Thursday, July 23, 2009

Biden Warns of More ‘Sacrifice’ in Afghanistan

LONDON — Entering a debate that has stirred political tumult in Britain, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said in an interview broadcast Thursday that more coalition troops will die in Afghanistan but that the war was “worth the effort.”

Speaking during a tour of Ukraine and Georgia, Mr. Biden told the BBC that the lawless region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border was “a place that, if it doesn’t get straightened out, will continue to wreak havoc on Europe and the United States.”

His remarks have a particular resonance in Britain at a time when the American-led coalition has recorded some of its worst casualties since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001.

Britain has some 9,000 soldiers in Afghanistan — the second biggest contingent after the United States — and so far this month alone has lost 19 soldiers to bring the total since 2001 to 188 — higher than the British death toll in the Iraq war. The latest fatalities came Wednesday, when bombs killed two United States service members and one Briton in southern Afghanistan.Before those deaths, July had already become the deadliest month for American service members in the country since the 2001 invasion, underscoring a frightening rise in the sophistication and accuracy of roadside bombs.

With the newest fatalities, more than 30 Americans have died in the first three weeks of July, surpassing the highest previous monthly toll, 28, reached in June 2008.

The deaths coincide with a major American offensive, supported by British and other troops, in Southern Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold, in advance of presidential elections next month.

While some British newspaper columnists have questioned the reasons for fighting the war, Prime Minister Gordon Brown is locked in a dispute with the main opposition leader, David Cameron, over the government’s track record in providing the right equipment — particularly helicopters — to shield British soldiers from increasingly deadly roadside bombs planted by the Taliban.

In the interview, Mr. Biden said that in terms of the national interest of Britain, the United States and Europe, the war “is worth the effort we are making and the sacrifice that is being felt.”

“And more will come,” he said, referring to the current phase of hostilities as “the fighting season.” He did not comment specifically on the debate of British equipment.

He said that the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region was “the place from which the attacks of 9/11 and all those attacks in Europe that came from Al Qaeda have flowed, from that place between Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

He called British soldiers “among the best trained and bravest warriors in the world.”

The debate over British troops’ access to helicopters sharpened Wednesday when a Foreign Office minister, Lord Malloch Brown, told a newspaper interviewer that “we definitely don’t have enough helicopters.”

But he withdrew the comment, apparently under pressure from the prime minister, who has insisted that access to more helicopters would not have saved British lives in the latest wave of fatalities. Mr. Brown’s critics argue that lives would be saved if troops were transported by helicopter rather than by road, where they are more vulnerable to attacks.

“In the operations we are doing at the moment, it is completely wrong to say that the loss of lives has been caused by the absence of helicopters,” Mr. Brown said Wednesday. “For the operations we are doing at the moment we have the helicopters we need.”

Afghan Challenger Campaigns to Crowds

HERAT, Afghanistan — When Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the main election challenger to President Hamid Karzai, arrived here to campaign last weekend, thousands of supporters choked the six-mile drive from the airport. Cars were plastered with his posters. Motorbikes flew blue banners. Young men wearing T-shirts emblazoned with his face leapt aboard his car to embrace him to ecstatic cheers.

With only a month to go, Dr. Abdullah has started his campaign late, but in its first two weeks he has canvassed six provinces and drawn growing support and larger crowds than expected. Rapturous welcomes like this one have suddenly elevated him to the status of potential future president.

“I have no doubt that people want change,” Dr. Abdullah said in an interview after a tumultuous day campaigning in Herat, in western Afghanistan, adding that his momentum was just building. “Today they are hopeful that change can come.”

Mr. Karzai is still widely considered the front-runner in the campaign for the Aug. 20 presidential election. But Dr. Abdullah, who has the backing of the largest opposition group, the National Front, is the one candidate among the field of 41 who has a chance of forcing Mr. Karzai into a runoff, a contest between the top two vote-getters if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the votes in the first balloting.

Already well known among most Afghans, Dr. Abdullah, 48, an ophthalmologist, has a background that includes years of resistance to Soviet and Taliban rule as well as a crucial role in the formation of the new democratic government after the American intervention.

A dapper dresser, wearing traditional Afghan clothes under a variety of Western tailored jackets, he combines solidarity with the former resistance fighters with the moderation of the Afghan intellectual, giving him potentially broad appeal.

After serving as foreign minister in Mr. Karzai’s government for five years, he left in 2006 and has since become a strong critic of the president’s leadership. He refused an offer to become Mr. Karzai’s running mate, and he contends that the president practices a policy of divide and rule that has polarized the country.

Today, Dr. Abdullah, with a diplomat and a surgeon as his running mates, is seen as part of a younger generation of Afghans keen to move away from the nation’s reliance on warlords and older mujahedeen leaders and to clean up and recast the practice of governing.

To do that, he advocates the devolution of power from the strong presidency built up under Mr. Karzai to a parliamentary system that he says will be more representative. He is also calling for a system of electing officials for Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and nearly 400 districts as a way to build support for the government.

Those provincial governors are now appointed from Kabul, and many have been criticized for cronyism and corruption. Influential Shiite clerics here in Herat, who supported Mr. Karzai in the last election in 2004, are now so fed up with corrupt appointees that they have said they will back Dr. Abdullah this time.

Re-engaging the people is essential to reverse the lawlessness and insecurity that have reached a critical point in much of the country, Dr. Abdullah said. “They have managed to lose the people,” he said of the current government. “In fighting an insurgency, you lose the people and you lose the war.”

Before several thousand people in Herat’s sports stadium, he raised the biggest cheer with his promise to build up Afghan institutions so that foreign troops could go home soon.

He also promised to curb the rampant corruption and review foreign assistance programs to ensure that they focused on grass-roots development and addressed poverty and unemployment. In his public meetings, he emphasized support for the rights of women, the unemployed, the disabled and the victims of war.

He said he would work seriously toward reconciliation with the Taliban, calling the current process a “joke.” Yet in an interview he retained his longtime opposition to the Taliban leadership and said he doubted that the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, was ready to negotiate for peace.

This is only the second national presidential election in Afghanistan’s history, and political analysts warn that it is virtually impossible to predict how the election will go or to read voters’ intentions. Diplomats calculating the numbers of the various factions that have come out in support of Mr. Karzai say that he will just scrape back in, thanks largely to the support from the largest ethnic group, his fellow Pashtuns.

Yet two opinion polls conducted this year suggested that Mr. Karzai had lost considerable support since his 2004 victory with 55 percent of the vote. One of those polls, conducted in May by the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit pro-democracy group, showed that Mr. Karzai’s support was down to 31 percent. While only 7 percent said they would vote for Dr. Abdullah, the poll indicated that the election would have to go to a second round.

People interviewed in Herat also spoke of a shift in the public mood. “Karzai has governed for eight years and all the problems have increased, not decreased,” said Hosseini, 47, a farmer who uses one name and traveled to the city to hear Dr. Abdullah speak.

Although Dr. Abdullah has significant support in the north and the large population centers, he will have difficulty campaigning in the south, where the insurgency makes movement virtually impossible.

And although he may tap into the desire for change after nearly eight years of Mr. Karzai’s rule, supporters and analysts say Mr. Karzai will still dominate in his Pashtun homeland in Kandahar, in the south.

Dr. Abdullah also claims heritage from Kandahar through his father, Ghulam Muhayuddine Khan, a Pashtun who was a senator in the 1970s. Yet he is far better known for his connection to the northern Panjshir Valley, through his mother and his close relationship with the famous resistance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, who fought both the Russian occupation and the Taliban.

Dr. Abdullah dismissed suggestions that he could not raise support in the Pashtun south and said that support for Mr. Karzai in the area had dropped drastically as security had worsened and more people had joined the insurgency. “Southern Afghanistan has nearly announced jihad against Karzai,” he said.

‘US stands ready to help Pakistan,’ Clinton tells Qureshi

PHUKET: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday hailed Pakistan’s ‘courageous’ progress against Taliban and Al-Qaeda extremists after holding talks with the country’s foreign minister.

Clinton, who met with Shah Mehmood Qureshi at a major Asian security forum in Thailand, also said Pakistan had made ‘impressive’ progress in dealing with nearly two million people displaced by battles against the Taliban.

‘We talked about the encouraging signs in Pakistan’s fight against violent extremists,’ Clinton told reporters at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum in the Thai beach resort of Phuket.

Clinton said that there were ‘still great challenges ahead facing Pakistan including the ongoing threat of violent extremism and continued economic difficulties’.

‘But I assured the foreign minister that the United States stands ready to help the Pakistani government and people,’ she added.

Pakistani security forces in April launched an offensive in northwest districts after Taliban rebels advanced towards Islamabad, under heavy US pressure to counter militants threatening the existence of the state.

The clashes sparked a huge exodus as people rushed to escape the fighting.

Clinton told Qureshi that the ‘progress your government is making in this effort of a significant return of people back to their homes, because of the success of the government policy and military action, is impressive.’

‘The US has offered to continue to work with Pakistan in what ways Pakistan feels appropriate in a courageous struggle against violence and extremism,’ she told him, saying she looked forward to visiting the country later this year.

Qureshi told reporters he was ‘delighted’ to meet with Clinton and said his country would continue to work closely with the US.

Obama: Health care reform means changes in treatment for the better

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Obama said Wednesday he was unable to guarantee that health care reform won't change how Americans get medical treatment, but he said any changes would be necessary and positive.

In a nationally televised news conference dominated by the health care issue, Obama delivered lengthy statements in response to Republican attacks on proposals he favors.

He also attempted to ease the concerns of people left confused by the fierce debate in Washington.

He repeatedly emphasized that the spiraling costs of the current system would bankrupt the nation while denying coverage to millions more Americans.

Asked directly if he could guarantee that an overhauled health care system won't change how people receive treatment, Obama said no.

"The whole point of this is to try to encourage what works," Obama said, addressing concerns that reform would take away the ability of people to choose their doctors and treatment.

"The government is already making some of these decisions," Obama said. "Insurance companies are making some of these decisions."

The reform proposals he backs would have experts make decisions based on the best medical treatment, not accountants attempting to save money or doctors prescribing treatments that bring the highest fees, Obama said.

"This will require patients ... to be more discriminating consumers," he said. "I think that's a good thing. Ultimately ... we just can't afford what's happening right now."

Republican opponents of Democratic bills in the House and Senate said earlier that most Americans like the current system, which they said must be made less expensive and more accessible.

Obama and Democratic leaders say the problems are deeper and systemic, and the president spent all of his seven-minute opening statement at the 52-minute news conference outlining the challenges and his proposed solutions.

"Even as we rescue this economy from a full-blown crisis, we must rebuild it stronger than before -- and health insurance reform is central to that effort," Obama said.

"If we do not control these costs, we will not be able to control our deficit. If we do not reform health care, your premiums and out-of-pocket costs will continue to skyrocket," he said.

As he laid out the list of benefits that health care reform offers, he dropped a direct reference to a government-funded public health insurance option.

Until now, Obama has consistently touted the government-funded public option as competition for private insurers in expanding access to health coverage.

It was unclear if Obama changed the wording to avoid a label opposed by Republican supporters, or if he was signaling a policy shift toward a compromise being negotiated by the Senate Finance Committee to have health insurance cooperatives rather than a government-funded public option.

Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa told CNN on Wednesday that the Finance Committee was not considering a public option.

Later in the news conference, Obama responded to a question about the public option by saying it was intended to "keep the insurance companies honest.

He noted that some insurance companies recently reported record profits, and said offering a competing government-funded health plan would require private insurers to offer less-expensive coverage.

Speaking about the benefits of his plan, he said it would offer "security" and "stability" to sick and healthy Americans.

"It will prevent insurance companies from dropping your coverage if you get too sick. It will give you the security of knowing that if you lose your job, move, or change your job, you will still be able to have coverage. It will limit the amount your insurance company can force you to pay for your medical costs out of your own pocket. And it will cover preventive care like check-ups and mammograms that save lives and money," he said.

He also said his program would not add to the deficit over the next decade, addressing concerns from Republican opponents and fiscally conservative Democrats over the costs of the program. Watch Obama describe how he plans to pay for health reform »

"Already, we have estimated that two-thirds of the cost of reform can be paid for by reallocating money that is simply being wasted in federal health care programs. This includes over $100 billion in unwarranted subsidies that go to insurance companies as part of Medicare -- subsidies that do nothing to improve care for our seniors," he said.

Obama also chided opponents of his health care reform push for making the issue purely political.

"I've heard that one Republican strategist told his party that even though they may want to compromise, it's better politics to 'go for the kill.' Another Republican senator said that defeating health reform is about 'breaking' me," he said.

"Let me be clear: This isn't about me," Obama said, noting that he and every member of Congress -- including those trying to scuttle health care reform legislation -- "have great health insurance."

Instead, he said, the debate is about people lacking health insurance because they can't afford rising costs, get denied due to a pre-existing condition, or lose their jobs.

"This debate is not a game for these Americans, and they cannot afford to wait for reform any longer," Obama said.

He also confirmed an agreement with fiscally conservative Democrats to create an independent group of doctors and medical experts empowered to eliminate waste and inefficiency in Medicare.

Obama said he backed adding such a panel to health care reform legislation.

Such a panel could both save money and "ensure the long-term financial health of Medicare," Obama said.

So-called "Blue Dog" Democrats questioning the costs of initial health care bills said Obama gave a "verbal agreement" Tuesday to including the independent panel in health care reform legislation.

Earlier Wednesday, Obama worked the phones, urging lawmakers to embrace health care reform, White House Communications Director Anita Dunn said Wednesday.

It follows the president's Tuesday meeting with Democrats at the White House, dubbed a "serious working session" where "major progress" was made, Dunn said.

Officials said Obama will be taking a more hands-on approach with members of Congress in the days and weeks to come regarding the health care debate.

White House aides say the administration is concerned about three centers of serious opposition from House Democrats: the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats who are worried about the cost of a public health care plan; the freshmen and other Democrats from high-income districts who are concerned about taxes for high-income Democrats, and the anti-abortion Democrats who are concerned about federal funding going for abortion services, and whether health care providers can opt out of certain procedures.

One official said the administration is aware that "if any of these three groups abandon the effort the bill would be impossible to get out of committee, much less pass."

Aides say the president and lawmakers also discussed the public option versus a co-op option.

Obama Wades Into a Volatile Racial Issue
Americans got a rare glimpse Wednesday night of what it means to have a black president in the Oval Office.

In response to a question at his prime-time news conference about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., the black Harvard professor, in his own home over the weekend, Mr. Obama declared that the Cambridge, Mass., police had “acted stupidly.”

Mr. Obama’s response was his most animated performance of the hourlong news conference, and represented an extraordinary plunge by a president into a local law-enforcement dispute. And it opened a window into a world from which Mr. Obama is now largely shielded, suggesting the incident had struck a raw nerve with the president.

In the public spotlight, Mr. Obama has sought to transcend, if not avoid, the issue of race. As a candidate, he tried to confine his racial references to the difficulty of catching a cab in New York, although he was forced to confront it directly during the Pennsylvania primary when his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, became an issue. And last week, at the 100th convention of the NAACP in New York, he spoke in uncharacteristically personal terms about his rise to power as a black man, while warning black Americans not to make excuses for their failure to achieve.

Wednesday night’s press conference seemed to be a different deal as the president leaped into a highly charged controversy that has ignited passions across talk radio, the blogosphere and the old-fashioned water cooler.

But in fact, racial profiling was a major issue for Mr. Obama when he was in the Illinois legislature. He was the chief sponsor of a bill, which became law, that requires police to record the race, age and gender of all drivers they stop for traffic violations and for those records to be analyzed for evidence of racial profiling.

And so the substance of his response was not as surprising as the fact that a president so quickly joined the fray.

The police were called to Mr. Gates’s house after a report of a robbery in progress. Mr. Gates, saying he was jimmying open a damaged front door, said he told the police he lived in the house. Still, the police report said he was arrested for “loud and tumultuous behavior in a public space.” He was held in police custody for four hours, after which disorderly conduct charges against him were dropped. Mr. Gates said he was the victim of racial profiling and has demanded an apology but the police officer involved has said he has nothing to apologize for.

Mr. Obama, asked Wednesday what the incident said about race relations in America, noted up front that Mr. Gates is a friend and that his comments might be biased. He said “words” had been exchanged and added:

“Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know, separate and apart from this incident, is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. And that’s just a fact.” He added later that the incident was “a sign of how race remains a factor in this society.”

He also used biting humor, grinning broadly as he imagined being in Mr. Gates’s seemingly preposterous circumstance of being arrested after trying to get into his own home.

“Here, I’d get shot,” Mr. Obama said, referring to his new address of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The statement was a bit of political jujitsu that acknowledged the intense security that surrounds any president while letting sink in the image of what would happen to a black man who might seem to be breaking into the White House.

Mr. Obama’s response lit up the blogosphere immediately after the press conference. The debate developing overnight was whether Mr. Obama had gone too far in his response.

On, one commenter had this to say:

“I agree that there was probably some stupidity involved here, but I just don’t think him weighing in on it benefits anyone. ... by the end of the week this will be spun so ridiculously that you’d swear he called the Cambridge police pigs while eating brie and sipping pinot noir.”

Another commenter posted this: “Why should the president remain neutral about anything? He’s the PRESIDENT, for god’s sake. The last thing anyone wants is a president who refuses to take a stand.”

It could not be determined how well Mr. Obama knows Mr. Gates. But the professor, a widely respected expert in the field of race relations, had very kind words for Mr. Obama’s pivotal speech on race relations after the Wright affair threatened to sink his candidacy.

“I think it was brilliant,” Mr. Gates said of the speech in an interview with Tavis Smiley at the time. “It is a great speech about race, and race relations, particularly between black people and white people at the beginning of the 21st Century.”

U.S. sees Pakistan securing Swat before attacking Mehsud

ISLAMABAD - U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke hailed on Thursday the return home of many of the 2.5 million people displaced by fighting in Pakistan's Swat valley despite pockets of Taliban resistance.

Holbrooke described securing valleys, where the Pakistan army opened up an offensive against the militants more than three months ago, as the first priority.

"I think they've got their hands full in Swat and Buner, Holbrooke told journalists before leaving for Afghanistan at the end of two days of talks with the Pakistani political and military leadership in Islamabad.

Holbrooke said this was the likely reason why the army was delaying an all-out assault further west against the stronghold of Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud in the remote South Waziristan tribal region.

"They've got to make sure when the refugees come back that they have security, so maybe they're delaying the offensive," he said, adding that he did not know the timing or nature of the looming action against Mehsud.

The United Nations said on Thursday nearly 400,000 people had returned home from the camps and makeshift shelters.

"They're returning in large numbers, thousands a day, and I think that is good news," he said.

Holbrooke spoke of the heavy U.S. financial assistance for Pakistan's government, military and its displaced people, and said that he hoped to announce help for Pakistan to overcome crippling power generation shortages when he returned next month.


The Pakistani government gave orders to the army a month ago to go after Mehsud, who leads a loose grouping of some 13 Taliban factions dotted across the northwest.

Mehsud has come under frequent air and artillery bombardment since then but there are few signs of an imminent ground assault on his redoubt in the mountains.

The army is probably waiting to free up some of the 20,000 troops currently deployed in Swat, according to diplomats who follow military affairs.

Although Mehsud has helped provide fighters for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, and trained suicide bombers to attack Afghan and Western forces, most of his focus has been on attacking the Pakistani state.

Several diplomats in Islamabad doubted whether eliminating Mehsud would provide any great strategic value for Western forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, but Holbrooke disagreed.

"I think Baitullah Mehsud is one of the most dangerous and odious people in the region and the United States had paid insufficient attention to him until recently," he said.

He said it made sense for the Pakistani government to first go after the militants, like Mehsud and Fazlullah, the Taliban commander in Swat, that posed a threat to their nation.


Pakistan has also moved forces to Baluchistan, to patrol the southwest province's border with Helmand, the southern Afghan province where U.S. forces began an operation against the Taliban earlier this month.

Holbrooke stressed that there was increasingly tight cooperation between the Pakistani and U.S. and NATO forces.

He also said there was little evidence that Taliban fighters had fled from Helmand to Pakistan, but he had still to discover how the guerrillas had melted away.

"So far they haven't really showed up, but we want to avoid the mistake of 2002 when U.S. offensives ignored the consequences in Pakistan," Holbrooke said.

Thousands of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters fled to Pakistan's tribal lands to escape the onslaught of U.S. backed forces in late 2001, when Holbrooke said there had been a lack of coordination with Pakistan.