Thursday, December 3, 2009

Congress worries about Obama's plan for Pakistan

WASHINGTON – Facing the prospect of more American deaths in Afghanistan as the war escalates, lawmakers lashed out at neighboring Pakistan on Thursday as an unreliable ally that could spare the U.S. its bruising fight with al-Qaida if it wanted.
"They don't seem to want a strategic relationship," New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez said of the government in Islamabad. "They want the money. They want the equipment. But at the end of the day, they don't want a relationship that costs them too much."
A crucial ally in fighting the al-Qaida terrorist network, Pakistan is also a major recipient of U.S. aid. President Barack Obama and Congress recently approved a $7.5 billion aid package for economic and social programs in Pakistan in a bid to strengthen the civilian government there.
But many in Congress have grown skeptical that Islamabad is doing all it can to drive out al-Qaida forces hiding along its mountainous Afghan border. Those doubts reached a new pitch this week after Obama's announcement that he will send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan by next fall, with the anticipation that they would start coming home in July 2011.
Obama has not said whether or how the troop buildup would accelerate attacks on the terrorist network hiding in Pakistan. The U.S. has previously relied on drone-launched missile strikes, and those operations are classified.
"It is not clear how an expanded military effort in Afghanistan addresses the problem of Taliban and al-Qaida safe havens across the border in Pakistan," said Sen. Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, a leading conservative Democrat, said Obama's strategy was the nation's best shot but that Pakistan could end the war if it wanted.
"Conversely, if Pakistan were to return to old habits of supporting the Afghan Taliban, the war may be almost impossible to win," he said.
Obama has sought to assure lawmakers — and the rest of the world — that he sees Pakistan inextricably linked to Afghanistan. In his speech on Tuesday, the president said both governments were "endangered" because of al-Qaida.
"The stakes are even higher within a nuclear-armed Pakistan, because we know that al-Qaida and other extremists seek nuclear weapons, and we have every reason to believe that they would use them," he said in his speech from West Point.
Testifying for the second day on Obama's new war plan, the president's chief military and diplomatic advisers said Pakistan was a critical component of the strategy.
"We have a lot of work to do in trying to convince them that we're not trying to take over their country, that we're not trying to take control of their nuclear weapons, and that we are actually interested in a long-term partnership with them," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Several Democrats, including Menendez and Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, have threatened to withhold their support for more money for the war, although lawmakers said it was unlikely that Congress would try to block the deployments. Instead, members from both parties say they want to find a way to pay for the troop increase that won't add to the deficit.
In a press conference Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she did not support a proposal by Wisconsin Democratic Rep. David Obey that would have imposed a war tax on most Americans.
Pelosi, D-Calif., said the first step should be an all-hands briefing to Congress by Obama's top advisers.
"We have to handle it with care, listen to what they present, and then members will make their decision," she said.
The results of the billions in U.S. aid to Pakistan have been mixed. While the army has taken on the Pakistani Taliban, it has failed to go after Afghan Taliban leaders who base their operations in the tribal areas in the border region. At the same time, anti-Western sentiment in Pakistan has grown.
Many Western officials and analysts believe Pakistan is playing both sides — accepting U.S. money to crack down on militants while tolerating the Afghan Taliban in case the radical Islamic movement gains control in Afghanistan once the American troops withdraw.
Officials estimate there are 500 al-Qaida fighters and 50,000 Taliban militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
For its part, Pakistan has been cautious in its response to Obama's plan. In London on Thursday, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani declined to endorse the U.S.-led troop increase and said his government needs more information.
Gates said he initially opposed the idea of a troop increase because he feared it would make the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan too heavy. He said he also was hesitant to set a timeline on when troop withdrawals would begin.
But he said he was ultimately convinced by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, that the size of the force was less important than the mission troops would be given. His colleagues also convinced him that setting a date to start withdrawals would help encourage the Afghans to take more responsibility, Gates said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday will take the administration's case for escalating the war to NATO's top council, where McChrystal will attend a foreign ministers meeting. Clinton said she expects the allies to make new troop contributions in the 5,000 to 7,000 range.

Karzai praises Obama's deadline

KABUL – President Hamid Karzai put a brave face Thursday on President Barack Obama's decision to start pulling out troops in mid-2011, telling The Associated Press in his first public response that it will push Afghans to take control of their own destiny.
But he blamed the United States for stalling peace overtures in the past and offered to talk directly with the Taliban's top leader.
Karzai appeared relaxed and confident throughout the exclusive AP interview — the Afghan president's first remarks since Obama's announcement Tuesday that he will send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan by next fall with the anticipation that they would start coming home in July 2011.
Karzai said the deadline, just 18 months away, is "not a concern for us — it is rather an impetus."
"For Afghans it's good that we are facing a deadline," he said. "We must begin to stand on our own feet. Even if it is with our own meager means — whatever those means may be. And we must begin to defend our own country.
"If we, the Afghan people, cannot defend our country, ourselves, against an aggressor from within or without, then no matter what the rest of the world does with us, it will not produce the desired results," he said during the one-hour interview at the turreted brick palace in the heavily guarded heart of the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Republicans have objected to the setting of a hard deadline for withdrawing troops for fear it would encourage the Taliban to play a waiting game and say Obama must be willing to delay the start of a pullout if security deteriorates.
But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates told U.S. lawmakers Thursday that the July 2011 date is flexible. The White House said Obama set this date to make sure Karzai's government knows it has limited time to reform itself and take charge of security.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for a timetable for training Afghan security forces, battling police corruption and appointing nearly 400 provincial and district governors.
Karzai called Brown's remarks "very unfortunate and very artificial."
"It is extremely insulting," he said. "But it doesn't affect me and it doesn't affect the Afghan people."
The president offered talks with the Taliban, including its one-eyed leader, Mullah Omar, who has a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head. Yet Karzai said overtures stood little chance of success without the support of the United States and its international partners.
He said his previous attempts to negotiate with insurgents were not fruitful because "sections of the international community undermined — not backed — our efforts."
On Tuesday, Obama said the U.S. must "open the door" to Taliban members who abandon violence as a way to turn the tide of an eight-year war that has killed more than 850 members of the U.S. military.
In Brussels on Thursday, Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, said reconciliation had been "on the back burner (but) it's now moving to the front burner."
But Karzai said he wants guarantees that those who are lured away from the Taliban aren't subjected to intimidation and their homes not raided by international forces or their Afghan partners.
Karzai also said he was fed up with the relentless criticism by world leaders of his government and the contentious August elections that returned him to power for another five years.
He said the allegations of corruption were exaggerated and that the criticism was motivated by political considerations. He accused "Western political circles" of trying to deny him re-election.
Karzai was forced to accept a runoff election after U.N.-backed auditors threw out nearly a third of his votes in the first ballot. Karzai was declared the winner last month after his sole challenger dropped out of the race, claiming a second ballot would be as fraudulent as the first.
"The Afghan elections were the best under the circumstances," he said. "We had no security in the south of the country. European observers called for the elections to be canceled even before the votes were counted.
"I am very sorry that the vote was insulted. I am very, very sorry and it angers me a lot that some Western political circles are still insulting the Afghans and calling this election fraudulent in order to weaken me or to weaken the Afghan government."
Karzai said he had no problems dealing with Holbrooke, with whom he reportedly had a heated meeting the day after the first round of the presidential election.
"I work government to government," Karzai said. "I don't work based on personal friendships. I want to have personal friendships. I have some personal friendships. I have no problem at all with Mr. Holbrooke, or any other official in any other government."
On other issues, he said the United States should promote good relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan — both of which face challenges from the Taliban and other Islamic extremist movements. Obama said a partnership between the U.S. and Pakistan was essential to bringing peace to the region.
Karzai also brushed off a remark by Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, who said last month: "Hamid Karzai knows very well that if U.S. troops leave, he'll be leaving shortly thereafter, or find himself probably assassinated."
"If Karzai is the leader of the Afghan people through a genuine election ... he should have no fear for his life once the foreign forces leave," Karzai said.
And the president said he had exhausted the discussion about Ahmed Wali Karzai, his controversial half brother who leads the provincial council in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. Ahmed Wali Karzai has denied a raft of allegations, including that he is on the CIA payroll and is involved in drug trafficking.
"I have spoken to Western officials in the last five years repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly. I have written to them and they all come back to say they have nothing. They have nothing on him," Karzai said.
Karzai noted the irony of being urged to improve the rule of law in Afghanistan at the same time as being asked to oust his brother from his post.
"We're trying to make the president of Afghanistan behave like an absolute ruler," Karzai said. "The constitution does not allow the Afghan president to expel people from their districts."

Centre’s Fata policy fails to satisfy ANP

PESHAWAR: The Awami National Party has expressed dissatisfaction over federal government’s policy on the tribal areas and claimed that militants are regrouping in Bajaur and Waziristan agencies after fleeing settled parts of the Frontier province.

Although provincial party president Senator Afrasiab Khattak appreciated the ongoing military operation in the Mehsud-dominated territory of South Waziristan, he said militants had sneaked into the neighbouring North Waziristan Agency where they had formed a parallel government.

‘Terrorists are regrouping in Bajaur and Waziristan tribal agencies,’ he said while talking to journalists after Qurankhwani held for slain ANP MPA Shamsher Ali at Bacha Khan Markaz here on Wednesday. ‘We are not satisfied with federal government’s policy towards Fata,’ he added.

Mr Khattak said his party being a coalition partner in the government had time and again demanded complete elimination of hideouts of militants in the tribal areas. ‘The NWFP government extended full support to security forces in their drive against militancy in the Malakand division and other parts of the province,’ he said and added the provincial government could not step in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in pursuit of militants.

About deployment of more US troops in the neighbouring Afghanistan, the ANP leader said Pakistan’s establishment and secret agencies should shun their ‘traditional role’ in dealing with terrorism, otherwise the tribal areas could turn into a battlefield for international war-gamers. ‘We could not see further bloodshed on our soil,’ he said, adding a peaceful Afghanistan was not only in the interest of Pakistan but also of the whole region.

He said non-local militants, including Arabs, Uzbeks and Chechens, had made their abodes in the tribal belt from where they were carrying out terrorist activities. He said peace-loving tribesmen in Fata were the ultimate victims of these terrorist activities.

Senator Afrasiab welcomed the announcement of gradual withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and said foreign troops could not stay for longer in any independent country. ‘Military option is no solution to any problem,’ he said and added that political settlement was the ultimate end of any crisis.

Paying tribute to the slain MPA Shamsher Ali, he said militants could not deter the Pakhtun nationalists in their fight against terrorism, calling upon political and religious forces to join their hands against terrorism. ‘Religious political parties should stop their dual standards because militants have been exposed before the whole nation,’ he added.

Answering a question, he said the ANP had called upon the federal government for drastic political and administrative reforms in the tribal areas and full rights and autonomy to the provinces. According to him, there was no deadlock over constitutional amendments, including renaming of the NWFP as Pakhtunkhwa.