Thursday, September 9, 2010

In Afghanistan, The Civil Service 'Surge' That Isn't

As U.S. troops flood into southern Afghanistan, the same can't be said for Afghan government workers. There are critical shortages of government bureaucrats in regions such as Helmand and Kandahar. U.S. military officers are particularly frustrated by the lack of a civilian "surge."
Marine Gen. Richard Mills commands some 20,000 Marines in Helmand province, a key haven for Taliban fighters. But he says that what he really needs are a few good Afghan bureaucrats.
"It's a difficult thing to do — it's difficult to attract talented civil servants," Mills said.
Next door in Kandahar province, the governor, Tooryalai Wesa, is having the same trouble. "In some districts, we have only the district governor with the police chief," he said. "So if you could at least have an attorney there or a prosecutor or a judge or a finance guy."
U.S. officials say they have filled only about 25 percent of the key government jobs in Kandahar province, and that Helmand isn't much better.
It's a serious problem. The insurgency has gained strength because the Afghan government is either corrupt — or not around. Villagers in the south tell NPR that they haven't seen any government officials, sometimes for years. And some senior government officials, like district governors, sometimes don't even live in their districts.
It's not like Afghan government workers aren't available. There's a Civil Service Training Institute in Kabul, funded by the U.S. and other countries, that's graduating thousands of would-be bureaucrats.
"Right now, they've reached 11,000," said Earl Gast, who runs the Afghanistan programs for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which provides economic and humanitarian assistance worldwide. "And the target is to get to 15,000 or 16,000 trained civil servants before the end of the year."
But Gast pointed out that there's a simple reason why many of them are unwilling to work in Helmand or Kandahar: "If you work for the government, especially, you've got a target on your back," he said.
Those two provinces have seen the worst of the fighting. A Kandahar district governor was killed by a car bomb this summer, and there has been a surge of assassinations of local government workers in Helmand province.
U.S. officials have responded by building dormitories where government workers can live under tight security, and the Afghan government is providing hardship pay to work in the provinces. But officials say recruitment is moving slowly.
Security isn't the only issue. The American government is also part of the problem: The U.S. military and the State Department are scooping up the best-educated Afghans to work as translators. One senior officer, who asked not to be named, said the smartest and most educated Afghans he met were all working for the U.S., and that it wasn't exactly a blueprint for the way the government ought to be doing this."We are competing in some ways with the Afghan government for staff," said Alex Thier, who is in charge of USAID's Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs in Washington. "We do pay more often than the Afghan government civil service salary."An Afghan government salary can run up to about $2,400 per year, but Afghan translators can make at least $80,000 a year working for the Americans.
Thier said the U.S. and its allies are trying to fix the disparity by providing more money to help Afghanistan beef up those government salaries. And he hopes that as security improves, more Afghans will agree to take up civil service posts in Helmand and Kandahar.
Private relief organizations, known as NGOs, are also attracting Afghans with better salaries. That's one more sector that people like Wesa have to compete against.
"Because the government cannot afford the salaries the NGOs pay for that, the international NGOs, so that will be a challenge," Wesa said.
But there's another, largely untapped, source of Afghan talent that he and others are trying to attract.
"My recommendation from the very beginning is to bring the former Afghans living overseas," Wesa said. "Canada, United States, Europe, Australia — those are full of former, experienced, educated Afghans."
Wesa himself was a college professor in Canada before he returned to his homeland two years ago. He hopes other Afghans will follow his lead, driven by patriotism — rather than a paycheck.

Afghan election threatened by violence, says watchdog

Taliban violence and intimidation are threatening Afghanistan's parliamentary elections as the government fails to protect candidates, especially women, a human rights watchdog said Thursday.

Afghanistan is due to go to the polls on September 18, when around 2,500 candidates will contest the 249 seats in the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga.

The Taliban, who have been waging an intensifying insurgency for almost nine years, have said anyone associated with the poll is a target and have so far been blamed for the killing of at least three candidates.

Many others working on the elections have been attacked and kidnapped, with women candidates said to be the most vulnerable to intimidation and threats.

In a statement condemning the pre-election violence, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said: "Candidates -- as well as their staff members and election officials -- face assassinations, kidnappings and intimidation by insurgents as well as by rival candidates.

"Women candidates are facing the highest level of intimidation."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined calls for the Kabul government to provide adequate security for all participants in the poll, including voters.

Rachel Reid, HRW's Afghanistan researcher, was quoted as saying that the Taliban attacks and the "broad lack of confidence" in the Afghan government's ability to carry out a safe election, "threatens its validity".

"Insurgent violence, particularly against women candidates, was inevitable, but the government?s weak response was not," she said.

"While some candidates have complained to Human Rights Watch about the government?s lack of provisions for protecting candidates, others have not requested help or turned it down, citing a lack of confidence in the Afghan security forces," HRW said.

The Taliban threats and the deteriorating security situation follow last year's presidential poll, which was marred by extensive fraud, most of it found to be in favour of President Hamid Karzai.

The Taliban killed and injured hundreds of people leading up to and on election day last year, declaring the election a tool of foreign occupiers, mainly the United States which is leading anti-insurgency efforts.

The United States and NATO have 150,000 troops in Afghanistan, some of which will be deployed to help secure polling centres.

Afghan election authorities have said that security can be provided for 5,987 polling centres, out of a total of 6,835.

Most of those that will remain closed are in Nangahar province, on the eastern border with Pakistan, according to observer Democracy International.

The Independent Election Commission (IEC), which oversees the poll, has said the polling stations will remain shut because security cannot be guaranteed.

Candidates and their supporters have been bombed, kidnapped, shot and -- in one case in troubled Ghazni province south of Kabul -- beheaded.

Last month five people working for candidate Fawzya Gailani in eastern Herat were kidnapped and killed in what remains the most shocking attack on election workers since campaigning began in late June.

That attack sent a message to women candidates that "not just in Herat but in every other province it may not be safe for you to campaign," said Democracy International's Jed Ober.

Most threats reported to the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan were against women, HRW said in its statement.

It cited "at least 40 incidents of threatening letters or phone calls in 10 provinces. Many of these incidents include threats of violence if the woman does not withdraw her candidacy," it said.

Obama Launches Fall Fight

President Barack Obama capped a rollout of new economic policies with a combative speech Wednesday that tipped the Democratic plan for the fall campaign: attack the Republicans' policies and try to monopolize the economic message until Election Day.

Speaking at Cuyahoga Community College in Parma, Ohio, the president gave his second aggressive campaign address of the past few days—delivering a speech that was part mea culpa, part policy address but mainly red meat for a Democratic base that party officials fear will sleep through the Nov. 2 vote. He conceded that his policies have "fed the perception that Washington is still ignoring the middle class." But he castigated Republican opponents for believing, "If I fail, they win."

"If we're willing again to choose hope over fear, to choose the future over the past, to come together once more around the great project of national renewal, then we will restore our economy, rebuild our middle class and reclaim the American dream for the next generation," he said, striking the revival-like cadences that buoyed his presidential bid.

The speech was billed as a major policy address to kick-start a flagging economy. The president formally announced three proposals the White House had hinted were coming: $50 billion in infrastructure spending; expanding and making permanent the lapsed research tax credit for business; and a measure allowing businesses to write 100% of their investment costs off their taxes through 2011.

Republicans labeled the economic proposals a new try at a failed policy, and instead urged him to extend all of President George W. Bush's tax cuts, not just those for the middle class. "The White House is doubling down on a job-killing plan when millions of unemployed Americans are looking for relief," said Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch.

But Mr. Obama's address was far more about politics than economics. The policies he has announced have been met with indifference by many embattled Democratic candidates, if not outright disapproval.

Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, the Democrats' candidate for an open Ohio Senate seat, said he wanted a job-creation tax credit. "I also wish we had seen all these proposals much sooner," he said. And Sen. Michael Bennet (D, Colo.), who is locked in a difficult campaign, said Wednesday, "I will not support additional spending in a second stimulus package."

"The rollout has not been good," said one Democratic congressional campaign aide, who noted there was little coordination between the White House and congressional leaders on the proposals.

Many Democrats did, however, like the President's new, combative tone, which they say is putting Republicans on the defensive. The goal, they say, is to turn the November midterms from a referendum on Democratic control in Washington to a choice between Democratic and Republican policies.

In his speech, the president singled out John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) the House minority leader, eight times by name, characterizing him as the face of a party that wants to bring back the economic policies of the George W. Bush era.

"My attitude is, you should be tough on anyone who always says 'no,'" said Mr. Fisher, the Democrat senatorial hopeful from Ohio, referring to Republicans who have opposed the president's policies.

Chris Coons, the Democrat running for Senate in Delaware, said the president's economic-policy rollout was "a critical way to reinforce that Democrats really are going to fight for these economic battles."

Republicans joined the fray, accusing the president of lying about their positions and refusing their offers to cooperate.

Rep. Boehner, the Republican House leader cited by the president, fired back with an economic proposal that he said should get bipartisan support: extend all of the tax cuts passed under George W. Bush for two years, and cut spending on programs not tied to national security to 2008 levels.

"If we're able to do this together, I think we'll show the American people that we understand what's going on in the country, and we'll be able to get our economy moving again and get jobs growing in America," Mr. Boehner said on ABC's Good Morning America.

It was no coincidence that the president spoke Wednesday outside Cleveland. Mr. Boehner had given his own economic address there last month, and Ohio's governorship, Senate seat and a slew of House seats are in play, with Democratic candidates struggling. Ohio's unemployment rate in July, 10.3%, was above the national average of 9.6% in August.

Ohio remains a critical swing state that Mr. Obama won in 2008 by almost five percentage points. Now it appears to be swinging back to the GOP, and Mr. Obama will have to regain momentum there to support his own chances at re-election to a second term as president.

Mr. Obama's speech signaled a return to campaign mode, drawing on campaign themes that propelled his 2008 surge—his grandfather's service in World War II, his father-in-law's struggle to work despite serious illness and his own work as a community organizer "in the shadow of a shuttered steel plant on the South Side of Chicago."

Giving his party a sharp target, the president castigated Mr. Boehner for proposing "the same [economic] philosophy that led to this mess in the first place."

He hit Republicans hard for opposing the administration's economic plan.

"Instead of setting our sights higher, they're asking us to settle for a status quo of stagnant growth, eroding competitiveness and a shrinking middle class," Mr. Obama said.

For their part, Republicans sought to emphasize, not dodge, their opposition to what they see as the failed policies of the Democrats.

Asked why Republicans are pulling ahead of Democrats in current campaigns, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a potential rival to Mr. Obama in 2012, said Republicans "in a very unified fashion have opposed bad policy. And the public appreciates it when a party fights against what it knows is bad policy."

Obama implores minister to call off Quran burning

President Barack Obama is exhorting a Florida minister to "listen to those better angels" and call off his plan to engage in a Quran-burning protest this weekend.

Obama told ABC's "Good Morning America" in an interview aired Thursday that he hopes the Rev. Terry Jones of Florida listens to the pleas of people who have asked him to call off the plan. The president called it a "stunt."

"If he's listening, I hope he understands that what he's proposing to do is completely contrary to our values as Americans," Obama said. "That this country has been built on the notion of freedom and religious tolerance."

"And as a very practical matter, I just want him to understand that this stunt that he is talking about pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women who are in uniform," the president added.

Said Obama: "Look, this is a recruitment bonanza for Al Qaida. You could have serious violence in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan." The president also said Jones' plan, if carried out, could serve as an incentive for terrorist-minded individuals "to blow themselves up" to kill others.

"I hope he listens to those better angels and understands that this is a destructive act that he's engaging in," the president said of Jones.

Angelina Jolie says, ''No choice but to be optimistic in Pakistan''.

(CNN) -- Amid the overwhelming flood disaster in Pakistan, the world has "no choice but to be optimistic and to have hope" that things can improve there, actress and humanitarian Angelina Jolie told CNN.

Jolie is in the country as the personal envoy of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres. She spoke to CNN from Islamabad after touring flood-hit areas of Pakistan, including the northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region.

She described meeting a couple in their 70s who live on a pension and who watched as floodwater destroyed the family home they had worked hard to build.

"The woman is so embarrassed with her situation, and the man spoke of the fact that he never felt in his lifetime he is ever going to be able to recuperate what he's lost -- that he would never again have nice things, he would never have a nice bed, a nice house," Jolie told CNN.
They lived in this place since 1972 and raised their children and their grandchildren there. And in a moment, a few hours, it was completely gone."

She said the area the couple lived in is now covered in mud and dirt, with feces in the fly-covered river nearby, all because of the floods.

"It doesn't have the dignity that they deserve to live in -- anybody deserves to live in," Jolie said.

The couple lives in the village of Mohib Banda, where some 70 percent of the homes were destroyed or badly damaged by the swirling floodwater, according to the UNHCR.

The death toll in the country has climbed to 1,738, the Pakistan Disaster Authority said over the weekend.

Almost 21 million people have been affected by the flooding, Valerie Amos, the new U.N. emergency relief coordinator, said Monday.

Water-borne illnesses from contaminated floodwaters have erupted nationwide. At least 1 million Pakistanis have crippling diarrhea or respiratory infections, and about 65,000 cases of malaria have been reported.

Jolie's visit is intended to highlight the suffering of the millions of flood victims and the need for continuing aid for the displaced.

One reason relatively few people have paid attention to the suffering in Pakistan, Jolie said, may be disaster fatigue. She pointed out Pakistan has endured several disasters in recent years, including an earthquake in 2005 that killed more than 70,000 people.

"We tend to focus on one issue at a time, because that seems to be what people can absorb and care for," she said.

She added that it's difficult to convey the story of the disaster in Pakistan, and that even she had no idea what she would face.

"When I was standing in one of the houses, it was nine feet tall, the water. It was not a flood that made everything wet for a (while). It washed away children right out of their parents' hands. It destroyed lives."

Jolie said she would want people to remember this: "They are people. They are family, and lovely, lovely, hard-working people and beautiful children, and they deserve dignity and assistance, and we have to treat them with respect and try to preserve what we can of their livelihood and their future."

The Pakistani people are resilient and will move on, Jolie said, but she urged international support to help them do that.

"I think we have no choice but to be optimistic and to have hope," she said. "I think without that, we are just lost, and things deteriorate."

Pakistan's Intelligence failure

Two bomb blasts in two days targeting policemen and their families expose the weaknesses of our intelligence apparatus. First it was Lakki Marwat, where a suicide attacker rammed his vehicle into a police station. Then, on Tuesday, a bomb was detonated in a police residential colony in Kohat with deadly consequences. Add to this the deadly attacks on processions in Lahore and Quetta.
The intent of the militants is clear: they wish to demoralise the security forces of a country that is struggling for survival. This latest upsurge in violence is no coincidence — the enemies of Pakistan are attempting to inflict maximum damage at a time when resistance levels are low. As the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa information minister pointed out, terrorists are hitting the police when the country’s attention is diverted from militancy because of the ravages of floods. Such attacks should have been foreseen and the intelligence failures involved are simply unacceptable.
True, the country’s military is stretched to the limit as we speak. It is in the forefront of rescue and relief operations that were beyond the capacity, and perhaps will, of the civil administration. Still, not for a moment can the fight against militancy be forgotten and nor can terrorists be allowed to regroup. The reports trickling in from the tribal areas are troubling. On the run last year following the armed forces’ fierce offensive, groups operating under the umbrella of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan are now said to be making a comeback and making the most of the nation’s misery. They cannot be allowed to succeed in their mission.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik’s remarks about Balochistan do not help at this critical juncture, because the problems plaguing that province are dissimilar from the wider fight against terrorism. Playing to the gallery, he said in Quetta on Tuesday that “use of force” was the only option available for restoring law and order in Balochistan. Missing the point entirely, the interior minister appears to be in favour of a Malakand-kind military operation in Balochistan which is only bound to fuel tensions, not quell them. Instead, he should be looking into tracking down those who fund militancy in this country and seem to have easy access to explosives. The minister needs to set his priorities right and gather better intelligence on terrorist networks and the routes they use, apparently with abandon. What is needed here is prevention. The ‘Balochistan issue’ is entirely different in its complexity from the insurgency raging in the tribal belt. Balochistan’s woes have been decades in the making and can only be resolved through dialogue.

Kohat and more


Merciless and vengeful, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has struck once again, this time in a police colony in Kohat. Detonating an explosives-laden pickup inside the compound, just behind the guarded police lines, the blast ripped through almost 300 buildings, including schools, markets and residential homes. The scenes were truly horrific as the majority of the 20 killed were women and children who were inside their homes during iftaar time. It is expected that the death toll will rise as there were still some people trapped under the rubble of the TTP’s latest attack.

Vowing to take revenge for the drone strikes in the tribal areas, the TTP has promised more attacks on security and government officials. Such grim announcements and brutal massacres should not come as a surprise as the past week has demonstrated just how determined the militants are to step up their game now that the military’s attention has been diverted towards flood relief. Anyone who thought that the softest targets in society — women, children and residential areas — would be safe, has not understood the reality of the shadowy enemy we are up against. The militants aim to cause maximum damage, widespread fear and loss of lives to prove their point; what better way than to target the most vulnerable? That is why Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain has urged the security forces to implement well-coordinated and effective action against the terrorists. He has stated that it is vital that military attention be diverted from the floods to the insurgency once again.

After such an attack and chilling warning, it is vital that all efforts be taken to protect such areas. When it has been proclaimed that government, security and police officials are under the most threat, nothing should be left to chance; check-posts, apart from being an irritant, have done nothing to secure the urban and settled areas. We need better intelligence to prevent the militants from moving ahead with their dastardly mission. An insecure security force translates into one that is incapable of securing the citizenry.

As further evidence of the virulent spread of terrorism in all its manifestations, the Vice Chancellor (VC) of Islamia College University, Dr Ajmal Khan, was kidnapped on Tuesday by suspected militants. Dr Ajmal is the cousin of Awami National Party’s Chief Asfandyar Wali Khan. It is suspected that the VC has been taken to the Khyber Agency in an eerily similar fashion to the November 2009 kidnapping of the VC of Kohat University of Science and Technology, Dr Lutfullah Kakakhel, who was also spirited off and kept in captivity by the militants for six months. Targeting senior academics is in line with the Taliban view of obliterating education. Another girls school has been blown up in Kalam. This is sadly a routine activity for the militants.

The terrorists are spreading and setting off their attacks like literal hand grenades in almost all regions of the country — tribal and urban. From Kohat to Hangu, where a blast targeting two police mobile vans killed one constable, and Karachi, where an activist of the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat was gunned down, no place seems safe from the grip of terrorism. It is time that a full throttle plan is enforced against this scourge that is making its malignant presence felt every single day.

It is time that the flood relief transitioned into rehabilitation. It is time that the government and civil administration of the country take over managing the flood efforts from the army so that an organised military offensive once again strikes at the heart of the Taliban insurgency. Without the army fully engaging in eliminating the terrorists, such attacks are likely to be witnessed with increasing frequency.