Thursday, October 7, 2010

U.S. Tries to Calm Pakistan Over Airstrike

New Yrok Times:

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration scrambled to halt a sharp deterioration in its troubled relationship with Pakistan on Wednesday, offering Pakistani officials multiple apologies for a helicopter strike on a border post that killed three Pakistani soldiers last week.

But even as the White House tried to mollify Pakistan, officials acknowledged that the uneasy allies faced looming tensions over a host of issues far larger than the airstrike and the subsequent closing of supply lines into Afghanistan.

American pressure to show progress in Afghanistan is translating into increased pressure on Pakistan to crack down on terrorist groups. It is also running up against Pakistan’s sensitivity about its sovereignty and its determination to play a crucial role in any reconciliation with the Taliban.

American and NATO officials said privately that the Pakistani government’s closing of a crucial border crossing might have made it easier for militants to attack backed-up tanker trucks carrying fuel through Pakistan to Afghanistan to support the American war effort.

Still, the unusual apologies, officials and outside analysts said, were intended to clear away the debris from the explosive events along the border, in hopes of maintaining Pakistani cooperation.

“We have historically had astonishing sources of resilience in our relations with Pakistan,” said Teresita Schaffer, a South Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “One should not too quickly assume we’re in a breakpoint. But having said that, the time we’re in right now, the intensity of anti-American feeling, the antipathy of militants, all of these things make new crises a little more complicated to get through than the old ones were.”

The overall commander of forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, has been pulling out all the stops — aggressively using the American troop buildup, greatly expanding Special Operations raids (as many as a dozen commando raids a night) and pressing the Central Intelligence Agency to ramp up Predator and Reaper drone operations in Pakistan.

He has also, through the not-so-veiled threat of cross-border ground operations, put pressure on the Pakistani Army to pursue militants in the tribal areas even as the army has continued to struggle with relief from the catastrophic floods this summer.

The fragility of Pakistan — and the tentativeness of the alliance — were underscored in a White House report to Congress this week, which sharply criticized the Pakistani military effort against Al Qaeda and other insurgents and noted the ineffectiveness of its civilian government.

American officials lined up to placate Pakistan on intrusions of its sovereignty. General Petraeus offered Pakistan the most explicit American mea culpa yet for the cross-border helicopter strikes, saying that the American-led coalition forces “deeply regret” the “tragic loss of life.”

Anne W. Patterson, the American ambassador to Pakistan, quickly followed suit, calling “Pakistan’s brave security forces” an important ally in the war. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered a private, but official, apology to Pakistan’s military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, in a telephone call on Wednesday afternoon.

Both American and Pakistani officials said that they expected that Wednesday’s apologies would be effective, at least in the short term, and that Pakistan would soon reopen the border crossing at Torkham, a supply route for the NATO coalition in landlocked Afghanistan that runs from the port of Karachi to the Khyber region. The Pakistani government closed that route last week to protest the cross-border strikes.

“It’s obvious that the situation right now ain’t good,” said a senior NATO official, who agreed to speak candidly but only anonymously. “The best thing we could do is to strip away as many of the relatively smaller things as possible so we can focus on the big issues. And crazy as it may seem, the border crossing is a relatively small issue, compared to the others.”

Those other issues were flagged in the latest quarterly report from the White House to Congress on developments in the region. The assessment, first reported in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, takes aim at both the Pakistani military and the government.

For instance, “the Pakistani military continued to avoid military engagements that would put it in direct conflict with Afghan Taliban or Al Qaeda forces in North Waziristan,” the report said. It also painted Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, as out of touch with his own populace, a disconnect that the report said was exacerbated by Mr. Zardari’s “decision to travel to Europe despite the floods.” The overall Pakistani response to the catastrophic floods this summer, the report said, was viewed by Pakistanis as “slow and inadequate.”

Frustration with Pakistan is growing in the United States in part because “we’re living in the post-Faisal Shahzad era,” said Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to the Pakistani-American who was sentenced to life in prison on Tuesday for the attempted Times Square bombing.

Mr. Markey said that tensions among counterterrorism officials had also mounted because of the unspecified threats of terrorist attacks in Europe. “Frustration has really mounted, so the drumbeat is getting louder,” he said.

Making things worse, the administration is expected to brief Congressional officials on an Internet video, which surfaced last week, that showed men in Pakistani military uniforms executing six young men in civilian clothes, underscoring concerns about unlawful killings by Pakistani soldiers supported by the United States.

A prominent House Democrat warned on Wednesday that American aid to Pakistan could be imperiled. “I am appalled by the horrific contents of the recent video, which appears to show extrajudicial killings by the Pakistani military,” Representative Howard L. Berman, a California Democrat who leads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

“The failure of Pakistani officials to punish those responsible could have implications for future security assistance to Pakistan,” he said.

A joint Pakistan-NATO inquiry on the helicopter strike concluded on Wednesday that Pakistani border soldiers who initially fired on NATO helicopters were “simply firing warning shots after hearing the nearby engagement and hearing the helicopters flying nearby,” said Brig. Gen. Timothy M. Zadalis, a NATO spokesman, in a statement.

“This tragic event could have been avoided with better coalition force coordination with the Pakistani military,” he said.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa introduces Pashtu as compulsory subject

PESHAWAR – The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government introduced Pashtu as a compulsory subject in 17 provincial districts from first grade to intermediate classes.
The provincial cabinet reached the decision in its October 5 session, chaired by Chief Minister Amir Haider Hoti. In the eight districts where Pashtu speakers are a minority, the various majority mother tongues have been declared compulsory subjects.
In Peshawar, Pashtu will be compulsory in rural areas, while majority mother tongues will be compulsory in urban communities.

UNHCR, German government inaugurates health project in Peshawar

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in collaboration with the Federal German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and KfW Development Bank today inaugurated the Basic Health Unit (BHU) Improvement Programme in Chamkani, Peshawar.

Under the project, seven basic health units will be refurbished and receive new labour, recovery and waiting rooms, new medical equipment,and improved water and sanitation services. The doctor’s residence and staff quarters will also be refurbished at each facility.

UNHCR’s Deputy Representative Mr. Khassim Diagne and Mr. Friedel Eggelmeyer, Director General in-charge for European, by and multilateral development policy at the Federal German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, opened the project which will help 96,500 people. The scheme in Chamkani, implemented by Wish International is one of the Refugee Affected and Hosting Areas (RAHA) projects being implemented in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Speaking at the inaugural ceremony in Peshawar, Mr. Friedel Eggelmeyer said that the RAHA programme would contribute to better social and economic living conditions of refugee affected areas as well as the population in the hosting areas.

“Germany supports this initiative since it contributes significantly to balanced and equal access of the population to social infrastructure in these areas,” he added.

“The RAHA programme recognizes the long tradition of hospitality in Pakistan towards Afghan refugees by boosting essential services in areas where refugees live, helping Pakistanis and Afghan refugees alike,” UNHCR’s Diagne said.

The projects focuses on improving water supply and sanitation facilities, boosting education and medical facilities, and educating Pakistani and local Afghan communities on clean hygiene practices.

RAHA is a joint initiative between Pakistan’s Ministry of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) and Economic Affairs Division (EAD), UNHCR, UNDP and other UN agencies and NGOs.

Pakistan has been the world’s largest refugee hosting nation in the world, currently hosting some 1.6 million registered Afghans on its soil.

Afghan peace talks not likely advancing

Peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban aren't likely to advance until the United States and NATO forces gain an advantage on the battlefield, several experts on the region say.

While Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants to advance the reconciliation goals of his recently named High Peace Council, those familiar with diplomatic efforts say the current military standoff makes any peace deal difficult.

Talks between Afghan government and Taliban officials have been ongoing for months, but experts say that doesn't mean they're advancing.

"We really haven't seen anything concrete coming out of those negotiations," says Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow on South Asia at the Heritage Foundation. As the Taliban makes gains in southern Afghanistan, she says, "we would be in a weaker position at this particular point in time."The White House reiterated its support for peace talks Wednesday, as long as the Taliban renounces terrorism, cuts ties with al-Qaeda and supports the fledgling Afghan constitution, including minority and women's rights.

"This is something that has to be Afghan-led, and we've supported for quite some time," said press secretary Robert Gibbs.

Bruce Riedel, a Brookings Institution scholar who chaired an interagency review of Afghanistan and Pakistan policy for the White House last year, says the Taliban should be forced to do at least one more thing: point the way to the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"They know where Osama bin Laden is," he says. "That ought to be our bottom line with them."

Without major concessions by the Taliban, Riedel says, Karzai risks the support of the Afghan people, many of whom fear the strict Islamic regime's return.

If the talks are in the preliminary stage, as most experts believe, then the time is ripe for U.S. and NATO forces to advance in southern Afghanistan, while continuing to train government troops and police to take over security operations. That would weaken the Taliban's negotiating position, they say.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Wednesday the military offensive led by Gen. David Petraeus is intended to "create the conditions for those who, for one reason or another, are opposing the Afghan government to switch sides."

"All the while, we're continuing to press forward with a very aggressive counterinsurgency campaign," says Jeffrey Dressler, a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who specializes in southern Afghanistan. "I don't think anyone's talking about stopping that as we continue these talks."

The Taliban might have more reason to negotiate now, before their position on the ground is weakened by the coalition's offensive in Helmand province and Kandahar, experts say. The Obama administration's plan to begin withdrawing combat forces next July helps the Taliban, which has demanded the withdrawal of all foreign forces, some say.

"From the Taliban perspective, I can see why they want to talk right now," says Stephanie Sanok, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Despite the Obama administration's public hands-off approach, she says, it's not likely to remain that way.

"I can't imagine the U.S. State Department taking a complete back seat to these negotiations," Sanok says.