Monday, September 13, 2010

Angelina Jolie meets Pakistani Prime Minister

Hollywood Actress and UNHCR's Goodwill Ambassador Agelina Jolie met Pakistani Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani to discuss the country's devastating floods.

Angelina Jolie has promised to ''do what she can'' for flood-ravaged Pakistan. The Hollywood actress and UN goodwill amabassador was attending the London premiere of her new film Salt when she made the pledge.

Afghan election officials 'offered £380,000'

Afghan election officials have been offered as much as $500,000 (£380,000) to falsify returns in the forthcoming parliamentary election by supporters of President Hamid Karzai, independent observers have said. Fraud in Saturday's election is expected to be at least as widespread as it was during last year's presidential election. The observers said individuals were being offered up to $20 each for their votes.

The vote was delayed from its original date in May after international allies insisted on reforms to ensure a cleaner election. But the country's Election Complaints Commission has been weakened since the presidential election. Complaints of ballot fraud will now be addressed at a provincial level, where officials will be more vulnerable to local pressure.

Stephen Carter, who has worked as an observer in all Afghan elections since the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001, said poor security would allow Mr Karzai's allies to control voting in many areas.

"In the last election a significant proportion of voters were disqualified and this time it won't be any less. There is an electoral process going on which is more about the market place for ballot rigging and how effective one can be at organising fraud," he said.

In the presidential election, Mr Karzai was forced to accept a second round run-off with Abdullah Abdullah, the opposition leader, after officials reported widespread ballot stuffing and intimidation. Turnout was 30 per cent, but in insurgency-affected areas it was as low as 10 per cent.

In the parliamentary elections, female candidates and their supporters have been subjected to some of the worst violence. According to Human Rights Watch, 10 supporters of Fauwzia Gilani were kidnapped on Aug 26. Five of them were shot dead.

More than 2,400 candidates, including 386 women, are standing for 249 seats in the parliament's lower house.

Nato urged to allow partition of Afghanistan

Afghanistan should be allowed to partition along ethnic lines by pulling back Nato forces and acknowledging that the Taliban will not be defeated in their heartland, a senior former American national security adviser has warned. Robert Blackwill, who was Condolezza Rice's deputy as National Security Adviser in 2003 to 2004, will use a speech at the International Institute of Strategic Studies think tank in London on Monday to call on President Barack Obama to make drastratic changes in the war's objectives.

He told The Daily Telegraph that the surge of forces launched last year to stabilise Afghanistan was "high likely" to fail and that the death toll in the conflict was too high a price to pay. "The Taliban are winning, we are losing," he said. "They have high morale and want to continue the insurgency. Plan A is going to fail. We need a Plan B

"Let the Taliban control the Pashtun south and east, the American and allied price for preventing that is far too high."

Mr Blackwill said that there had been a decade of "innumerable errors" in the Western approach to Afghanistan. Most notably American policy shifted after the atttacks on September 11, 2001 from expelling al Qaeda from its Afghan sanctuaries to crushing the Taliban and installing a democratic government in Kabul.

The result was that America now had 1,000 soldiers deployed for every one of the estimated 100 al Qaeda operatives now believed to be based in Afghanistan and was hemorraging $100 billion a year on the conflict.

A review of the Afghan war that Mr Obama will present to the US public in November, represents an opportunity to change the contours of the conflict. The US committed an extra 35,000 troops to Afghanistan in attempt to reverse Taliban gains.

Mr Blackwill believes the US should only seek to defend those areas dominated by Afghanistan's Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara minorities by pulling out of bases in the south.

By accepting that the Taliban would overrun Kandahar and other big population centres, the US would threaten the Taliban only if it allowed al Qa'eda to reform or if the movement started to encroach northwards.

"How many people really believe that Kandahar is central to Western civilisation. We did not got to Afghanistan to control Kandahar ," he said.

"Our preference at the time of the attack was for the Taliban to give up al Qaeda not to change the regime. Mr Obama himself and the administration say what we are trying to do in Afghanistan is to destroy al Qaeda."

Alongside misdirected strategy, the "utter corruption" of the government of President Hamid Karzai had eclipsed Nato's hopes to keeping the Taliban at bay after its defeat in late 2001.

In contrast to Mr Blackwill's view that Afghanistan's army and police could not be made ready to control the whole country, Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, said the forces would assume responsibility by 2015.

"If we were to leave before 2015, a point at which on current progress we expect to have achieved our security aims, it would be a shot in the arm to violent jihadists everywhere, re-energising violent radical and extremist Islamists," he said.

"It would send a signal that we did not have the moral resolve and the political fortitude to see through what we ourselves have described as national security imperative."

Pakistani Insurgent Group Expands in Afghanistan
There was nothing unfamiliar about last month's hours-long gun battle between Afghan security forces and insurgents in Nuristan province - except the identity of some of the militants. Of the 40 or so fighters killed, Gen. Mohammad Zaman Mahmoodzai, head of Afghanistan's border security force, says about a quarter had carried documents implicating them as members of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistan-based outfit better known for its role in the Kashmir insurgency and the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

The general claims that recent months have seen a steady increase of violent clashes in the east that have yielded a higher ratio of Pakistanis and other foreigners among the insurgent casualties. That, he says, is proof of the nominally Kashmir-oriented group's growing involvement in Afghanistan. The trend is confirmed by U.S. military officials, who say that well-trained LeT fighters are bringing deadlier tools and tactics to the war's second-fiercest front.

With NATO's attention fixed on the southern battle zone where the Taliban is strongest, the LeT, or "Army of the Pure," has aligned with a host of militant groups that have ramped up attacks against Afghan and U.S. forces in the borderlands and beyond. Since they began tracking the group's involvement in Afghanistan in 2008, U.S. officials say the LeT has expanded from a small presence in Kunar province to multiple cells in at least five provinces, actively collaborating with everyone from the Afghan Taliban to the Haqqani network. Kunar and Nuristan remain their focal point, provinces where the U.S. military shut down several remote, heavily targeted bases in the past year. But when NATO in July announced the arrest of two Taliban commanders accused of aiding the LeT, a statement noted the influx of LeT foot soldiers in Nangarhar province, an important commercial center and military supply route. A spike in suicide- and roadside bomb attacks against convoys and government officials have disrupted the once stable area, and Afghan security officials allege the LeT is providing fake documents to attackers.

Originally nurtured by Pakistan's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), as a proxy force to drive India out of Kashmir, the LeT has since raised its profile with spectacular strikes on India's parliament and commercial capital. It was banned by the Pakistani government in 2002 under pressure from the U.S., although the organization continues to operate freely there via thinly disguised front organizations.

But according to Stephen Tankel, a U.S.-based analyst and author of the book Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba, "Lashkar was never just a Kashmir-centric organization and always had ambitions beyond the region." Today, he explains, some cadres are motivated by anti-Indian sentiment; others want to wage war against America. Because of increased Indian influence in the government of post-Taliban Afghanistan, these jihadist desires converge. And while India remains its main enemy, anti-Western activity by the LeT is nothing new - as the arrest of operatives as far away as the United States shows. "What we're seeing now is an acceleration of trends that have been in place," Tankel says, "rather than Lashkar trying to go in a new direction."

The LeT's presence in Afghanistan has coincided with mounting Pakistani concern that India's influence in Kabul represents an Indian strategy of encirclement. Ensuring a friendly regime in Kabul was the reason for the ISI helping the Taliban seize power in Afghanistan in 1996, and U.S. officials suspect ongoing Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban since the movement's ouster by U.S.-led forces in 2001. U.S. intelligence officials also suspect a direct Pakistani hand in some attacks in Afghanistan, notably the mid-2008 Indian embassy bombing in Kabul that left 58 people dead. More recently, Afghan intelligence officials blamed a Feb. 26 attack on a guesthouse in the capital on LeT operatives. (Half of the 18 killed were Indian nationals.) Pakistan, for its part, has denied any responsibility, insisting that its priority is its battle with its domestic Taliban insurgency. But in light of its long-standing reluctance to crack down on the LeT - and alleged involvement in attacks in Afghanistan - Tankel says we "must take seriously" the possibility that elements within the ISI are making use of LeT militants in Afghanistan, even if "there's no smoking gun."

While there's some dispute over just how substantial the LeT presence in Afghanistan really is, Afghan and U.S. officials agree that the group's role is likely to escalate as Western forces begin to withdraw and Pakistan tries to strengthen its influence. What's more, some contend, the LeT's threat should not be measured in numbers. Given that its training program was developed by the Pakistani army, its operatives are still considered among the most capable at small-unit tactics and explosives, making them ideally suited to the low-intensity Afghan conflict. "A few well-equipped pros who go around teaching and coordinating can do a lot more damage" than your average Taliban guerrilla, says the senior U.S. military official, noting the increased level of cooperation. "They're already having a big impact."