Monday, August 17, 2009

US weighs bolstering combat troops in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — The US military was looking at freeing up more troops for combat in Afghanistan as President Barack Obama warned there would be no "quick" victory in the war.
With Afghans heading into crucial elections Thursday, US defense officials said the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, was weighing cutting back desk jobs and other support staff to free up more soldiers for combat.
"The idea is use troops more effectively," a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP on Monday.
Reducing non-combat positions would mean "doing more with what you've got versus asking for more" troops, the official said.
McChrystal is taking a hard look at the war against Taliban insurgents amid widespread speculation he may soon ask Obama for additional US forces -- a politically-charged issue at home and abroad.
Cutting the number of support staff could mean the US general would make a more modest troop request, possibly easing pressure on Obama who faces rising anxiety over the war within his own party.
As candidates held rallies at the close of campaigning in Afghanistan, Obama defended the war as a necessary mission but warned of a difficult road ahead.
"The insurgency in Afghanistan didn't just happen overnight," Obama told the Veterans of Foreign Wars service organization in the southwestern state of Arizona.
"We won't defeat it overnight. This will not be quick. This will not be easy," Obama said.
The US president said the war was "fundamental" to defending Americans by depriving Al-Qaeda of a safe-haven to plot follow-on attacks to the September 11 strikes in 2001.
Although he acknowledged an upsurge in "fierce" fighting in Afghanistan, he vowed to adapt US tactics and ensure the troops have the tools they need to do the job.
He did not, however, offer detailed insight into the evolving war strategy, which has seen thousands of troops and billions of US dollars pour into the country since Obama took office in January.
US troop levels, currently at 62,000, are set to reach 68,000 in coming months, more than double the number in place at the start of the year.
Obama has already ordered an additional 21,000 servicemen to the country ahead of Thursday's elections, in line with his vow to turn the US focus from Iraq to Afghanistan -- which he says poses a greater security threat.
As campaigning ended in Afghanistan, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington would remain impartial in the election and would work with whomever voters pick.
"Like the Afghan people we want to see credible, secure and inclusive elections that all will judge legitimate," she said.
"We look forward to working with whomever the Afghan people select as their leaders for the next five years," she added.
President Hamid Karzai, who has ruled Afghanistan since the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime in 2001, is the frontrunner but a strong campaign by former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah could force a run-off.
Obama has adopted a cooler approach to Karzai compared to his predecessor George W. Bush, who heaped praise on the Afghan leader and frequently spoke to him by video link.
Obama administration officials have been critical of corruption plaguing the Kabul government and alarmed by Karzai's alliance with a notorious warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum.
If Karzai wins, analysts say Washington will likely take a tougher line and demand Kabul do more to fight corruption in return for generous aid.
The elections have been overshadowed by threats from the insurgents, who have warned that Afghans who take part will face reprisals.
Kabul and the NATO-led coalition were planning elaborate security measures amid concern that poor turnout, due to fears of violence, could jeopardise the legitimacy of the elections.

Traffic police establish polio points in Peshawar

PESHAWAR: National Programme Manager of Expanded Programme for Immunisation (EPI) Dr Altaf Bosan has said that cooperation of traffic police in polio vaccination drive is a unique initiative, which will help in eradication of the disease.

Dr Bosan expressed these views while inaugurating the polio points established by the Peshawar Traffic Police in a ceremony held at the Police Lines. Constables of traffic police will administer polio drops to children at these points. He said the NWFP and Fata were high-risk zones for polio infections because of the law and order and inaccessibility to the deserving and needy children.

The polio points administering vaccines to the children at various entry and exit points of the city would help immunise the children of the far-flung and remote areas of NWFP, he added. Dr Bosan reaffirmed the resolve and commitment of EPI to eradicate polio saying that it is the right of every child to get immunised and be protected against the crippling disease. He said due to concerted and well-coordinated efforts of EPI, zero cases of polio had been reported so far in Peshawar district this year.

Dr Abdul Jabbar of the World Health Organisation said that during 2009, only 16 cases of polio had been reported in NWFP and Fata of which 9 cases had been in unreachable areas of Bajaur Agency.

Feroz Shah, DIG traffic police, assured full cooperation and support for the polio drive. He also announced prizes worth Rs25,000, Rs15,000 and Rs10,000 for the best police teams in the immunization drive.

Unregistered IDPs suffering at Jalala

MARDAN: A penny-less family spent a rainy night in the open at Jalala camp near Takhtbhai town as it had sold its tent to buy food a day earlier.

Bakht Shahzada, whose name means ‘the prince of luck’ even though he is a pauper, told ‘The News’ that he was displaced from Khwazakhela, Swat along with his family and initially settled in Kund Park, Nowshera with other internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Recently, he and his family including children moved to Jalala camp where he was denied registration on the grounds that he had come from another camp.

Being unregistered at the Jalala camp meant that he was not entitled to provision of free food and other essentials. “Having no money and being on the verge of starvation, we had no option but to sell the tent in which we had been living,” Bakht Shahzada argued.

The family was staying in the open when rain started on Sunday. The family remained soaked for several hours after some kind-hearted IDPs shifted the family to a tent, made for them temporarily. Due to exposure to rain during the night, the family members were suffering from fever.

Bakht Shahzada is now trying to procure a tent where he could lodge his shelter less family, however, he isn’t the only one at the camp with a tale of misery. There were two women, who wailed and wept while narrating how all the male members in their family were killed when their house was shelled by a military helicopter.

“We were denied permission to depart for our homes in Swat because we were brought to Jalala from other small camps and were yet to be registered,” one of the women complained. It was painful to find out at the Jalala camp that a large number of displaced families, who could not be registered due to one reason or the other, were neither given food nor cash assistance to buy essentials.

Hasan, a student from the US, while visiting the camp, was shocked to see the miseries of the IDPs and hear their tales of sorrow. “I didn’t realise the situation for these IDPs until I came to this camp,” he remarked.

The Jalala camp, which is quite big, has received 421 displaced families from the Yar Hussain camp, 128 from Kund Park, 89 from Shah Mansur, 21 from Sheikh Yasin, 10 from Sheikh Shahzad, 10 from Mazdurabad and 18 families from Aman camp No 1 and 2, Swabi. These families haven’t been registered yet. Until they are registered, they cannot get the compensation amount Rs25,000 or become eligible to return to their homes in Swat.

Now brutal warlord holds key to Afghan poll
As campaigning ended yesterday for elections that could determine both the future of Afghanistan and the role of British troops there, the outcome threatened to hang on the impact of renewed Taliban intimidation and the return to the fray of a former warlord, notorious for savage acts of brutality and violence.

The Taliban warned that anyone whose fingers were stained with indelible ink, the tell-tale sign of having voted, risked having their digits chopped off. Hundreds of letters have also been sent out in the old Taliban capital Kandahar, warning people to stay away from the polling stations or face a wave of suicide attacks and "new" unspecified tactics.

But on the side of President Hamid Karzai, the pro-Western incumbent, there are equally worrying signs. The return of General Rashid Dostum, a politically treacherous ex-warlord, has heightened fears of yet another vicious cycle of bloodshed and lawlessness. Forced to flee Afghanistan last year after claims that he brutalised a political rival, General Dostum is – to the horror of Western diplomats – now emerging as a key player who could be instrumental in delivering an election victory for the President.
Best known for allegedly overseeing a massacre of 2,000 Taliban prisoners following the US-led invasion in 2001, General Dostum controlled large swaths of northern Afghanistan for years. He remains the de facto leader of the country's ethnic Uzbeks and his return is likely to consolidate their vote behind Mr Karzai. But the warlord's triumphant return from Turkey on Sunday has exposed Mr Karzai to renewed accusations that even if he wins the election he will remain in hock to thugs and human rights abusers.

At least 204 British troops have died trying to defend Afghanistan's government from the threat of the Taliban, but Western diplomats fear the patchwork of alleged war criminals in a future administration will make it nigh on impossible for Nato troops to garner support for the Kabul government.

President Karzai, who has made a series of backroom deals with unsavoury mujahedin leaders to secure the votes they control, gave General Dostum carte blanche to return last week, in exchange for his support. General Dostum is said to have once strapped a soldier accused of theft to the tracks of a tank and driven him around until the man's body was reduced to shreds.

The US embassy issued a statement expressing "serious concerns" about General Dostum's role in today's Afghanistan. President Barack Obama last month warned that the US may investigate the massacre of the Taliban prisoners, locked in sea containers and baked in the desert, in the wake of the US-led invasion in 2001 which is blamed on the warlord.

Opinion polls are still putting President Karzai in front with around 45 per cent of the vote, but unless he wins 51 per cent in the first round, there will be a run-off with his closest challenger, likely to be his former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. Mr Karzai's chief critic over human rights abuses is the third-placed candidate, Ramazan Bashar Dost. The French-educated philosopher said: "It is time for the international community to see that it is not acceptable that war criminals stay in power."

Voter turnout in the Pashtun south and east of the country will be critical in deciding the outcome of Thursday's poll. In 2004, President Karzai swept to power with 80 per cent of the Pashtun vote. In places like Helmand and Kandahar, he claimed up to 90 per cent. But it is here, where the Taliban now hold sway, that the new threats of intimidation might be most effective.

And even among those who do turn out to vote, Mr Karzai is unlikely to enjoy such strong support now. "In the rural areas people won't be able to vote at all," said Naqib, a 26-year-old working for a Western company in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. "In Lashkar Gah it's safer. Most people will vote for Karzai."

Even Kabul is not immune from Taliban violence. On Saturday a suicide bomber killed seven people and injured more than 90, outside Nato's headquarters in the city.

The question of how long British troops will have to remain in Afghanistan remains contentious meanwhile, after the next head of the Army, General Sir David Richards denied yesterday that there was a split with Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth. General Richards stressed that when he had stated that the UK may be involved in Afghanistan for up to 40 years he was talking about the time international help was needed, and not the duration of British military presence.

But last night the current head of the Army demanded more equipment to tackle the home-made bombs which have proved deadly in Afghanistan. General Sir Richard Dannatt said countering improvised explosive devices was a "major tactical battle that we have got to win" and called for increased levels of surveillance to locate the bombs and the insurgents laying them. He added that any increase in the amount of troops would have to be matched by more kit to ensure they are appropriately equipped.

Ninety-four members of the British forces were wounded in action in Afghanistan last month – just over double the number of casualties in June.

Mr Karzai's main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, enjoys strong support in the north, where security is better and voter turnout is likely to be much higher. Low turnout in the south could help him to victory, or force Mr Karzai into a second-round run-off, if he fails to get the crucial 51 per cent.

The President's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, announced last week that he had brokered a series of local ceasefires across the south to let people vote.

victory over insurgents in Afghanistan would not be "quick" nor "easy".

PHOENIX :US President Barack Obama warned Monday that victory over insurgents in Afghanistan would not be "quick" nor "easy".

"The insurgency in Afghanistan didn't just happen overnight," Obama told the Veterans of Foreign Wars service organization in the South-western state of Arizona, ahead of Afghanistan's presidential election August 20.

"We won't defeat it overnight. This will not be quick, nor easy," Obama said, as he explained his new strategy of intensifying the fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan now taking effect.

The president defended the war as a necessary conflict, which was "fundamental" to the defense of American people in depriving Al-Qaeda of a safe-haven to plot follow on attacks to the September 11 strikes in 2001.

Obama noted an upsurge in "fierce" fighting in Afghanistan, but vowed to constantly adapt US tactics and offer the troops the tools and equipment, they need.

Obama has already ordered an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan ahead of Thursday's elections, in line with his strategy of turning the US focus from Iraq to a conflict, he says poses a greater security threat.

Afghan women to miss out on vote in landmark election

AFGHANISTAN - Millions of Afghan women will be denied their chance to vote in presidential elections this week because there are not enough female officials to staff the women-only polling stations.

A desperate shortage of female staff is threatening to undermine the legitimacy of the elections, which are the pinnacle of western-led efforts to build a peaceful democracy.

Strict cultural norms mean women cannot vote in male-run stations.

Women's activists say the Independent Election Commission (IEC) needs to recruit 13,000 more women before Thursday's elections.

The IEC refused to comment on recruitment figures, but papers leaked to The Independent suggest the shortfall is much worse, at more than 42,000.

Without female staff to operate the strictly segregated stations, and more importantly, without female searchers to frisk women voters as they arrive at those stations, conservative men across the country will ban their wives and daughters from taking part.

"If half of the population can't participate, the election is illegitimate," said Orzala Ashref, a director of the Afghan Women's Network. "Without women's votes, without women's participation, of course the election is not going to be valid."

"You need female staff," said leading women's rights activist Wazhma Frogh. "Otherwise women won't dare go out. Their families won't let them."

The problem is most acute in the south east, where there are just 2,564 women on the IEC books, less than 20 percent of the 13,400 target. In the south, they have less than half the 10,428 women required.

The IEC launched an emergency appeal through women's rights organisations last week to try to fill the staffing gap.

But in a sign of growing desperation, officials have suggested hiring old men and boys in their place.

"We are totally against this," Ms Ashref said. "The men will tell women, 'If you go and vote it will be men who search you'. Would women from the UK feel comfortable being searched by a man? It's even more sensitive here. They won't let them go."

At Nad-e-Ali in Helmand, an area recently under Taliban control, a lack of policewomen had meant that required searches of female voters cannot be carried out. Local elders have rejected suggestions that female British troops should carry out the task.

Many men in this deeply conservative area are adamant that they will not let women from their families vote in mixed stations. Niamtullah Khan, a 57 year old farmer, said, "we are very concerned about this. Most of my neighbours are against letting women go to these places where anything can happen. I, and a few others, think we should look ahead and have change, but I would not approve of my wife, sister, or daughter going into buildings with a lot of unknown men."

The lack of female staff has fuelled fears of proxy voting, where men vote for their entire families. Concerns were first raised in December when The Independent revealed "phantom" women voters were outnumbering men in the registration process.

New figures seen by The Independent show women registrants outnumbered men in five provinces, including Logar, Paktia and Khowst. "What's most alarming is that those places where the female recruitment has been most difficult are the same places where there was over-registration of women," said a senior Western diplomat.

Women's registration cards are especially prone to fraud because unlike the men's, they don't include a passport picture of the owner. Photographs of bare faced women are deemed culturally unacceptable.

Car bomb blast kills six in Charsadda

PESHAWAR: A bomb planted in a car exploded at a petrol station in northwest Pakistan on Monday, killing six people including children in an attack claimed by Taliban militants, police officials said.

The blast hit on the outskirts of Charsadda town, about 30 kilometres northeast of Peshawar, the capital of the troubled North West Frontier Province which has seen a wave of suicide bombings and attacks this year.

‘Six people were killed and eight injured in the explosion. It was a passenger vehicle...the bomb was planted in a pick-up truck,’ district police chief Mohammad Riaz Khan told AFP.

He said that two women, two children and two men -- who were sitting in the rigged vehicle when it blew up -- were killed.

Safwat Ghyur, another senior police official from Peshawar, told reporters however that three children, two women and the male driver were killed.

Hospital officials put the injured toll at 10.

‘It was a timed device. Somebody gave baggage to a passenger and the device was hidden in that baggage,’ Ghyur said in remarks broadcast on local TV.

Eyewitness Ali Rehman told AFP by telephone from the scene that he had been travelling in the doomed vehicle along with about 19 other people, but had stepped away for a drink.

‘I was sitting in the open portion of the vehicle when it stopped for refuelling. I went to drink a glass of water, and then there was a huge blast. I fell on the ground,’ he said.

‘I see blood and body parts everywhere. Pieces of flesh are scattered on the ground,’ he added.

Charsadda district borders the tribal region of Mohmand, where the government has tenuous control and Taliban militants are active.

The vehicle was headed to Mohmand when it blew up, and surviving passengers said they were from the district's Ambar village, where local tribesmen had raised a militia to fight against extremists.

A Taliban commander in Mohmand called an AFP reporter in Peshawar and claimed responsibility for the bombing.

‘Our target was the lashkar (militia) people. The people sitting in the vehicle were from Ambar. These people attacked Taliban,’ said Qari Shakeel from an undisclosed location.

Police would not immediately comment on the motives for the blast.

Pakistan's military launched a series of offensives against Taliban militants in the northwest in late April prompting a string of revenge attacks, but there had been a lull in deadly bombings in the past month.

More than 2,000 people have died in Taliban-linked bombings in Pakistan since July 2007, including at least nine who were killed in a devastating attack on Peshawar's five-star Pearl Continental hotel in early June.