Friday, September 10, 2010

NATO Drive on Kandahar Begins

New York Times

The white flags of the Taliban no longer fly from neighborhoods in Kandahar City, as they did in some areas only two weeks ago, replaced instead by the red, black and green Afghan colors.

But if the Taliban have been driven further underground, there has been no significant let-up in their campaign of terror and assassination against anyone connected with the government or foreign forces.

The long-delayed push by NATO forces has finally come to town, in fits and starts, and with mixed results. “The deliberate campaign has begun in Kandahar,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, the NATO commander, said on Aug. 31. “In some areas the Taliban momentum has reversed, but there’s clearly a lot more work to be done.”

Several times a day lately, mostly in rural districts just outside the city, there has been the distinct metallic vomiting sound of an American A-10 Warthog attack plane blasting a target with its cannon, which fires 70 30-millimeter shells a second. Fighting in those rural areas has been intense, sometimes with heavy casualties for American troops and Taliban fighters. Inside this city of half a million, the traditional home of the Taliban, though, the coalition’s fight has been much more low-key.

Most of the recent effort has focused on the Mehlajat area, a semirural zone in the southwest of the city, and the adjacent District 6. It is a part of Kandahar that bedeviled the Soviets during their occupation, and until a recent joint military operation there, it was the Taliban’s most important redoubt within city limits.

The area was notorious as a place where the police were afraid to patrol and death sentences were handed out by Taliban courts. Hostages were chained to trees for days on end, and government employees hanged from poles. The Taliban’s white flag flew from many of the mud-walled homes, surrounded by dense cornfields and pomegranate orchards laced with twisting lanes and canals, and heavily booby-trapped.

A five-day operation that concluded Aug. 31, mounted at the insistence of the Afghan authorities but backed up by American troops, succeeded in routing the Taliban from the area without a single civilian casualty. Nor was there a single Taliban casualty, and only 21 Taliban suspects were confirmed as captured, according to American officials.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s a good news story,” said Lt. Col. John Voorhees of the United States Army’s 504th Military Police Battalion, who commanded the American task force that backed up the Afghan police in Mehlajat.

It is also a work in progress, a visit to the area on Monday made clear — what amounts to on-the-job training for many of the Afghans.

The Americans, too, have had to learn fast; many of them are part of this summer’s influx of troops and, like Colonel Voorhees’s men, have been in the field for only a month or two. One of the companies in his task force lost two men, who were killed by an improvised bomb in Mehlajat, but otherwise casualties have been slight: five Afghan police officers, wounded by another bomb.

Now the Afghan police and American troops are settling in to create a permanent presence in this quarter of Kandahar City. Many of the 200 Afghan policemen are fresh recruits, straight from a six-week training program; 10 to 20 percent have not even been issued rifles yet, one of their own commanders said and American officers confirmed.

“They get a police baton and that’s all,” said Police Col. Abdul Qadim. “Can you imagine coming here with a stick?”

The Americans bring an array of modern weaponry, from surveillance drones to close air support. “We have to backstop them at every stage,” Colonel Voorhees said. “But they are out in front.”

The Americans also bring a greater appreciation for Afghan sensibilities than in the past. Lt. David Thompson brought along a backpack stuffed with $45,000 in Afghanis, the national currency, and spent $20,000 of that in three days — paying on-the-spot reparations to residents whose homes or fields were damaged in the fighting.

The operation in Mehlajat has three companies of American troops hunkered down in the fields and orchards, patrolling on foot. The Afghans are patrolling on foot with them, and even sleeping in the open.

Colonel Qadim is the head of what will become the new Police Substation 15, which at the moment consists of a semicircular trench with an orchard wall at its back and fields of corn and okra in front of it. While the Afghans took a break at sunset to eat their iftar meal on Monday, marking the end of the day’s fasting for Ramadan, Americans took up prone positions atop the ditch’s berm, pulling security for them.

Colonel Qadim said he was not happy about bedding down in the dirt, but site engineers have already started planning a building there as a joint headquarters for Afghan and American forces. “We have nothing but this ditch for protection now, but at least it’ll be our turn to serve our country,” he said.

People in the area greeted the troops with friendly waves. “They were truly terrorized before,” said Capt. Bradley Rudy, who heads an infantry company that was also part of the operation. “They’re just really glad we’re here now and staying.”

Many others, however, liken the operation to squeezing a balloon. “Kandahar City is getting worse day by day,” said Hamidzai Lalay, a former police official who is now running for Parliament, and who narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in late July. “The operation in Mehlajat was good but not very effective. Good because no civilians were killed, but the negative part is that most of the insurgents just went to other parts of the city.”

On Wednesday, a policeman who was shopping for the coming holiday marking the end of Ramadan was shot to death. On Monday, two policemen and a civilian were shot to death in a local bazaar. On Sunday, a woman who worked for a humanitarian organization as a security guard was shot to death by gunmen who forced their way into her house. Also on Sunday, an employee working for an Afghan contractor who did business with the Americans was kidnapped from a restaurant in the city center, which has a police post right in front of it,.

One recent local media account put the number of assassinations in Kandahar City since mid-June at 397, suggesting a rate of four or five a day, a pace that appears to be continuing.

American officials will not confirm those numbers. “The city still has its challenges, that’s all I can say,” said Lt. Col. Victor Garcia, the deputy commander of Task Force Raider, in overall charge of Kandahar City. “I don’t want to go into any more details.”

Peshawar police take security measures before Eid

Peshawar is on virtual lockdown a day before Eid al-Fitr after threats that terrorists might strike the city’s crowded bazaars."We have sealed the main trade centre in Peshawar cantonment. No vehicle will be allowed entry to avoid any car bombing," said a police official, Rahmat Khan.He said intelligence reports indicate that explosives-laden cars could be used to carry out attacks in Peshawar and other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Those reports prompted the security measures.

Obama has tenuous grip on Democrats over taxes

Democrats in Congress are distancing themselves from President Barack Obama's push to let taxes rise for the wealthiest Americans, fearing it will further harm them in November's mid-term elections.

Obama stood firm on his stance in a fiery speech this week addressing the looming increase of all individual taxes. He repeated his pledge to let tax rates on high-end income groups rise -- individuals making more than $200,000 a year or couples earning over $250,000.

But congressional Democrats are worried as they face potentially big losses in November. Democrats in the most vulnerable districts are teetering, especially the party's conservative Blue Dogs who need to appeal to constituencies that sometimes look more like Republicans.

Without support from his own party, Obama's effort to let tax rates rise on the rich is in peril. The most public displays of support have come from the Democratic leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"Democrats are peeling off," said Clint Stretch, a three-decade veteran of tax policy, now a principal at Deloitte in Washington. "My guess is in a lame-duck Congress (after the election) you'll get a one or two-year extension."

There are two potentially divisive issues at play -- whether to extend tax cuts for everyone or just the middle class, and whether to make those cuts permanent or temporary.

Uneasy Democrats are backing away from Obama's plan to only extend lower tax rates on the so-called middle class. A group of Democratic freshmen that backs extending all the lower rates are drafting a letter to their party's leaders expressing that position.

"It is time for Congress to be decisive about the tax rates facing small business owners next year," freshman Michigan Democrat Gary Peters said on Wednesday in a statement. "Extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for all earners is the right thing to do as anything less jeopardizes economic recovery."

In the Senate, at least three Democrats and independent Joe Lieberman have said they would prefer an extension of all the rates, citing the economic malaise.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner avoided talk of a compromise on Wednesday, appealing to fears about the widening budget deficit to defend Obama's plan.

"There are some Republicans in Congress who believe that we should go borrow $700 billion from our children, and investors around the world, so that we can afford to extend these tax cuts for the most fortunate two percent of Americans," he said on Fox Business Network. "We just don't think that is responsible economic policy."

Still, Obama has avoided threatening to veto any legislation containing an extension of the tax cuts.


Former White House budget director Peter Orszag added to Obama's problem when he caught the White House by surprise with a New York Times editorial this week calling for a two-year freeze on current tax rates. After that period, he backed an automatic return to rates before former President George W. Bush lowered taxes nearly a decade ago.

Given the gridlock in Congress, Orszag said the cuts might have to be kept in place for all.

Orszag's comments reflect the gap between Obama and some congressional Democrats as well.

"I wonder if Obama can hold his own party on this," said Greg Valliere, a political analyst for investors at Potomac Research Group. "The jury is out on that."

Republicans pounced on Orszag's comments as evidence that economists, even those associated with liberals, are worried that tax increases on any income group could derail the recovery.

Orszag also disagreed with Obama's bid to make the lower tax rates for the lower and middle income groups permanent - keeping the president's campaign pledge to not raise taxes on the middle class.

The top Republican in the House, John Boehner, who would likely become House speaker if his party takes control, called for a two-year tax freeze of current rates a day after Orszag's comments.

"I have the sense it may be this is where the politics are headed," said Brookings Institution senior fellow Isabel Sawhill, who in an ideal world said she backs letting the high-end rates expire. "I think that could be a good compromise."

But a two-year extension would be awful timing for Obama.

"It could potentially imply them fighting this debate in the run up to the presidential election," said Sean West, an analyst with Eurasia Group, which advises investors.

Extending the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans would cost an estimated $700 billion over a decade. Obama argues that the United States, which already faces a $1.3 trillion deficit this year, cannot afford that bill.


Virtually no one predicts any real movement on the tax issue before the elections. The Senate, which will take the lead on the issue, comes back from a break next week, only to adjourn about a month later.

"I don't think (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi would swallow the extension unless the White House forced it on them," which is extremely unlikely before the election, West said.

It is unclear who Democrats need to appeal to more in the election -- liberals or moderates -- but the economy may supersede such distinctions, said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report.

"At this point Democrats just need Democrats to show up regardless of their stripes," Duffy said, though she said there could be a danger to making it an argument about income class.

But the Democrats are a big party, and many believe that some moderates think calling Republicans out on fighting for lower taxes for the wealthy is a winning argument.

"I still think moderates feel that it's most important to keep tax rates lower on the middle class and let the rich pay a bit more - in the interest of not ballooning the budget deficit even more," Anne Mathias, analyst for investors at Concept Capital said.

World leaders condemn Quran-burning plan of U.S. pastor

World leaders and government officials have condemned the Quran-burning plan of U.S. pastor Terry Jones and raised concerns that the move may spark Muslim outrage around the globe and endanger U.S. interests.

In the latest development on Friday, Jones announced to put on hold his plan to burn hundreds of Quran copies Saturday to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, but threatened to go ahead unless his demand to relocate a mosque project in New York is satisfied.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has condemned the plan as "despicable," saying it will inflame "sentiments among Muslims throughout the world and cause irreparable damage to interfaith harmony and also to world peace."

In a statement Thursday, the president called for "doing all that it takes to stop such a senseless and outrageous act."

Indian Interior Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram called on U.S. authorities to take "strong action" to prevent such an "outrage" and urged the Indian media to exercise "great restraint" over the coverage of the act to help maintain peace and harmony.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono sent a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama urging him to prevent Jones from fulfilling his plan. In the letter Susilo said the plan is a threat to world peace, and Indonesia condemns the act.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urged the United States to prevent the plan, saying the event could become a pretext for killing. "This ghastly action ... will cause damage in the relations between religions, human and cultural communication between the nations," he said in a statement.

Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki warned of the reactions of Muslims and followers of other religions and urged U.S. authorities to carry out their duties to guarantee the basic right of American Muslims and prevent the promotion of such offensive acts.

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman denounced the plan as contradicting Christian teachings and humanitarian values such as love and respect. Burning the Quran "is a clear contradiction of the teachings of the three Abrahamic religions and of dialogue among the three faiths (Christianity, Islam and Judaism)," he said.

Secretary-General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu also condemned the plan, warning it would endanger inter-religious tolerance. "The culture of peaceful tolerance and inter-communal and inter-religious tolerance that the international community is trying to achieve is under threat from marginal and extremist fanatics," he said in a statement.

A spokesman of British Prime Minister David Cameron said the government strongly opposes the Jones plan.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said burning the Quran is the most hideous and unthinkable crime or action, especially when the plan was initiated by the pastor of a church. He said that is no doubt an attack on Muslims, adding it would spark anger among Muslims throughout the world.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak condemned the initiative as despicable racism against Islam and Muslims and warned it would increase violence, terrorism and extremism worldwide.

Jordan's Islamic Action Front said the plan is a "form of declaring a war on Muslims" and urged all Arab and Muslim governments to take a firm position regarding this crime that provokes all Muslims.

U.S. President Barack Obama has also denounced the Quran-burning plan, saying the "destructive" plan could greatly endanger the lives of American men and women in uniform.

He urged Jones to stop the act. "I hope he understands that what he's proposing to do is completely contrary to our values as Americans," he said Thursday during an interview with ABC's program "Good Morning America."

Obama warned that the proposed plan could serve as "a recruitment bonanza " for al-Qaida and increase suicide bombers in the United States or European cities.