Monday, October 26, 2009

Obama tells troops he will not rush Afghan decision

JACKSONVILLE, Florida (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, accused by some of dithering over a new strategy for Afghanistan, vowed on Monday not to be rushed into a decision over whether to send more U.S. troops to the war zone.

Obama spoke to U.S. Navy personnel in Jacksonville on the same day 14 Americans were killed in helicopter crashes in Afghanistan and shortly after he met top advisers for a sixth time about a new Afghan strategy that the White House said was still weeks away.

Obama is debating whether to follow the advice of his military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, who wants to send at least 40,000 more U.S. forces there.

Just last week, the White House rejected former Vice President Dick Cheney's charge that Obama was "dithering" over the strategy review and needed to send more troops.

"I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm's way," Obama said to applause from the sailors at the event and their families. "I won't risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary. And if it is necessary, we will back you up to the hilt."

"Because you deserve the strategy, the clear mission, the defined goals as well as the equipment and support you need to get the job done," Obama said, vowing not to have a situation where troops in the field are not supported by people at home.

Opinion polls show flagging public support for the war effort and members of Obama's own Democratic Party are divided over whether to send more troops.

The United States now has 65,000 troops in Afghanistan, which is expected to reach 68,000 later this year. Other countries, mainly NATO allies, have some 39,000 troops there.

Obama expressed condolences to the families of the latest 14 Americans killed in Afghanistan.

Three special agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration were among those who died in the helicopter crash in western Afghanistan, said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who hailed their work in fighting the drugs trade there.

On the Air Force One flight from Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama met with Vice President Joe Biden and other senior advisers at the White House for the latest session on Afghanistan.


Gibbs said Obama's decision on a new strategy will take place "in the coming weeks."

ABC News cited unnamed sources as saying Obama's decision likely will come between Afghanistan's run-off election on November 7 and his departure for Japan on November 11.

The Pentagon carried out internal assessments of the two main proposals for troop levels -- sending roughly 40,000 more troops or a far smaller number, an option McChrystal and other defense officials see as having a higher risk of failure.

The reviews were overseen by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, one military official said.

Senator John Kerry, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, gave conditional support for additional troops.

He told the Council on Foreign Relations he would support more troops only if there were enough "reliable" Afghan forces to partner with as well as local leaders who could deliver basic services to the people.

"What we need, above all, what our troops deserve -- and what we haven't had -- is a comprehensive strategy, military and civilian combined," Kerry said.

Obama is also looking at a "civilian surge" of boosting staff in areas stabilized by the military and seeking to improve the capacity of the Afghan government.

Kerry, who was in Afghanistan last week to put pressure on President Hamid Karzai to accept a run-off election, was scathing of the U.S. civilian effort so far.

"Our civilian presence there is disgraceful compared to what it ought to be relative to the challenge," Kerry said.

But Deputy Secretary of State Jacob Lew sought to squash criticism, telling reporters earlier that the State Department was on track to get nearly 1,000 people in place by year-end.

There are now just over 600 U.S. civilians in Afghanistan, including specialists from the treasury and agriculture departments and the U.S. Agency for International Development, said Lew.

The Bush administration struggled to find enough civilians for its mission in Iraq during the height of the conflict there but Lew said this was not a problem in Afghanistan.

"We have many more people applying than there are positions," said Lew.

Iranian troops arrested inside Pakistan

Tehran is facing a diplomatic showdown with Islamabad after a contingent of its border guard was captured during a clandestine mission inside Pakistani territory.
The exposure of what appeared to be a secret Iranian operation will further heighten tensions between the two countries. Relations have already been damaged after Iran claimed that a suicide bombing on its side of the border nine days ago was carried out by a militant group believed to have bases inside Pakistan.
The cover of Monday's mission was blown when Pakistani troops opened fire on two vehicles that had driven into the country from Iran. They later arrested 11 Iranian soldiers, including three officers believed to be from Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard. Iran immediately sought to downplay the incident, claiming that the soldiers were border guards who had accidentally crossed into Pakistan while pursuing smugglers.
But there will be suspicion that the true reason for the operation is connected to an attack on the Iranian border town of Pishin on Oct 18 that killed 42 people, that Iran has linked to Britain, the United States and Pakistani intelligence.
The Iranian regime was particularly incensed that the casualties included 11 members of the Revolutionary Guard, five of whom were senior commanders including a general.
"It's a serious matter," a Pakistani security official was quoted as saying. "We are investigating why they crossed into our territory."
The bombings in Pishin were claimed by the Jundullah, a Sunni Muslim group that has carried out dozens of attacks in the region as part of its campaign to highlight what it claims is the marginalisation of Iran's Baluchi minority.
Iran was quick to suggest that Jundullah is received funding from Britain and the United States and logistical support from Pakistan's Intelligence Service.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, gave those allegations his backing on Monday when he claimed that "foreign agents" were behind terrorist attacks in Iraq, Pakistan and parts of his country in an attempt to create discord between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
"Perpetrators of terrorist and bloody moves are directly or indirectly linked to foreign agents," Iran's Press TV quoted him as saying.
It is unclear how Pakistan will react to the cross-border incident. Already facing accusations that it has provided sanctuary to militants from Afghanistan and India, the government of Asif Zardari, the Pakistani president, is keen not to alienate another neighbour.
Mr Zardari met Iran's interior minister in Islamabad at the weekend to discuss the bombing in Pishin and vowed to co-operate in capturing those involved in the attack.
Even so, he is likely to take a dim view of any unilateral Iranian action on Pakistani soil.

Afghan Rivals Rule Out Power-Sharing Deal

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai and his top rival for the office said over the weekend that they had ruled out a power-sharing deal before the runoff election.

Mr. Karzai’s announcement on Saturday appeared to reflect his confidence that he would win the Nov. 7 runoff handily and that there was no need to form a coalition with his rival, Abdullah Abdullah.

“We don’t want any coalition government before the election,” said Waheed Omar, spokesman for the Karzai campaign office. “We cannot make the vote of the people of Afghanistan and its Constitution take a back seat to political deal-making.”

Mr. Abdullah, speaking on CNN on Sunday, said he had “absolutely no interest” in a deal. “The people of Afghanistan should see the outcome of the runoff and get to work and see their government of choice in place,” he said.

While neither candidate has completely ruled out the possibility of a unity government after the runoff, a coalition would have political costs for both. For Mr. Karzai, who already has brought representatives from a number of constituencies into his fold, it would mean giving up political jobs to a rival instead of to his loyalists. For Mr. Abdullah, who has run on a government reform platform, it would mean being seen as part of the Karzai government and would potentially tarnish him in his supporters’ eyes.

However, the Americans and other Western members of the coalition fighting in Afghanistan have suggested that a unity government including the two top vote-getters in the first round would have more legitimacy than one led alone by Mr. Karzai, whose total vote count was reduced by nearly a million because of widespread fraud.

A coalition government would give the Americans and the Europeans some political cover for their continuing troop presence because they would be backing a government that had the support of a vast majority of Afghans.

If Mr. Karzai wins the second round, as expected, the international community will be likely to continue to back his government, which many Afghans say they believe has done too little to improve their lives and has failed to root out endemic corruption.

Mr. Abdullah has said he would not join a coalition with Mr. Karzai in large part because of their deep political differences.

“The difference in the character and the agenda of the two men makes it impossible,” said Mr. Abdullah’s deputy campaign manager, Salih Muhammed Registani. “We want change, we want the system to be changed.”

Mr. Abdullah’s most immediate concern is pushing the government to take steps to avoid a repeat of the fraud that marred the Aug. 20 election. He wants the head of the Independent Election Commission to be fired along with two other top commission officials who he says he believes were complicit in the fraud.

“So many people were involved in the fraud,” said Ahmad Wali Massoud, one of Mr. Abdullah’s advisers. “We have to get rid of people on the commission, otherwise we will be witnessing massive fraud again.”

Mr. Massoud said that changing about 200 local election officials, which the United Nations has said will be done, would have little impact.

Despite widespread perceptions of insecurity, students held a rally on Sunday at Kabul University calling for American troops to leave. The demonstration was held to protest an episode in Wardak Province in which international troops were said to have burned a Koran after their vehicle hit a bomb.

NATO-led forces strongly denied the charge and sent out a news release quoting the office of the governor of Wardak saying that the episode had been investigated and that American troops were not responsible.

Erdogan pledges unwavering support against terrorism

ISLAMABAD: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared here on Monday that his country would continue to stand by Pakistan in the war on terror and strengthen relations between the two countries.

Mr Erdogan, who was addressing a joint session of the two houses of parliament, was warmly applauded when he said that Turkey and Pakistan were two strong states of the region and were contributing to regional and global peace efforts.

With their solidarity and historical ties of brotherhood, he said, no regional problem could become an obstacle to their peace and stability.

The Turkish premier’s address to parliament was considered by political observers here as significant because it was made in the wake of serious threats of terrorist attacks.

Strict security measures were taken for the occasion and the entire Constitution Avenue along which the Presidency, Prime Minister’s House, Parliament House, Supreme Court, PM’s secretariat, auditor general’s offices and the Federal Shariat Court are located was sealed and closed to traffic.

In his brief remarks welcoming Mr Erdogan, Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani said: ‘Pakistan takes great pride in its special, deep-rooted relations with Turkey.’

Earlier, National Assembly Speaker Dr Fehmida Mirza who presided over the session recounted numerous similarities and values shared by the two countries with special reference to the commonality of culture and literature dominated by Maulana Roomi and Allama Iqbal.

The session was attended also by the wife of the Turkish premier and members of his entourage.

Mr Erdogan, who was earlier decorated with the highest civil award, Nishan-i-Pakistan, expressed confidence that Pakistan would surmount the challenge of terrorism which was a common enemy of the entire humanity.

President Asif Ali Zardari conferred the award at the Presidency in recognition of Prime Minister Erdogan’s ‘visionary leadership and outstanding contributions in strengthening Pakistan-Turkey relations.’

While Leader of the Opposition in National Assembly Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan attended the session, PML-Q’s Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi and Faisal Saleh Hayat were conspicuous by their absence.

The Turkish prime minister also mentioned the anguish that his country and its people felt on the devastating earthquake that had shaken the northern parts of Pakistan and Kashmir in 2005 and recalled his visit to AJK immediately after the quake and his second visit to the region on Monday.

Referring to the hardship faced by Pakistan because of the war on terror, he said: ‘You are not alone in your campaign against terrorism and extremism as we too have suffered heavily from terror, given many martyrs.

‘My government and the Turkish people stand by their Pakistani brothers as has always been the case; and are ready to help address all needs to the best of their abilities.’

Later, Prime Minister Gilani reiterated the resolve of the government and the people of Pakistan in the fight against terrorism and militancy and vowed to spare no sacrifice to defeat enemies’ designs.

‘The people of Pakistan value their dignity and honour. They are resolute and will spare no sacrifice to defeat the designs of the enemies of Pakistan.

Mr Erdogan expressed the hope that Pakistan would overcome its problems through national reconciliation and solidarity.

He said Pakistan had always occupied a special place in the hearts and minds of the Turkish government and people.

He said Turkey had been a part of the Friends of Democratic Pakistan group from the very beginning and had always underlined the need of redressing the issues confronting Pakistan because it was the key country for regional and global stability.

Mr Erdogan called upon all members of the FoDP to fulfil pledges made at the donors’ conference in Tokyo on April 25.

He said cooperation between Pakistan and Turkey was not limited to bilateral ties, but covered a much broader ground.

He described the Turkey- Pakistan-Afghanistan tripartite arrangement initiated by Ankara as a ‘robust process’ and recalled that its three meetings had helped to allay misunderstandings.

He said a parliamentary dimension was being given to the process of strengthening partnership in all areas and members of the foreign relations committees’ of parliaments of the three countries had met in Ankara a few months ago.

Prime Minister Gilani said: ‘Our brave armed forces are rendering exemplary services in the ongoing law-enforcement operation against terrorists and militants. The whole nation stands united behind them,’ he said.

He said the success of the military operation in Malakand was achieved as a result of sacrifices by the valiant armed forces and complete consensus and political will displayed by all political forces.

‘It is imperative that Nato and Isaf forces in Afghanistan remain vigilant and effectively curb cross-border infiltration and supply of arms to terrorists and militants,’ he said.

He said Pakistan would maintain a credible minimum nuclear deterrence and continue to advocate strategic restraint in South Asia and the importance of maintaining strategic stability in the nuclearised region.

He said Pakistan would continue to cooperate with the international community to promote the goals of non-proliferation, but would never compromise on its vital strategic interests, its sovereignty and integrity.

About relations with India, the prime minister said Pakistan’s policy was one of peaceful coexistence with all its neighbours.

‘We are committed to a serious, sustained and constructive across-the-board engagement with India for the settlement of all disputes, including Jammu and Kashmir.

‘We view the composite dialogue as a win-win process that advances the cause of peace in this region. It is our sincere hope that India will once again view this process as having immense potential for the mutual benefit of both the countries,’ he added.

Pakistanis too scared to leave home, many want to flee country

ISLAMABAD: Peshawar-based Mustafa Kamal has had enough: he has just got his12-year-old son freed from a band of criminals in the lawless tribal area of Khyber agency by paying a ransom. He has left a lucrative job with Pakistan's telecommunication department and now has the immigartion papers for Canada ready for his entire family.
``I'm lucky to have found my son alive. But I won't take any more risk. Life has become extremely dangerous — it's not worth living here. Enough'senough,'' says Kamal.
For a country badly bloodied by a wave of suicide attacks (at least eight this month alone), the next tragedy appears to be collapse of governance. The Pakistani state is pitted against a wide array of militant groups across the country in a situation teetering on the brink of a civil war. And the chasm between the government and the people seems to be growing by the day.
The popular perception is that Pakistan is fighting the US war against terror. Many people in the lawless North West Frontier Province say Pakistan has been sold to the US piece by piece. Under coercion, they argue, Pakistan has started a war that has consumed its economy, national security, and has torn apart its social fabric.
``Our national integrity is at risk. I wish not to see the end of Pakistan in my lifetime. It is not yet too late for Pakistan to return from the precipice of national suicide. Pakistan must take a u-turn and preempt the civil war. Pakistan must say an emphatic no to the US,'' says Rabnawaz Khan, a former Pakistani diplomat, stressing that an internally torn Pakistan does not weaken but strengthens militants.

The civil unrest has spilled into many parts, giving rise to fear psychosis among citizens. So much so that when twin blasts rocked Islamabad's Islamic University on October 20, many did not believe that it was militants' handiwork. Instead, they blamed ``indistinct forces out to discredit Islam or weaken Pakistan''.

That attack led the authorities to take an unprecedented step of closing down all schools, colleges and other training institutions in the country. ``The law and order situation has only worsened since the military operations against the Taliban started. How can we believe that things will normalize by carrying out a big operation in Waziristan? I think the repercussions are going to be more blasts and suicide attacks,'' said Palwasha Zia, a third year student of Home Economics in Peshawar.

``People are very scared. Every time I go to market, I worry about blasts. We are being targeted and our life has become very difficult. We are hoping the situation will get better. What else can we do?'' says Shaheen Akhtar, a deputy provost of Peshawar University.

October has been the cruelest month. Militants have struck UN offices, police buildings, army headquarters in Rawalpindi and ambushed security forces. The government response has been on expected lines: it swiftly sent troops to battle the entrenched militants in trouble-torn South Waziristan and beefed up security in all major cities. Reportedly, there were at least 72 check posts at entry and exit points around sensitive installations in Islamabad before these attacks. Now, the check points have been increased up to 300 in the federal capital.

Has it helped? Margalla Road, the most expensive and posh area of Islamabad, has almost been turned into a fortress, with concrete barricades, security pickets and barbed wires installed in most of the places. The residents say driving inside the capital has become extremely difficult as they are checked several times a day during routine work. ``Establishing security pickets in residential areas and check points have not resolved the issue of law and order; rather the situation has further deteriorated,'' said a traffic police official in Islamabad's Blue area, wishing not to be named.

Just two days after the attack on Islamic university that killed seven people, suspected militants shot dead a senior Pakistani army officer of brigadier rank and a soldier in Islamabad on Wednesday, suggesting militants are shifting tactics in the face of a sweeping army drive in their South Waziristan stronghold.

``First, it was Peshawar. Then Islamabad and Karachi, and now Lahore and Rawalpindi. When you live in a place which is under threat of continuous attacks, you'll have to think twice before you step out of your house. The scare among people is visible — there are fewer people out on streets,'' says Mujeeb-ur Rehman, a news anchor in Islamabad-based TV station.

The frequent terror attacks have greatly damaged the business climate. Nasir Dawood, who ran a boutique shop in Rawalpindi's Raja Bazaar till last week has finally shut shop. ``My business was badly damaged in the last one year. Scared customers don't come for shopping. To avoid any further losses, I had no option,'' Nasir said.

Habibullah Zahid, another businessman who owns four restaurants in Peshawar, has shifted his family to Islamabad to escape the constant threats of militants. ``Though my business was affected, I left Peshawar due to threats to my life. A group of militants or criminals in the Khyber tribal area has made it a habit to make threatening calls, demanding money in millions. I could no more give in to their demands,'' says Zahid.

U.S. tested 2 Afghan scenarios in war game

Washington Post

The Pentagon's top military officer oversaw a secret war game this month to evaluate the two primary military options that have been put forward by the Pentagon and are being weighed by the Obama administration as part of a broad-based review of the faltering Afghanistan war, senior military officials said.

The exercise, led by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, examined the likely outcome of inserting 44,000 more troops into the country to conduct a full-scale counterinsurgency effort aimed at building a stable Afghan government that can control most of the country. It also examined adding 10,000 to 15,000 more soldiers and Marines as part of an approach that the military has dubbed "counterterrorism plus."

Both options were drawn from a detailed analysis prepared by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the senior commander in Afghanistan, and were forwarded to President Obama in recent weeks by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

The Pentagon war game did not formally endorse either course; rather, it tried to gauge how Taliban fighters, the Afghan and Pakistani governments and NATO allies might react to either of the scenarios. Mullen, a key player in the game, has discussed its conclusions with senior White House officials involved in the discussions over the new strategy.

One of the exercise's key assumptions is that an increase of 10,000 to 15,000 troops would not in the near future give U.S. commanders the forces they need to take back havens from the Taliban commanders in southern and western Afghanistan, where shadow insurgent governors collect taxes and run court systems based on Islamic sharia law.

"We were running out the options and trying to understand the implications from many different perspectives, including the enemy and the Afghan people," said a senior military official, who was granted anonymity to discuss the classified game.

The Obama administration initiated a major review of its war strategy in late September after questions emerged about the legitimacy of the Aug. 20 Afghan elections, which were marred by allegations of widespread fraud, and a troubling update on the progress of the war by McChrystal. He warned that unless the United States moved quickly to wrest momentum from the Taliban, defeating the insurgency in Afghanistan might no longer be possible.

What was intended to be two or three weeks of intensive White House meetings has stretched on for almost a month. Obama and his national security advisers have sorted through the military and civilian aspects of the war, building toward a decision that many on the outside have urged be made sooner rather than later.

Last week, the president concluded the five planned review sessions, roughly 15 hours in all, with top advisers in the Situation Room.

McChrystal's analysis suggests that 44,000 troops would be needed to drive Taliban forces from populated areas and to hold them until Afghan troops and government officials can take the place of U.S. and NATO forces. The extra troops would allow U.S. commanders to essentially triple the size of the American forces in the southern part of the country, where the Taliban movement originated and where the insurgents have their strongest base of support.

McChrystal would also use the additional troops to bolster the effort in eastern Afghanistan, which has long been a focus of the U.S. military, and push additional troops into western Afghanistan, where the military has maintained a tiny presence and where the Taliban has made inroads, U.S. officials said. A surge of 44,000 soldiers and Marines would also allow McChrystal to designate a brigade of about 5,000 soldiers to train and advise the Afghan army and police forces, accelerating their growth.

The increase of 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers would give McChrystal one U.S. advisory brigade of about 5,000 troops to speed the development of Afghan forces and a large number of support forces to include engineers, route-clearance teams and helicopters. McChrystal's analysis also suggested the option of increasing the number of troops by 80,000, but that isn't drawing serious consideration.

In television interviews Sunday, lawmakers outlined broad partisan differences over how many troops are needed in Afghanistan. Republicans have voiced strong support for granting McChrystal's request for more troops, and urged that it be done quickly.

"I'm afraid that with every passing day, we risk the future success of the mission," Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said on "Fox News Sunday."

Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) disagreed, calling the decision-making process "very proper and smart." The administration's lengthy deliberations are "what we need, because we're going to end up living with the results for a good period of time," Webb said on CNN's "State of the Union."

The administration's internal deliberations have emphasized that unless the Afghan government dramatically improves its performance, the Taliban will continue to find support. Administration officials said Obama's decision will consider a much broader range of options than the number of troops. At nearly every meeting in the White House Situation Room, McChrystal has been joined on the video screens at the end of the table by Karl W. Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, and Anne W. Patterson, his counterpart in Pakistan.

One question being debated is whether more U.S. troops would improve the performance of the Afghan government by providing an important check on corruption and the drug trade, or would they stunt the growth of the Afghan government as U.S. troops and civilians take on more tasks that Afghans might better perform themselves. Another factor is cost. The Pentagon has budgeted about $65 billion to maintain a force of about 68,000 troops, meaning that each additional 1,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan would cost about $1 billion a year.

Administration officials say Obama might settle on a plan but delay announcing it until after a runoff in the Afghan national elections, scheduled for Nov. 7. The president is to begin a 10-day trip to Asia on Nov. 11.

Early this month, McChrystal was told to delay a planned Washington trip until Obama had finished gathering facts on the way ahead. "When you see McChrystal in town," along with Eikenberry and Patterson, a senior administration official said, "you'll know that [Obama] is close to a decision."

UN food agency says 200mln more people hungry

CANBERRA: Most of the developing world is paying more for food despite drops in commodity market prices during the global economic slowdown, with 200 million people joining the ranks of the hungry in the past two years, the UN World Food Program said Monday.

The agency’s executive director Josette Sheeran blamed climate change, escalating fuel costs and falling incomes. She said the number of ‘urgently hungry’ had now reached its highest ever — 1.02 billion.

‘One out of six people in humanity will wake up not sure that they can even fill a cup of food,’ Sheeran told reporters. ‘We have to make no mistake that hunger is on the march.’

She said while prices had tumbled on global commodities markets due to the financial crisis, the prices of most food staples in the developing world have soared.

‘The food crisis is not over. We have an anomaly happening where on global, big markets, the prices are down, but for 80 per cent of commodities in the developing world, prices are higher today than they were a year ago, and the prices a year ago were double what they were the year before that,’ she said.

‘What it means is for about 80 per cent of the developing world, people can afford one third as much food today as they could two or three years ago,’ she said.

Sheeran signed Monday a 140 million Australian dollar four-year aid agreement with the Australian government. The agreement includes AU$40 million to provide school meals in Southeast Asia, Africa and possibly South America and will add to the WFP’s overall budget for global food aid.

Sheeran, who flew to Canberra from Manila on Sunday, said the Philippines could lose up to 1.1 million tons (one million metric tons) of rice because of the recent typhoons.

Africa and India were also losing crops due to drought and floods.

She said the two back-to-back typhoons in late September and early October that killed nearly 1,000 people in the Philippines, coupled with the Indonesia earthquake that killed more than 1,000 on western Sumatra and the recent tsunami that killed 183, mostly in Samoa, were examples of natural disasters becoming more frequent and ferocious in recent decades.

She said there had been a fourfold increase in the number of natural disasters in the past 20 years.

‘All we know is that the world is facing increasingly frequent and ferocious natural disasters and the most vulnerable people and nations are getting hit hard and we better prepare now,’ she said.

'Good morning, Afghanistan': War radio
The hi-tech equipment, red "On Air" light and the DJs' patter are no different from those at any radio station. But step out of the studio and you are greeted by sandstorms, attack helicopters and armoured vehicles bearing machine guns. At a time when most of us were slumbering happily, at 6.30am Helmand time today, the words "Good Morning, Afghanistan" boomed forth from the first British Forces radio station in the country.

More than 9,000 troops fighting in the southern province's war zone were greeted with the upbeat sounds of The Boo Radleys' Wake Up Boo! – a track selected by British soldiers around the world to be the first broadcast from the new British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) station at Camp Bastion.

"There may be a touch of irony in this choice: 'Wake up it's a beautiful morning,'" conceded Nicky Ness, the controller of BFBS. DJ Dusty Miller, who mimicked Robin Williams's greeting this morning, added: "Mindful of the very particular brand of humour among our listeners, we were worried what they might foist on us – but we were braced to play whatever they asked for. The first song played on the ground in any operational theatre tends to get a bit of an iconic status."

Pakistan villagers take up guns, sticks against Taliban

Members of the 40-day-old tribal militia in this Swat Valley village come in all shapes, from all walks of life.

Some struggle to fasten bandoleers around pot bellies; some haven't finished high school. They are doctors and teachers, wealthy landowners and dirt-poor wheat farmers.

Some make their way with Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders, others with only a wooden stick in hand.

What unites them is the memory of the Taliban's brutality, a time when the militant organization took over Kanju and the rest of the Swat Valley. Taliban militants beheaded perceived enemies, flogged women and bombed school buildings.

With most of Swat back in the hands of the government after a military operation that drove the Taliban into hiding, thousands of Pakistanis in towns like Kanju have been banding together to form lashkars, or tribal militias, to help keep trouble from coming back.

Subhan Ali commands 4,000 men who form a lashkar that regularly combs Kanju's dilapidated buildings and surrounding countryside for fleeing Taliban fighters and their sympathizers.

"Most of us don't have weapons," said Ali, 35. "At the start of all this, the Taliban took away a lot of our guns. Then the army came and took more of our guns. Many just have batons, but even that they will use."

Lashkars, for centuries a tool for resolving tribal disputes, are supplying a modern-day grass-roots layer of security to manpower-strapped military and police forces. The militias have formed in regions skirting South Waziristan, where Pakistani troops have launched an all-out offensive to crush the Taliban. In Bannu, just outside South Waziristan, tribesmen formed a lashkar after Taliban militants kidnapped students and teachers while they were being bused home from a local college this summer.

Joining a lashkar, though, can mean becoming an immediate target for the Taliban. In an ambush on the Bannu lashkar last month, militants killed seven militia members, including its chief. In the Swat village of Ser Tiligram, a lashkar leader was injured when militants lured him out of his house and then sprayed him with gunfire.

Despite the risks, villagers in Swat and in the tribal areas know police presence remains spotty.

"When the military finished its operation in Swat, it didn't set up any [police] check posts here," said Mohammed Ibrar, brother of the leader shot in Ser Tiligram. "That's why we formed a lashkar."

Though Pakistani military officials welcome the involvement of lashkars, they are also aware of the potential for them to devolve into warlord-led militias with expanded agendas, including settling scores with rivals or staking out fiefdoms.

"That's our concern, and that's why we don't support them in terms of arms or ammunition," said Pakistani army Col. Akhtar Abbas. "And they're restricted to the towns that they come from."

Pashtun society in this part of South Asia has relied on lashkars to resolve disputes between tribes for hundreds of years.

With the rise of the Taliban in Pakistan's tribal areas along the Afghan border and in Swat, lashkars reemerged to combat the tide of militancy.

Before the Swat offensive, lashkars struggled to achieve any measurable success against the Taliban. Outgunned and outmanned, they were hit hard by Taliban suicide bombings, kidnappings and assassinations of tribal elders leading the militias.

In many cases, lashkars were the only line of defense between villagers and invading militants.

In the Swat village of Durshkhela 15 miles north of the valley's largest city, Mingora, a tribal militia of about 40 men stayed to defend the village after local police abandoned it a year ago.

Taliban militants wielding automatic rifles and rocket launchers carried out dozens of raids, but they were turned back each time, said Abdul Ghaffar Khan, 63, a retired army colonel and commander of the Durshkhela lashkar.

"Almost every week they attacked," said Khan, sitting in a patio walled in with sandbags. "All the time, we were waiting for the bullets to come. But if we hadn't stayed, everything here would have been destroyed. Not just my village, but the whole area."

With the military offensive in Swat now over, Khan has a militia of 1,000 men who team up with soldiers to search for militants in the forested hillsides surrounding Durshkhela. In a recent 10-day span, the lashkar arrested 30 people and killed one suspected militant, Khan said.

Lashkar leaders say militias are sprouting up across northwestern Pakistan largely because locals doubt that the military will ensure their long-term security.

Offensives have been waged before in the northwest, but the military has a poor track record for keeping the Taliban from resurfacing once the fighting is over.

"We have no choice but to initiate these lashkars," said Jamal Nasir Khan, the Swat district's chief administrator and the head of a lashkar in his home village of Shangwatai. "We can't wait for the government to wake up from their slumber and rescue us. The army has given us space, but they won't stay here for the rest of our lives."

Members of Pakistan's lashkars say they know the terrain better than Pakistani soldiers, and their knowledge of their villages gives them a better chance of ferreting out Taliban militants and their sympathizers.

The Kanju lashkar captured 250 militants during its first 40 days of operation, Ali said. In one of its latest arrests, 20 lashkar members led six militants hiding in cornfields to believe they were sympathizers willing to give them haven.

"When they came to us, we told them to surrender or we would kill them," Ali said. "They had no option."

In the Ser Tiligram region, the militia's job is tougher, Ibrar said, because Taliban militants are present in larger numbers.

After the militia formed, several men went to houses that Taliban militants had occupied, gathered up the fighters' belongings and threw them into a river.

Later, on Sept. 23, Taliban militants went to the village mosque and kidnapped its imam, a lashkar member, and the lashkar commander's 17-year-old son, Ibrar said.

The militants took the teenager to his father's house, where the militants lured the man into the courtyard.

There, 30 militants on rooftops and on the ground opened fire. The father survived and the boy was unharmed, but another lashkar member and a mosque's imam were found shot to death at the village market.

"We don't have a lot of weapons right now, so we really can't put together operations against these militants," Ibrar said. "But when we get fully armed, we won't hesitate."

Clinton visiting Pakistan as friend: Holbrooke

WASHINGTON: Special US Envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke has said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is coming to Pakistan as a friend, not with conditions but with support for the democratically-elected government and the people of Pakistan.
Talking to this correspondent after attending a function of the Pakistan-American Foundation at the residence of Pakistan’s Ambassador-at-Large to the US Riffat Mehmud, Holbrooke said the whole world would be watching Secretary Clinton, as this trip to Pakistan was perhaps one of the most important trips she had made since she assumed the office as secretary.

Holbrooke said Secretary Clinton will be bringing a message of friendship and support to Pakistan, which was under tremendous pressure at this time. “She will be discussing and focusing the real needs of the Pakistani people,” he added. Holbrooke said: “Secretary Clinton, during her stay in Pakistan, will meet the people from all walks of life. “She will also meet with the leadership inside the government and outside the government. She will discuss the refugees and IDP issues as well.