Saturday, October 31, 2009

Afghan vote in the balance, Abdullah may not run

KABUL - Afghan President Hamid Karzai's election rival, Abdullah Abdullah, will announce on Sunday whether he will take part in next week's disputed run-off vote, as Western diplomatic sources said he was leaning toward pulling out.
Abdullah canceled a planned trip to India on Saturday, just before a deadline he had given Karzai to sack Afghanistan's top election official was to expire.

Afghanistan has been racked by weeks of political uncertainty after widespread fraud marred the first round, with security a major concern after a resurgent Taliban vowed to disrupt the November 7 run-off.

With Afghanistan's political future hanging in the balance, U.S. President Barack Obama is also weighing whether to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan. Obama met U.S. military leaders in Washington on Friday as part of a strategy review.

A Western diplomatic source said Abdullah was leaning toward pulling out of the election but may be using the threat as a "negotiating ploy" with Karzai.

"We have heard that talks with Karzai have broken down and he (Abdullah) is leaning toward not taking part in the election but this could also be a negotiating ploy," said the diplomatic source, who spoke on condition of anonymity as the issue is sensitive. "It is not a done deal."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Saturday any decision by Abdullah not to contest the run-off would not affect the vote's legitimacy.

Asked at a news conference in Jerusalem about reports that aides to Abdullah said he would not run, Clinton did not make clear if she was confirming he would not take part in the run-off, but said, "I think that it is his decision to make.

She added: "I do not think it affects the legitimacy. There have been other situations in our own country as well as around the world where in a run-off election one of the parties decides for whatever reason that they are not going to go on."

Abdullah's campaign team issued a short statement on Saturday saying the former foreign minister had called a loya jirga, or grand assembly of elders, for 9.30 a.m. on Sunday.

"Dr Abdullah Abdullah will a give speech about the election and he will announce his decision in the loya jirga tent," the statement said.

Abdullah's aides said earlier he had canceled the trip to India because of uncertainty over the election.

Diplomats said there were questions over whether Abdullah would use his news conference as a concession speech to incumbent Karzai or declare a boycott of the run-off.

Western officials have noted that Abdullah has not opened any campaign offices in Afghanistan since the run-off was called last week. Neither candidate has campaigned openly.

"The signs are there. (Abdullah's) not doing any campaigning. Everyone is looking at the two camps and willing them to do some form of accommodation that will avoid a run-off," one Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters.

Diplomats and analysts have said that, according to the constitution, it was possible the run-off might go ahead with Karzai as the only candidate if Abdullah pulls out. They fear that would have a serious impact on the government's legitimacy.


Talk of a possible power-sharing deal between Karzai and Abdullah has also grown as a possible solution to the deadlock.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said it was a matter for Karzai and Abdullah to decide if they could come up with a constitutionally sound solution acceptable to Afghans.

Western diplomats have said privately Abdullah may have overplayed his hand with last week's ultimatum to Karzai, which included a demand to dismiss three ministers in a bid to avoid a repeat of the first-round fraud.

Karzai has already indicated he would not give in to Abdullah's demand. Abdullah has not said yet what he would do if the officials were not removed.

The run-off was triggered when a U.N.-led investigation found widespread fraud, mainly in favor of Karzai, had been committed during the August 20 first round.

The United States already has about 70,000 troops in Afghanistan and the decision to send more hinges on whether the Afghan government is seen by U.S. lawmakers and the public as a legitimate and viable partner.

Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, said Afghanistan faced a return to a "brutal tyranny" if the Taliban, al Qaeda and their militant Islamist allies were allowed to return to power. Bush was speaking at the leadership summit in New Delhi Abdullah had been due to attend.

Many commentators and Western diplomats believe Karzai will likely win the run-off, adding pressure on Abdullah to withdraw for the sake of stability.

It would also avoid the mobilization of thousands of foreign troops that would be needed to help secure polling stations after poor security and Taliban threats cut voter turnout in August.

The Taliban have called on Afghans to boycott the run-off and have vowed to disrupt the poll, their threat underlined on Wednesday by a suicide attack on a Kabul guest-house used by the United Nations in which five foreign U.N. staff were killed.

Bomb kills seven in Khyber Agency

PESHAWAR: A bomb killed seven Pakistani soldiers and wounded 11 others Saturday in the country’s northwestern tribal area, officials said.

‘Seven paramilitary soldiers were killed and 11 were wounded in the remote-control bomb attack,’ Shafirullah Khan, the top administrative official of Khyber tribal district, told AFP by telephone.

The Frontier Corps later issued a statement confirming that seven of its members had ‘embraced martyrdom’. It gave their names and said they died in an improvised explosive device blast.

Military and security officials in nearby Peshawar city said two vehicles carrying rations for Pakistani troops were destroyed in the blast.

It occurred about 15 kilometers west of Peshawar.

Khyber is on the main supply route through Pakistan to Afghanistan, where international forces are battling a Taliban insurgency.

The semi-autonomous northwest tribal belt has become a stronghold for hundreds of extremists who fled Afghanistan after a US-led invasion toppled the hardliner Islamic Taliban regime there in late 2001.

NWFP to be made Rs 110 billion payment, says PM

PESHAWAR : The federal government on Saturday accepted the onus of payment of Rs 110 billion to North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) to resolve the two decades old dispute between the province and the Water & Power Development Authority (Wapda) over payment of net profit on hydropower generation. The decision was announced by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani at a press briefing here at Governor House.

NWFP Governor Owais Ahmad Ghani and Chief Minister Ameer Haider Khan Hoti flanked the Prime Minister, federal ministers Qamaruzzaman Kaira, Rehman Malik, Ghulam Ahmad Bilour, Najmuddin Khan and Hina Rabbani Khar. The Prime Minister said that after consultations with NWFP government, the federal government has agreed for payment of the principal amount outstanding against Wapda under the head of net-profit on hydropower generation.

The outstanding amount of Rs 110 billion would be paid in four instalments, he added. The Prime Minister said that initially an amount of Rs 10 billion would be released to the province with immediate effect while each installment of Rs 25 billion would be paid on the end of each quarter of the year.

He said that the decision was a milestone in the relations of the federal government as it was a longstanding demand of the provincial government. He said according to the decision both parties would withdraw their cases from the courts. During the government of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz an Arbitration Tribunal was constituted for the resolution of the dispute between NWFP and Wapda.

However, Wapda failed to honour the verdict of the tribunal and challenged it in a civil court of Islamabad, while the NWFP government moved Supreme Court. The Prime Minister also announced establishment of 'Martyre Trust' for the police personnel on the pattern of military.

The trust would be established in all four provinces and the federal government would provide the seed money to serve the families of those who lost lives in the line of duties. He said that the purpose of his visit to the province was to express solidarity with the people of Peshawar where terrorists killed innocent persons through a cowardly act of explosion. He expressed sorrow over the killing of women and children and came to share feelings with the victims.

He also condemned killing of seven security men in an explosion of a powerful bomb Bara tehsil of Khyber Agency, saying that militants neither have religion nor any faith, whose purpose is only weakening of the state. He appreciated the role of the law enforcement agencies which are sacrificing their lives for the future of the nation. Similarly, he also supported the general public who had extended support to the security forces in the battle.

The Prime Minister said that a meeting was also held to review law and order situation and strengthening of the security arrangements. He said that provision of security to the people is fundamental duty of the state. He linked the resolution of economic and other issues with bringing improvement in the law and order situation.

"Security and economic development are inter-related and both are pre-requisite for investment. We are competent and able to resolve the problems," said that the Prime Minister. He said that the government wanted capacity building of the law enforcement agencies, adding that a committee headed by him has been constituted in this regard.

He said that both civil and military leadership are united while the political leadership either they are inside the parliament or outside wanted elimination of the terrorism. "We have no other option as militants wanted the abolition of the system," he said.

The Prime Minister said that reconstruction of Malakand Division would be initiated, "as we are in contact with our friends in international community. The military action has completed now it is the turn for political, social and economic solutions". He said that they required provision of employment and bringing improvement in the economy of the people.

The PM was also briefed on matters relating to internally displaced persons (IDPs) who thanked the people of Peshawar, Mardan, Swabi, Charsadda and other districts for extending hospitality to their displaced brothers in Swat. He said that 80 percent displaced families have returned to their homes. Regarding military action in Waziristan, he said that the displaced people from FATA would also be rehabilitated.

He said that tribesmen are patriotic Pakistanis and have supported Qaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and today they are rendering sacrifices for stability and integrity of Pakistan. He said that foreign elements are polluting situation in FATA. He said that there would be no difference in the standard of treatment with the people of FATA and like IDPs of Malakand they would also be paid Rs 25000 on the return to their areas and Rs 5000 for their livelihood.

He announced that a committee comprising of NWFP Governor and Chief Minister, Interior Minister, Information Minister, Minister of State for Economic Division, and General Nadeem of the Special Support Group, has been constituted for FATA. The committee would supervise funding and would approve funds for the law enforcement agencies. The committee has been directed to prepare report within a period of 30 days.

Pakistan's hidden war

In South Waziristan the enemy is not just the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It's also the terrain, and the militants know every inch.For centuries the treacherous peaks and remote valleys have been resistant to outsiders.During the era of the Raj, British troops had their own name for it - "Hell's Door Knocker."These days American officials regard it as one of the most dangerous places on earth.In this barren landscape the Pakistani army is now fighting a largely hidden war. We were given a rare glimpse of the battlefield, where 30,000 troops are trying to flush out an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 militants.The military gave us a guided tour of areas captured since the launch of operation "Path to Salvation" on 17 October.The terrain dictates the strategy - first troops have to take the high ground, then the valleys and ravines. We were taken to a series of strategic hilltops, which are now in army hands.Commanders spoke of fierce resistance from heavily armed militants.One of the first battles was against a stronghold of Uzbek fighters, in the district of Spin Jamaat. The Uzbeks have a reputation as ferocious warriors, and loyal al-Qaeda soldiers.
"They put up a very good fight," says General Khalid Rabbani, who lead the assault. "They defended every peak and every ridge, and they filled the area with mines and improvised explosive devices."
9/11 connection
He said his troops had killed 82 militants, but admitted that hundreds had probably escaped Spin Jamaat before the fighting began.In a mud compound in the village of Sherwangai, troops displayed some of the spoils of war.Alongside the heavy weapons and the hand grenades there were computers - and identity documents.One passport suggests a militant with links to the 9/11 hijackers may have been here at some point.We had a brief opportunity to examine the German passport, issued in the name of Said Bahaji.It was issued in August 2001 and showed an entry to Pakistan early the following month - days before the twin towers of the World Trade Center were attacked.Bahaji is believed to have lived in Hamburg for eight months with Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers.The appearance of the passport raises a lot of questions - not least is it genuine? For now that is unclear.
The discovery coincided with a visit by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in which she publicly questioned Pakistan's efforts to hunt down al-Qaeda.
One UK-based analyst said the timing was not an accident.
"I think it's convenient," says Dr. Sajjan Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, "especially given that Hilary Clinton seemed to criticise the government and the military for not doing enough to find al-Qaeda."
"The question is whether they allow more scrutiny of the passport, " Dr Gohel added.
The army says it is now being examined by Pakistani intelligence experts, and that this process will "take time".
During our visit the soundtrack of war was playing in the hills around Sherwangai - the dull crack and thump of mortars, punctuated by bursts of machinegun fire.
Commanders said troops are advancing steadily - if slowly - and the Taliban are apparently being pushed back.
But one senior officer warned that what looks like a retreat is actually a trap.
"Their main aim is to suck us deeper into forested areas and mountain passes, and cause maximum casualties among our incoming troops," he asserts.
He believes that the Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud has moved into dense forests near the border of North Waziristan, where he has cover from US drones.
The army admits Hakimullah is continuing to direct the resistance, and that his men are still on the move, on horses or mules - the traditional transport of South Waziristan.
'Fight to the finish'
Travelling in the area is like going back in time. "Any paved roads you see were built by the British," says one officer, "and that was a long time ago."
Since then there have been decades of neglect, the vacuum left by the state was filled by the militants.
Privately commanders admit that they will have to keep fighting this battle for years to come, if the government does not follow the offensive with a development plan.

For now Pakistanis wonder when the operation will deliver tangible results - like a reduction in the almost deadly attacks which claimed around 300 lives in the past month.

“ They put up a very good fight, [the militants] defended every peak and every ridge, and they filled the area with... improvised explosive devices ”
General Khalid Rabbani, Pakistan Army
With helicopter gunships circling overhead, the army's chief spokesman - Major General Athar Abbas - was reluctant to give a timescale.

But he maintains that robbing the Taliban of their stronghold will severely limit their ability to strike.

"The people will have to be patient and have confidence that the army will end this as soon as possible," he says.
Previously commanders have said the operation should be concluded in six to eight weeks, though troops would have to remain in the area long after that.
The army has been here before - with three previous offensives since 2004. They ended with peace deals not with victory.
"This time it will be a fight to the finish. We have strong public support," says Maj Gen Abbas.
What Pakistan does or fails to do here has implications beyond its own borders - for security in neighbouring Afghanistan and also in the West.
The peaks of South Waziristan cast a long shadow

PM chairs high-level meeting on NWFP's security situation

PESHAWAR : Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani on Saturday chaired a high-level meeting on the security and law and order situation in NWFP at the Governor House.

The prime minister who arrived here on a day-long visit, discussed matters relating to security in the province and directed the authorities to take effective measures to protect the life and property of masses.

The meeting was attended by Governor NWFP Owais Ahmad Ghani, Chief Minister Ameer Haider Hoti, Interior Minister Rehman Malik, Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira, State Minister for Finance Hina Rabbani Khar, Federal Ministers Lal Muhammad Khan and Najmuddin Khan.

Fayyaz Toro, Special Secretary Home NWFP briefed the Prime Minister on the security situation in the province. Chief Secretary NWFP Javed Iqbal, IGP Malik Naveed and other high officials were also present in the briefing.

The meeting also discussed the status of displaced families due to military operation in South Waziristan.

Earlier, the meeting offered fateha for the departed souls of the Meena bazaar blast, and prayed for the early recovery of the injured.