Sunday, September 13, 2009

Barack Obama: cynical Republicans trying to kill health care reform

Mr Obama told CBS's 60 Minutes programme on Sunday that regardless of their efforts he had enough support to pass a far-reaching overhaul of a system that was leaking money like a sieve and leaves tens of millions Americans uninsured.
"I think right now you've got just a political environment where there are those in the Republican party who think the best thing to do is just to kill reform, that that will be good politics," he said.
"I believe that we will have enough votes to pass not just any health care bill, but a good health care bill that helps the American people, reduces costs, actually over the long-term controls our [budget] deficit."
Republicans say they oppose Mr Obama's reforms because they come with a hefty price tag of $900 billion and accuse Democrats of seeking a government takeover of health care.
But Mr Obama said, for many, the real agenda is simply to politically cripple his presidency by shooting down the reforms as they did the last time a young Democrat arrived in the White House with similar ideas - Bill Clinton.
"I think there're some who see this as a replay of 1993-94," he said.
"You know, young president comes in, proposes health care. It crashes and burns and then the Republicans use that to win back the House [of Representatives] in the subsequent election ... I think there are some people who are dusting off that play book."
Mr Obama reiterated a pledge to take full responsibility for the failure if his reforms do not put the brakes on the soaring costs of health insurance in America.
"You know, I intend to be president for a while and once this bill passes, I own it," he said.
"And if people look and say, 'You know what? This hasn't reduced my costs. My premiums are still going up 25 percent, insurance companies are still jerkin' me around,' I'm the one who's going to be held responsible."

US could shift Afghanistan focus towards eastern provinces
The primary focus of the US war strategy in Afghanistan could shift towards the eastern provinces bordering Pakistan and away from the south of the country, where British forces are heavily engaged, under a plan being finalised by commanders.

Senior military officials are said to believe the Afghan Taliban's ability to find sanctuary and support across the porous border with Pakistan ‑ plus the suspected presence in the lawless tribal Waziristan area of al-Qaida leaders including Osama bin Laden ‑ has made a bigger effort in the east essential if the insurgency is to be defeated.

Any move by General Stanley McChrystal, the US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, to concentrate firepower and resources away from Helmand, in the south, could be resisted by British commanders leading an increasingly lethal struggle with insurgents there.

Additional US military pressure along the eastern border would also cause concern in Pakistan, where US aerial drone attacks on al-Qaida and Taliban targets in Waziristan and the Pakistani army's US-driven spring offensive against Pakistani Taliban in Swat are blamed for growing instability.

Asked whether Pakistan was being urged by Washington to launch more Swat-style offensives on its side of the border, a senior Pakistani official insisted Islamabad, not the Americans, would decide.

"Waziristan is sovereign Pakistani territory," the official said. "We will decide what happens there, and when it happens."

Fighting along the Pakistani side of the border appears to be spreading.

Reports today said Pakistani helicopter gunships had killed 22 militants and destroyed three hideouts in attacks in the Khyber region, which abuts Peshawar. Around 150 insurgents are thought to have died in the area over recent weeks.

US officials, speaking during a recent visit by Barack Obama's special representative in the region, Richard Holbrooke, said particular attention should be paid to Jalaluddin Haqqani and other insurgent leaders in eastern Afghanistan's mountains.

According to an account in the Washington Post, Major General Curtis Scaparrotti, US commander of forces in the east, said Haqqani "is the central threat" in the area and "he's expanded that reach".

Other commanders said Haqqani ‑ whose forces were formerly most active in Afghanistan's Khost province ‑ had been advancing as far south as Paktia and Paktika provinces.

This month, McChrystal presented the broad outline of his Afghanistan strategic review to Obama, placing greater importance on the need to protect Afghan civilians and increase security as a means of encouraging political and economic development.

But the specifics of the new strategy, including the location and number of expected additional troops deployments, are still being debated.

McChrystal, who took charge in June, is said to have questioned whether the fight in the south is as crucial to defeating the insurgency as the British government has always maintained.

Reports from Washington indicate that he could ask for up to 45,000 additional troops, which would take the number of US forces well above 100,000.

US forces in the east currently total around 7,000 after McChrystal's predecessor, General David McKiernan, doubled their number. Some of the 21,000 extra troops sent to Afghanistan by Obama earlier this year also reinforced the British in the south.

The new strategy faces problems at home as well as in Afghanistan. Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat speaker of the US House of Representatives and a key Obama ally, said at the weekend that she saw little support in Congress or the country for an escalation in Afghanistan.

Holbrooke, whose remit includes both Afghanistan and Pakistan, has dealt with the two countries as one connected problem since taking up his post earlier this year, to the annoyance of officials in Islamabad. He has also clashed with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, over the conduct of last month's still undecided presidential election.

In a move linked to the new US emphasis on winning over the Afghan population, the Obama administration will issue guidelines intended to give prisoners at the US-run Bagram detention centre greater latitude in challenging their detention, the New York Times reported today.

The newspaper said each of the approximately 600 detainees would be assigned a US military official who would have the authority to look for evidence, including witnesses and classified material, for any detainee challenging his detention. A military-appointed review board would hear the challenges.

Bagram detainees ‑ some of whom have been held for more than five years ‑ currently have no access to lawyers or the right to hear the accusations against them.

Opposition leader Abdullah calls for criminal inquiry into vote rigging
Afghanistan’s opposition leader has called for a criminal investigation into allegations of massive vote rigging in last month’s elections — and accused his rival, President Hamid Karzai, of treason in an exclusive interview with The Times.

Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s former foreign minister, charged Mr Karzai with “state-engineered fraud” in the August 20 polls. “It’s worse than a crime, it’s treason,” he said, adding that Mr Karzai “doesn’t think about the country, he thinks only of himself. He has been caught red-handed.”

Mr Abdullah is trailing Mr Karzai in partial results published by the Independent Elections Commission (IEC), an organisation that he claims is under the control of the President’s supporters. A UN-backed elections watchdog ordered the IEC to begin a massive recount of votes last week, saying that it had unearthed “clear and convincing evidence of fraud”.

Although Mr Karzai narrowly passed the 50 per cent threshold that would allow him to avoid a run-off, the recount could push his support back below that level, meaning that the country might have to vote for a second time.

The IEC has given warning that the process could take months, by which time Afghanistan’s harsh winter will have set in, possibly precluding another vote until the spring. The process could leave the country rudderless for months at a time when the Taleban is re-emerging as a dangerous force. Both sides have rejected international calls for a unity government.

“What’s at stake is Afghanistan, the future of this country,” said Mr Abdullah. “The country will die because of this sort of thing. Fraud is the extension of this corruption which prevailed in this system.”

Mr Abdullah acknowledged that although an investigation was required, there was at present no independent judiciary to take up the task. He said that an interim government was needed to run the country, not only to take it through the end of Mr Karzai’s mandate, which expired officially in May, but also to prevent him from manipulating a second round of voting.

“Let’s get to an interim situation so he’s not on top of that. There has to be some new measures because we’ll go the same path with the same people,” said Mr Abdullah, reeling off examples of ministries and government institutions that he claimed had been used by Mr Karzai to manipulate the original election.

One of those compromised institutions is the Arbakai, the government-sponsored tribal militias that protect many of the country’s highways and official institutions. Mr Abdullah said that funds set aside to allow the Arbakai to guard polling centres — a move blocked at the last minute by the international community over fears of voter intimidation — had been siphoned off to pay tribal elders to vote for Mr Karzai.

That allegation has been backed up by international election monitors, who cited numerous witness testimonies indicating that the Arbakai had been manipulated to support the president’s re-election campaign.

Observers said that Arbakai cash had been handed out to tribal elders in Gardez, the capital of the southeastern province of Paktia, to convince their communities to vote for Mr Karzai, in particular by accepting the voting cards of women who did not go to polling stations on election day because of security concerns.

Witnesses said that some of the elders had been paid $4,000, (£2,395) and one as much as $8,000, to ensure their loyalty.

“That’s everybody’s tax dollars directly going to corruption,” said Mr Abdullah. “Hopefully we can save the process. If we can’t, I don’t think this situation can sustain itself. This jeopardizes the remaining opportunity that we have, which is the support of the international community. Your soldiers are dying and on top of every other problem there is illegitimate rule for another five years.”

His comments came during a weekend which saw a fresh surge of violence, as Taleban militants killed 45 people, including five American soldiers, in a number of attacks and bombings across the country.

Last week, the International Council on Security and Development, an independent think-tank operating in Afghanistan, warned that the Taleban had established a permanent presence in 80 per cent of the country and a “substantial” presence in a further 17 per cent of it.

A Somber Warning on Afghanistan

GENEVA — Western powers now in Afghanistan run the risk of suffering the fate of the Soviet Union there if they cannot halt the growing insurgency and an Afghan perception that they are foreign invaders, according to Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former U.S. national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter.

In a speech opening a weekend gathering of military and foreign policy experts, Mr. Brzezinski, who was national security adviser when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in late 1979, endorsed a British and German call, backed by France, for a new international conference on the country. He also set the tone for a weekend of somber assessments of the situation.

He noted that it took about 300 U.S. Special Forces — fighting with Northern Alliance troops — to overthrow Taliban rule after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

Now, however, with about 100,000 U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan, those forces are increasingly perceived as foreign invaders, much as the Soviet troops were from the start, Mr. Brzezinski said.

For President Barack Obama, Afghanistan is the foreign policy issue that has “perhaps the greatest need for strategic review,” said Mr. Brzezinski, who met with Mr. Obama during the presidential campaign last year, and endorsed his candidacy but was not a formal adviser.

“We are running the risk of replicating — obviously unintentionally — the fate of the Soviets,” Mr. Brzezinski said in his speech Friday night.

The presence of so many foreign troops underpins an Afghan perception that the Americans and their allies are hostile invaders and “suggests transformation of the conflict is taking place,” he added.

A new international conference would help devise a more refined strategy, Mr. Brzezinski said in a brief interview Sunday. Using the military to support a development strategy would help prolong the European presence, he suggested — “our European friends are less likely to leave us in the lurch.”

If the United States is left alone in Afghanistan, Mr. Brzezinski said Friday night, “that would probably spell the end of the Alliance.”

A discussion on Afghanistan on Saturday featured, among others, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British foreign secretary’s special representative for Afghanistan and a former British ambassador to Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

“All is not doom and gloom in Afghanistan,” Sir Sherard told the conference, the Global Strategic Review of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, a nongovernment organization. But “walking away would destroy everything that has been achieved.”

“The pullout option is not one that any government could responsibly follow,” he added, emphasizing, that America’s role was crucial. “While Obama remains committed, we remain committed.”

In calling last weekend for a conference on Afghanistan, Britain and Germany seemed anxious both to dispel the tension that has arisen surrounding the election there last month, in which foreign observers say there were clear incidents of fraud, and to shift emphasis away from the rising numbers of foreign troops.

Sir Sherard suggested the solution lay in devolving political power back to tribal elders who have traditionally held sway in Afghanistan, and funneling money for development through them.

With 68,000 troops from the United States expected by the end of the year and some 40,000 from other countries, numbers — and the rising number of deaths and casualties — are going to influence not only hostile Afghans but Western public support for the Afghan mission.

Speakers at the conference said that Americans are unlikely for long to support maintaining many times the number of troops from Britain, Germany and France, the three European allies who have sent the most soldiers to Afghanistan.

What is needed now is “the intelligent application of military force” alongside long-promised development strategies, Sir Sherard said, evoking what he called a dream that, by 2011, a truckload of pomegranates would be able to pass unhindered from Afghanistan through Pakistan and into India, that Western students could study Afghan archaeological ruins, and that posters in the Pashto language inviting Pashtuns to “come on over” from the Taliban would be tattered remnants — unneeded rather than unheeded — on the roadsides of southern Afghanistan.

“That,” he stressed, “is the dream.”

Three dead, five injured in Khyber roadside bomb attack

ISLAMABAD: A bomb blast killed three paramilitary troops in Bara District of Khyber Agency on Sunday, where security forces are pressing ahead with an offensive to secure a major supply route for foreign forces in Afghanistan.

Also in the northwest, a suicide bomber attempted to attack a security post in the Swat Valley but was killed before he could strike. The incidents show that the region is still dangerous despite the recent arrests of five militant commanders there.

The blast in the Mandiknas area of Khyber targeted a security convoy and was detonated by remote control, said Sadiq Khan, an official at the Khyber agency administrator office. Two soldiers died at the scene and four were wounded. One of the injured soldiers later died at a hospital.

Pakistan began its latest offensive in the Khyber tribal region on September 1st and says it has killed more than 150 militants. The fighting has caused thousands of residents to flee.

Militants have frequently attacked trucks traveling through the Khyber pass carrying supplies to NATO and US troops in landlocked Afghanistan.

Pakistan is under intense US pressure to crack down on al-Qaida and Taliban militants along the Afghan border.

In April, it launched a major offensive in the Swat Valley that succeeded in retaking much of it from Taliban control. On Friday, the army announced the capture of five top Taliban commanders from the Swat Valley, including spokesman Muslim Khan.

On Sunday, a suicide bomber attempted to attack a checkpoint close to a fuel station in the region, but security forces fired on his vehicle from a distance and it exploded, killing him, said Maj. Mohammad Mushtaq of the Swat media center.

Troops close in on Fazlullah, says Malik

ISLAMABAD: Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik has warned the chief of the banned Lashkar-e-Islam Mangal Bagh to lay down arms and renounce violence otherwise he would meet the same fate as other terrorists.

Spokesman Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan Swat Muslim Khan and other commanders would be put on trial in accordance with the law, said the interior minister while talking to media men after meeting with a delegation led by President Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Fata Malik Waris Khan Afridi on Sunday.

The interior minister said that the dragnet around chief of the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Swat Maulvi Fazalullah has really been tightened and he would not be able to escape. Muslim Khan has disclosed many things during interrogation, said Malik.

The interior minister went on to say the ‘Zaliman’ who used children for suicide bombings would be eliminated soon. He said that due to the insurgency in Fata, no development schemes had been carried out in the region during the last 10 years but steps were now being taken to eliminate terrorism so that development schemes could be initiated. Special zone for reconstruction in tribal areas would also be constituted, he said.

The interior minister appealed to the Khasadar personnel, who refused to perform their duties in Bara Tehsil after threats by Lashkar-e-Islam Chief Mangal Bagh, to come back to their duties.

He said that all political parties were taken into confidence before starting operation Rah-e-Rast and now it was clear that the nation and the political leadership of the country were united against anti state elements

Russian envoy cautions US on Afghan troops surge
KABUL : Russia's ambassador to Afghanistan has some advice for top NATO commanders fighting the Taliban based on the Soviet Union's bitter experience battling Islamist insurgents here in the 1980s: Don't bring more troops. "The more troops you bring the more troubles you will have here," Zamir Kabulov, a blunt-spoken veteran diplomat, told The Associated Press in an interview. In 2002, he noted, there were roughly 5,000 U.S. soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and the Taliban controlled just a small corner of the country's southeast. "Now we have Taliban fighting in the peaceful Kunduz and Baghlan (provinces) with your (NATO's) 100,000 troops," he said this week, sitting on a couch in the Russian Embassy in Kabul. "And if this trend is the rule, if you bring here 200,000 soldiers, all of Afghanistan will be under the Taliban." Kabulov served as a Soviet diplomat in Afghanistan from 1983 to 1987, during the height of the Kremlin's 10-year Afghan war, when Soviet troop levels peaked at 140,000. The Soviet war here, which is estimated to have cost the lives of 14,500 Soviet soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Afghans, ended in 1989 in a humiliating withdrawal. Kabulov has little sympathy for the U.S. or NATO. He said the U.S. and its allies are competing with Russia for influence in the energy-rich region. But the 55-year-old envoy speaks from experience, and NATO leaders have sought his advice. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, asked Kabulov a number of "precise" questions about the Soviet war at a diplomatic function last month, the Russian envoy said. McChrystal is supervising the expansion of U.S. combat forces to 68,000 and is likely to soon request thousands of more troops. Forty-one other NATO countries have another 35,000 troops here Air Force Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, a public affairs officer assigned to the NATO commander's staff, said: "Gen. McChrystal is a voracious student of Afghan history and welcomes any opportunity to learn from people with experience in Afghanistan or perspectives on our situation here. That certainly includes the Russians." While Kabulov called raising troop levels a mistake, he said he approved of McChrystal's overall strategy, which includes holding and clearing Taliban areas, training more Afghan security forces and better-coordinated intelligence efforts. But he said the NATO commander faces daunting challenges. The U.S. and NATO, he said, made the same fundamental mistake the Kremlin made after its December 1979 invasion, when Soviet special forces killed President Hafizullah Amin and Moscow replaced Amin's Communist regime with another judged more loyal. "We should have left Afghanistan as soon as possible after the job had been done," Kabulov said. "It should not have taken more than six months. Same as you. You came and you stayed. And all the problems have started." In some ways, Kabulov, named ambassador to Afghanistan by then President Vladimir Putin in 2004, is an unlikely figure to be advising NATO. The New York Times said in October 2008 that he served covertly as the KGB's Kabul resident, or top officer, during the Soviet war. But when asked about this, Kabulov insisted he was just a diplomat. "My career was quite transparent and well known," he said. His only role in Afghanistan during the Soviet war, he said, was as the embassy's second secretary, serving as press attache, from 1983 to 1987. While NATO has made some of the same mistakes the Soviets made in Afghanistan, in some ways the Kremlin was more successful, Kabulov said. The Soviets, he asserted, were better than NATO at providing security in major cities and along main highways. And he said the Soviets completed more major construction and development projects. The Soviet government bankrolled those efforts out of its own pocket, he said, in contrast to the U.S. and its Western allies, which have made what amount to charity appeals at donor conferences. "We never arranged international conferences with high pledges of dozens of billions of dollars which never came to this country," he said. And Kabulov said the Soviets trained and employed Afghans, rather than importing highly paid and, in his view, pampered foreign contractors. When it comes to Westerners, he said, "guards also need guards." Today, Kabulov said, Afghanistan remains a strategic prize because of its location near the gas and oil fields of Iran, the Caspian Sea, Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. Russia has a major stake in NATO's success in Afghanistan, Kabulov said. If the alliance withdraws before Afghanistan is stabilized, he said, the aftershocks could weaken Moscow's allies throughout former Soviet Central Asia. Kabulov said Russia has questions about NATO's intentions in Afghanistan, which he said lies outside of the alliance's "political domain." He suggested that Moscow is concerned that NATO is building permanent bases in the region. "We agreed and supported the United States and later on NATO operation in Afghanistan under the slogan of counterterrorism" after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., he said. "And we believed that this agenda is a genuine one and there is no other hidden agendas. But we are watching carefully what is going on here with the expansion of NATO's military infrastructure in all of Afghanistan." From Russia's perspective, Kabulov said, NATO should accomplish its goals in Afghanistan and quickly leave. "We want NATO to successfully and as soon as possible complete its task and to say goodbye and to go back to their own geographical and political domain," he said. "But before their departure they should help establish a real, independent, strong, prosperous, peaceful Afghanistan with self-sustainable government."

Power breakdown, water shortage Several localities of Peshawar hit badly

PESHAWAR: A major fault at a local grid station coupled with the routine power outages particularly at Sehr and Iftar times made life a living hell for the residents of most of localities of the provincial metropolis, while the Peshawar Electric Supply Company (Pesco) remained the least concerned about the miseries of the consumers.
Residents of Faqirabad, Zaryab Colony, Afghan Colony, Sethi Town, Saeedabad, Yousafabad, Faisal Town, Momin Town, Amjad Colony Charsadda Road and other areas of the city complained that prolonged loadshedding had already made life miserable for them but the grid station wherefrom they were provided electricity developed a major fault two days ago, resulting in complete blackout in the areas.

The angry consumers said they lodged innumerable complaints with the Pesco authorities but those fell on deaf ears. They said that majority of the available phone numbers of Pesco complaint offices remained continuously busy as if they had put the receivers off. And whenever, they managed to the talk to the official on duty, they received a blunt reply that there was a major fault in the grid station and it would take sometime to repair.

The residents were of the opinion that the Pesco authorities were showing no interest in repairing the grid station. They said that the persistent power breakdown had also resulted in acute water shortage in most of the affected areas, multiplying the miseries of the people in the holy month of Ramazan.

When contacted, the Pesco spokesman Shaukat Afzal told The News that there was some fault in the grid station, which had been repaired before Sehr time, but when the power supply was resumed the transformer went out of order again. He said now the faulty transformer had been changed and the matter was resolved. He claimed that uninterrupted power supply to the entire area had been restored.