Saturday, August 22, 2009

Marines Fight With Little Aid From Afghans

KHAN NESHIN, Afghanistan — American Marines secured this desolate village in southern Afghanistan nearly two months ago, and last week they were fortifying bases, on duty at checkpoints and patrolling in full body armor in 120-degree heat. Despite those efforts, only a few hundred Afghans were persuaded to come out here and vote for president on Thursday.In a region the Taliban have lorded over for six years, and where they remain a menacing presence, American officers say their troops alone are not enough to reassure Afghans. Something is missing that has left even the recently appointed district governor feeling dismayed. “I don’t get any support from the government,” said the governor, Massoud Ahmad Rassouli Balouch.Governor Massoud has no body of advisers to help run the area, no doctors to provide health care, no teachers, no professionals to do much of anything. About all he says he does have are police officers who steal and a small group of Afghan soldiers who say they are here for “vacation.”It all raises serious questions about what the American mission is in southern Afghanistan — to secure the area, or to administer it — and about how long Afghans will tolerate foreign troops if they do not begin to see real benefits from their own government soon. American commanders say there is a narrow window to win over local people from the guerrillas.Securing the region is overwhelming enough. The Marines have just enough forces to clear out small pockets like Khan Neshin. And despite the Americans’ presence, Afghan officials said 290 people voted here last week at what is the only polling place in a region the size of Connecticut. Some officers were stunned even that many voted, given the reports of widespread fraud and intimidation.Even with the new operation in Helmand Province, which involves the Marines here and more than 3,000 others as part of President Obama’s troop deployments, the military lacks the troop strength even to try to secure some significant population centers and guerrilla strongholds in central and southern Helmand.And they do not have nearly enough forces to provide the kinds of services throughout the region that would make a meaningful difference in Afghans’ lives, which, in any case, is a job American commanders would rather leave for the Afghan government.Meanwhile, Afghans in Khan Neshin, the Marines’ southernmost outpost in Helmand Province, are coming to the Americans with requests for medical care, repairs of clogged irrigation canals and the reopening of schools.“Without the Afghan government, we will not be successful,” said Capt. Korvin Kraics, the battalion’s lawyer, who is in Khan Neshin. “You need local-level bureaucracy to defeat the insurgency. Without the stability that brings, the Taliban can continue to maintain control.”Local administration is a problem throughout Afghanistan, and many rural areas suffer from corrupt local officials — if they have officials at all. But southern Helmand has long been one of the most ungovernable regions, a vast, inhospitable desert dominated by opium traffickers and the Taliban.It not clear what promises of support from the Afghan government the Americans had, or whether they undertook the mission knowing that the backing necessary to complete it, at least in southern Helmand, might not arrive soon — if at all. The Americans in Khan Neshin doubt that the Afghan government promised much of anything.Governor Massoud said he personally admired the Marines here, from the Second Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, but he said many people “just don’t want them here.”He estimated that two of every three local residents supported the Taliban, mostly because they make a living growing poppy for the drug trade, which the Taliban control. Others support them for religious reasons or because they object to foreign forces.Not least, people understand that the Taliban have not disappeared, but simply fallen back to Garmsir, 40 miles north, and will almost surely try to return.Lt. Col. Tim Grattan, the battalion commander, said the local residents’ ambivalence reflected fears of what could happen to anyone who sided with the Marines, an apprehension stoked by past operations that sent troops in only for short periods.“They are on the fence,” Colonel Grattan said. “They want to go with a winner. They want to see if we stay around and will be able to protect them from the Taliban and any repercussions.”As for follow-up assistance, Colonel Grattan said the Afghan national government “has been ineffective to date.”The shortfall in Afghan government support is important not only in terms of defining the Marines’ mission here, but also because it crimps their operations. The Marines, unlike units in some other regions, answer to a NATO-led command and are under orders to defer to Afghan military and civilian officials, even if there are none nearby.For instance, Marines must release detainees after 96 hours or turn them over to Afghan forces for prosecution, even if the nearest prosecutors or judges are 80 miles away. Some detainees who the Marines say are plainly implicated in attacks using improvised explosive devices or mortars have been released.The problems are compounded by a shortage of American troops, despite the recent reinforcements. The Marine battalion, which deployed with less than 40 percent of its troops, can regularly patrol only a small portion of its 6,000-square-mile area.To do even that they have stretched: three-fifths of the Marines are stationed at checkpoints and a handful of austere outposts ringing Khan Neshin, living without air-conditioning or refrigerated water.That leaves no regular troop presence across the vast southernmost reaches of Helmand. On the Pakistani border the town of Baramcha — a major smuggling hub and Taliban stronghold — remains untouched by regular military units. American and Afghan officials say Baramcha’s influence radiates through southern Helmand, undermining Marine and British military units elsewhere. “It’s the worst place in Afghanistan,” Governor Massoud said.If the Afghan national government can provide more resources and security forces — and the Marines add more men — then the United States may be able to leave in two to three years, Colonel Grattan said.Without that, he said, it could take much longer. For now, little help is materializing.Frustrated, Governor Massoud said his “government is weak and cannot provide agricultural officials, school officials, prosecutors and judges.”He said he was promised 120 police officers, but only 50 showed up. He said many were untrustworthy and poorly trained men who stole from the people, a description many of the Americans agree with. No more than 10 percent appear to have attended a police academy, they say. “Many are just men from the streets,” the governor said.The Afghan National Army contingent appears sharper — even if only one-sixth the size that Governor Massoud said he was promised — but the soldiers have resisted some missions because they say they were sent not to fight, but to recuperate.“We came here to rest, then we are going somewhere else,” said Lt. Javed Jabar Khail, commander of the 31-man unit. The Marines say they hope the next batch of Afghan soldiers will not be expecting a holiday.In the meantime, at the local bazaar, just outside the Marines’ base, the foreign troop presence remains a hard sell.When one man, Abdul Hanan, complained that “more people are dying,” First Lt. Jake Weldon told him that the Taliban “take away your schools, they take away your hospitals; we bring those things.”Mr. Hanan remained doubtful. Some people have fled the area, fearful of violence since the Marines have arrived. He asked, “So you want to build us a hospital or school, but if nobody is here, what do we do?”

Politicians, relatives own 50pc of country’s sugar factories

ISLAMABAD - It is ironic that people are expecting the ongoing sugar crisis to be resolved by the politicians who themselves are said to be the beneficiaries of this situation since many of them own more than 50 per cent sugar mills of the country.
TheNation has reliably learnt that there were a total of 78 sugar mills in the country and the political leaders or their relatives or partners owned more than 50 per cent of these sugar mills.
“Would the politicians give favour to the masses on the cost of their profits?” is a question being frequently asked by different quarters.
The mills said to be owned by President Asif Ali Zardari’s family and PPP leaders are Ansari Sugar Mills, Mirza Sugar Mills, Pangrio Sugar Mills, Sakrand Sugar Mills and Kiran Sugar Mills. Ashraf Sugar mills is owned by PPP leader and incumbent ZTBL President Ch Zaka Ashraf.
The mills owned by Nawaz family and relatives are Abdullah Sugar Mills, Brother Sugar Mills, Channar Sugar Mills, Chaudhry Sugar Mills, Haseeb Waqas Sugar Mills, Ittefaq Sugar Mills, Kashmir Sugar Mills, Ramzan Sugar Mills and Yousaf Sugar Mills.
Kamalia Sugar Mills and Layyah Sugar Mills are also owned by PML-N leaders. Former minister Abbas Sarfaraz is the owner of five out of six sugar mills in the NWFP. Nasrullah Khan Dareshak owns Indus Sugar Mills while Jahangir Khan Tareen has two sugar mills; JDW Sugar Mills and United Sugar Mills. PML-Q leader Anwar Cheema owns National Sugar Mills while Chaudhrys family is or was the owner of Pahrianwali Sugar Mills as it is being heard that they have sold the said mills. Senator Haroon Akhtar Khan owns Tandianwala Sugar Mills while Pattoki Sugar Mills is owned by Mian Mohammad Azhar, former Governor Punjab.
PML-F leader Makhdoom Ahmad Mehmood owns Jamaldin Wali Sugar Mills. Ch Muneer owns two mills in Rahimyar Khan district and Ch Pervaiz Elahi and former Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Khusro Bakhtiar have shares in these mills.
The sources said it would be unwise to expect a right decision from these politicians cum mills owners with regard to slashing of sugar prices in the market.
“When the government says that it will catch the culprits and provide sugar to the masses on affordable rates, it is like throwing dust in the eyes of masses”, the sources further said.
Many among the bureaucrats believe that Mian Shahbaz Sharif is a good leader but if he wanted to maintain his reputation, he should sell out his sugar mills. An official said, “One’s personal business always leaves impact on one’s decisions”.
“After all who were the ultimate beneficiaries of the meetings held between sugar mills owners and the government?” they asked. “The answer to the question is the sugar mills mafia,” they observed. The sources said that in the end the millers got what they wanted and now they were authorized to sell sugar at more than Rs 55 per kilogram and that is the price prevailing in the international market.

Afghan candidates told to temper statements

Los Angeles Times
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Election officials and Western diplomats yesterday warned candidates against making premature claims of victory after aides to President Hamid Karzai said it appeared that he had won Thursday's election.

Mr. Karzai's chief rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, meanwhile, declared that if the president had received more than 50 percent of the vote -- which he would need to avoid a runoff -- it would be a signal that Mr. Karzai's supporters had committed massive fraud.

Many Western observers are concerned that the competing claims of the Karzai and Abdullah campaigns could set the stage for clashes between their backers and usher in a period of tension and instability while an official count is compiled. A final tally is not scheduled to be disclosed until early September. A partial preliminary count was initially due today, but now is not expected until Tuesday.

Afghans defied weeks of Taliban threats and a rash of pre-election violence, coming out by the millions to vote Thursday. But election officials acknowledged that turnout was lower than hoped, perhaps under 50 percent. That is well below the 70 percent turnout in Afghanistan's first direct presidential election, in 2004.

The United States and its NATO allies are heavily invested in a credible outcome to this vote. The election was a centerpiece of the Obama administration's war strategy, based on the notion that the Afghan government must be viewed by its own people as legitimate in order to make any headway against a burgeoning insurgency.

The process is slow. Ballots have begun arriving in the capital from some 6,500 polling stations -- reversing a sometimes-arduous journey before the election, when helicopters and donkeys had to be used to deliver election materials to some remote areas.

A spokesman for Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, Noor Mohammed Noor, stressed that individual candidates had no basis for declaring themselves the winner pending the official results. "Nobody should make such a claim," he said.

A clouded aftermath to the vote raises the specter of ethnic strife, long a feature of the Afghan political landscape. Mr. Karzai's Pashtun ethnic group is the country's largest and his main base of support. But the Pashtun belt lies largely in the south and east, where violence and threats depressed the voter turnout. Mr. Abdullah is politically identified with the Tajiks, the dominant group in the north of Afghanistan. Conditions in that part of the country are more peaceful, and turnout was higher as a result, giving Mr. Abdullah an edge.

The Obama administration did not lend its support to any one candidate, and special regional envoy Richard Holbrooke, who visited polling places on election day, said the U.S. administration would take "an agnostic position" on any claims of victory until the final results are in.

"We always knew it would be a disputed election," said Mr. Holbrooke, who was briefed yesterday by election observers. "I would not be surprised if you see candidates claiming victory and fraud in the next few days. For the United States and the international community, we're going to respect the process."

Two other Western diplomats said their governments had made concerns known after Mr. Karzai's campaign spokesman, Seddiq Seddiqi, was quoted as saying it appeared the Afghan leader had garnered more than 50 percent of the vote. A similar admonition against declaring victory was delivered to the Abdullah campaign, they said.

Foreign observer groups have lauded Afghans for braving danger in order to vote and have expressed relief that the vote passed without any large-scale attacks by insurgents. But they also have described the vote as flawed by the low turnout, especially among women, and by irregularities such as the sale of false registration cards.

The campaign season and the election coincided with some of the most intense fighting of the 8-year-old conflict between Western troops and the Taliban. Military officials disclosed the deaths of three Western troops: two British soldiers killed in the south and an American who died of wounds suffered a day earlier in eastern Afghanistan.

Obama again tackles "myths" on healthcare reform

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama hammered away at "outrageous myths" about his healthcare reform plans on Saturday, seeking again to take control of a debate that has tarnished support for his top domestic policy goal.Obama has tried for weeks to clamp down on criticism and misinformation about his healthcare plans and used his weekly radio and Internet address to address them."Today, I want to spend a few minutes debunking some of the more outrageous myths circulating on the Internet, on cable TV, and repeated at some town halls across this country," he said in the address."Let's start with the false claim that illegal immigrants will get health insurance under reform. That's not true."That idea has never even been on the table. Some are also saying that coverage for abortions would be mandated under reform. Also false."Obama expressed outrage about persistent rumors that government-run "death panels" would have a say in whether ailing senior citizens would receive life-saving care or not."As every credible person who has looked into it has said, there are no so-called 'death panels' -- an offensive notion to me and to the American people," he said. "These are phony claims meant to divide us."Obama also urged people not to get distracted by his desire to create a government-sponsored health insurance provider to compete with private companies."Let me repeat -- it would be just an option; those who prefer their private insurer would be under no obligation to shift to a public plan," he said."This one aspect of the healthcare debate shouldn't overshadow the other important steps we can and must take to reduce the increasing burdens families and businesses face."Republicans charge that Obama's plans are too expensive in the face of skyrocketing budget deficits.

Afghan Election Poses New Tests for Washington
KABUL, Afghanistan — Obama administration officials hoped the Afghan election would demonstrate that eight years after the American invasion, the country was stable enough to justify an expanded commitment of money and troops from an increasingly skeptical American public.

Instead, the election did more to underscore the challenges Afghanistan faces, particularly if the election goes to a runoff, as seems increasingly likely, between President Hamid Karzai and his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.

Both men claimed to be winning as ballots were counted Friday, though officials said preliminary results would not be announced until Tuesday, and final results at least two weeks later.

In the meantime, complaints of fraud and specific episodes of ballot stuffing mounted, and they may assume increasing importance.

Western officials here expressed relief that many Afghans defied Taliban threats of reprisals and came out to vote. But they were clearly concerned on Friday that a second round of voting could extend the paralysis of a government that already barely functions and deepen ethnic tensions, in the worst case, to the point of a north-south civil war.

In addition, a runoff would leave up in the air many of the Obama administration’s Afghanistan policy initiatives — like fighting corruption and improving distribution of aid — for at least another two months, American officials said.

The new uncertainties come on top of the stiff military challenges facing the Obama administration as it sends thousands more troops to southern Afghanistan, where Taliban attacks and very low turnout on election day made clear the insurgents’ influence.

The southern province of Kandahar alone was hit by 122 Taliban rockets on election day, mainly aimed at the towns, according to one Western official. In a broad southern region — provinces like Kandahar, Helmand, Oruzgan and Zabul — turnout was as low as 5 percent to 10 percent, the official said, effectively disenfranchising the region viewed as the most crucial in the American-led military campaign.

Privately, American officials set out a number of possible ways that the election aftermath could affect their operations. During a meeting on Thursday, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO combat operations here, discussed how the military would have to adapt to each.

Particularly worrisome was the specter of a divisive ethnic presidential runoff between Mr. Karzai, whose power base is in the Pashtun south, and Mr. Abdullah, whose main support resides in the Tajik and Uzbek north, officials said.

Mr. Karzai himself has in the past raised the specter of ethnic violence, telling officials that if there was a runoff it could lead to a civil war, Western officials said.

“Ethnic violence is always a factor in this country,” one senior administration official said. “But,” she added, “it is not inevitable.”

“Everybody is jumping on that bandwagon looking at a Tajik leader and a Pashtun leader,” she said, referring to Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Karzai. “But this country has been through civil war, and at a time when it seemed that somebody in one of the campaigns had suggested there would be ethnic violence, it was Afghans who were the first out there saying, ‘We’re not going back to the 1990s.’ “

For all of their worry about the problems that a runoff could bring, administration officials have also made clear they are not enamored of the Karzai government, and the president’s re-election would not be risk-free, either.

Mr. Obama, during his first news conference as president, criticized the Karzai government as “detached.” And administration officials have complained of Mr. Karzai’s failure to crack down on corruption and the drug trafficking fueling the insurgency. Western officials have also criticized Mr. Karzai’s alliances with unsavory figures to try to secure re-election.

Should Mr. Karzai win, either outright or in a second round, Obama administration officials could find themselves with a president who has engaged in so much deal-making that he may well be even more beholden to warlords than before.

With potential shoals in just about every direction, American officials were taking pains to present a neutral public front.

“Our only interest was the result, fairly, accurately reflecting the will of the Afghan people,” Mr. Obama told reporters at the White House.

Richard C. Holbrooke, Mr. Obama’s special envoy to the region, who was in Kabul, described the administration as “agnostic,” although American officials took issue with statements Friday from Mr. Karzai’s camp that the president had won the vote already.

“We’ve seen these reports,” Mr. Holbrooke said. He added that only the Afghan election commission was is in a position to announce official results.

But he was braced for tensions. “We always knew it would be a disputed election,” he said. “I would not be surprised if you see candidates claiming victory and fraud in the next few days. For the United States and the international community, we’re going to respect the process.”

Mr. Holbrooke met privately on Friday with the leading candidates, he said: “We’re in a period where the outcome is unclear so everyone is kind of upbeat and spinning positively. Everyone said that they would respect the process. This is not dissimilar to an American election. I keep comparing it to Minnesota, because when an outcome is uncertain, people have different views of it. We don’t have a candidate and we don’t have a favorite outcome.”

Western diplomats said that if there was a runoff, it would be widely seen as a blow to Mr. Karzai and a boost for Mr. Abdullah. The election had more than 30 candidates, and the presumption was that many of those who did not vote for Mr. Karzai could now coalesce around Mr. Abdullah.

Mr. Abdullah’s campaign team said it had made official complaints about fraud in six provinces.

Election observers were varied in their early opinions, with some saying the low turnout was an indication of just how bad the situation is in southern Afghanistan, and others saying that just holding an election was a success.

“This was one of the most violent days witnessed in Afghanistan in the last eight years,” Rachel Reid, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan, said in a statement sent by e-mail.

But Western and Afghan officials avoided such bleak assessments, emphasizing the Taliban’s failure to thwart the vote, the first democratic elections ever staged by the government of Afghanistan. (Previous elections since 2001 were managed by the United Nations.)

“Before 2001, Afghan leaders were shooting each other out in the countryside and shouting at each other over the radio,” said Barnett Rubin, a senior adviser to Mr. Holbrooke. “Now they’re in Kabul, sometimes shouting at each other around the table, but working together to solve problems, and nobody wants to go back to the past.”

Air Arabia Sharjah-Peshawar flights to be diverted to Islamabad airport

As per the request of the Civil Aviation Authority of Pakistan and due to security reasons, Air Arabia stated today that its flights to Peshawar Airport will be diverted to Islamabad airport beginning August 23, 2009. Air Arabia regrets any inconvenience caused to its passengers and assures them that their safety and comfort remain the company’s highest priority.