Saturday, August 8, 2009

Secret deal to keep Karzai in power
With less than two weeks to go until national elections, the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, is trying to cut a secret deal with one of his rivals to knock out his leading contender and ensure a decisive victory to avoid the chaos that a tight result might unleash.

Afghanistan's second democratic polls threaten to split the country along sectarian lines. That would risk undermining US and British-led peace efforts which are already under pressure from a resurgent Taliban.

Mr Karzai and his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, hail from different ethnic groups and different regions. If neither wins outright in round one on 20 August, officials fear Afghanistan could be engulfed by violence reminiscent of the civil war of the 1990s.

"The whole country is armed. Everybody has weapons. You have to keep everyone happy," an Afghan analyst said. Mr Abdullah's campaign staff have threatened to hold demonstrations should Mr Karzai win, insisting that he could only do so fraudulently.

Mr Abdullah's supporters, who are largely Tajik, have warned of Iranian-style protests, but "with Kalashnikovs", should the President win a second term. Although Mr Karzai, a Pashtun, is still the favourite, his supporters fear that a third candidate, Ashraf Ghani, could split the Pashtun vote, depriving the President of the 51 per cent share he needs to win, and opening the door to Mr Abdullah.

Yesterday, details emerged of how the President was trying to join forces with Mr Ghani to unite the Pashtun vote and knock Mr Abdullah out of the race. Officials said the President had offered Mr Ghani a job as chief executive – a new post described as similar to prime minister. "If Ghani agrees to the terms, Karzai will dump his team and move forward, with Karzai as President and Ghani as chief executive," a campaign official told The Independent last night.

Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador, are understood to have discussed the proposal with Mr Ghani late last month. "It makes sense," a policy analyst with close links to the US administration said. "Holbrooke likes Ghani, and he has come round to the fact that Karzai will probably win."

The idea of a chief executive was hatched in Washington as a way of handing the responsibility of running the government to a skilled technocrat. Mr Ghani has an impressive pedigree as a former university professor and finance minister. Two years ago, he was a contender to head the World Bank. What he lacks – and what might make the deal attractive to him – is the grassroots support that Mr Karzai and Mr Abdullah enjoy.

Sources close to the President's inner circle confirmed that they had made an offer to Mr Ghani two weeks ago and the President's brother, Qayum Karzai, had made the first approach.

"For Karzai it's logical," said a businessman with friends in the President's team. "He doesn't want to divide the Pashtun vote, and if it goes to a second round he's going to lose."

US embassy officials have denied any involvement in back-room deals. Foreign diplomats are desperate to avoid being seen to be influencing the election but the international community is equally keen to avoid bloodshed when the results are announced.

Last night, Mr Ghani's staff said he was campaigning as usual and had no plans to pull out of the race. They said the Mr Karzai's offer was proof of their own candidate's strength.

The President, who has been in power since US-led troops overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001, has been criticised for his lack of control outside of the capital, the slow pace of development and endemic government corruption, but many people admire him for weaving friends and enemies together. "He has always played a game with the Northern Alliance, the Hazaras and the warlords," said the Afghan analyst. "Giving people positions and promises, he was very clever keeping everyone together."

During this election campaign, Mr Karzai has made deals with tribal leaders and local strongmen, promising them positions and patronage in exchange for the votes they control. International officials believe as many as 20 cabinet positions have already been pledged. It is unclear what would happen to these deals if Mr Ghani came on board. However, some observers believe the deal could signal the emergence of a unity government. "Everyone realises that winner takes all won't work," said one.

Violence, already at its worst since the Taliban were ousted after the September 11 attacks, has increased in the run-up to the poll. Yesterday brought news of a bomb attack on a family heading to a wedding in Garmsir, in Helmand province. Five people were reported killed. In a separate attack, in Naad Ali, five policemen died when a bomb exploded near their vehicle.

In western Afghanistan, a roadside bomb killed four US Marines, bringing the death toll of Western troops for the first week of August to at least 15.

Bomb blast outside school wounds six

PESHAWAR: Police say a bomb outside a school in Pakistan's northwest has wounded six people.Local police officer Marjan Khan says the blast hit a parking area outside the school for boys and girls shortly before classes ended Saturday in Charsadda district northeast of Peshawar city.Five of those injured were motorcycle-rickshaw drivers who were waiting to take children home.Khan says no one claimed responsibility, and that the attack was aimed at terrorizing local people.The school is close to Pakistan's northwestern tribal region, where Taliban militants have sought to impose their harsh brand of Islam on the population, often targeting schools, particularly those for girls.

Pakistan’s No. 1 Enemy: Ex-Ally Bent by Al Qaeda

KABUL, Afghanistan — Baitullah Mehsud is perhaps the most prominent example of a tribal Taliban fighter who at first fought in Afghanistan and cooperated with the Pakistani Army, but then turned against his own country, unleashing a vicious campaign of violence in the name of spreading the rule of Islam.

The most wanted terrorist in Pakistan by the time of his apparent death on Wednesday in his mid-30s, he rocketed to notoriety in just three years as the leader of the Pakistani Taliban and became a key figure in Al Qaeda’s regional operations.

His turn against the Pakistan state, intelligence analysts say, was seen as a direct result of his close alliance with Al Qaeda, in particular with Ayman al-Zawahri, the second in command, as well as the powerful Afghan Taliban leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who also has a close working connection to Al Qaeda.

Mr. Mehsud, whose death in a missile strike was yet to be officially confirmed, was accused of being behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister, in a suicide bombing in December 2007, among scores of other attacks. These include last year’s bombing of the Marriott Hotel in the capital, Islamabad.

But it was the attack on Ms. Bhutto that served as a wake-up call for Pakistan’s security services and political circles, which had for years supported those fighting in Afghanistan as Muslim heroes.

After Ms. Bhutto’s death, when Pakistan’s Interior Ministry released a telephone intercept implicating Mr. Mehsud in her assassination, the liberal newspaper Daily Times wrote, “Al Qaeda is now as much a Pakistani phenomenon as it is an Arab or foreign element.”

Mr. Mehsud was once a minor figure in the small Shabi Khel branch of the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan, an inhospitable mountainous territory that fiercely resisted efforts by the armies of the British empire to conquer it. The son of a prayer leader, he had a basic religious education where he grew up in Miram Shah, the capital of North Waziristan. It was probably there that he was first recruited to fight in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban during their period in government in the late 1990s.

He served with the Taliban at the Kabul airport, according to a senior Afghan security official. After the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, he returned to his native Waziristan, accompanied by thousands of Afghan Taliban and hundreds of foreign Qaeda fighters who settled in North and South Waziristan.

As the Pakistani Army began operations in Waziristan in 2004, Mr. Mehsud was promoted by the Taliban leadership to command the fighters from the Mehsud tribe.

But Pakistani officials still considered him someone they could deal with, and in February 2005 they signed a much-criticized peace deal under which the army pulled back its forces, giving Mr. Mehsud freedom to operate in South Waziristan.

He quickly expanded his forces and power, and by December 2007 he had been named the leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban, the umbrella movement that commands most of the Taliban groups throughout Pakistan’s tribal areas and the adjoining Swat Valley.

His growth had brought Mr. Mehsud back into confrontation with the Pakistani military. In 2007, he took about 250 Pakistani Army soldiers hostage when they tried to pass through his tribal territory.

The hostage-taking came just days after the government laid siege to militants in the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July 2007, and was apparently in retaliation for the government’s crackdown.

Mr. Mehsud began attacking Pakistani military and intelligence targets in the tribal areas and beyond, and was behind almost all of the scores of suicide bombings that have occurred in Pakistan’s cities since then, according to Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the commander of the Pakistani Army.

Afghan security officials said that Mr. Mehsud had also sent suicide bombers to Afghanistan and to Iraq since 2006, as the number of suicide bombings soared in those countries.

He hosted many foreign fighters in his territory, including Uzbeks and others from Central Asia, and he ran training camps to indoctrinate suicide bombers, weapons he once called his own atom bombs. Working closely with him in training suicide bombers were two Pakistani militants, named Qari Zafar and Qari Hussain.

Mr. Mehsud also ran private jails and held dozens of kidnapped hostages, trading them for money or for his own fighters caught by the Pakistani authorities. Among those who fell into his hands was the Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan, Tariq Azizuddin, who was held for three months and met Mr. Mehsud twice, according to Pakistani officials.

Mr. Mehsud already then complained that he had to be constantly on the move, to avoid the surveillance of C.I.A.-operated drones, which were striking targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the officials said. By this year he was moving every 30 minutes to avoid detection, according to a Taliban fighter.

Yet he survived two large-scale operations against his fighters by the Pakistani military, one in January 2008 and another in June 2009.

Both times the Pakistani military seemed to pull back before finishing off Mr. Mehsud and his forces, prompting suspicions that he was still regarded as an asset by the military establishment, which has long supported militant groups to fight proxy wars in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

But his attacks inside Pakistan escalated with complex attacks on government buildings and five-star hotels, which were seen as a threat to the nation.

Last March, the United States put a $5 million reward on his head. In June, Pakistan declared him its “enemy No. 1.”

Rocket hits Peshawar locality, no casualties

PESHAWAR: A rocket fired by suspected militants from an unknown location damaged two houses in the city’s Gulberg-II locality on Friday but caused no casualties.

One of the houses reportedly belongs to a Frontier Corps officer. But his brother Malik Ashraf told the media that the officer was residing somewhere else.

The family living in the house said it had shifted from Hangu and taken up residence only two days ago. It had no idea who could be the attackers.

Residents of the area, who had gathered at the site, said the rocket landed with a bang and created panic among the people. ‘We heard the blast and people inside the house started crying,’ said one resident. It was the first incident of its kind in the locality.

Police have recovered shell of the rocket and asked the people to stay away from the damaged walls. SSP (operations) Abdul Ghafoor Afridi said it was not clear from where the rocket was fired.

Meanwhile, a police spokesman stated that at least 20 suspected people had been arrested in Peshawar in raids on hideouts on Friday. He did not disclose their names, saying that they were under interrogation.

Curfew eases in parts of Swat, Dir

Operation against militants is going on in Lower Dir as curfew relaxed in different areas of Swat and Dir. Security forces overnight pounded suspected militants positions tehsil Maidan of Lower Dir. However, no loss of life was reported. Search operation against militants in different areas of tehsil continued. According to Dir media center, curfew will be relaxed till 8:00 pm in tehsil Maidan. Swat media center announced curfew relaxation till 6: 00 pm in Khawazakhela, Matta, Bedara, Madeen, Shangla, Darashkhela whereas shops will be open from 3:00 pm till 8:00 pm in Dargai, Sakhakot, and Buttkhela.

Clashes in Tank leave ten dead

TANK: Fierce clashes between supporters of Baitullah Mehsud and his rival Turkistan Bhittani in Tank late on Thursday night left 10 people dead and four others injured.

According to local people, more than 100 militants attacked the recruitment camps of the Turkistan group in Molazai and Omar Adda areas of Tank district.

Turkistan, who had won the backing of the government after challenging Baitullah in Tank and South Waziristan, had set up the camps in government school buildings.

According to sources, both sides had used rockets, mortars and heavy machine-guns in the fighting which continued for more than two hours.

Four people were killed when the armed men attacked a government primary school housing Turkistan’s men in Molazai.

Another camp was attacked in Omar Adda in which five people were killed and four others injured. The injured were taken to the Tank district hospital where a man, identified as Mian Gul, died.

Other people killed were identified as Usman, Hazrat, Baitullah Khan, Syed Hassan, Azizullah, Jehanzai, Zarai Khan and Baitullah’s supporter Gul Zaman.

Police said that two unexploded rockets were found in the school building.

Intelligence officials claimed that 11 militants of the Baitullah group had been killed in the gunbattle, but the assailants had taken away the bodies taking advantage of darkness.

However, the claim could not be confirmed from independent sources or local police.

When contacted by this correspondent, Tank DPO Abdur Rahsid said he had no information about the clash.The fresh upsurge in violence created panic in the area.

Turkistan Bhittani joined the anti-Taliban campaign after 40 of his men had been killed by supporters of Baitullah last year. A large number of families had been forced to leave the FR region of Jandola after the fighting.