Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mingora to host Independence Day celebrations

PESHAWAR: The NWFP(PUKHTUNKHWA) government will officially celebrate the Independence Day in Mingora, the main town of Swat, to restore confidence of the people and convey the message to the world that peace has been achieved in the valley. “August 14 will be celebrated as Peace Day in Swat,” NWFP Information Minister Mian Iftikhar told a news conference here on Tuesday.

Mian Iftikhar said purpose behind holding the I-Day function in Mingora was to restore confidence of the people in the government and to tell the countrymen and world community that peace had been restored and those out to disturb the situation had been subdued.

The provincial government has formed a three-member committee to finalise arrangements for the Independence Day celebrations in Mingora. Officials said the step would be a morale booster for both the security forces and the people of Swat.

“The miscreants, who are on the run, must learn a lesson from the killing of their top leader,” the minister said while referring to the suspected death of Waziristan-based Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud in the August 5 drone attack in South Waziristan.

However, Mian Iftikhar said Baitullah Mehsud had been killed and his followers were now on the run and could not find a safe place to hide. He said the network of “terrorists” had been dismantled.

In the same breath, Mian Iftikhar, who is also spokesman for the provincial government, demanded of the security forces to keep the operation precise and targeted in areas yet to be purged of the trouble makers. To a question, he said the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had received a serious blow and the recent internal differences would prove the last nail in its coffin.

However, he skipped the answer when asked about the official confirmation of Baitullah Mehsud’s death in the drone attack. “No one can confirm the death of any person engaged in guerilla war,” said the minister.

He lauded the security forces for their sacrifices to get rid of the terrorists in Malakand division where they posed serious threat to the security and solidarity of the country. To a question about Sufi Muhammad, Mian Iftikhar said the case of the Tanzeem Nifaze Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) chief was in the court. He also admitted trouble in some parts of Buner district, but hoped the troops were struggling to cleanse the area of troublemakers.

President Karzai’s supporters ‘buy’ votes for Afghanistan election

Supporters of President Karzai are preparing to rig voting in next week’s presidential elections in unstable parts of Afghanistan’s south as Taleban violence threatens to intimidate voters and hit turnout in his traditional support base.
The Times has talked to several witnesses whose reports will bolster suspicions within the international community that there will be electoral fraud across the south, some of it allegedly orchestrated by Mr Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai.

Such irregularities could threaten the credibility of the election process and have led to threats of violent demonstrations in the north if Mr Karzai is thought to have stolen the vote.

Several tribal leaders and local people in Helmand described a systematic attempt by supporters of Mr Karzai to collect or buy voter registration cards from local people.

One tribal elder in the Marja district of Helmand alleged that the vote rigging was being organised by members of Mr Karzai’s family and local tribal allies, particularly Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, the former governor of the province.

“In Marja and other districts we can’t vote because of security problems,” he said. “We are continuing to buy the cards. I am one of the people responsible for collecting cards in Marja. We bought the cards for $30 (£18).”

The man, who asked not to be identified, said that other elders were also collecting cards for Mr Karzai.

“Behind the curtain it is the brother of Mr Karzai and Sher Mohammad Akhundzada who are working on this,” he added.

Wali Karzai and Mr Akhundzada have been accused frequently of involvement in drugs smuggling by Western officials.

Wali Karzai, who firmly denies the narcotics allegations, is the head of the provincial council of Kandahar province and Mr Akhundzada is a member of the Upper House of the Afghan parliament. Neither could be reached for comment.

Another tribal elder in Marja said: “The tribal elders in all the districts are organising this. They buy the voting cards for money or mobile phone scratch cards.”

Threats from the Taleban meant that few people in outlying districts of the province would be able to vote, he said. British military commanders insisted that 90 per cent of Helmand’s population would have access to polling stations but there is no Afghan government presence in five of the thirteen districts in Helmand.

British forces have spent the past month attempting to clear the populous Nad Ali district of Taleban fighters before the elections. Ten British troops were killed in Operation Panther’s Claw, with a total of 22 operational deaths in July.

Haji Mohammad, from Marja, said that he sold all his family’s voting cards because there were no polling stations in his area. He said that he did not want Abdullah Abdullah, Mr Karzai’s main rival, to win.

“I don’t think most of the districts will vote in the election,” he said. “When this team goes to other districts they will buy many votes because everyone is poor, everyone needs money and they can sell their votes.

“When they came to me they said, ‘If you don’t vote then Dr Abdullah will win’. That is why people think it is a good reason to sell their votes. We want Karzai to win the elections.”

Alex Strick van Linschoten, a research analyst in Kandahar, said that there were reports of similar schemes in several districts including Zarai, Panjwai and Maiwand, with local police participating in the process.

The Afghan Independent Election Commission has accredited 160,000 observers to attend polling stations. However, the country’s main monitoring agency, the Afghan Free and Fair Elections Foundation, said that it would have observers at only 70 per cent of stations because of security concerns.

Western diplomats said that precautions designed to prevent fraud would be ineffective in insecure districts of the south, where election monitors could not go.

Security on high alert after rocket attacks.

PESHAWAR: Security has been put on high alert following rocket attacks in different areas of the Provincial capital on late Monday night in which three people were killed and several were injured as some of the rockets landed in residential areas in different localities. According to the police, strict security measures have been taken in different parts of the provincial metropolis in the wake of the rocket attacks by unknown miscreants that reportedly hit houses in the posh area of Hayatabad Phase-6, Wali Abad, Pushtakhara, Canal Town and Abdara Road. It is also reported that Frontier Corps Camp in Hayatabad Phase-6 was also targeted however no causality occurred. Twelve rockets were fired within just few minutes, No one claimed immediate responsibility for the rocket assault. The police have taken extra-ordinary security measures in Hayatabad, Pushtakhara, Canal Town and some of the other areas adjacent to tribal area of Khyber Agency that have been declared sensitive. Meanwhile, several suspected people have been arrested from the Peshtakhara area as police has started search operation for the miscreants. Moreover, on Tuesday, bomb disposal squad difused another rocket which landed just outside a house in Canal Town area. According to an eye witness whose house was also hit in the rocket attacks, he saw smoke coming out of the ground. “As soon as I saw smoke, I called police and after sometime the bomb disposal squad arrived on the scene,” he said. While talking to The Frontier Post Inspector of bomb disposal Squad Hukam Khan said that the peace of rocket burried in the ground was very dangerous for that perticular reason road from both the sides was blocked and people were advised not to come near the spot.

Taliban torch 7 schools in Buner

PESHAWAR: Taliban burnt down seven primary schools in Buner, where children recently resumed their studies after the area was declared safe by the army, officials said on Tuesday as security forces killed 25 Taliban in Swat and a tribal area.

“Three boys’ and four girls’ primary schools were set on fire by Taliban on Monday in Buner district,” district police chief Abdul Rasheed told AFP.

No one was hurt in the arson attacks as the schools were closed for the night, he said, but the buildings were burnt to the ground.

Shamsul Arifeen, the NWFP education secretary, confirmed the attacks. The military claims to have largely defeated the Taliban in the area.

The Online news agency reported that five schools were also torched in Shangla.

According to the APP news agency, eight Taliban and three security personnel were killed in a gunbattle – which continued for about 18 hours.

Troops also arrested 29 Taliban from various areas of the valley.

Meanwhile, two Taliban surrendered in Khairarai.

In Bara tehsil of Khyber Agency, three people were injured as helicopter gunships shelled the area on Tuesday, sources said.

Security forces also destroyed four houses owned by Taliban in Shalobar area.

Separately, unidentified gunmen kidnapped Palai Union Council Sher Muhammad Khan from a mosque in Zor Mandi area.

Meanwhile, paramilitary forces killed at least 17 Taliban in a tribal area after the group killed two civilians in a rocket attack in Peshawar, said officials.

“In an operation by security forces today 17 Taliban were killed,” said a paramilitary statement.

A paramilitary commander separately told AFP the operation was launched after Taliban fired rockets at a paramilitary post early on Tuesday in a rare and brazen assault in Peshawar.

The pre-dawn rocket attack targeted a Frontier Corps base in the city’s Hayatabad neighbourhood. agencies/staff report

US Army brigade retools for new Afghan mission

KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan – More than 100 soldiers in the brigade studied Arabic for 10 months. Their officers boned up on Iraq by reading dozens of books.
Then, five months ago, the 5,000 troops of the U.S. Army's 5th Stryker Brigade were told they were headed to Afghanistan instead.
The Obama administration's decision to switch America's main battlefront from Iraq to Afghanistan is more than a geographic shift. While there are similarities between the two Muslim nations, there are also major differences in language, culture and topography.
The Fort Lewis, Wash.-based Stryker brigade, which arrived in southern Afghanistan last month as part of the U.S. troop surge, is among those scrambling to adapt.
There was only time to give about 50 soldiers a nine-week crash course in Pashto, the main language of southern Afghanistan.
"It was a whole 180-degree turn. It's like English and French: some words are the same but that's it. The grammar is different, the sentences are different," said Spc. John Dazey, a 21-year-old from Vacaville, Calif., who had to fit his training on driving combat vehicles around eight-hour-a-day language classes.
He spoke at the main international base in southern Kandahar province as he waited to deploy out to southeastern Afghanistan.
The soldiers will also encounter a society that is more conservative and traditional than Iraq's.
While two-thirds of Iraq's 28 million people live in major cities, three-fourths of the 34 million Afghans live in rural areas, where conservative values remain strong. Nearly three-quarters of Iraqis can read and write. In Afghanistan, only 28 percent are literate — with rates for women about half that.
All that is especially true among the Pashtuns, the biggest ethnic group and the vast majority of the Taliban. U.S. troops must win over the Pashtuns if there is to be peace in Afghanistan.
Soldiers who've gone through the language course are briefing their comrades on how to interact with the local population — part of the U.S. strategy of building ties to the community.
Dazey has told the men in his squadron to avoid talking to women, or even looking at them — a cursory glance at a burqa-covered woman can be seen by her husband as a lewd come-on.
"The Pashtuns, we've been told the culture is a lot like the Arabic culture except it's on steroids," he said.
Perhaps most importantly, engaging Afghans — and the Pashtuns in particular — requires a different approach.
"Afghanistan is more of a tribal-based society," said Lt. Col. William Clark, commander of the Stryker brigade's 8th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment. "There are more informal leaders you have to recognize."
Conversely, the brigade faces a tightly organized Taliban structure in Kandahar with commanders and even spokespeople, in contrast to the loosely connected insurgency of Iraq.
The Stryker brigade, named after its fast-moving tank-like assault vehicles, is meant to be a next-generation fighting force equipped with advanced communication technology and soldiers skilled in both fighting and peace-building.
Some of the Pashto-speaking soldiers have been given special permission to grow a beard to better interact with men in a culture where a beard is a sign of manhood.
"The fact that so many of the military guys are so against it shows how much cultural importance a beard can have," Col. Harry Tunnell, the brigade commander, said.
Operating in Afghanistan — a country of few roads, no national electricity grid, formidable mountains and bleak stone deserts — presents major challenges.
Soldiers who have done Iraq tours talk about being wowed by Saddam Hussein's palaces. Here they're lucky if they find a road.
At Kandahar Air Field, a massive truck laid down a metal track sturdy enough for the 38,000-pound Strykers to cross.
"When we were going to Iraq, I didn't think we'd be using these bridges at all. Things are more developed there," said 1st Lt. John Davis as he tested a bridge-laying vehicle.
He said they'll use the bridges to establish new routes over small waterways or gullies, or cross areas bombed out by Taliban explosives.
And while terrain in southern Afghanistan is not that different from the Iraqi desert, if the brigade moves farther up the eastern border, they'll confront mountains and valleys still littered with the carcasses of Soviet tanks from the war in the 1980s.
In Iraq these soldiers would have been taking over from existing brigades, but here they're deploying in a part of the country that has only had a sparse international force and never an American presence.
The Stryker vehicles are flown over. The operating bases have to be built and no one knows for sure how the Taliban will respond in an area where they've never been given much of a fight. This will be the first deployment for the brigade and for many of its soldiers, so many are studying up to make sure they're ready for a different theater with a lot more responsibility.
"If we went to Iraq we'd already have assumed operations," said Maj. Joe Hugh, the executive officer of the brigade's Special Troops Battalion, comprised of soldiers with various technical specialties. "Here it's a Rubik's Cube. We're just trying to figure it out every day."

Hillary Clinton: I'm secretary of state, not Bill

KINSHASA, Congo – Hillary Clinton has a message for the world: It's not all about Bill.

The secretary of state bristled Monday when — as she heard it — a Congolese university student asked what her husband thought about an international financial matter.

Karzai offers rival top Cabinet post in effort to avoid election defeat

One of the three main contenders in Afghanistan’s presidential election admitted yesterday that he had been offered a power-sharing deal by President Karzai in an apparent attempt to sideline the other leading candidate and avoid a second-round vote.

Ashraf Ghani, a former academic and World Bank executive, told The Times that a “weakening” Mr Karzai had attempted to persuade him to abandon his campaign in exchange for the position of prime minister in a new Karzai administration.

Mr Ghani, who was Finance Minister in Mr Karzai’s first Cabinet, said that he was “listening” to the approaches from Mr Karzai’s intermediaries but was not giving up his campaign for the election on August 20. “An offer was made. It was for a position as ‘chief executive’ [in the Cabinet],” he said. “The details were not worked out. I am not discontinuing my election campaign.”

The proposed deal could seriously undermine the campaign of the other major contender in the election, Abdullah Abdullah, who is widely regarded as the main threat to Mr Karzai’s continued grip on power.

Wahid Omer, a spokesman for Mr Karzai, confirmed that there had been talks with Mr Ghani, but denied there had been an offer of a specific post. “Our talks are going towards Ashraf Ghani joining with Karzai. Ghani’s team has also contacted us ... It’s not just us contacting them.”

The alleged offer appears to suggest that the President is no longer confident of winning an outright majority in the first round, and may even fear losing in a second round run-off with Dr Abdullah.

It has also prompted speculation that the international community supports the idea as a way of stunting Mr Karzai’s power and bringing on board a skilled technocrat, while retaining an administration led by ethnic Pashtuns. Both Mr Karzai and Mr Ghani are Pashtuns, the country’s majority ethnicity and the one from which the Taleban draws it strength.

Dr Abdullah, a former Foreign Minister in Mr Karzai’s first Government, is of mixed Tajik and Pashtun ethnicity but has longstanding links to the Tajik north, which is his main support base. Some diplomats fear that if he won it would further exacerbate the sense of alienation among the Pashtun southern tribes and fuel greater violence.

Sources close to the Ghani campaign denied that the United States was driving the deal, but confirmed that US diplomats had offered assurances that the Karzai offer was “genuine”.

Dr Abdullah, however, said he doubted that the US supported the proposed power-sharing arrangement. “Afghanistan has not benefited from these deals,” he told The Times. “A dream team? Or a nightmare team? I don’t know. What I do know is that people want change.”

Public mood is notoriously difficult to judge in Afghanistan, but opinion polls do suggest a narrowing lead for the President and an increasing likelihood of a second round.

Mr Ghani said that President Karzai’s strategy of brokering deals with regional strongmen had failed. “Karzai’s support is weakening in every place you look,” he said.

“His strategy is to seek out ethnic entrepreneurs on the assumption that they have vote banks that can deliver blocs of votes. They can’t. I am peeling away a major portion of his support. Abdullah is succeeding in peeling another major portion of it.”

Zardari reviews ‘Malakand Pilot Project’

ISLAMABAD : President Asif ali Zardari Tuesday said that the Malakand Plan should result in increased security with improved system of governance in which the potential of the region is fully exploited for economic growth and the region is made a secure, prosperous and tolerant place free from the dangers of militancy.

He said this while presiding over a meeting to review the Malakand Pilot Project, aimed at rebuilding the region after the return of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to their homes.

The plan will be presented to Friends of Democratic Pakistan (FoDP) partners for their consideration at the Ministerial meeting in Istanbul on August 25.

Briefing the journalists about the meeting, spokesperson to the President, former Senator Farhatullah Babar said that President Zardari has expressed the hope that the Malakand Pilot Project will ensure that militancy and extremism did not relapse in the area. It should serve as a model for replication in other areas too, he said.

The President said that narcotics and drug peddling was also an area of serious concern as it fed the war machine of the militants adding, "The Malakand project should ensure rooting out drug trafficking".

The President asked the meeting to convert the recent social and political disaster in Swat and Malakand into a great and new opportunity for creating viable models for containing extremism and violence anywhere in the world.

Farhatullah Babar said that there are six working groups of FoDP that were established after the April 17 meeting. The working groups deal exclusively with Security, Development, Energy, Institution capacity building, Trade, Terrorism and a working group on Swat and Malakand.

The Swat and Malakand Working Group was tasked to prepare a "Pilot Project" for rehabilitation of IDPs, rebuilding the infrastructure and fighting militancy on a long term basis.

The President said that the success of the plan depended upon a security environment that permitted to implement it and said that the government will ensure that the process of improvement in security environment now under way moved forward and not reversed in any way.

The President said that the objective of the plan was to provide adequate security to ensure speedy justice to proactively counter the threat of militancy.

The meeting was attended by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin, Minister for SAFRON Najmuddin Khan, Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira, Minister of State for Finance and Economic Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar, Secretary General Salman Faruqi and senior officials of different ministries besides Ambassadors and senior diplomatic staff of Turkey, USA and UK in Islamabad.

Suspected US strike kills at least 10 in South Waziristan

PESHAWAR: A US drone fired missiles into a suspected militant camp in a Taliban stronghold of northwest Pakistan near the Afghan border, killing at least 10 people on Tuesday, security officials said.

The attack happened near the small mountain town of Kanniguram in South Waziristan — a stronghold of Pakistani Taliban warlord Baitullah Mehsud.

Kanniguram is seven kilometres south of Ladha, the village where a suspected US drone fired two missiles into the house of Mehsud's father-in-law last Wednesday.

‘Two missiles were fired by a US drone. It was a militant compound,’ a Pakistani government official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

‘We have reports that more than 10 people were killed in the attack. It was a drone attack,’ one Pakistani military official told AFP.

Another senior security official confirmed that 10 suspected militants were killed, but a local government official had no exact death toll.

Meanwhile, Hamdullah Mehsud, a resident, said three missiles hit the large high-walled house.

‘So far, eight bodies have been pulled out of the rubble,’ he told Reuters. Five people were wounded, he added.

It was the first suspected US attack since last Wednesday, in a strike that Pakistani and US officials believe killed Baitullah Mehsud and his wife in South Waziristan.

But confusion has reigned and both governments have stopped short of confirming that the warlord — Pakistan's public enemy number one — is dead.

The United States military does not, as a rule, confirm drone attacks, but its armed forces and the CIA operating in Afghanistan are the only forces that deploy unmanned aircraft in the region.

Pakistan has in the past vociferously opposed drone attacks as a threat to its sovereignty, which risk whipping up a spiralling anti-American backlash that could destabilise the weak civilian government.