Thursday, June 10, 2010

Afghanistan Strategy Focuses on Civilian Effort

New York Times By ROD NORDLAND KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The prospect of a robust military push in Kandahar Province, which had been widely expected to begin this month, has evolved into a strategy that puts civilian reconstruction efforts first and relegates military action to a supportive role. The strategy, Afghan, American and NATO civilian and military officials said in interviews, was adopted because of opposition to military action from an unsympathetic local population and Afghan officials here and in Kabul. There are also concerns that a frontal military approach has not worked as well as hoped in a much smaller area in Marja, in neighboring Helmand Province. The goal that American planners originally outlined — often in briefings in which reporters agreed not to quote officials by name — emphasized the importance of a military offensive devised to bring all of the populous and Taliban-dominated south under effective control by the end of this summer. That would leave another year to consolidate gains before President Obama’s July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing combat troops. In fact, there has been little new fighting in Kandahar so far, and the very word “offensive” has been banished. “We cannot say the term offensive for Kandahar,” said the Afghan National Army officer in charge here, Gen. Sher Mohammad Zazai. “It is actually a partnership operation.” The commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, insisted that there never was a planned offensive. “The media have chosen to use the term offensive,” he said. Instead, he said, “we have certainly talked about a military uplift, but there has been no military use of the term offensive.” Whatever it is called, it is not happening this month. Views vary widely as to just when the military part will start. General Zazai says it will begin in July but take a break for Ramadan in mid-August and resume in mid-September. A person close to Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar, says it will not commence until winter, or at least not until harvests end in October. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press. American officials, on the other hand, say it has already begun, not with a bang, but with a steady increase of experts from the United States Embassy and NATO and aid workers — a “civilian surge” — accompanied by a quiet increase in American troops to provide security for them. The Americans strongly deny that they planned an offensive they are now backing away from. Whereas in Marja the plan was to carry out a military assault to oust the Taliban, followed by rapid delivery of government services, in Kandahar the approach is now the opposite. Civilian aid workers, protected by an increased military force, will try to provide those services first, before any major military action. “This is not going to be a door-to-door military campaign,” said one American civilian official, who requested anonymity in line with his agency’s policy. “You’ll see more Afghan National Police checkpoints, but it’s not going to be an aggressive military campaign. They’ve looked at it and realized it wouldn’t work.” The troops have been arriving on schedule; for the first time, Afghanistan now has more American soldiers than Iraq does. Some 94,000 are here, compared with 92,000 in Iraq, with roughly half of them in Helmand and Kandahar, though the full troop levels will not be reached until August. The United States Marine Corps assault on Marja that began on Feb. 13 was called Operation Moshtarak Phase II (after the Dari word for “together”), and planners initially called the Kandahar offensive Operation Moshtarak Phase III. Now Phase III has a new name, Operation Hamkari (Dari for “cooperation”). “I’m not sure exactly what happened at the political level above us, but the very name of the thing changed,” said one NATO official in Kandahar, whose government’s policy requires that his name be withheld. It is not so much what happened as what did not. Marja did not go nearly as well as hoped, and the area is still not sufficiently controlled for the local government’s activities to resume or take root. Marja, with 60,000 residents, is far smaller than Kandahar, with more than a million in the city and the surrounding districts. If Marja was hard, planners worried, what might Kandahar be? Then on April 4, President Hamid Karzai held a shura, a tribal assembly, with 1,500 local leaders in Kandahar. “He certainly took away the impression that people didn’t want to see Ramadi or Falluja on the streets of Kandahar, and I think we all said ‘Amen’ to that,” General Carter said. In fact, Mr. Karzai promised local people that there would not be a Kandahar offensive. “You don’t want an offensive, do you?” he asked the crowd, to general acclamation. “There will be no operation until you are happy.” Minister of Defense Abdul Rahim Wardak said the new approach was adopted after officials considered the mistakes made in Marja and the much larger scale of Kandahar. “We have learned lessons, also, which we will apply in the future,” he said in an interview this week. “About Kandahar, it is a different type operation, it is not like Marja, it is not going to be that kinetic.” (Kinetic is military jargon to describe fighting.) Instead, the emphasis has been placed on strengthening provincial reconstruction teams, once run by Canadians, with American employees — from the embassy, the Agency for International Development and the Department of Agriculture — in six crucial districts around Kandahar. The Kandahar civilian operation increased to 110 Americans from 8 last year, with 50 more on their way this summer, United States officials say. They are providing subsidized seeds and tools, carrying out cash-for-work programs and even hiring employees for Afghan government offices here. The program for agricultural vouchers alone has been given a quarter of a billion dollars to spend in southern Afghanistan, $90 million of that in Kandahar. “It’s huge,” said one official. “We’ve employed 40,000 people in cash for work.” The idea, said Frank Ruggiero, the senior United States Embassy official in the south, is to make sure “the government at the most basic level, the district level, is able to provide some services so that people who are sitting on the fence are able to say, well, the government has something to offer.” A key to being able to do that is the steady increase of troops from the United States and other NATO nations for protection. Until 2009, a Canadian battle group of 1,300 troops was responsible for all of Kandahar and could do little more than keep the Taliban from taking the city — while leaving the insurgents free to operate in the surrounding districts. Canadian civilians working on provincial reconstruction rarely left their base. Since last year, the United States Army has brought in the Second Stryker Brigade, a battalion of the 82nd Airborne, parts of the Fourth Infantry Division and a cavalry squadron, for the crucial outlying districts, as well as a military police battalion in the city of Kandahar itself. “The military presence bought us the political space and oxygen this fall to start putting projects in to remedy grievances in the districts and more recently in the city itself,” said an American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in line with United States Embassy policy. Their biggest obstacle has been getting more aid delivered by Afghans rather than by Americans, so that the Afghan government gets the credit for it. Qualified Afghans who might work for the government have been scared away by a Taliban assassination campaign; others were siphoned off by the United Nations and relief groups that pay far higher salaries. As a result, American civilian officials are urgently recruiting Afghans in an attempt to speed up delivery of services before fighting increases this summer, as many expect it will — offensive or no offensive. “We’ve seen some huge strides,” said Katya Sienkiewicz, who runs A.I.D.’s agriculture vouchers program in Kandahar. “Everything is up for grabs this summer; we’re racing to get as much done as we can before operations start in.”

Islamabad unfazed by nearby Taliban attack

A brazen Taliban attack on Nato supplies near Islamabad indicates the militants' growing confidence, but analysts say improved security in recent months has limited their ability to strike the capital itself. Western allies of Pakistan are concerned about a Taliban insurgency in the northwest, but attacks in Islamabad evoke worries of a return to the violence that drove out many aid workers and diplomats in recent years. Militants have previously targeted supplies bound for Afghanistan that pass through Pakistan's northwest and southwest, Tuesday's ambush, which killed seven people, was the first such assault near Islamabad. “It certainly does indicate a kind of an increase in the confidence level of extremists,” former Interior Secretary Tasneem Noorani said of the attack in Tarnol village, less than 30 minutes drive from the heavily guarded capital. “But Islamabad has been sealed off pretty effectively ...After security checkpoints at all entry and exit points coupled with increased surveillance, it is not so easy to get into Islamabad than it was a few months ago.” Militant attacks across Pakistan, including Islamabad, intensified after a military operation in July 2007 killed more than 100 people at a mosque in the heart of the capital. The last three years have seen major attacks in Islamabad, including a suicide bombing on the Marriott hotel in September 2008 that killed at least 53 people, including foreigners. After a suicide attack on an Islamabad office of the World Food Programme (WFP) in October last year, the United Nations relocated up to 15 percent of its staff outside Pakistan and restricted movement of staff within the city. Pakistan is also a non-family staff posting for US diplomats. But attacks have fallen in recent months after the military scored major gains in offensives in the northwestern Swat valley and the South Waziristan region. Troops have largely cleared militants from Swat and tribal regions on the Afghan border. IMPROVED SURVEILLANCE Since the WFP attack, the capital has mostly been spared. Police say this is the result of an improved surveillance and better counter-terrorism training. “As many as 104 terrorists have been arrested in the capital since March last year, which helped prevent many potential terrorist attacks,” a top police official, Bin Yameen, said. Roadblocks are a still common sight in the capital and most of the vehicles entering Islamabad are searched. But analysts say that while surveillance has improved, police still do not have proper training. “What you need is a dedicated anti-terrorism force which is different to common police,” Noorani said. China has promised a $184 million in soft loan to help Pakistan enhance the capacity of its police force, Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters after the Tarnol attack. “We're developing four safe cities where security checking will be done through electronic gadgets and CCTV and manual checking systems will be reduced,” Malik said, without naming the cities. Officials say they include Islamabad. For people like Ishrat Ahmed, a cab driver, the reduction in violence has given a sense of security and a boost to his income with more clients. Fear, however, lingers on. “We still don't know if it is over ... Look at what happened in Tarnol,” Ahmed said.

Pakistan ranked fifth most unstable country

Pakistan is the world’s fifth most unstable country, better only than Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and Sudan in that order, says the US State Department. The department’s Global Peace Index (GPI), released on Wednesday, reports that Pakistan’s overall score deteriorated steadily for the second successive year and it slid three places into the bottom five. Pakistan’s overall rank now is 145 on a list of 149 countries. All South Asian nations occupy the lower half of the regional table, headed by Nepal, in 82nd place. India, although better than Pakistan, is also in the red zone and is ranked 128. Israel rose two places to 144th in the 2010 index. Now it is one place ahead of Pakistan.Ongoing internal conflicts and related security concerns in Afghanistan and Pakistan contribute to their low rankings. Embroiled in conflict and instability for much of the past two decades, Afghanistan remained far from peaceful during 2009. A sharp rise in Pakistan’s GPI indicator of the number of people killed in internal conflict and upward shifts in scores for the potential of terrorist acts, the likelihood of violent demonstrations and the homicide rate underline the extent to which the country became embroiled in violence that verged on civil war in 2009. Frequent suicide bombings and attacks by religious insurgents occurred throughout the year and across the country. Major offensives by the army against Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in Swat valley and in South Waziristan forced more than two million people to flee their homes. Conflict also increasingly afflicted Balochistan, parts of Punjab, Sindh and Gilgit-Baltistan in 2009. The report notes that Pakistan’s score and rank did not fall further in part because of an improvement in the measure of relations with neighbouring countries, albeit from the lowest possible level, and a slight rise in political stability. The report points out that “overall, government level relations between India and Pakistan are much stronger than in the past, and the fact that India’s recent general election resulted in another government led by the Indian National Congress party means that Indian policy towards Pakistan will remain stable.” The report notes that when he reinstated Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was sacked in 2007, President Asif Ali Zardari “addressed the key source of recent political tensions, resolving a stand-off between the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and Mr Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party.”

Will Afghanistan's Military Ever Be Fit to Fight? When a fuel tanker overturned on Highway 1 outside Kandahar earlier this year, the villagers saw it as a gift from Allah. They flocked to the leaking tanker with pots, pans, even plastic bags, to steal the leaking gasoline. Several Afghan army jeeps screeched up, and the soldiers jumped out, pushing away the villagers. But not to protect the fuel: the Afghan soldiers simply wanted it for themselves. At a nearby base, American and Afghan officers were watching the scene from a guard tower. Outraged by the looting, an Afghan captain named Nasser grabbed his M-16 and charged out to confront the soldiers. When the soldiers argued back, the captain fired a few warning shots. A stray bullet sparked the gasoline, and the tanker exploded into a colossal fireball. The smoke clouds, U.S. Lieutenant Rajiv Srinivasan later blogged, "blackened the sky like a tornado moving from the ground up."Exhausted after arranging the medevac by helicopter of eight dead soldiers and countless injured, Srinivasan then had the bad luck to be hit by an Afghan army truck speeding around the base. As Srinivasan wrote in his blog, all his pent-up frustrations spilled out. He yanked the Afghan out of the truck and slammed him to the ground, yelling, "We're out here busting our asses for you, and you repay us by setting your own soldiers on fire and running me over with your trucks!" This tale is typical of the myriad frustrations the U.S. and its NATO allies face in trying to cobble together an Afghan national army out of nothing. Yet the success of the Obama Administration's full-throttle assault against the Taliban in its spiritual heartland of Kandahar hinges on getting the Afghan army on its feet and marching. And so does the likelihood of getting U.S. and NATO troops home anytime soon. It is a nearly impossible mission. Nine out of 10 Afghan enlisted recruits can't read a rifle-instruction manual or drive a car, according to NATO trainers. The officers' corps is fractured by rivalries: Soviet-era veterans vs. the former mujahedin rebels who fought them in the 1980s, Tajiks vs. Uzbeks, Hazaras and Pashtuns. Commanders routinely steal their enlisted men's salaries. Soldiers shake down civilians at road checkpoints and sell off their own American-supplied boots, blankets and guns at the bazaar — sometimes to the Taliban. Afghans, not surprisingly, run when they see the army coming. Recruits tend to go AWOL after their first leave, while one-quarter of those who stay in service are blitzed on hashish or heroin, according to an internal survey carried out by the Afghan National Army (ANA). One NATO major from Latvia, stationed in the north, complained to a TIME video team that when a battalion's combat tour was extended, three Afghan officers shot themselves in the foot to get medevacked out. As of April, the army had 119,400 troops; the plan is to reach 171,600 by October 2011, by which time U.S. soldiers will be heading back home. In the rush to get fresh recruits out of the barracks, basic training has been slashed from 10 weeks to eight. (In the U.S. Army, basic training lasts at least 14 weeks.) In trying to meet NATO deadlines for an Afghan troop buildup, Antonio Giustozzi, an Afghanistan expert at the London School of Economics, writes in a recent report, there is "the risk of churning out grossly unqualified soldiers or, as some are beginning to argue, cannon fodder." That's not a lot to show for the estimated $26 billion that the Pentagon says it has pumped into creating the Afghan security forces. And the cost is rising by another $1 billion every month. The man in charge of spending all this money is three-star general William Caldwell, a wiry Southerner with a lopsided grin and the energy of an entire army platoon. NATO officials, diplomats and military experts in Washington all say Caldwell has brought dynamism and focus to his enormous task since he took charge in late 2009. There is a new urgency: President Obama has pledged to start drawing down some U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the summer of 2011. Given a green light by the Pentagon, Caldwell has brought in hundreds more NATO trainers, many of them from the special forces. He is diversifying the Afghan army so that it is less reliant on NATO for logistical backup. His team is perfecting safeguards to make sure that Afghan commanders do not steal their men's salary, by sending the money electronically to soldiers' bank accounts. Recruitment is up, and the attrition rate — estimates of it range from 20% to 25% — is down from nearly 40% in 2002, according to the International Crisis Group. This is mainly because Caldwell raised the starting wage of a private to $165 a month, plus $45 for combat pay, which is enough for an Afghan to feed his family. It is also a notch higher than what the Taliban is paying its fighters.

Swat Valley — an eclipsed heaven Life in present day Swat is brimming with innumerable insecurities. People have come back to their homes after going through ordeals of displacement, migration, helplessness, and closure of business and disrupted livelihood. Quite a few development initiatives are being undertaken in the area. But contrary to general impression, the situation in Swat is critical when it comes to people having chances of exercising their basic rights. Though the area has been declared safe, people are still in a state of confusion to appreciate it altogether. Independent reporting of public sufferings and grievances is almost non existent. It is feared that Taliban followers are hidden there under the disguise of civilians. People assume that they are being watched both by security forces and dormant militants. They are coerced to be ostentatious in their love for the country. The sentiment is painted everywhere with limestone, while a show of the national flag is mandatory to prove their allegiance to the state of Pakistan. People visit the graves of those brave stalwarts who scarified their lives while resisting Taliban hegemony. “It is hard to forget how Taliban butchered members of our tribal Jirga and how we were ignored by the government as no one came to console us, let aside rescue us from the wrath of savage Taliban,” said one aggrieved elderly man who lost eight family members during a scuffle with Taliban. The area still lacks roads, making life of poor villagers unbearable and expensive. In an emergency, they have to pay a large amount of money to private vehicle owners to carry their patient to nearby hospital, if there exists any. Somewhere in far off areas, dispensaries do exist but without technician, lady health visitor and above all medicine. In other words, health facilities, if any, are not available to the general public. Taliban were against girls’ education, hence girls who had to abandon their studies are experiencing long stretched period of depression, desolation and deprivation. Humanitarian development organisations like European Commission and Action Aid are assisting people in the rehabilitation process. Some vocational centres have also been set up that are providing young girls with an opportunity to sit together, discuss their issues, console one another and learn new skills of weaving and embroidery. All the schools that were destroyed, mostly of girls, have been replaced by Unicef with tent schools that are rendering the most invaluable thing to the people of Swat, i.e. education. Though people are busy in harvesting wheat crop and fruit plucking, they take time out to voluntarily undertake construction of roads and water channel expansion. There is a revolutionary zeal among the general public to avert further deterioration of their social fabric. They share the same experiences of miseries, sufferings and homelessness; therefore they are united in rebuilding their society with renewed energy, freshness and a progressive attitude. “Those were the most horrible days of my life when I was caught between the devil and deep sea. On the one side, there was the threat of Taliban and security forces and on the other side I could not muster up the courage to leave my ancestors’ home all alone and deserted. Since centuries, we have been living in our homes which we never vacated even once before the current catastrophic displacement. I hope the Taliban never come back to regain our region. I pray for peace and prosperity in my area,” said 85-year-old Chamman Gul of village Khararai, Union Council Matta. People of Swat are know to be the most mannered and hospitable people in Pakistan. They are very cooperative, trustworthy and friendly with anyone visiting their land. The scenic beauty of Swat is indescribable and awesome. The Swat river dances through all parts of the valley and enriches its soil. It is the responsibility of national and provincial governments to take lead in bringing peace and stability in Swat. The prevalent suffocation, fear, alienation, deprivation and under development necessitate a comprehensive development package for the people of Swat. Its tourism industry has sustained the most grave and irreparable loss. Magnificent hotels and restaurants are either closed or deserted. Hotels and restaurant owners are offering subsidised packages for tourists but people are still afraid to visit the area. It is disturbing that both national and international media failed to support the people of Swat in rehabilitation and resettlement process. Very few journalists are interested in visiting Swat independently and those who accompany the security forces are prone to be influenced by them, hence they are left with little chance of looking at the situation from people’s perspective. The media has a role to unearth the mysteries of development, rehabilitation and security. It will be a great help to people of Swat if the independent media takes up their cause of bringing life to normalcy.

Kandahar operation will take longer

The top commander in the largely stalemated Afghanistan war acknowledged Thursday that a crucial campaign to secure the region of the country where the Taliban insurgency was born will take longer than planned because local Afghans do not yet welcome the military-run operation. The operation to secure the Kandahar region will unfold more slowly and last longer than the military had planned, Gen. Stanley McChrystal said. The slower pace of the make-or-break operation reflects the reality that the Taliban is not a hated occupier in Kandahar, and the residents McChrystal is trying to protect do not universally want his help. "I do think it will happen more slowly than we had originally anticipated," McChrystal said. McChrystal predicted he can still demonstrate a turnaround in the war by year's end, as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this week is necessary to sustain public backing for a war now in its ninth year. Kandahar is Afghanistan's second-largest city and a key to the success of President Barack Obama's revamped war strategy, which focuses on turning local allegiances against the Taliban and toward the U.S.-backed central government in Kabul. Kandahar was always the place where that strategy was most starkly challenged, since the Taliban is a daily presence in neighborhoods and carries a significant level of popular support. A military and civilian campaign to neuter the Taliban began in the Kandahar region this spring, and had been expected to ramp up in June and largely conclude by August. It will now probably stretch far into the fall. "It will take a number of months for this to play out, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing," McChrystal told reporters on the sidelines of a NATO meeting taking stock of the war. "I think it's more important that we get it right than we get it fast," he said. McChrystal said he has underestimated the amount of time needed to get local support, but the overall plan for Kandahar remains the same. NATO forces, working alongside Afghans, are reaching out to local business and political leaders and holding rap sessions known as shuras. McChrystal said he would attend a shura planned by Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the Kandahar region within a few days. "It's a deliberate process," McChrystal said. "It takes time to convince people." As recently as this week, military leaders had insisted there was no delay. McChrystal will update NATO defense ministers on the war, nearly a year to the day after he took over as senior commander. Gates was pressing NATO allies to provide more military advisers to train Afghan forces. The alliance should comply, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. NATO said it needs another 450 instructors to bring its training mission in Afghanistan to full strength. Some countries have dragged their feet and failed to dispatch as many police and army trainers as they pledged last year, generally blaming logistical issues for the shortfall. The Afghan army is expected to grow this year to 134,000 troops and the police to about 109,000 members. Plans call for the security forces to reach 300,000 by October 2011. The U.S.-led international force currently numbers about 122,000 troops. They face an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 insurgents. The two-day meeting of defense ministers from NATO's 28 member nations — and those from 18 other allied countries contributing troops to the 122,000-strong NATO force in Afghanistan — is intended to pave the way for the alliance's summit next November in Lisbon, Portugal.

Gore Daughter Karenna Separated From Husband

As Karenna Gore became the third member of the Gore family dynasty to pull back the curtain on her foundering marriage, friends of the once-golden Upper East Side-couple say they're saddened by the news, but not surprised. Wednesday, the 36-year-old Gore and her husband since 1997, Andrew Schiff, confirmed to various media outlets that they had been separated for several months and were in couples counseling. But friends wonder if they'll be able to find enough common ground to save their struggling marriage. "It's very sad," says one friend of the couple, who notes that a certain "tipping point" seems to have occurred in the Gore family when it comes to marital woes. In May 2009, Karenna's younger sister, TV writer Kristin Gore, filed for divorce from her husband; and a little over a year later, the girls' parents Al and Tipper Gore announced their separation. "I fell out of my chair" when he learned that the former Vice President and his wife were separating, says the friend, adding news of Karenna and Andrew's split was "not a surprise for me... I'm not saying they didn't love each other, but they got married so young, and I think what kept them together was their action-packed lives." Schiff is former doctor-turned-biotech venture capitalist. Gore was the Youth Outreach Chair for her father's campaign and got a $200,000 advance to write a book that grew out of her political activism called: "Lighting The Way: Nine Women Who Changed Modern America." The couple also managed to find time to raise three children. "There was always a next thing: an election, another child, a book, an Academy Award [which her father won for his documentary on global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth."]," the friend explains. "Once the music stopped, it was just them." However, another source close to the family tells Gatecrasher: "They are in marital counseling. They are working on things." The future said the source is "TBD: to be determined." Another confidant describes the couple as "lovely people, but restless souls--Karenna especially. I think she's always been looking for a place [IN THE SUN]for herself," the friend adds. "I think finding fulfillment in addition to raising a family is very difficult." In other Gore family news, Montecito Journal columnist Richard Mineards tells Gatecrasher that his lead column story today reports on the $8.75 million five-bedroom, nine-bathroom Spanish style mansion in Santa Barbara that the Gores purchased shortly before their split was made public. Mineards >sayse was told that the house, which sits on 1.5 choice acres in Montecito (home to Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe, John Cleese and Kirk Douglas,) was acquired "with the specific intention of giving Tipper a suitable home for herself after they announced their separation." Kalee Kreider, spokeswoman for the Gore family,tells Gatecrasher: "Neither the Gores nor the Schiffs intend to comment on reports today."

US soldiers charged with corruption in Afghanistan

Surghar Daily Two US soldiers and two other American nationals working for an Afghan contracting company have been charged in a money laundering and bribery case dating back to 2004. Charles Finch, 44, of Hawaii is accused of taking a 50,000-dollar bribe in exchange for influencing the awarding of a Pentagon trucking contract to AZ Corporation, an Afghan contracting firm, while based at Bagram, north of Kabul.His roommate at the air base, first sergeant Gary Canteen, 41, of Delaware, is accused of using his bank account to cover up the nature and source of the payment. "The indictment alleges that the owners of AZ Corporation, brothers Assad John Ramin, 40, and Tahir Ramin, 32, both of Pennsylvania, offered the bribe to Finch," a Justice Department statement said. The bribe was allegedly paid through the business account of Canteen, who passed on a portion of the funds to Finch. "According to the indictment, shortly after the money was delivered to Canteen, Finch recommended the award of the contract to AZ Corporation, which was awarded the contract," the Justice Department said. The brothers were charged in 2008 and 2009 for taking bribes in a similar contracting case involving the building of bunkers and barriers at Bagram.

Pentagon Acknowledges Downing of US Helicopter in Afghanistan

The Pentagon says the rare downing of an American helicopter in Afghanistan reflects the increased operations by both NATO and Taliban forces, and a spokesman says the attack on a supply convoy in Pakistan Wednesday was serious but will not significantly affect the Afghanistan effort. Taliban forces shot down the U.S. military helicopter during an operation in southern Helmand Province, one of the key areas where additional American troops are pouring in and operations are intensifying. Helmand and neighboring Kandahar have been the scenes of intense fighting in recent weeks, including a series of insurgent attacks this week in which 17 NATO troops have been killed, most of them Americans. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman says it is rare for a U.S. helicopter to be shot down, but argues that one such incident does not indicate a trend or suggest any change in the strategic situation. He also says the United States never predicts casualty levels, but he acknowledges the higher operational tempo will likely result in more difficult weeks like this one. "We have active operations going on in Afghanistan. And we have more forces there than we've ever had in the past. And it is a period of time in which you'll see the Taliban try to conduct their own operations," said Whitman. "While we conduct our operations carefully and try to mitigate the risk in all of our operations, the fact of the matter is that we have taken some casualties. We've taken quite a few this week. It's been a tough week," the spokesman added. Also on Wednesday, gunmen attacked a commercial convoy of U.S. supplies while it sat at a truck stop in Pakistan, killing at least seven people and burning more than 50 containers of supplies. The convoy was part of an extensive contracting program that the U.S. military says transports about half the supplies for American troops in Afghanistan through Pakistan. Pakistani officials say the figure is even higher. But Whitman notes there are several other routes, including an air hub in Kyrgyzstan and overland routes through Russia. "It's not an insignificant attack," he stressed. "I don't want to try to minimize the fact that this was a very vicious attack on a large convoy. But in terms of impact on our operations, you can see that we have, obviously, a lot of redundancy built into our operations," said Whitman. Demands on the supply lines have increased sharply with the surge of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, which still has several thousand more troops to go.

Hamid Karzai 'has lost belief with US strategy in Afghanistan'

Sources close to Amrullah Saleh, the former head of intelligence services who resigned last weekend, claim Mr Karzai has lost confidence in the ability of Western forces to protect Afghanistan, and rather believes turning to Pakistan is the best chance of ending the Taliban insurgency. According to The Guardian, Mr Saleh, who was highly regarded within western circles, said Mr Karzai had long though this, but he became convinced around the time of the Afghanistan election which was blighted by fraud. "There came a time when [Karzai] lost his confidence in the capability of the coalition or even his own government [to protect] this country," an aide told the newspaper. Mr Saleh is also said to be concerned about Mr Karzai's attitude towards Pakistan, which has softened in recent months.His comments came as Robert Gates, the US defence secretary said support for the war in Afghanistan would evaporate before the end of the year if there is no significant breakthrough in the fight. Mr Gates said "stalemate" and the loss of "young men's lives" would not be tolerated unless the nations leading the eight-year battle against insurgents can show they were "making some headway" in the next six months. The pressure for success in Afghanistan was building as the death toll mounts with almost 300 British fatalities and more than 1,100 American, including four yesterday.Speaking in London, the US defence secretary warned that people should be prepared for a "high level of violence" in what he expected to be a "very difficult summer"."The one thing none of the public will tolerate is the perception of stalemate in which we're losing young men." Mr Gates said he expected to see signs of progress "by the end of the year" but cautioned that there were "no illusions" about quick victories. "In virtually all of the coalition countries, the publics are going to expect to see some progress this winter, some sign that we are moving in the right direction. "If we are making progress and it's clear that we have the right strategy then I think the people will be patient," Gates said.

Cameron hints at Afghanistan exit on visit to Kabul David Cameron said that he does not want British troops to stay a day longer than necessary as he flew into Afghanistan for the first time as Prime Minister today. On arrival - his fifth visit to the country - he gave his broadest hint yet that 10,000 UK troops would start to return home next year. Speaking at a press conference next to President Karzai, Mr Cameron said that this was ‘the vital year’ and the British public expected to see progress. A huge US-led military offensive is expected in the autumn, amid faltering attempts to get members of the Taleban to lay down their arms. "This is the vital year. This is the year when we have to make progress - progress for the sake of the Afghan people, but progress also on behalf of people back at home who want this to work," Mr Cameron said. "Nobody wants British troops to be in Afghanistan for a moment longer than is necessary," he added. "We should be asking all the time: 'Can we go faster?'" The Prime Minister touched down in Kabul hours after a bomb killed at least 39 at a wedding in the southern province of Kandahar, the single highest death toll from an incident since September. The visit also comes after a particularly difficult week for coalition forces with 23 international soldiers killed, including one British soldier in Helmand and four US servicemen killed when a Nato helicopter was shot down by insurgents. Mr Cameron admitted that not enough progress had been made in bringing security to Helmand, where the British have until recently been overseeing the military operation. He also said the initial justification for Nato forces going into Afghanistan no longer held true - “Clearly we have got rid of the terror training camps which were the reason we were there in the first place” - but said that Britain needed to continue to help the Afghan Government take responsibility for its own security. Mr Cameron also announced that he is committing an extra £67 million to help UK forces in Afghanistan counter the threat from home-made bombs. The funding will allow a doubling in the number of British teams dealing with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which have become the Taleban’s most lethal weapon. He said: “My biggest duty as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is to our Armed Forces, to make sure that they have all the equipment and all the protection they need to do the absolutely vital job that they are doing here in Afghanistan. “I’m pleased to announce today that we will be spending an extra £67 million on countering the IED threat and actually doubling the number of British teams that are there to counter the threat from these explosive devices.” He added: “I’ve described this year - and the President, I know, agrees - in terms of the Nato mission in Afghanistan as the vital year. This is the year when we have to make progress - progress for the sake of the Afghan people, but progress also on behalf of people back at home who want this to work.” Mr Cameron said: “For me, the issue of Afghanistan is the most important foreign policy issue, the most important national security issue for my country.” He added: “I think there is progress being made, and we discussed that in our meeting, particularly progress that has been made in terms of driving al-Qaeda both out of Afghanistan and actually seriously damaging its interests in Pakistan. “It is through that prism of national security that I want to see this whole issue. Our overriding focus must be to help the Afghans and to help Afghanistan to take control of its own security and its own destiny. That should be our focus - a relentless focus on building up the Afghan National Army and helping the construction of a good and decent police force.” Mr Cameron said that alongside the Nato-led military surge which has been under way for six months, there must be a “proper political settlement”. He welcomed last week’s Kabul peace meeting - or jirga - at which Mr Karzai discussed proposals to encourage elements of the Taleban to rejoin the political mainstream. Mr Cameron flew in from Abu Dhabi, transferring from the airport in Kabul to the presidential palace by helicopter for meetings with Mr Karzai. The Prime Minister is being accompanied by Peter Ricketts, the new National Security Adviser, and Sir Jock Stirrup, chief of the defence staff. Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, and William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, are both visiting European capitals, which means that George Osborne is today the most senior government figure in the UK in the event of a major domestic incident. The coalition Government has been conducting a “deep dive” assessment of the military and aid effort in Afghanistan, now in its eighth year. Aides stressed that Mr Cameron’s visit was part of the reappraisal process and that the Prime Minister would concentrate on “taking stock”. However, with a US offensive planned in the Taleban heartland in the autumn and President Obama’s promise that some US troops will return home from July 2011, Mr Cameron has an opportunity to signal a corresponding drawdown of British troops. Mr Cameron has repeatedly said that he does not view the British military commitment as open-ended. In November he talked about imposing a “tight internal timetable”, while in April he said that Britain would put everything into the fight “this year and next year”. Mr Cameron has repeatedly said that he does not view the British military commitment as open-ended. In November he talked about imposing a "tight internal timetable", while in April he said that Britain would put everything into the fight "this year and next year". Asked whether he expected to send more soldiers to Afghanistan, he replied: "The issue of more troops is not remotely on the UK agenda. "We have just had quite a significant uplift, not just in terms of UK troops but also of US troops. In Helmand there are now over 20,000 US troops and 10,000 UK troops. I think it is important to let them get on with the very important work of delivering greater security in Helmand and making sure we have the right force density - the right number of troops - together with the Afghan national security forces throughout the province."

Undoing the past The chief justice's praise for parliament for undoing a change in the phrasing of the Objectives Resolution under the late General Ziaul Haq which removed the word 'freely' in the context of the right of religious minorities to practise their belief is welcome. Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry's observation represents the willingness of the court to look at both the pros and cons of the 18th Amendment and to offer applause where it is due. The whispered insinuations of bias obviously have no place. What is astounding is that the 'error' made by parliament in the Zia era, a period of 11 long years that will go down in history as the darkest phase for the minorities and many other vulnerable groups, had gone apparently 'unnoticed' for so long. This does not say much for the calibre of our legislators, the legal advisers of successive governments or indeed civil society. Perhaps it is a matter of priorities. No one who sat in parliament apparently saw the need to defend the position of minorities as significant. But there is another matter here. The removal of one word alone is insufficient. There is much else that is controversial as far as the set of laws we live our lives by is concerned. The Objectives Resolution is among such legislations. The time has come to consider the merits and demerits of Pakistan as a 'theological' state, which defines who is a Muslim and who is not and relegates non-Muslims to the status of lesser citizens through a set of provisions. The matter of citizenship has become secondary. Only a Muslim can hold the posts of president and prime minister. The exclusion of non-Muslims from the office of prime minister comes under the 18th Amendment. What one hand gives the other snatches away. It is time to examine the issue of minorities in our state far more closely. The nature of the Pakistani state needs to be defined. We must all remember that it was created as a place where all minorities would be safe and free from the kind of injustice the Muslim minority faced in a united India. Our politicians need to discover courage and principle. The Objectives Resolution, the blasphemy laws and many other measures that remain on the books must be looked at carefully. The chief justice's generous praise of parliament should encourage it to move further forward and work towards building a stronger and more united society. This after all is what the Founder of the State envisaged. It may still not be too late to move towards this goal.

Bajaur’s Barang area Hospital lacks staff, equipment

KHAR: The residents of Barang tehsil in Bajaur Agency have demanded of the government to provide medical staff and equipment to the Rural Health Centre (RHC). Villagers told The News that three doctors, two paramedics and two Class-IV workers had been working in the health facility since 2003. Only the in-charge of the hospital, Dr Niaz Bahadur, medical technicians, two nurses and Class-IV employees were, however, performing their duties regularly. They lamented that most of the gynaecology cases were being handled by the midwives because of the non-availability of lady doctor at the hospital. They added that an ambulance and generator had been approved by the government but still not provided to the RHC. A cleric, Mufti Muhammad Tayyab said he called on the political agent of Bajaur Agency and agency surgeon to resolve the problems of the hospital but to no avail. He said that the ambulance approved for the hospital was being used by staff of the Khar Headquarters Hospital. Pakistan People’s Party leader Sher Khaistam said the seriously ill or injured patients often died while being shifted to other hospitals. A tribal elder, Malik Hazrat Noor said the residents contacted the political agent and agency surgeon several times and discussed the issue but nothing was done so far. “Some 18 vacant posts of Class-IV have not yet been filled which indicates the lack of seriousness of the health authorities about improving the situation,” he lamented. Medical Superintendent Dr Niaz Bahadur said that he had discussed the matter with agency surgeon but no steps were taken to resolve the problems. When contacted, Additional Agency Surgeon Dr Zakir Hussain said Lady Doctor Mursha and Dr Shah Muneer were appointed two years ago. He disclosed that he had already warned them to regularly perform their duty at the hospital. “Now the only option left with us is to transfer or dismiss them,” he added. To a query, he admitted that the ambulance was being used by the medical staff of the Agency Headquarters Hospital though it had been approved for the RHC Barang tehsil.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa govt may present Rs300b tax-free budget on Saturday

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government is likely to present a tax-free budget of approximately Rs300 billion for the financial year of 2010-11 with 40 per cent increase in the Annual Development Programme (ADP). Provincial Minister for Finance Engineer Mohammad Hamayun Khan disclosed this while talking to this news agency. The budget would be presented in the provincial assembly on Saturday (June 12). Under the Seventh National Finance Commission (NFC) award, the resources of the province have been increased and the annual budget for financial year 2010-11 may be nearly Rs300 billion, said the minister. A large chunk of the development budget would focus on the development of social sector with priority on the provision of health and education sectors. He said the development of infrastructure is also the priority of the provincial government. The finance minister said the government is making efforts to create employment opportunities and announce a people-friendly budget. Regarding increase in the resources of the province, he said, under the Seventh NFC award the share of the province in the federal divisible pool has been increased and they would now receive 14.62 per cent of the federal resources. Similarly, he said, an amount of Rs15 billion would be paid from the undivided divisible pool under the head of expenses in the war on terror. Regarding the revival of the industrial sector, the minister said that before the budget the provincial government had consulted the business community and their input has also been included in the budget document. However, he said, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has already announced a big package for the economic revival of the province. The provincial minister for finance said the resources of the province would be utilised for exploitation of the hydropower potential of the province. He said the production of hydropower would not only help overcome the prevailing energy crisis but would also create a permanent mean of revenue for the province. He said a handsome amount would be sanctioned for the exploitation of the hydropower potential. He said some schemes in this regard had already been approved while some others were in the process of the feasibility studies. The energy and power, he said, is important sector and its development is the dire need of the province. He said the first instalment of Rs25 billion under the head of the outstanding net hydel profit would be received in the first week of the next financial year. The minister said the provincial government is taking keen interest in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the militancy and terrorism-affected Malakand division. In this regard, he hoped that the federal government and donor agencies would extend complete cooperation to the provincial government. Regarding burden of 50 per cent increase in the salaries of the government employees, the minister said the matter was under consideration at the provincial level.

More Active Sun Means Nasty Solar Storms Ahead

The sun is about to get a lot more active, which could have ill effects on Earth. So to prepare, top sun scientists met Tuesday to discuss the best ways to protect Earth's satellites and other vital systems from the coming solar storms. Solar storms occur when sunspots on our star erupt and spew out flumes of charged particles that can damage power systems. The sun's activity typically follows an 11-year cycle, and it looks to be coming out of a slump and gearing up for an active period. "The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity," said Richard Fisher, head of NASA's Heliophysics Division. "At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms. The intersection of these two issues is what we're getting together to discuss." Fisher and other experts met at the Space Weather Enterprise Forum, which took place in Washington, D.C., at the National Press Club. Bad news for gizmos People of the 21st century rely on high-tech systems for the basics of daily life. But smart power grids, GPS navigation, air travel, financial services and emergency radio communications can all be knocked out by intense solar activity. A major solar storm could cause twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina, warned the National Academy of Sciences in a 2008 report, "Severe Space Weather Events—Societal and Economic Impacts." Luckily, much of the damage can be mitigated if managers know a storm is coming. That's why better understanding of solar weather, and the ability to give advance warning, is especially important. Putting satellites in 'safe mode' and disconnecting transformers can protect electronics from damaging electrical surges. "Space weather forecasting is still in its infancy, but we're making rapid progress," said Thomas Bogdan, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo. Eyes on the sun NASA and NOAA work together to manage a fleet of satellites that monitor the sun and help to predict its changes. A pair of spacecraft called STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) is stationed on opposite sides of the sun, offering a combined view of 90 percent of the solar surface. In addition, SDO (the Solar Dynamics Observatory), which just launched in February 2010, is able to photograph solar active regions with unprecedented spectral, temporal and spatial resolution. Also, an old satellite called the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), which launched in 1997, is still chugging along monitoring winds coming off the sun. And there are dozens more dedicated to solar science. "I believe we're on the threshold of a new era in which space weather can be as influential in our daily lives as ordinary terrestrial weather." Fisher said. "We take this very seriously indeed."

Now, five 'suicide bombers' walk free in Pakistan over absence of 'evidence'

In yet another case of militants walking free in Pakistan due to lack of evidence against them, an anti terrorist court here has acquitted five persons accused in various suicide bombings. The special court released Fasihullah, Imdad Hussain and Qasim Mushtaq, who were arrested for their alleged role in the suicide attack targeting the Islamabad district courts in March last year. Two other accused Tehseen Abbas and Faisal Mushtaq, who were accused of plotting the Aabpara Chowk bomb blast, were also set free by the court, The Daily Times reports. Last week, a local Peshawar court had acquitted four terror suspects after the prosecution failed to prove their involvement in blowing up of three government schools in the Nowshera District of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Security officials had arrested four persons for destroying three schools, including a girls' school, in February, but the anti-terrorism court in Peshawar dismissed the case against all four accused, saying there is not enough evidence to prove their involvement in the destruction of the school buildings. Dozens of terror suspects have succeeded in getting bail from the Peshawar High Court in the last two months due to 'lack of evidence' them.

Obama pledges $400 million for Palestinians

President Obama pledged an infusion of $400 million in aid for housing, school construction and business development in the Palestinian territories Wednesday, saying after a one-on-one meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas that the situation in Gaza is "inherently unstable." Obama had planned the White House meeting to talk mainly about the Middle East peace process. But in the aftermath of a deadly May 31 Israeli assault on an aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip, the two leaders ended up focusing instead on the blockade of Gaza and its effects on the people who live there. "We agree that Israelis have the right to prevent arms from entering into Gaza that can be used to launch attacks into Israeli territory," Obama told reporters after his meeting with Abbas in the White House. "But we also think that it is important for us to explore new mechanisms so that we can have goods and services, and economic development, and the ability of people to start their own businesses, and to grow the economy and provide opportunity within Gaza." The meeting between Obama and Abbas was scheduled before the attempt by activists to break Israel's naval blockade of Gaza ended in the deaths of nine of them during the takeover by Israeli commandos, provoking international outrage. In response, Israeli officials announced Wednesday that they would relax some border restrictions on Gaza, allowing in some snack foods and spices that had previously been off limits for delivery. Palestinian leaders dismissed the change as inconsequential because it does not allow more urgently needed items, such as fabric, fishing equipment, spare parts and electronics. The Obama administration's promise of aid includes money to increase access to clean drinking water, create jobs and build schools and affordable housing. State Department officials called the projects "a down payment" on the U.S. commitment to improving life in Gaza. Last year, U.S. officials pledged a total of $900 million for Gaza and the West Bank, but acknowledged the difficulty of distributing the funds, especially because Hamas controls Gaza and is considered a terrorist organization. The aid announced Wednesday may be distributed through organizations performing relief work, State Department officials said. Abbas said he saw Wednesday's aid pledge as a positive sign for Gaza and the West Bank. "This is a positive signal of the United States that the United States cares about the suffering of the people in Gaza and about the suffering of the Palestinian people," Abbas said. Yet he also emphasized the need to lift what he called the "Israeli siege of the Palestinian people" by opening all crossings into Gaza and ending the ban on building materials and humanitarian supplies. No amount of international aid will solve that problem, Obama suggested. Just as the status quo in Gaza unsustainable, he said, "the status quo with respect to the Middle East is unsustainable." "It is time for us to go ahead and move forward on a two-state solution that will affirm the needs of Israeli citizens and will affirm the needs of Palestinians who are desperate for a homeland," Obama said.


Amnesty International Full PDF report Link:$File/full_report.pdf The Taleban came here and settled here. Now they have a dispute with the government, and the government started taking actions against them. If we stand with the government the Taleban will hit us. If we stand with the Taleban the government will target us. If we don't stand with any of them, you can see how bad our situation is. It's going from bad to worse. Northwest Pakistan has been in the grip of a human rights and humanitarian crisis since 2004, when groups broadly aligned with the Taleban movement of Afghanistan began asserting control in the seven 'agencies' that comprise the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and adjoining areas in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The mountainous terrain of FATA borders Afghanistan, adjoining the NWFP, which also shares some of its border with Afghanistan. (The NWFP was renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in April 2010, but NWFP persists among officials, locals and observers, and is used in this report to avoid confusion.) Based on Amnesty International's conservative analysis of credible, publicly available information, more than 1,300 civilians were killed in the course of the conflict in northwest Pakistan in 2009. The Pakistan-based Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), and the International Institute for Strategic Studies, have both estimated more than 11,000 casualties. PIPS estimated that at least 1,565 civilians were killed in insurgent attacks alone in FATA and NWFP in 2009.2 Given the lack of information from many areas of northwest Pakistan, it is quite likely that the true number of civilians killed is significantly higher. In total, more than 8,500 people have died in the violence in northwest Pakistan in 2009, a sharp escalation from the previous year.3 Multiple accounts of battles and conflict zones provided to Amnesty International would suggest that this ratio of casualties understates the harm to civilians, but more detailed analyses must await better information, particularly from the Pakistani military. What is indisputably clear is that the range and ferocity of the conflict has risen considerably in the past two years.

Tribal Pakistan is a 'rights-free zone', Amnesty Millions of Pakistanis live in a "human rights-free zone" in the country's north-west, Amnesty International says. Residents of tribal areas face Taliban abuse and get no protection from the government, the rights group alleges. In a report, it says the Taliban secured their rule by killing elders and torturing teachers and aid workers. Over one million people have been displaced by fighting between the Pakistani military and the Taliban in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Some 1,300 people were killed in the conflict during 2009. 'Abandoned' The 130-page Amnesty report, As if Hell Fell on Me, was based on nearly 300 interviews with residents of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and the surrounding areas. "Nearly four million people are effectively living under the Taliban in north-west Pakistan without rule of law and effectively abandoned by the Pakistani government," said Claudio Cordone, Amnesty's interim secretary-general. A teacher quoted in the report, who fled the Swat valley with his family in March 2009, described how the Taliban operated. "[The Taliban] took over my school and started to teach children about how to fight in Afghanistan. They kicked out the girls from school, told the men to grow their beards, threatened anybody they didn't like." The teacher said the government failed to protect them. "What's the point of having this huge army if it can't even protect us against a group of brutal fanatics?" Amnesty has documented what many civilians in north-west Pakistan have often been scared to openly say, the BBC's Aleem Maqbool reports from Islamabad. The report talks of systematic human rights abuses by the Taliban and accuses militants of increasing the likelihood of civilian casualties by dispersing themselves among civilians during clashes with government forces. But it also accuses the Pakistani army of not doing enough to avoid civilian casualties in its operations against militants, and the government of neglecting the basic needs of the millions of people living in the frontier regions close to Afghanistan. Amnesty has appealed to both the Taliban and the Pakistani government to end human rights abuses in north-west Pakistan. It has also called on Islamabad to reform the Pakistani constitution, which excludes the Fata from the legal and parliamentary system of the country. There was no immediate comment from Pakistan's government.

Gulf residents angry about BP and claims process

The financial toll of the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico escalated Wednesday as BP's stock plummeted to a 14-year low and fishermen, businesses and property owners who have filed damage claims with the company angrily complained of delays, excessive paperwork and skimpy payments that have put them on the verge of going under.
The oil company captured an ever larger-share of the crude gushing from the bottom of the sea and began bringing in more heavy equipment to help in the effort, including a production ship and a tanker from the North Sea that will allow the system to process larger quantities of oil and better withstand tropical storms.
The containment efforts played out as investors deserted BP amid fears that the company might be forced to suspend dividends, end up in bankruptcy and find itself overwhelmed by the cleanup costs, penalties, damage claims and lawsuits generated by the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.
Shrimpers, oystermen, seafood businesses, out-of-work drilling crews and the tourism industry all are lining up to get paid back the billions of dollars washed away by the disaster, and tempers have flared as locals direct outrage at BP over what they see as a tangle of red tape.
"Every day we call the adjuster eight or 10 times. There's no answer, no answering machine," said Regina Shipp, who has filed $33,000 in claims for lost business at her restaurant in Alabama. "If BP doesn't pay us within two months, we'll be out of business. We've got two kids."
An Alabama property owner who has lost vast sums of rental income angrily confronted a BP executive at a town meeting. The owner of a Mississippi seafood restaurant said she is desperately waiting for a check to come through because fewer customers come by for shrimp po-boys and oyster sandwiches.
Some locals see dark parallels to what happened after Hurricane Katrina, when they had to wait years to get reimbursed for losses.
"It really feels like we are getting a double whammy here. When does it end?" said Mark Glago, a New Orleans lawyer who is representing a fishing boat captain in a claim against BP.
BP spokesman Mark Proegler disputed any notion that the claims process is slow or that the company is dragging its feet.
Proegler said BP has cut the time to process claims and issue a check from 45 days to as little as 48 hours, provided the necessary documentation has been supplied. BP officials acknowledged that while no claims have been denied, thousands and thousands of claims had not been paid by late last week because the company required more documentation.
At the bottom of the sea, the containment cap on the ruptured well is capturing 630,000 gallons a day and pumping it to a ship at the surface, and the amount could nearly double by next week to roughly 1.17 million gallons, said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who is overseeing the crisis for the government.
A second drilling vessel that will arrive within days is expected to greatly boost capacity. BP also plans to bring in the tanker from the North Sea on Monday to help transport oil and an incinerator to burn off some of the crude. The tanker is currently used to shuttle oil from North Sea rigs to the shores of Scotland, and its deployment in the Gulf has been part of the broader plan to expand the amount of crude brought to the surface once a new and improved cap-and-collection system is installed over the leaking well.
The government has estimated 600,000 to 1.2 million gallons are leaking per day, but a scientist on a task force studying the flow said the actual rate may be between 798,000 gallons and 1.8 million.
Crews working at the site toiled under oppressive conditions as the heat index soared to 110 degrees and toxic vapors emanated from the depths. Fireboats were on hand to pour water on the surface to ease the fumes.
Allen also confronted BP over the complaints about the claims process, warning the company in a letter: "We need complete, ongoing transparency into BP's claims process including detailed information on how claims are being evaluated, how payment amounts are being calculated and how quickly claims are being processed."
The admiral this week created a team including officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help with the damage claims. It will send workers into Gulf communities to provide information about the process. He also planned to discuss the complaints with BP officials Wednesday.
Under federal law, BP is required to pay for a range of damage, including property losses and lost earnings. Residents and businesses can call a telephone line to report losses, file a claim online and seek help at one of 25 claims offices around the Gulf. Deckhands and other fishermen generally need to show a photo ID and documentation such as a pay stub showing how much money they typically earn.
To jump-start the process, BP was initially offering an immediate $2,500 to deckhands and $5,000 to fishing boat owners. Workers can receive additional compensation once their paperwork and larger claims are approved. BP said it has paid 18,000 claims so far and has hired 600 adjusters and operators to handle the cases.
The oil giant said it expects to spend $84 million through June alone to compensate people for lost wages and profits. That number could grow as new claims are received. When it is all over, BP could be looking at total liabilities in the billions, perhaps tens of billions, according to analysts.
BP stock dropped $5.45, or 16 percent, Wednesday — easily its worst day since the April 20 rig explosion that set off the spill. In the seven weeks since then, the company has lost half its market value.
The latest slide came after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar promised a Senate energy panel to ask BP to compensate energy companies for losses if they have to lay off workers or suffer economically because of the Obama administration's six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling.
Calculating what is owed to victims of the spill has proved challenging.
David Walter owns an Alabama company that makes artificial reefs that anglers buy and drop in the Gulf to attract fish, but state regulators stopped issuing permits for the reefs on May 4 because of the oil spill — effectively killing off $350,000 in expected business.
When Walter called a claims adjuster working for BP, he was told to provide four years of invoices for May, June and July along with tax returns for those years. Walter said he sent the forms by overnight mail, but the adjuster assigned to his case changed offices and could not be found. The documents were lost.
After making more inquiries, Walter said, he was instructed to gather the same documents and this time go to a claims office. There, an adjuster told Walter he would be eligible for only a $5,000 payment since his tax returns showed a technical business loss when depreciation was factored in.
"I said that's not fair because if you say that, then I have to go out of business and I lose everything," Walter said. He is now working with an accounting firm to calculate his losses.
Not everyone had complaints about the claims process.
Bart Harrison of Clay, Ala., filed his first claim on Wednesday morning for lost rental income on his coastal property and expected to have a check for $1,010 within a few hours. The only documentation required was tax returns and rental histories for his units, which were both easy to provide.
"The guy I talked to was knowledgeable and respectful. It seemed like he really wanted to write a check and please me since it was my first time in," Harrison said.