Friday, February 26, 2010

Buried in snow, Northeast to get more

A major winter storm will continue to wallop the Northeast on Friday, a day after heavy snow closed schools, roads and caused dangerous conditions.

Parts of New York could get as much as a foot of snow Friday. The storm is the third blizzard to hit the area in a month.

"The heavy wet snow will be sufficient to bring down trees and power lines and could also cause roof collapses," the National Weather Service said.

A snow-covered tree limb fell in Central Park on Thursday, killing a 46-year-old man. New York City's Parks Department warned residents to stay out of city parks after the incident.

Parts of New York had received from 22 to 30 inches by Thursday evening, the Weather Service said. Massachusetts was averaging 22 inches across the state. Parts of Pennsylvania had as much as 12 inches. Areas in Vermont received as much as 38 inches of snow.

The storm canceled more than 1,000 flights at New York area airports Thursday, said John Kelly, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Most cancellations were at Newark Liberty International Airport, with LaGuardia Airport and John F. Kennedy Airport also scrapping flights.

More cancellations were expected Friday, airport officials said.

The latest wintery blast hasn't yet wreaked as much havoc as did February's two earlier blizzards. Power companies in the New York area were reporting few outages.

But for some, any more snow was just too much.

"I've just been shoveling," a weary man told CNN-affiliate WBRE. "And it looks like I'll be doing so more shoveling."

More girls among child labourers than boys

Girls outstrip boys in the child workforce and the number of children working in villages is more than twice that in cities and towns, according to a survey conducted by a non-governmental organisation.More than three million children are working as labourers in different industries with the majority linked to bangle manufacturing, carpet weaving and surgical industry.

Leaders of the Global Compact Pakistan Faseehul Karim Siddiki and Zaheer Arif, addressing a press conference at the press club on Thursday, said that though the number of child labourers was more than 3.3 million but authorities have failed in protecting their rights due to the lack of will to implement international laws. They regretted the government attitude in following comprehensive policy in this regard.

The prevalence of child labour practice is because of poverty, which, if can’t be abolished altogether should at least be curtailed by reducing their working hours so that they could pursue their education as well, they said.

They said that the football industry in Sialkot has been purged of this practice but girls in agriculture and as domestics outnumber boys and the ratio of child labour in rural and urban areas is 70:30.

They called on media and anti-child labour organisations to join hands for fending off this evil, for ever.

Syed Jawed Shah, president of the Indus Development Society said that in Larkana alone there were some 24,000 children engaged in carpet and newspaper industries, besides working in different arenas. These helpless souls, he said, more often face physical, sexual and mental harassment.

The leaders proposed of forming coalition groups at district level to effectively address the issue of child labour.

They also announced of establishing a branch of Global Compact Pakistan in Larkana.

Hillary urges rich Pakistanis to pay more tax

WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has urged wealthy Pakistanis to pay a larger share of taxes to reduce their country’s dependence on foreign aid.

In a testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the top US diplomat reminded rich Pakistanis that they had a duty to enable their government to fund schools and hospitals and to spend more on other social projects by paying taxes.

“The very well-off” in Pakistan “do not pay their fair share for the services that are needed, in health and education primarily,” she observed.

Secretary Clinton said the US, along with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, was looking for ways to pressure nations that received loans and grants to broaden their tax base.

US spending on Pakistan, she said, were designed to promote political stability, weaken terrorist elements and help the war effort in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Mrs Clinton said the US, which last year approved a non-military annual aid package of $1.5 billion for Pakistan for five years, was also trying to boost trade and other investment opportunities in that country.

She appreciated the recent steps taken by the Pakistani government to help revive the ailing economy and noted that the Obama administration had committed to some large energy projects in Pakistan.

Such projects, she said, would enable Pakistan to overcome some of its major economic challenges by “keeping the power on and keeping those factories humming”.

The Obama administration, she noted, had “ordered a redirection of our aid so that we produce results that are in line with the needs and aspirations of the Pakistani people”. Meanwhile, documents produced before the US Congress show that since Sept 11, 2001, Pakistan has received nearly $18 billion of aid from the United States, including $11.5 billion in military assistance.

A Congressional compilation of the US aid to Pakistan showed that Islamabad received $6 billion in civilian aid after the Sept 11 attacks.

The Obama administration, in its latest annual budget, has proposed $1.6 billion in military assistance and about $1.4 billion as civilian assistance to Pakistan. This takes the total US aid to Pakistan to more than $20.7 billion post 9/11.

Of the military assistance, the maximum amount of $7.345 billion has come from the Coalition Support Fund, which Islamabad does not consider foreign assistance as this is reimbursement for its efforts to combat militants along the Afghan border.

This is followed by $2.164 billion in foreign military assistance. After coming to power, the Obama administration has so far provided $1.1 billion ($400 million in 2009 and $700 million in 2010) for Pakistan from the Counter-Insurgency Fund/Counter-Insurgency Capability Fund.

For the year 2011, the Obama administration has proposed $1.2 billion for Pakistan under this category.

Non-military assistance to Pakistan has increased considerably since last year, mainly because of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill.

Post 9/11, Pakistan has received $6 billion as civilian assistance, most of which — $4.7 billion — comes from the Economic Support Fund. For the year 2011, the US administration has proposed $1.322 billion as economic support to Pakistan.

CIA extends war on terror to Peshawar, Quetta in Pak

America's CIA has taken its war against Taliban and al-Qaeda from the mountainous Af-Pak border region to the bases in Pakistan's Peshawar and Quetta cities, a media report said today.

The report by New York Times said that the agencies that have previously shared a "tormented relationship" are now working on the several reconnaissance missions together but their long-term strategies when it comes to the Taliban and Pakistan's role in Afghanistan's future are different.

"Successful missions sometimes end with American and Pakistani spies toasting one another with Johnnie Walker Blue Label whisky, a gift from the CIA," the report said.

The Pakistani government, however, has downplayed the relationship between the ISI and CIA to avoid a backlash from the public, which disapproves of the strong American presence in their country especially when it costs civilian lives in the fighting.

Afghans Plant Flag and Their Hopes

New York Times
MARJA, Afghanistan — The black, red and green flag of Afghanistan was hoisted over the center of this onetime Taliban stronghold on Thursday, as Afghan officials symbolically claimed control after a major American-led military offensive.

While this city has emerged from the worst of the fighting, there were reports of scattered battles to the north of Marja, and American and Afghan troops continued to pursue Taliban militants. The militaries now face formidable challenges in securing the city enough for the government to begin to provide the services that it hopes will win people’s loyalty.

Residents who fled began to return, and some markets reopened Thursday. But there is little food because the major road into Marja is still mined, and the city remains a dangerous labyrinth of buried bombs, booby traps and pockets of insurgents.

With Afghan soldiers, tribal elders and residents of Marja looking on at the flag raising, the governor of Helmand Province, which includes Marja, and a top Afghan Army officer promised to restore security and stability to the city and to transform it from a bastion of the Taliban into a “symbol of peace.”

The officer, Gen. Sher Muhammad Zazai, the Afghan Army’s top commander in the Marja campaign, said the operation’s military goals were “almost achieved,” and he promised residents that the Taliban would no longer pose a threat to the area. Marja, a city of about 80,000 near the Pakistani border, had been a Taliban enclave for nearly three years.

But Gen. Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, said at a news conference in Kabul that it could take up to a month for troops to defuse bombs and rout the remaining fighters. Sporadic fighting and resistance could last even longer, adding to the difficulties of setting up a fully functional local government. American military officials have described the battle for Marja as part of a larger campaign, political as much as military, to weaken the Taliban.

The governor of Helmand, Gulab Mangal, who attended the ceremony here, said that troops from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force would remain in the area until security was restored and that they would not allow Marja to fall again to the Taliban. He promised that reconstruction projects would begin soon and that President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan government would run the city better than the Taliban had.

“What did they do for you people?” Mr. Mangal said at the ceremony, which took place near the site of the new government offices. “Are there any schools, clinics being built by the Taliban? Are they helping you?”

Coalition officials, trying to quickly restore government services, have begun to set up schools and hire employees to fill jobs in the district government.

Afghan officials also expressed their condolences over the civilians who were killed or wounded in the offensive, which began on Feb. 12 and was the largest military campaign since the invasion in 2001. But Mr. Mangal said it was a “great achievement” that so few civilians had been killed.

The military warned of the offensive for weeks in an effort to drive away Taliban militants and keep civilian casualties to a minimum. But the Afghan human rights commission said that 28 civilians had nonetheless been killed in the fighting. At least 12 service members in the NATO force, including 8 Americans, have been killed during the campaign.

On Thursday, some shop owners complained that their goods had been stolen while they were away, and they said that they wanted compensation.

As residents watched the flag raising on Thursday, some expressed mixed feelings about the change of power. They said that the Taliban had provided order and security and that the Afghan Army now needed to prove that it could open schools, clear mines and explosives from the roads and fields, and keep the population safe.

One shopkeeper, Baz Muhammad, 25, said he had returned to Marja after fleeing and staying away for 10 days during the fighting. He said that he welcomed the arrival of Afghan forces but that he was leery of foreign troops. He said he would support the return of the Taliban if NATO troops overstepped their bounds.

“People are saying they will raid our houses at night and they will kill us or detain us,” Mr. Muhammad said.

Juma Gul, 20, said his family had remained in the city even after his grandfather was shot and killed in front of his home.

“The operation was painful and full of miseries for our family,” Mr. Gul said, adding that he wanted to see the troops leave as soon as possible. “For us, they are not useful. We don’t want them to stay in Marja. We want them to leave. For us, both the Taliban and Marines are the same. They are fighting and killing us. We don’t want either.”

NATO said Thursday that two service members had died in southern Afghanistan — one on Wednesday when an improvised explosive device blew up, and the other on Thursday from small arms fire. A statement from NATO said neither service member died as part of the Marja campaign.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Dubai real estate deals for Afghans connected to Karzai
KABUL -- Afghanistan's biggest private bank -- founded by the Islamic nation's only world-class poker player -- celebrated its fifth year in business last summer with a lottery for depositors at Paris Palace, a Kabul wedding hall.
Prizes awarded by Kabul Bank included nine apartments in the Afghan capital and cash gifts totaling more than $1 million. The bank trumpeted the event as the biggest prize drawing of its kind in Central Asia.
Less publicly, Kabul Bank's boss has been handing out far bigger prizes to his country's U.S.-backed ruling elite: multimillion-dollar loans for the purchase of luxury villas in Dubai by members of President Hamid Karzai's family, his government and his supporters. The close ties between Kabul Bank and Karzai's circle reflect a defining feature of the shaky post-Taliban order in which Washington has invested more than $40 billion and the lives of more than 900 U.S. service members: a crony capitalism that enriches politically connected insiders and dismays the Afghan populace. "What I'm doing is not proper, not exactly what I should do. But this is Afghanistan," Kabul Bank's founder and chairman, Sherkhan Farnood, said in an interview when asked about the Dubai purchases and why, according to data from the Persian Gulf emirate's Land Department, many of the villas have been registered in his name. "These people don't want to reveal their names."
Afghan laws prohibit hidden overseas lending and require strict accounting of all transactions. But those involved in the Dubai loans, including Kabul Bank's owners, said the cozy flow of cash is not unusual or illegal in a deeply traditional system underpinned more by relationships than laws.
The curious role played by the bank and its unorthodox owners has not previously been reported and was documented by land registration data; public records; and interviews in Kabul, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Moscow.
Many of those involved appear to have gone to considerable lengths to conceal the benefits they have received from Kabul Bank or its owners. Karzai's older brother and his former vice president, for example, both have Dubai villas registered under Farnood's name. Kabul Bank's executives said their books record no loans for these or other Dubai deals financed at least in part by Farnood, including home purchases by Karzai's cousin and the brother of Mohammed Qasim Fahim, his current first vice president and a much-feared warlord who worked closely with U.S. forces to topple the Taliban in 2001. At a time when Washington is ramping up military pressure on the Taliban, the off-balance-sheet activities of Afghan bankers raise the risk of financial instability that could offset progress on the battlefield. Fewer than 5 percent of Afghans have bank accounts, but among those who do are many soldiers and policemen whose salaries are paid through Kabul Bank.
A U.S. official who monitors Afghan finances, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly, said banks appear to have plenty of money but noted that in a crisis, Afghan depositors "won't wait in line holding cups of latte" but would be "waving AK-47s."
Kabul Bank executives, in separate interviews, gave different accounts of what the bank is up to with Dubai home buyers. "They are borrowers. They have an account at Kabul Bank," said the bank's chairman, Farnood, a boisterous 46-year-old with a gift for math and money -- and the winner of $120,000 at the 2008 World Series of Poker Europe, held in a London casino. The bank's chief audit officer, Raja Gopalakrishnan, however, insisted that the loan money didn't come directly from Kabul Bank. He said it was from affiliated but separate entities, notably a money-transfer agency called Shaheen Exchange, which is owned by Farnood, is run by one of Kabul Bank's 16 shareholders and operates in Kabul out of the bank's headquarters.

The audit officer said Farnood "thinks it is one big pot," but the entities are "legally definitely separate."
In some ways, Kabul Bank is a symbol of how much has changed in Afghanistan since 2001, when the country had no private banks and no economy to speak of. Kabul Bank has opened more than 60 branches and recently announced that it will open 250 more, and it claims to have more than $1 billion in deposits from more than a million Afghan customers.
Kabul Bank prospers because Afghanistan, though extremely poor, is in places awash with cash, a result of huge infusions of foreign aid, opium revenue and a legal economy that, against the odds, is growing at about 15 percent a year. The vast majority of this money flows into the hands of a tiny minority -- some of it through legitimate profits, some of it through kickbacks and insider deals that bind the country's political, security and business elites.
The result is that, while anchoring a free-market order as Washington had hoped, financial institutions here sometimes serve as piggy banks for their owners and their political friends. Kabul Bank, for example, helps bankroll a money-losing airline owned by Farnood and fellow bank shareholders that flies three times a day between Kabul and Dubai.
Kabul Bank's executives helped finance President Hamid Karzai's fraud-blighted reelection campaign last year, and the bank is partly owned by Mahmoud Karzai, the Afghan president's older brother, and by Haseen Fahim, the brother of Karzai's vice presidential running mate.
Farnood, who now spends most of his time in Dubai, said he wants to do business in a "normal way" and does not receive favors as a result of his official contacts. He said that putting properties in his name means his bank's money is safe despite a slump in the Dubai property market: He can easily repossess if borrowers run short on cash. A review of Dubai property data and interviews with current and former executives of Kabul Bank indicate that Farnood and his bank partners have at least $150 million invested in Dubai real estate. Most of their property is on Palm Jumeirah, a man-made island in the shape of a palm tree where the cheapest house costs more than $2 million.
Mirwais Azizi, an estranged business associate of Farnood and the founder of the rival Azizi Bank in Kabul, has also poured money into Dubai real estate, with even more uncertain results. A Dubai company he heads, Azizi Investments, has invested heavily in plots of land on Palm Jebel Ali, a stalled property development. Azizi did not respond to interview requests. His son, Farhad, said Mirwais was busy.
Responsibility for bank supervision in Afghanistan lies with the Afghan central bank, whose duties include preventing foreign property speculation. The United States has spent millions of dollars trying to shore up the central bank. But Afghan and U.S. officials say the bank, though increasingly professional, lacks political clout. The central bank's governor, Abdul Qadir Fitrat, said his staff had "vigorously investigated" what he called "rumors" of Dubai property deals, but "unfortunately, up until now they have not found anything." Fitrat, who used to live in Washington, last month sent a team of inspectors to Kabul Bank as part of a regular review of the bank's accounts. He acknowledged that Afghan loans are "very difficult to verify" because "we don't know who owns what."
Kabul Bank's dealings with Mahmoud Karzai, the president's brother, help explain why this is so. In interviews, Karzai, who has an Afghan restaurant in Baltimore, initially said he rented a $5.5 million Palm Jumeirah mansion, where he now lives with his family. But later he said he had an informal home-loan agreement with Kabul Bank and pays $7,000 a month in interest.
"It is a very peculiar situation. It is hard to comprehend because this is not the usual way of doing business," said Karzai, whose home is in Farnood's name.
Karzai also said he bought a 7.4 percent stake in the bank with $5 million he borrowed from the bank. But Gopalakrishnan, the chief audit officer, said Kabul Bank's books include no loans to the president's brother.
Also in a Palm Jumeirah villa registered in Farnood's name is the family of Ahmad Zia Massoud, Afghanistan's first vice president from 2004 until last November. The house, bought in December 2007 for $2.3 million, was first put in the name of Massoud's wife but was later re-registered to give Farnood formal ownership, property records indicate.
Massoud, brother of the legendary anti-Soviet guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, said that Farnood had always been the owner but let his family use it rent-free for the past two years because he is "my close friend." Massoud added: "We have played football together. We have played chess together." Farnood, however, said that though the "villa is in my name," it belongs to Massoud "in reality."

Haseen Fahim, the brother of Afghanistan's current first vice president, has been another beneficiary of Kabul Bank's largesse. He got money from Farnood to help buy a $6 million villa in Dubai, which, unusually, is under his own name. He borrowed millions more from the bank, which he partly owns, to fund companies he owns in Afghanistan.
In an interview at Kabul Bank's headquarters, Khalilullah Fruzi, who as chief executive heads the bank's day-to-day operations, said he didn't know how much bank money has ended up in Dubai. If Karzai's relatives and others buy homes "in Dubai, or Germany or America . . . that is their own affair," Fruzi said, adding that the bank "doesn't give loans directly for Dubai."
Fruzi, a former gem trader, said Kabul Bank is in robust health, makes a profit and has about $400 million in liquid assets deposited with the Afghan central bank and other institutions. Kabul Bank is so flush, he added, that it is building a $30 million headquarters, a cluster of shimmering towers of bulletproof glass.
The bank is also spending millions to hire gunmen from a company called Khurasan Security Services, which, according to registration documents, used to be controlled by Fruzi and is now run by his brother. The roots of Kabul Bank stretch back to the Soviet Union. Both Fruzi and Farnood got their education and their start in business there after Moscow invaded Afghanistan in 1979.
While in Moscow, Farnood set up a successful hawala money-transfer outfit to move funds between Russia and Kabul. Russian court documents show that 10 of Farnood's employees were arrested in 1998 and later convicted of illegal banking activity. Fearful of arrest in Russia and also in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, Farnood shifted his focus to Dubai.
In 2004, three years after the fall of the Taliban regime, he got a license to open Kabul Bank. His Dubai-registered hawala, Shaheen Exchange, moved in upstairs and started moving cash for bank clients. It last year shifted $250 million to $300 million to Dubai, said the chief audit officer.
The bank began to take in new, politically connected shareholders, among them the president's brother, Mahmoud, and Fahim, brother of the vice president, who registered his stake in the name of his teenage son. Fahim said two of his companies have borrowed $70 million from Kabul Bank. Insider borrowing, he said, is unavoidable and even desirable in Afghanistan because, in the absence of a solid legal system, business revolves around trust, not formal contracts. "Afghanistan is not America or Europe. Afghanistan is starting from zero," he said.
Fahim's business has boomed, thanks largely to subcontracting work on foreign-funded projects, including a new U.S. Embassy annex and various buildings at CIA sites across the country, among them a remote base in Khost where seven Americans were killed in a December suicide attack by a Jordanian jihadiist. "I have good opportunities to get profit," Fahim said.
Kabul Bank also plunged into the airline business, providing loans to Pamir Airways, an Afghan carrier now owned by Farnood, Fruzi and Fahim. Pamir spent $46 million on four used Boeing 737-400s and hired Hashim Karzai, the president's cousin, formerly of Silver Spring, as a "senior adviser."
Farnood said he also provided a "little bit" of money to help Hashim Karzai buy a house on Palm Jumeirah in Dubai. Karzai, in brief telephone interviews, said that the property was an investment and that he had borrowed some money from Farnood. He said he couldn't recall details and would "have to check with my accountant."
Noor Delawari, governor of the central bank during Kabul Bank's rise, said Farnood and his lieutenants "were like wild horses" and "never paid attention to the rules and regulations." Delawari said he didn't know about any property deals by Kabul Bank in Dubai. He said that he, too, bought a home in the emirate, for about $200,000.
Fitrat, the current central bank governor, has tried to take a tougher line against Kabul Bank and its rivals, with little luck. Before last year's presidential election, the central bank sent a stern letter to bankers, complaining that they squander too much money on "security guards and bulletproof vehicles" and "expend large-scale monetary assistance to politicians." The letter ordered them to remain "politically neutral."
Kabul Bank did the opposite: Fruzi, its chief executive, joined Karzai's campaign in Kabul while Farnood, its poker-playing chairman, organized fundraising events for Karzai in Dubai. One of these was held at the Palm Jumeirah house of Karzai's brother.
The government has returned the favor. The ministries of defense, interior and education now pay many soldiers, police and teachers through Kabul Bank. This means that tens of millions of dollars' worth of public money sloshes through the bank, an unusual arrangement, as governments generally don't pump so much through a single private bank.
Soon after his November inauguration for a second term, President Karzai spoke at an anti-corruption conference in Kabul, criticizing officials who "after one or two years work for the government get rich and buy houses in Dubai." Last month, he flew to London for a conference on Afghanistan, attended by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other leaders, and again promised an end to the murky deals that have so tarnished his rule.
Also in London for the conference were Farnood, who now has an Afghan diplomatic passport, and Fruzi, who served as a financial adviser to Karzai's reelection campaign and also owns a house in Dubai. "If there is no Kabul Bank, there will be no Karzai, no government," Fruzi said

US, Pakistani Fight Against Taliban

Pakistan army soldiers cordon off a siteafter a blast that was apparently aimed at security forces at a busy market in Mingora, capital of Pakistan's troubled Swat Valley, 22 Feb 2010

As the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan increases its military pressure against insurgents, the fight against the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan has also been intensifying. Top U.S. military commanders are describing the recent arrests of fugitive Afghan Taliban leaders as important breakthroughs in the fight against terrorism.

In recent weeks, U.S. and Pakistani officials have reported a number of high level Taliban arrests and deaths in Pakistan. Analysts cite these developments as evidence of increased coordination.

Tasneem Noorani was Pakistan's Interior Secretary when Washington and Islamabad began pursuing an anti-terror strategy in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

He says what started out as a strong relationship between the two countries gradually eroded as U.S. officials continually called for Pakistani authorities to "do more" to target Taliban members who fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

But Noorani says the United States now appears to be pleased with Pakistan's focus on defeating its local Taliban movement.

"Over the years, I think what has happened is that now the cooperation, the quid pro quo by the U.S., there seems to be more realization since then in terms of winning the hearts and minds of [the] people of Pakistan, which wasn't there I think in the first few years," he said.

On his recent trip to Islamabad, U.S. General David Petraeus, who oversees the war in Afghanistan, expressed support for the Pakistani military's strategy of securing its recent gains against the Pakistani Taliban before taking the offensive against Afghan Taliban strongholds in the tribal regions.

General Petraeus also said the arrests of Afghan Taliban leaders in the cities of Karachi and Quetta are the result of intelligence breakthroughs between the United States and Pakistan.

The director of Pakistan's government-funded Institute of Strategic Studies Tanveer Khan agrees.

"The differences on the Pakistani attitude toward the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban, I think it has narrowed. And that I'm sure provides the basis for greater ability of cooperation, better coordination [and] better sharing of the actionable intelligence," said Khan.

He also says NATO's large-scale military operation in southern Afghanistan and U.S. President Barack Obama's announcement of a possible troop pullout starting next year has convinced Pakistan it is time to act.

"Pakistan is acting on the assumption, by and large, that some kind of end game in Afghanistan is beginning to shape up and Pakistan is deeply concerned that it should figure in the end game," he added.

But despite the apparent improvements in coordination between the two countries' fight against the Taliban, former Interior Secretary Tasneem Noorani says Pakistan has been disappointed in U.S. efforts on its behalf to broker peace with India.

"There was a big segment of Pakistanis who thought [the] U.S. would pressurize India into some kind of an arrangement whereby the problems between India and Pakistan would be resolved so that Pakistan would be left with unstinted attention to attend to the western border, but unfortunately that hasn't happened," said Noorani.

Top Pakistani and Indian diplomats are meeting for the first high-level talks between the two countries since the Mumbai terrorist attacks in late 2008.

Regional analysts believe the diplomatic contact will help reduce bi-lateral tensions, which could allow Pakistan to intensify its military efforts to secure its northwestern areas bordering Afghanistan.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

No more Schools in Mohmand Agency

There is now no remaining high school in the Safi subdivision of Mohmand Agency. On February 21, the militants blew up the last two that remained intact. As a result, some 20,000 pupils now have no means to learn. It means that they have less opportunity to better their prospects in life or escape the hold of militants. Reports from various parts of the tribal areas tell us how young men with no way to occupy their time are recruited by the Taliban. It is not entirely far-fetched to believe that this could be one purpose behind their onslaught on schools.

So far, according to media reports, some 30 schools have been destroyed in Mohmand Agency. These include 12 schools for girls. Primary, secondary and institutions of higher learning have all been targeted. The pattern of attack suggests a uniform strategy and a single line of action. Indeed, despite the fierce operation against militants we hear regularly of continuing bombardment aimed at destroying schools. The Taliban thus continue their bid to push us all back into the age of darkness and deprive the people even of what limited access they have to basic amenities. We have seen this process continue for too long. The burnt, blackened ruins of schools stand in many places across the tribal areas. The time has come to ask how this destruction can be stopped. Perhaps communities, who seek education for their children, can be involved in the effort. But what is essential is that schools be protected so that even the limited chance to learn available to the children of these areas is not snatched away from them

Monday, February 22, 2010

Marjah Just the Start of Afghan Campaign

The U.S. general who oversees the war in Afghanistan says the fight for the southern town of Marjah is just the first operation in a long campaign.

Petraeus says the battle of Marjah is just the beginning. "This is just the initial operation of what will be a 12- to 18-month campaign, as General McChrystal and his team have mapped it out," he said.

During an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, Petraeus said the enemy is formidable.

He did not predict how long the operation in Marjah - a traditional Taliban stronghold - would continue. He said only that the fighting is tough. "When we go on the offensive, when we take away sanctuaries and safe havens from the Taliban and the other extremist elements that we and our Afghan and coalition partners are fighting in that country, they are going to fight back. And we are seeing that in Marjah. We will see that in other areas," he said.

The general spoke from Tampa, Florida, where he heads the U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for military operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

He noted the difficulties encountered in Iraq when former President George W. Bush sent in additional troops in what was called a "surge." Petraeus was asked if, once again, Americans should prepare for significant losses. "They will be tough. They were tough in Iraq. Look, I have repeatedly said these types of efforts are hard and they are hard all the time. I do not use words like optimistic or pessimist. I use realist. And the reality is it is hard, but we are there for a very important reason and we cannot forget that," he said.

The Obama administration's Afghanistan strategy got a vote of confidence Sunday from retired General Colin Powell, who served as President Bush's secretary of state during his first term in office.

He said it is a good, comprehensive plan. But at the same time, he acknowledged he has concerns about whether or not the Afghan government can follow-up once the NATO operation pushes the Taliban out. "I hope their capability will increase. The Afghan national army is improved but clearly not up to U.S. standards yet. And the police force - they have a lot to prove, they do not yet have the confidence of the people," he said.

Powell was interviewed on the CBS television program Face the Nation.

Afghans Voice Their Fears Amid Marja Campaign

MARJA, Afghanistan — Since the American-led offensive into the last large Taliban enclave in Helmand Province began nine days ago, local Afghans have faced a dangerous and uncertain world.

Their homes are now in a region where the Marines have established a presence, the Taliban have moved into the shadows as a potent guerrilla force, and the Afghan government insists it will soon provide services and bring Marja into the national fold.

All the while, in northern Marja, the fighting grinds on at a pace of several firefights a day — a climate that has displaced many civilians and kept others hiding inside. Abdul Ajahn, an elder here, voiced a lingering fear.

“If the Taliban shoots from that side, and you are on this side, and I am in between?” he said to the Marines at a meeting arranged by a commander and local elders over the weekend. “Then I am sure you will shoot me.”

One by one at the meeting, attended by the elders of several rural villages and the leaders of Company K, Third Battalion, Sixth Marines, the elders asked questions and expressed worries, summarizing local reactions to an offensive that so far had frightened and disoriented them.

How can farmers water and feed their livestock or work on crops without risking being shot? When will it be safe enough to visit the bazaar, which has been all but closed? When will searches of their homes stop? Can the mullah move through the village before dawn to open his mosque for morning prayer?

If the meeting was any indication, the Marines face local Afghans deeply worried for their safety and suspicious of American actions, even as the elders expressed an interest in collaborating with development projects once security conditions improve.

But first things first.

One elder, Yamatullah, a man with a long, fine goatee, asked the Marines to respect the people’s possessions. On many days since the Marines landed by helicopter, firefights have led to Marines chasing Taliban gunmen, often into the mud-walled compounds that ring local homes. The Marines have also conducted deliberate sweeps. “We are innocent people,” Mr. Yamatullah said. “We have a lot of expensive things in our homes. Please do not break our things or take them.”

The Marines said they would try not to disturb anyone’s homes or goods. They also told the elders that once the fighting subsided, Marja would enjoy many services and development opportunities it had lacked: police protection, mosque repair, school and medical care.

About an hour into the meeting, long bursts of rifle fire and the thump of a machine gun could be heard a few kilometers away. A Marine reconnaissance unit was in a fight.

The shura, as the meeting was called, continued nonetheless. The Marines said they wanted to keep hearing from the elders.

One man, Izmarai, vented at the Marines for setting up an outpost at a home he said he owned. He demanded they leave.

“If you want to arrest me, arrest me,” he said. “If you want to shoot me, shoot me now. You say you want to make peace and security. Then why did you make your compound in my home, and between my home and my field? Did you ask me? No.”

Mr. Izmarai was so angry that at one point he tossed stones at First Lt. Cory J. Colistra, the company’s executive officer. The Marines promised the man they would not stay on his property long. They offered to pay rent.

Mr. Izmarai was unimpressed. After the shura ended, he at first refused to shake the Marines’ hands. But later he returned, saying his presentation had been a performance. There were Taliban members at the meeting, he said, and he spoke as he did to impress them. The Marines said they were not sure what to believe. Was he telling the truth? Or playing both sides?

By this time, midday Saturday, the company had returned to the current day-to-day fight. Third Platoon set out to set up an overnight patrol base. The Taliban were waiting. A firefight ensued. A Marine was struck by a bullet in the leg; he was evacuated and in good condition.

On Sunday, the fighting was more intense. Second Platoon left its patrol base to clear an area north of a bridge that the company seized last week. It came under machine-gun fire. A Marine was shot in the hip. (The names of both Marines have been withheld pending notification of their families.)

The Marine’s bleeding was difficult to stop. The corpsman who tried to save him lost the man’s pulse, then managed to resuscitate him. He kept the man alive until a helicopter could land and carry him to a military hospital. The platoon continued its sweep. Company K felt a surge a relief.

About an hour later the radio brought grim news. The wounded Marine had died.

In all but one of the nine days Company K has been clearing a small portion of Marja, there have been multiple skirmishes. And at times two or more fights have occurred simultaneously, as patrols in different places have clashed with separate groups of Taliban. Most have not resulted in American casualties. The Taliban have often bounded away as the Marines massed supporting fire or brought in air support.

But eight members of Company K and two Afghan Army soldiers have been struck by bullets in six different engagements. Two Marines and one Afghan soldier have died. The Taliban have suffered much heavier losses. Yet they continued through the weekend to fire at most of the company’s patrols.

The civilians, meanwhile, sought cues as to what to do. So far, the small number of Afghans tending crops in the fields or looking after livestock, or even walking along roads and trails, suggested that local Afghans were not convinced that it was safe enough here to resume their routines.

Pashto as official language

PESHAWAR: Different organizations working for promotion of Pashto language, culture and literature staged a rally on Sunday to commemorate the World Mother Tongue Day and urged the government to declare Pashto as the official language in the NWFP.

The rally was jointly organised by World Pashto Congress, World Pashto Conference and Pashto Jamhoori Taroon. Led by member of the NWFP Assembly Sikandar Hayat Sherpao, known Pashto literatus and columnist Salim Raz, Afzal Shah Khamosh and others, the procession started from Soekarno Chowk and after passing through Khyber Bazaar, it reached Qissa Khwani Bazaar where a public meeting was held.

The participants were holding banners and placards inscribed with their demands. They demanded of the NWFP government to declare Pashto as the official language in the province, make Pashto the medium of instruction and introduce it as a compulsory subject at school and college level.

The participants said it was a matter of satisfaction that books in the province at the primary level were in Pashto in the public sector schools but students at the private educational institutions were unaware of their mother tongue. It is due to the flawed and class-based educational system that the educated lot of the Pakhtuns is unable to write or read Pashto, said one of the speakers.

The speakers urged the provincial government to take measures for promoting Pashto language and literature. They said private organizations were trying their best for promotion of Pashto language and literature, but concrete steps were needed on part of the government towards that end. They also stressed fair treatment to other regional languages spoken in the province, saying steps should be made for promotion of other languages like Hindko, Khowar and others.