Monday, September 28, 2009

US accepts Hamid Karzai as Afghan leader

The White House has ended weeks of hesitation over how to respond to the Afghan election by accepting President Karzai as the winner despite evidence that up to 20 per cent of ballots cast may have been fraudulent.

Abandoning its previous policy of not prejudging investigations of vote rigging, the Obama Administration has conceded that Mr Karzai will be President for another five years on the basis that even if he were forced into a second round of voting he would almost certainly win it.

The decision will increase pressure on President Obama to justify further US troop deployments to Afghanistan to prop up a regime now regarded as systemically corrupt.

The acceptance was conveyed by Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, in a meeting with her Afghan counterpart hours before Mr Obama received a formal request from General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, for up to 40,000 more troops.

Mrs Clinton told Rangin Dadfar Spanta, the Afghan Foreign Minister, that she and her Nato colleagues — including David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary — had reached a consensus that Mr Karzai would remain President even if investigations now under way cut his share of the first-round vote to below 50 per cent. The meeting took place last Friday but details emerged yesterday.

The Administration has also told Kabul that it will support what Mr Karzai calls a policy of “reconciliation”, which is intended to induce low and mid-ranking Taleban fighters into swapping sides or at least to lay down their arms. The same tactic, which boils down to paying fighters to leave the insurgency, is central to a new counter-insurgency strategy recommended by General McChrystal in a bleak assessment of Afghan security leaked last week to the journalist Bob Woodward.

The effort, modelled on the “Sons of Iraq” movement that proved critical to the success of the US-led surge in Iraq two years ago, is to be led by the British general Sir Graeme Lamb, according to Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Discussions on whether to grant General McChrystal’s troop request will dominate a meeting of the National Security Council today. It will be the first of a series that Mr Obama will chair as he chooses between the advice of his military to flood Afghanistan’s towns and cities with fresh troops, and that of his Vice-President and others to tear up his strategy lest it drag him into a Vietnam-style quagmire.

Publicly Mr Obama has insisted that General McChrystal, whom he handpicked in March, retains his full confidence. Reports of tension gained credibility, though, with the disclosure by the general on Sunday that they had spoken only once since he took up his post in Kabul. “I’ve talked to the President, since I’ve been here, once on a VTC [video teleconference],” he told the CBS programme 60 Minutes.

British officials said yesterday that accepting Mr Karzai as winner of the election was “a recognition of the facts on the ground”. The British preference had been for Mr Karzai to form a national unity government taking in his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah — a scenario that the White House would also have welcomed — but Dr Abdullah appears to have ruled it out.

UN Expects S. Waziristan Fighting to Result in Large Influx of Fleeing Civilians

The head coordinator for the U.N. Humanitarian Affairs office in Pakistan says his agency is ready to handle what is expected to be a large number of families fleeing the South Waziristan tribal region as the government intensifies its fight against the Taliban. At the same time, police say a suicide bomber killed 5 people Monday, include a tribal leader allied with the government.
Authorities say the suicide attack occurred near a police checkpoint outside Bannu, the third bombing in as many days.Officials say the bomber rammed a car filled with explosives into a vehicle carrying tribal leader Maulana Abdul Hakeem, as he traveled to a nearby peace committee meeting.Analysts say Hakeem had been instrumental in brokering deals with the government, allowing security forces access to the nearby Waziristan tribal regions to target Taliban and al-Qaida militants.U.N. Office for Coordinating Humanitarian Affairs head for Pakistan, Manuel Bessler, tells VOA families have been fleeing South Waziristan in anticipation of a new military offensive."We have from South Waziristan already now about roughly 80,000 internally displaced people. That means people that left the district of South Waziristan and are in Dera Ismail Khan or in Tank, looking for shelter, for a safer place to be," Bessler said.
Local media reports say military helicopters have dropped pamphlets in the area, warning residents to leave. The government used a similar strategy before the offensive in and around the Swat Valley that started last April.
The government insists it is not launching any major operation in South Waziristan at the moment, but Bessler says his office is ready.
"We expect indeed more people to leave the district and have accordingly beefed up our readiness for food and non-food items," said Bessler.
He says they rely on Pakistani government agencies, particularly at the district level, to help those displaced.While they are ready in the material sense, Bessler says there are other concerns.
"Security is something that we have to take very serious[ly] in such a volatile environment as southern NWFP [and] we [also] had to look into it in Malakand," Bessler said.South Waziristan is a major stronghold for Taliban and al-Qaida militants. It also boasts treacherous terrain and is expected to get brutally cold in the coming months. On Monday, a message allegedly from al-Qaida's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appeared on a jihadist Web site praising the former Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud who was killed in a U.S. missile strike in South Waziristan.This is the first public acknowledgment from al-Qaida of Mehsud's death in August.

U.S.-Russia Relations May Yield Little in Action Toward Iran

MOSCOW — The Kremlin has long responded to proposals for tougher sanctions against Iran with arms folded and a scowl. Last week, that attitude began softening, bringing the Obama administration closer to a diplomatic coup in its efforts to contain the Iranian nuclear program.

But the relatively conciliatory statements by Russia’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, present an opening to the administration that could turn out to yield little. Russia, a neighbor of Iran, is far more intertwined with it geopolitically than any other world power, and has more concerns about upsetting relations.

Russia is also reluctant to mass the might of the United Nations Security Council against a single country, especially at Washington’s behest. That in part explains why Russia has historically sought to dilute sanctions, as it did in previous rounds against Iran.

Moreover, the Kremlin might go slowly because it senses that in a world where it has less influence than it did during Soviet times, it can use its veto power in the Security Council to ensure attention and respect. If Russia were to accede right away to calls for a crackdown, it would risk becoming just another country lining up behind the United States. The Kremlin’s pride would almost certainly not allow that.

Already, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, appears to be positioning Russia to back away from the supportive stance suggested by Mr. Medvedev’s comments.

Asked about the announcement on Friday by the United States, Britain and France that Iran had failed to disclose a secret uranium enrichment plant, Mr. Lavrov said it was not evident that Iran had done anything wrong. He said it was premature to assert that new sanctions were necessary.

“As I understand it, there is no clarity regarding the legal issues,” Mr. Lavrov said.

He also chided the Western powers for not telling Russia earlier that their intelligence agencies had discovered the Iranian enrichment plant.

Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s paramount leader, who tends to be more hawkish than Mr. Medvedev toward the United States, in recent days has not echoed Mr. Medvedev’s views on sanctions.

Still, Moscow’s overall outlook toward the United States has unquestionably warmed in recent months, largely because of President Obama’s drive to “reset” relations, and that could ultimately be pivotal.

Mr. Obama’s decision this month to cancel an antimissile system in Eastern Europe proposed by the Bush administration has achieved a particularly galvanizing effect. The Kremlin had deemed the antimissile system a direct threat to Russia, though the United States had said it was intended to protect against attacks from countries like Iran.

Mr. Medvedev regularly expressed his appreciation for Mr. Obama last week, drawing a contrast with the tensions between Moscow and Washington in the later Bush years. Obama administration officials cited Mr. Medvedev’s remarks as proof that their attempt to engage Moscow was paying off, and could lead to action against Iran.

“We do have various doubts about what Iran is doing,” Mr. Medvedev said last week. “If all possibilities for influencing the situation have been exhausted, we could consider international sanctions.”

“Sometimes, there is no other option,” he added.

Russia has said that it does not want Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, but it has also articulated misgivings about Western assertions of Iranian nuclear advances. While Russia is not one of Iran’s largest trading partners, it does sell military hardware to Iran and is building a civilian nuclear power plant there.

What is clear is that Russia considers sanctions as not solely an Iranian issue, but one of several that revolve around its dealings with Washington. It is negotiating a treaty to reduce the size of strategic nuclear forces, and remains alarmed by the possible expansion of NATO into former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia.

If those issues are handled to the Kremlin’s liking, then it will be more apt to agree to stiff sanctions.

“For Russia, Iran is a very good bargaining chip,” said Vladimir Sotnikov, a senior research associate at the Center for International Security in Moscow. “And that is why, for now, I don’t think that Russia is going to be ready to wholly support major new sanctions.”

The dynamic is complicated by China, another sanctions opponent with a Security Council veto. The Kremlin can publicly show more leeway toward sanctions — in essence, offering gratitude to Mr. Obama for canceling the antimissile system in Eastern Europe — while knowing that China may continue standing in their way.

China trades heavily with Iran, and its skeptical comments on Friday after the announcement about the new enrichment plant indicated how reluctant it may be on sanctions.

At the same time, though, if China senses that Russia is more amenable, the Chinese may feel that they have to shift because they do not want to be isolated.

And Mr. Medvedev’s criticism of Iran last week has put more pressure on its leadership before nuclear talks on Thursday in Geneva between Iran and the United States and five other powers, including Russia.

Even so, in interviews over the weekend, experts in Moscow were somewhat unconvinced that the Kremlin would back forceful steps against Iran, though they did not rule it out.

Vladimir Sazhin, a commentator at the state-run Voice of Russia radio and one of the nation’s leading Iran analysts, said it was important to understand that Russia considered Iran to be a vital ally on regional issues. After the disputed Iranian presidential election in June, in fact, Mr. Medvedev congratulated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Both countries are on the Caspian Sea and have territory in the Caucasus Mountains. (The Soviet Union had a border with Iran, but Russia is now about 100 miles away, separated from Iran by another former Soviet republic, Azerbaijan.) Both Russia and Iran want to prevent NATO from setting up bases in the region.

Mr. Sazhin said Russia had been pleased that Iran had not questioned Russia’s actions in Chechnya, a Muslim region in the Caucasus where the federal authorities have fought two brutal civil wars to put down a separatist Muslim insurgency.

“The Kremlin’s politics come down to the fact that they do not want to inflame relations with Iran, because of Russia’s regional interests,” Mr. Sazhin said.

Mr. Sazhin said he would not be surprised if Mr. Medvedev continued to imply that he was open-minded toward sanctions, in large part because the Russian leadership realizes that China may not relent and Iran will find a way to prolong the dispute.

“The Kremlin can play a good game because it knows that nothing will probably come of it,” he said.

Bill Clinton: 'Vast right-wing conspiracy' as 'virulent' as ever
WASHINGTON -- The "vast right-wing conspiracy" that attacked him during his presidency has been weakened, but continues to operate against President Obama, former President Clinton said Sunday.

On NBC's "Meet the Press," Clinton was asked about the term his wife Hillary Clinton, now secretary of state, famously coined. "Is it still there?" host David Gregory asked.

"Oh, you bet. Sure it is. It's not as strong as it was, because America's changed demographically, but it's as virulent as it was," the former president replied.

"I mean, they're saying things about him [Obama] -- you know, it's like when they accused me of murder and all that stuff they did," Clinton said, in an apparent reference to conspiracy theories surrounding the suicide of White House deputy counsel Vince Foster.

"It's not really good for the Republicans and the country, what's going on now," Clinton said. "I mean, they may be hurting President Obama. They can take his numbers down, they can run his opposition up. But fundamentally, he and his team have a positive agenda for America."

The nation needs "a credible debate about what's the right balance between continuing to expand the economy through stimulus and beginning to move back to fiscal balance," Clinton said. "We need a credible debate about what's the best way to get to universal [health care] coverage."

Clinton was asked whether he is concerned that the 2010 midterm elections could resemble those of 1994, when Republicans took control of the House and Senate two years into his first term.

"There's no way" that could happen, Clinton said, adding that "the country is more diverse and more interested in positive action." Also, he said, Republicans had control of Congress for several years under President George W. Bush, "and they know the results were bad."

And, he said, "the Democrats haven't taken on the gun lobby like I did."

"Whatever happens, it'll be manageable for our president," Clinton said.

Terror war inflicts $400m loss on tourism

PESHAWAR: Tourism industry of Frontier province suffered a loss worth $400 million since the launch of war on terror, said NWFP Tourism Minister Syed Aqil Shah here on Sunday.

‘Militancy had affected the tourism the most and we have suffered a loss of $50 million annually,’ the minister said while speaking at a function held in connection with World Tourism Day.

Sarhad Tourism Corporation organised the gathering where besides others tour specialists Fidaullah Sehrai, Zahoor Durrani, STC former managing director Ghaffar Mohmand and STC General Manager Mushtaq Ahmad Khan were also present.

The minister said that provincial government was devising a master plan for the development of tourism in the province. He stressed upon the international community and federal government to fully concentrate and cooperate with the provincial government in reviving tourism industry in NWFP, which had the potential of overcoming the losses faced by the province due to militancy.

Mr Shah said that tourists stopped visiting scenic resorts in the province when billboards carrying pictures of women were smashed during the government of Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal in NWFP.

‘The wave of insurgency and militancy in Malakand division and other parts of the province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas proved to be the last nail in the coffin of tourism industry in NWFP,’ the minister said.

He said that chairlifts would be installed from Naran to Saiful Maluk Lake while 2-megawatt hydel power stations would be also set up at Saiful Maluk. He said under a special package, people of Japan, Thailand, Sri Lanka and other countries would be given a chance to visit province.

A state of the art Lok Versa Centre was being established at Gorgatri, while a separate directorate had been established in the province which would become functional from October 15 this year, the minister said.

Mr Shah said that a two-day cultural conference would be held in Peshawar at the end of October while 2,500 years celebrations of Peshawar, the oldest living city, would be made in December. He pledged to launch and complete at least two tourism projects in his tenure in the province.

He said that about 70 per cent of tourist sites in the country were located in NWFP and it was the need of the hour to concentrate on development of those sites so that both local and international tourists could be attracted.

‘Pakistan has matchless tourist resorts but due to extremism and militancy, tourists are not visiting the country,’ he added.

The minister urged the media to portray soft image of the country and apprise the world about the hospitality, brotherhood and friendly behaviour of Pakistanis.

Other speakers urged the world as well as Pakistani leadership to spend most of the aid on the rehabilitation, development work as well as promotion of tourism in NWFP.