani military has said.

"At least 28 militants of Lashkar-e-Islam were killed in shelling by helicopter gunships," Major Fazal Khan, a spokesman for the paramilitary unit, said on Thursday.

A statement from Pakistan's paramilitary frontier corps said tribesmen attacked Taliban hideouts in the Khyber region, killing a number of fighters.

Seven tribesmen were killed in the raid, prompting them to ask for army support, the statement said.

Six killed in Rawalpindi blast

RAWALPINDI: At least six people were killed and 25 were injured in a suicide blast that ripped through a congested junction in Pakistan's Rawalpindi city on Thursday, DawnNews quoted police and rescue officials as saying.

A suspected suicide bomber on a motorcycle blew himself up next to a bus in Rawalpindi’s Choor Chowk on Thursday killing up to six people, police said.

‘About 25 people were on board and as the bus reached a square, a motorcyclist hit its fuel tank,’ city police chief Nasir Durrani told reporters.

‘According to our reports, five to six people were martyred and 16 wounded,’ he said.

‘The blast has ripped apart many vehicles. It went with a bang,’ said local police officer Mohammad Imran.

Earlier, DawnNews quoted police sources as saying the explosion occurred near a KRL bus in Choor Chowk. — DawnNews/Agencies