Friday, December 4, 2009

NATO and Afghan forces launch Helmand offensive

AFP - More than 1,000 British, Afghan and US troops launched a fresh offensive in a key battleground of southern Afghanistan on Friday, after President Barack Obama unveiled a new strategy to end the war.

NATO said the offensive was designed to crush insurgents around a major town in Helmand in order to allow development to begin and civilians to return -- key elements of Obama's decision to deploy 30,000 new US troops to Afghanistan.

Many of the new forces are heading south, where Helmand is the heartland of Afghanistan's massive opium production and a stronghold for the eight-year Taliban insurgency seeking to overthrow the Western-backed government.

The extra US soldiers, coupled with at least 7,000 more pledged by NATO allies, will boost to over 150,000 the number of troops serving in the US-led coalition and the NATO-run International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

"More than 1,000 ISAF personnel partnered with Afghan national security forces began a long-planned operation in northern Helmand province to clear insurgent forces from a key area," the military said.

Around 900 US Marines and sailors, British troops and more than 150 Afghan soldiers and police were taking part in Operation Khareh Cobra, or "Cobra's Anger" in the valley of Now Zad, it added.

"So far, four Taliban dead bodies were left behind on the battlefield. But enemy casualties could be higher," Helmand governor spokesman Daud Ahmadi told AFP, adding that scores of mines and a cache of explosives were seized.

Yusuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, confirmed the militia was fighting back and claimed that the insurgents had inflicted losses on the soldiers.

The operation was launched as NATO nations in Brussels pledged at least 7,000 troops to back the new drive against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Eight years after driving the Taliban out of power, more than 40 nations are launching a new effort to end the increasingly unpopular war, which has this year claimed record numbers of Western military casualties.

Around 300 US and 99 British troops have died in Afghanistan so far this year, compared to 295 foreign military deaths for all of 2008.

"This is a crucial test for NATO, which has been the greatest and most successful military alliance in history," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned NATO and its partners in Brussels.

"At least 25 countries will send more forces to the mission in 2010," said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

More pledges are expected, some after a conference on Afghanistan in London on January 28, he told reporters. Washington welcomed the "hefty" contribution.

Helmand produces about 50 percent of the world's opium. Its largely unguarded southern border with Pakistan is both a route for the illicit drug trade and for a steady supply of Taliban recruits and supplies.

"Now Zad was once Helmand's second-largest city, but is now empty due to years of fighting," ISAF said.

Insurgents have heavily mined the area. A goal of the operation is to provide enough security for the Afghan government and aid groups to begin clearing mines and improvised explosive devices, enabling citizens to return.

Friday's operation is smaller than that launched in July by 4,000 US Marines in Helmand, where British troops have struggled for years to rein in an increasingly virulent Taliban insurgency.

The Washington Post has reported that the United States will deploy up to 9,000 Marines to Helmand -- doubling the US presence in the province -- as part of a US strategy designed to start bringing troops home from 2011.

On Friday, suspected Taliban fired at least one rocket into western Afghanistan's biggest airport, disrupting flights but causing no casualties, a sign the insurgency is spreading into once peaceful parts of the country.

People flee as army steps up operation in Orakzai

KOHAT: Exodus of people from the Orakzai Agency is gaining momentum as the military intensified air and ground assaults on hideouts of militants.

Security forces have entered upper and lower Orakzai from Shahu Khel in the Hangu district and Chappri Feroze Khel on the border with the Khyber Agency, respectively. Inaccessible parts are being regularly pounded by jets, gunship helicopters and artillery fire for 10 days.

Hundreds of displaced families who did not possess registration cards faced problems and remained stranded at different checkposts in Hangu and Kohat. These families were reportedly harassed at the Ustarzai police station located on the Hangu highway in Kohat and were sent back to Hangu with instructions to bring registration cards.

The government has established registration camps for the displaced people in Hangu, but has not made any arrangements to educate the tribesmen about the procedure. Most of the people are illiterate and unable to understand the compulsion of registration cards as they used to move freely in the region in the past.

They complained that the government should have dropped leaflets through helicopters and made announcements in mosques to tell them about the registration procedure.

Fazal Amin, the head of a displaced family from the Dabori area of upper Orakzai which was not being allowed to enter Kohat by police in Ustarzai, said they had left their home to take shelter with their relatives in Kohat and were not terrorists. He complained that the attitude of police and the civil administration had multiplied their woes.

Transporters also fleeced the people by raising the fare to Kohat by Rs100 and by Rs150 to Peshawar.

The displaced people demanded that the government should set up registration camps on Sumari and Ustarzai routes.

Contrary to the claims of the political administration of the Orakzai Agency that 1,100 families had left the tribal area, independent sources told Dawn at least 10,000 families had shifted to other areas since the start of the military operation 10 days ago.

The district administration has set up a small camp at the Government High School, Mohammad Khawaja, where only eight families have been registered, who are being provided with food items, except for sugar.

US condemns mosque attack in Pakistan

WASHINGTON: The United States condemned Friday's deadly attack on a mosque in Pakistan, saying it highlights the need for Washington to support Islamabad in fighting a "common" enemy.

"These attacks highlight the vicious and inhuman nature of this enemy whose true target is the democratically elected government of Pakistan and the security of all Pakistanis," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters.

The "awful attacks" underscore the "need for us to support the government of Pakistan as they fight this... common enemy and this common challenge that we have," he added. "We will continue to support them as... they fight this terrible scourge."

Kelly expressed sympathy for the attack's victims, as well as for the friends and family of those killed. He said the State Department had no information of any Americans hurt in the attack.

Suicide bombers stormed a mosque frequented by army officers in Pakistan's garrison city of Rawalpindi, leaving 40 people dead in an onslaught of gunfire, grenades and explosions.

Four militants launched the attack, opening fire, tossing grenades and then detonating suicide vests in a crowd gathered for Friday prayers in the city adjoining the capital Islamabad, witnesses and officials said.

Rawalpindi is home to the military's headquarters and is a frequent target of Taliban insurgents, who have staged a wave of fierce attacks in recent months to avenge military offensives against them across the northwest, along the border with Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama's administration is seeking to win firmer backing from Islamabad in fighting extremism by pledging to sharply step up support for Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation wary of US actions.

Peshawar: Security beefed up in provincial capital

PESHAWAR: Due to unsatisfactory law and order situation here, the stringent security measures have been taken in the Provincial capital on Friday and extra contingents of police were deployed at various sensitive areas and outside mosques besides sealing city and cantonment areas to avert any possibility of mishap. People offered Friday prayers amid tight security and the police allowed the Nimazees (worshippers) to enter the mosques after thorough body search. The police had secret information on Friday about the possibility of terror incident in the Provincial capital. All the roads leading to Saddar Bazaar were blocked whereas Bara Road, Mall Road, FC Plaza roads were sealed besides banning the entry of vehicles on all roads leading to cantonment area. Similarly, car parking was not allowed outside mosques in order to ensure safety of the worshippers. Moreover, apart from checking vehicles the security personnel were also conducting body search of people on foot that panicked the commoners. The fear and panic returned to the capital city after a break of few days and most of the markets and bazaars remained closed whereas people confined themselves inside their houses. Security put on high alert in City after Thursday’s blast in Regi area and intelligence reports regarding terror incident during Friday prayers. On the special directives, additional contingents of security forces have been deployed at sensitive points in the city. Strict directives have been issued for night patrolling and checking of suspects. It is reported that numbers of roads have been closed for traffic, whereas more contingents of police have been deputed for ensuring the security of the building. The police have declared many areas of the provincial metropolis as most sensitive and they were put in ‘High Alert or Red Zone’ where security was further tightened. It is also reported that once again threats received to educational institutions of the City and local administration directed such institutions to enhance security steps and ensure protection to the students. The Afghan migrants are also being closely monitored as per the latest development in this respect, sources said.

C.I.A. to Expand Use of Drones in Pakistan

New York Times
WASHINGTON — Two weeks ago in Pakistan, Central Intelligence Agency sharpshooters killed eight people suspected of being militants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and wounded two others in a compound that was said to be used for terrorist training.

Then, the job in North Waziristan done, the C.I.A. officers could head home from the agency’s Langley, Va., headquarters, facing only the hazards of the area’s famously snarled suburban traffic.

It was only the latest strike by the agency’s covert program to kill operatives of Al Qaeda, the Taliban and their allies using Hellfire missiles fired from Predator aircraft controlled from half a world away.

The White House has authorized an expansion of the C.I.A.’s drone program in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, officials said this week, to parallel the president’s decision, announced Tuesday, to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. American officials are talking with Pakistan about the possibility of striking in Baluchistan for the first time — a controversial move since it is outside the tribal areas — because that is where Afghan Taliban leaders are believed to hide.

By increasing covert pressure on Al Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan, while ground forces push back the Taliban’s advances in Afghanistan, American officials hope to eliminate any haven for militants in the region.

One of Washington’s worst-kept secrets, the drone program is quietly hailed by counterterrorism officials as a resounding success, eliminating key terrorists and throwing their operations into disarray. But despite close cooperation from Pakistani intelligence, the program has generated public anger in Pakistan, and some counterinsurgency experts wonder whether it does more harm than good.

Assessments of the drone campaign have relied largely on sketchy reports in the Pakistani press, and some have estimated several hundred civilian casualties. Saying that such numbers are wrong, one government official agreed to speak about the program on the condition of anonymity. About 80 missile attacks from drones in less than two years have killed “more than 400” enemy fighters, the official said, offering a number lower than most estimates but in the same range. His account of collateral damage, however, was strikingly lower than many unofficial counts: “We believe the number of civilian casualties is just over 20, and those were people who were either at the side of major terrorists or were at facilities used by terrorists.”

That claim, which the official said reflected the Predators’ ability to loiter over a target feeding video images for hours before and after a strike, is likely to come under scrutiny from human rights advocates. Tom Parker, policy director for counterterrorism at Amnesty International, said he found the estimate “unlikely,” noting that reassessments of strikes in past wars had usually found civilian deaths undercounted. Mr. Parker said his group was uneasy about drone attacks anyway: “Anything that dehumanizes the process makes it easier to pull the trigger.”

Yet with few other tools to use against Al Qaeda, the drone program has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress and was escalated by the Obama administration in January. More C.I.A. drone attacks have been conducted under President Obama than under President George W. Bush. The political consensus in support of the drone program, its antiseptic, high-tech appeal and its secrecy have obscured just how radical it is. For the first time in history, a civilian intelligence agency is using robots to carry out a military mission, selecting people for killing in a country where the United States is not officially at war.

In the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, C.I.A. officials were not eager to embrace killing terrorists from afar with video-game controls, said one former intelligence official. “There was also a lot of reluctance at Langley to get into a lethal program like this,” the official said. But officers grew comfortable with the program as they checked off their hit list more than a dozen notorious figures, including Abu Khabab al-Masri, a Qaeda expert on explosives; Rashid Rauf, accused of being the planner of the 2006 trans-Atlantic airliner plot; and Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban.

The drone warfare pioneered by the C.I.A. in Pakistan and the Air Force in Iraq and Afghanistan is the leading edge of a wave of push-button combat that will raise legal, moral and political questions around the world, said P. W. Singer, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and author of the book “Wired for War.”

Forty-four countries have unmanned aircraft for surveillance, Mr. Singer said. So far, only the United States and Israel have used the planes for strikes, but that number will grow.

“We’re talking about a technology that’s not going away,” he said.

There is little doubt that “warheads on foreheads,” in the macho lingo of intelligence officers, have been disruptive to the militants in Pakistan, removing leaders and fighters, slowing movement and sowing dissension as survivors hunt for spies who may be tipping off the Americans. Yet the drones are unpopular with many Pakistanis, who see them as a violation of their country’s sovereignty — one reason the United States refuses to officially acknowledge the attacks. A poll by Gallup Pakistan last summer found only 9 percent of Pakistanis in favor of the attacks and 67 percent against, with a majority ranking the United States as a greater threat to Pakistan than its archrival, India, or the Pakistani Taliban.

Interestingly, residents of the tribal areas where the attacks actually occur, who bitterly resent the militants’ brutal rule, are far less critical of the drones, said Farhat Taj, an anthropologist with the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy. A study of 550 professional people living in the tribal areas was conducted late last year by the institute, a Pakistani research group. About half of those interviewed called the drone strikes “accurate,” 6 in 10 said they damaged militant organizations, and almost as many denied they increased anti-Americanism.

Dr. Taj, who lived at the edge of the tribal areas until 2002, said residents would prefer to be protected by the Pakistani Army. “But they feel powerless toward the militants and they see the drones as their liberator,” she said.

In an interview this week with the German magazine Der Spiegel, the Pakistani prime minister, Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, said the drone strikes “do no good, because they boost anti-American resentment throughout the country.” American officials say that despite such public comments, Pakistan privately supplies crucial intelligence, proposes targets and allows the Predators to take off from a base in Baluchistan.

Pakistan’s public criticism of the drone attacks has muddied the legal status of the strikes, which United States officials say are justified as defensive measures against groups that have vowed to attack Americans. Philip Alston, the United Nations’ special rapporteur for extrajudicial executions and a prominent critic of the program, has said it is impossible to judge whether the program violates international law without knowing whether Pakistan permits the incursions, how targets are selected and what is done to minimize civilian casualties.

A spokesman for the C.I.A., Paul Gimigliano, defended the program without quite acknowledging its existence. “While the C.I.A. does not comment on reports of Predator operations, the tools we use in the fight against Al Qaeda and its violent allies are exceptionally accurate, precise and effective,” he said. “Press reports suggesting that hundreds of Pakistani civilians have somehow been killed as a result of alleged or supposed U.S. activities are — to state what should be obvious under any circumstances — flat-out false.”

From 2004 to 2007, the C.I.A. carried out only a handful of strikes. But pressure from the Congressional intelligence committees, greater confidence in the technology and reduced resistance from Pakistan led to a sharp increase starting in the summer of 2008.

Former C.I.A. officials say there is a rigorous protocol for identifying militants, using video from the Predators, intercepted cellphone calls and tips from Pakistani intelligence, often originating with militants’ resentful neighbors. Operators at C.I.A. headquarters can use the drones’ video feed to study a militant’s identity and follow fighters to training areas or weapons caches, officials say. Targeters often can see where wives and children are located in a compound or wait until fighters drive away from a house or village before they are hit.

Mr. Mehsud’s wife and parents-in-law were killed with him, but that was an exceptional decision prompted by the rare chance to attack him, the official said.

The New America Foundation, a policy group in Washington, studied press reports and estimated that since 2006 at least 500 militants and 250 civilians had been killed in the drone strikes. A separate count, by The Long War Journal, found 885 militants’ deaths and 94 civilians’.

But the government official insisted on the accuracy of his far lower figure of approximately 20 civilian deaths, noting that the Pakistani press rarely reported local protests about civilian deaths, routine occurrences when bombs in Afghanistan have gone astray.

Daniel S. Markey, who studies South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the comments of two anti-Taliban tribal leaders he spoke with on a recent trip to Pakistan seemed to capture the paradox of the drones.

The tribal leaders told him that the strikes were eliminating dangerous militants while causing few civilian deaths. But they pleaded for a halt to the attacks, saying the strikes stirred up anger toward the United States and the Pakistani Army, and “made them look like puppets,” he said.

“It gave the lie,” Mr. Markey said, “to the argument we’ve made for a long time: that this fight is theirs, too.”

40 including 17 children killed in mosque attack

RAWALPINDI: 40 people were killed Friday when suicide bombers stormed a packed mosque in Rawalpindi, firing on worshippers and detonating explosives, according to an ISPR statement.

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Militants targeted a mosque inside an officers’ residential colony in Parade Lane, Rawalpindi Saddar, during Friday prayers. According to the report, four terrorists carried out the attack; grenades were first hurled into the mosque, before two of the terrorists went inside and blew themselves up. The remaining terrorists then opened indiscriminate fire outside the mosque.

The dead include 17 children, 10 civilians and nine army personnel.

Witnesses reported at least five blasts, while Interior Minister Rehman Malik told a private television channel that the bombers disguised themselves as worshippers before launching their attack.

‘There were two suicide bombers and the roof of the mosque collapsed...they are taking revenge for the Pakistan army’s successful operations in Swat and Waziristan regions,’ Malik said.

Pakistan is in the grip of a fierce insurgency, with more than 2,570 people killed in attacks in the last two-and-a-half years.

Suicide bombs and attacks have intensified this year as the military pursues offensives against Taliban strongholds across the lawless northwest.

An AFP reporter at the scene said that security forces had set up a secure perimeter around the site, with helicopters circling overhead and security forces preparing to enter the area to flush out any remaining militants.

Abdul Waheed, an official at a nearby traffic police office, said their building was shaken by a huge blast at around noon.

‘We rushed out and saw that the blast was inside the mosque. A few moments later five more blasts were heard,’ Waheed told AFP.

‘According to our estimate, some people had attacked the mosque and a few of them were hiding in a different area of Parade Lane,’ Waheed said, referring to the area where the mosque is located.

Another eye witness, Ishtiaq, told a private television station that he was inside the mosque when he heard several blasts.

‘There were about 200 or 300 worshippers in the hall. Army officials mostly offer their Friday prayers in this mosque,’ he said.

In October, militants stormed the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, sparking a day-long siege which left 22 people dead.