Sunday, November 22, 2009

Pakistan troops repulse militant attack

Pakistani troops on Sunday repulsed an attack by militants on one of their posts in a lawless tribal region, killing 11 rebels, officials said.

Armed with heavy weapons, a group of 30-40 militants launched the attack on an army post in Rashakai area in the Bajaur region, which borders Afghanistan, senior local administration official Adalat Khan told AFP.

"Troops effectively repulsed the attack, killing 11 militants," Khan said, adding that two soldiers were wounded in the exchange of fire.

Another security official in the area confirmed the incident and said the remaining militants fled, leaving behind their weapons.

Elsewhere, fighter jets bombarded militant hideouts in the Mamound area of Bajaur on Sunday, killing five rebels.

Militants have recently stepped up attacks on security forces and government installations in Bajaur, one of Pakistan's seven semi-autonomous tribal districts considered a stronghold of Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked extremists.

The violence has surged since Pakistan launched a major offensive in the Taliban bastion of South Waziristan on October 17. Officials say the aim is to distract the army's attention from South Waziristan.

In February, the army declared a major six-month operation in Bajaur successful. But violence continues to rock the region.

Meanwhile, security forces continued their operation in South Waziristan tribal region, killing five militants, the military said in a statement.

Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas have been infiltrated by hundreds of extremists who carved out safe havens after the ouster of Afghanistan's hardline Taliban regime in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Pakistani security forces also foiled an attempt to smuggle weapons and explosives into the country from Afghanistan, officials said on Sunday.

"Tribal police seized two trucks with a huge cache of weapons after a brief exchange of fire with those driving the vehicles in Khyber tribal region on Saturday," top local administration official Shafeerullah Khan said.

He said that the weapons seized by tribal police included rifles of different calibres, rockets, rocket launchers and other ammunition worth millions of (Pakistani) rupees.

He said that weapons were concealed under fresh fruit and garments in the two trucks, adding that all seven men in the two vehicles had fled during the exchange of fire.

Khan said that the trucks had entered Khyber region after crossing the border from Afghanistan at Torkhum.

Another senior administration official, Rehan Gul Khattak, confirmed the seizure and said that raids were being carried out to arrest the smugglers.

Regrouping Taliban May Widen War as Pakistan Pays Economic Toll
Taliban fleeing a Pakistani offensive are regrouping in the country’s northwest, threatening to spread and prolong a conflict that has strained the nation’s economy and may hamper efforts to attract foreign investment.

While Pakistan says its month-old offensive in South Waziristan has destroyed the largest Taliban sanctuary, some militants are falling back to Orakzai, a mountain region less than 16 kilometers (10 miles) south of Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province, said Talat Masood, an independent military analyst in Islamabad.

Rising violence in the region last year prompted London- based Tullow Oil Plc to give up operational control of drilling operations near Orakzai. A wider conflict may make it harder to attract companies like Mol Nyrt., Hungary’s largest oil refiner, which this month started natural gas production in the province.

“Naturally, this violence is not good for the investment climate, but the government’s decision this year to tackle the Taliban is a good one for the long term,” said Habib-ur-Rehman, who manages $48 million of stocks and bonds at Karachi-based Atlas Asset Management Ltd.

Peshawar, Pakistan’s eighth-largest city, suffered 11 major terrorist attacks this year, including a Nov. 19 suicide bombing at the main courthouse that killed 18 people. The city has a U.S. consulate and straddles the truck route for supplies from the port of Karachi to U.S. troops in landlocked Afghanistan.

Mountainous Trails

South of Peshawar, guerrillas are escaping over trails that snake through the mountains, military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said in a Nov. 13 interview. While “sealing off the footpaths is not realistic,” the army is “preventing the militants from moving vehicles or heavy weapons,” he said.

Some escaped militants will abandon the Taliban movement and others will continue, making Orakzai the army’s possible next target, Abbas said. Pakistani air force jets have bombed Taliban positions there this month, killing as many as 20.

The fighting is hurting what the International Monetary Fund has called an “anemic” economy. Foreign aid and loans financed 40 percent of Pakistan’s $10 billion current account deficit in the year ended June 30, said Asad Farid, an economist at AKD Securities in Karachi. This year such assistance will entirely cover a deficit of $6 billion, he said.

Rising Cost

The war against the Taliban has been costing the government $8.5 billion a year, Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin said July 15. This year’s figure is higher, Tarin told reporters Nov. 16, declining to give details.

Successes in South Waziristan, where the army has captured militant strongholds and main roads, may revive an argument with the Obama administration over which Taliban factions Pakistan’s forces should strike next. U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones has renewed pressure for Pakistan to hit the groups that attack U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, the New York Times reported Nov. 15, citing unnamed U.S. officials.

“The Pakistani response to any new U.S. demand will be the same as before: that they have no resources to open a new front,” said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council in Washington.

The army’s current offensive targets a Taliban faction in South Waziristan that opposes Pakistan’s government, which blames it for 80 percent of Islamic attacks in the country. While Taliban groups that fight in Afghanistan are based nearby in North Waziristan, Abbas said the army has no plans to expand its assault there.

Shifting Focus

“Cost and security reasons” led oil developer Tullow to hand over control of a drilling project at Kohat, near Orakzai, to its local partner, spokesman George Cazenove said in an e- mail. “Because they are no longer the operator, the number of Tullow employees in Pakistan has been reduced significantly,” although Tullow retains a 40 percent stake in the project, Cazenove said.

Budapest-based Mol, Hungary’s largest oil refiner, began production at its Manzalai field last week after an initial investment of $500 million. Initial output of 250 million cubic feet of gas a day will be increased 40 percent to 350 million cubic feet by 2013, Mol Chief Executive Officer Gyorgy Mosonyi told a press conference in Islamabad on Nov 11.

“We are reducing risk to the possible minimum,” the company said in a statement in response to questions about security. “Operations at both the office in Islamabad and at the countryside facilities are continuous and uninterrupted.”

The Karachi Stock Exchange 100 Index fell 2.1 percent last month, the most since January, as bombings and assaults in major cities eroded confidence.

Sanctuary Disrupted

The South Waziristan campaign will improve Pakistan’s security because it has disrupted the country’s largest Taliban sanctuary, said Mahmood Shah, an analyst who once served as security chief for the border zone.

“We should see a reduction in the attacks within as little as two weeks,” Shah said.

On Oct. 17, the army sent 28,000 troops into the lands of the ethnic Pashtun Mehsud tribe, which has about 5,000 to 8,000 Taliban fighters, Abbas said. The battlefield is a forested, mountainous zone of 2,200 square kilometers, about half the size of the U.S. state of Rhode Island.

Operation in Darra, Bara soon to save Peshawar: Malik

ISLAMABAD: The government will soon start an operation in Darra Adam Khel and Bara to clear the area of terrorists, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said on Saturday.

Asked about the incessant terrorist attacks in Peshawar, Malik told reporters that due to the ongoing military operation in South Waziristan and Swat, terrorists were on the run and had amassed in the areas around Peshawar.

He said more troops would be dispatched to South Waziristan, adding that the government had sent additional forces to Peshawar and had dispatched new security equipment, including mobile scanners, to the city.

Security conference focuses on Pakistan nuclear capabilities
HALIFAX — The Afghan war and the growing Taliban insurgency inside Pakistan are putting that country's nuclear arsenal at risk, says Stephen Hadley, an arms control expert who served as national security adviser to former U.S. president George W. Bush.

"The situation in Pakistan is troubling from a lot of perspectives," Hadley said. "There is a lot of concern about what happens to Pakistan's nuclear weapons if the government fragments in some way."

Hadley, who now advises the United States Institute of Peace — a Washington-based think-tank — was speaking in Halifax Sunday at an international security conference, where the worsening insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan were the focus of three days of talks by defence ministers, academics and military leaders from the Americas, Asia and Europe.

The consensus at the conference was that Pakistan is the key to solving the war in Afghanistan because the Pakistan military established the Taliban and brought them to power as a proxy government in Kabul following the Soviet withdrawal.

As the Taliban have reasserted their strength in Afghanistan in recent years, however, so too have they and other Pashtun extremist groups begun to destabilize Pakistan, working from the same safe havens near the Afghan frontier.

Hadley said there was concern inside the Bush administration after the terrorist attacks of 2001, that U.S.-led military action inside Afghanistan might destabilize Pakistan and could even lead to a Taliban government in Islamabad.

So far that hasn't happened, and as a result, Pakistan's nuclear weapons remain firmly in the control of the established civilian government, Hadley said, adding that the U.S. has assisted Pakistan since 9/11 in maintaining legitimate command and control efforts over its arsenal.

"Whenever we checked in with our military and intelligence people, we said, 'Is this a nuclear arsenal at risk?' The answer so far has always been, 'No,'" Hadley said.

"And we have now a democratic government in Pakistan that is really revitalizing their effort against the Taliban. They see it now for what it is — a strategic threat to the stability of that democracy.

"So I think that's a problem that we have done pretty well in managing, all of us together, in the last eight years."

Yet it remains "a risk" that circumstances could rapidly change, he said.

Ellen Tauscher, the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control in the Obama administration, also attended the conference on Sunday, but declined to comment on questions about Pakistan's nuclear weapons.