Monday, June 6, 2011

Neighboring countries ponder a post-occupation Afghanistan

The Washington Post

Worried that the administration is moving toward an endgame in Afghanistan — through troop withdrawals, negotiations or both — other countries in the region have stepped up efforts to protect security and economic interests that might conflict with those of the United States.

President Obama has argued that the long-term solution to Afghanistan’s problems lies in the neighborhood. Yet while Pakistan and India — as well as Iran, Russia, China and the Central Asian republics — say they want stability and an end to the terrorist threat, each has its own idea of what a future Afghanistan should look like.The administration has regularly consulted on Afghanistan beyond its comfort zone of Western allies. But early hopes that common goals in Afghanistan could lead to a U.S.-Iranian dialogue or a U.S.-assisted resolution of the India-Pakistan dispute faded long ago.

Solving Afghanistan’s conflict poses complex policy problems far beyond the immediate neighbors. Saudi Arabia, which has served as a venue for talks between the Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government and the Taliban, remains worried about Iranian influence. Turkey, which sees itself as a bridge between the West and the Islamic world, is anxious to play a role.

India, Obama’s first stop on an Asian tour that begins Friday, opposes a role for former insurgents in the Afghan government, the logical conclusion of nascent Afghan-Taliban talks. India worries that integrating the Taliban will come at the expense of New Delhi’s Afghan proxy, the former Northern Alliance of ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks.

India’s concern on this issue, shared by Iran and others in the region, is largely directed toward Pakistan. For ethnic and political reasons, Pakistan favors the southern Afghan Pashtuns, who dominate the Taliban.

Iran also has found common cause with Russia in pushing for tougher military action in Afghanistan against poppy cultivation and opium production, a priority the U.S.-led coalition has downgraded. Russia, while supporting the anti-terrorism fight, fears an extended U.S.-NATO military presence in the region and the indignity of an American success where its own forces failed in the 1980s.

China, in competition with India and Russia, has tightened its ties with Pakistan and poured money into potentially profitable Afghan development projects.

Beneath the political jockeying, government and private economic interests are competing for future wedges of Afghanistan’s potential peacetime pie, including billions in undertapped mineral wealth, hydrocarbons concessions and pipeline rights of way.

“There is a reason why everyone is taking an interest, and that is because things are moving,” Mark Sedwill, NATO’s top civilian representative in Afghanistan, said at last month’s meeting in Rome of the International Contact Group on Afghanistan. U.S. and European officials expressed pleasure that Iran and the Organization of the Islamic Conference participated in the group for the first time.

But regional players have also been talking about the endgame among themselves, out of U.S. earshot. India has exchanged high-level delegations with Iran and Russia to discuss Afghanistan; Russia has consulted closely with the Central Asian republics. Iran, Russia and India have hosted Karzai this year.Karzai appears to be leaving his options open. The “bags of money” his government receives from Iran, he said last month, are no different from the cash he receives from the United States. Both Washington and Tehran, he said, want things in return.

India, Iran and Russia agree “they don’t want to do anything to make life difficult for the coalition,” said Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a frequent administration adviser on the region. “They still see [the United States] as doing the right thing in beating up on a common enemy.But if they were to perceive that the coalition has moved toward actually trying to make a deal with the Taliban to the disadvantage of the three, then the stage is set,” Tellis said. “The lines of communication have been put in place.”

India, Iran and Russia have their own proxies inside Afghanistan, according to Tellis and other analysts. Karzai’s move this year to rid his government of senior officials who opposed Taliban talks or cooperation with Pakistan — including former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh and former interior minister Hanif Atmar — led to talk of a resurgent Northern Alliance girding for civil war.

“A variety of parties in Afghanistan have been hoarding weapons and sending family members and money overseas,” said a former U.S. intelligence official with long-standing ties to the Northern Alliance groups, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s their version of contingency planning.”

European allies also have expressed concern that the administration, in its expressions of enthusiasm for negotiations, is neglecting anti-Taliban power bases in Afghanistan.

“It’s an element that is very often forgotten in the description” of a possible political solution, said a senior European official whose government is one of the leading contributors to the coalition effort. “It’s sexy in a way to talk to the Taliban,” the official said. But “it would not help us at all if we foster talks between the government and the Taliban and forget that the Taliban, as important as they and the Pashtuns are, are not the only group.”

The administration sees improved relations between India and Pakistan as “a key piece of the puzzle . . . the heart of the deal” in Afghanistan, a senior U.S. official said. But it has only gingerly approached their bilateral differences, and its attempts to woo India and Pakistan separately have served largely to increase each’s suspicion of the other and of U.S. intentions.

Their mutual sensitivity led Obama last month to rule out a Pakistan stop on his Asia trip, when all attention will be focused on India. After three days in India, he explained to top Pakistani officials at a White House meeting, he knew they would take it amiss if he spent only a half-day in their country. Instead, he told them, he would travel there separately next year.

Pakistan has said it needs to maintain a strong military presence along its eastern border with India, expending resources that could otherwise be devoted to the robust action the administration seeks against insurgent sanctuaries along the Afghanistan border to the west. Pakistan has asked the administration to intercede with India to resolve a broad range of issues, including the long-standing dispute over Kashmir, while also expressing strong concern about India’s intentions in Afghanistan and questioning growing U.S.-India civil nuclear ties.

India, much larger and far more prosperous than its neighbor, has called the Pakistanis paranoid, an assessment many in the administration share. New Delhi has raised concerns with Washington about rapidly increasing U.S. military aid to Pakistan and urged the administration to restrict its assistance to counterterrorism weaponry.

If Pakistan truly wanted to improve relations, the Indians argue, it would move against domestic terrorist groups that have launched repeated attacks inside India, including the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. Obama plans to spend at least half of his three-day Indian visit in Mumbai, where he will commemorate the dozens killed in the attacks.

But while Afghanistan is on the agenda for talks between Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Indians have made it clear that they neither want nor need American assistance in their bilateral dealings with Pakistan.

Obama meets with advisers to discuss Afghanistan

President Barack Obama convened his national security team Monday to weigh in on the war in Afghanistan, as he mulls a long-term plan that could see more US troops withdraw sooner.

Senior administration officials and military commanders met in the White House Situation Room starting at 10:00 am (1400 GMT) for their monthly meeting on Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, according to an official schedule.

The meeting comes amid US public opposition to the war growing and patience in Congress wearing thin, a little over a month after US Navy SEALs killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at his hideout deep in Pakistan.

The killing has fueled further calls for a major withdrawal when Obama fulfills his vow to begin pulling out troops in July, a promise he made in December 2009 before deploying 30,000 "surge" forces in Afghanistan to combat a Taliban insurgency.

During a visit to Afghanistan on Sunday, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the looming decision on troop drawdowns could include a timeline for pulling out the surge troops.The New York Times reported that Obama's national security team is pondering much bigger reductions than those discussed even a few weeks ago following bin Laden's death and amid concerns over the war's cost.

Obama is expected to announce his decision on troop withdrawals in a speech to the nation this month, it added.

Roughly 100,000 US troops are still stationed in Afghanistan as part of a 130,000-strong international force.

CRUEL AND IGNORANT TERROIST : Ilyas Kashmiri: end of a terrorist

Daily Times
Ilyas Kashmiri, one of the most notorious Pakistani terrorists, was reportedly killed in a drone strike on Friday night in South Waziristan. Kashmiri’s name was on the list of top five militants handed over to Pakistan by the US authorities recently. He was head of the banned terrorist organisation Harakat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI), which has close links with al Qaeda. A statement from HuJI’s 313 Brigade confirmed that in Friday’s drone attack at 11:15pm their commander-in-chief, Ilyas Kashmiri, was killed and vowed to avenge his death from the US. “Our only target is America,” said the statement whereas the attacks carried out under Kashmiri’s notorious command were mainly against Pakistanis, Indians and Afghans. According to slain journalist Saleem Shahzad’s last report, it was Kashmiri’s group that carried out the audacious attack on PNS Mehran last month.

Trained by our intelligence agencies for fighting in the Afghan jihad to carrying out militant struggle in Indian Kashmir, Ilyas Kashmiri was considered a ‘strategic asset’ for decades by Pakistan’s security establishment until he turned rogue. He was accused of an assassination attempt on former president General Musharraf but was released due to lack of evidence. He was also said to be involved in the attack on GHQ in 2009. Kashmiri resurfaced after a report that he had been killed in a drone strike a couple of years ago. David Coleman Headley, co-accused in the 2008 Mumbai attacks and a star witness in the Rana trial currently underway in Chicago, revealed that Kashmiri had planned to kill the CEO of Lockheed Martin “because he was making drones”. In a strange twist of fate, it was a drone attack that put an end to Kashmiri’s life. Drone attacks, whether one supports them or not, have led to the deaths of hundreds of militants who have proved to be a security hazard for not just Pakistan and the South Asian region but the whole world.

It is widely believed that drone strikes in Pakistan are carried out by the US because of a tacit agreement with our authorities. They started when General Musharraf was in power and according to diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks, even chief of army staff General Kayani and Prime Minister Gilani supported these strikes in private while speaking against them in public. Religious parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami and politicians like Imran Khan have taken out protest rallies against drone strikes. Even the Americans are split over these strikes according to a report published in The Wall Street Journal, which said: “Fissures have opened within the Obama administration over the drone programme targeting militants in Pakistan, with the US ambassador to Pakistan and some top military leaders pushing to rein in the Central Intelligence Agency’s [CIA’s] aggressive pace of strikes.” Drone attacks have certainly led to an increase in anti-American sentiment in Pakistan but whether stopping these strikes would decrease or put an end to such sentiment is questionable given the fact that religious parties, politicians and our security establishment keep fanning it. Apart from India and Israel, now the US too has become one of our favourite punching bags. The only way to deal with this issue is to change our security paradigm. Pakistan’s military must give up its double game and dismantle all terror networks operating on our soil even if they are still considered ‘strategic assets’. Sooner rather than later all these assets will come back to bite us. Living in denial of this obvious development is what has gotten Pakistan to the brink of self-annihilation. It is time to take control of the situation. It is time to get rid of many more Ilyas Kashmiris who are roaming freely in Pakistan.

Honk if you support Saudi women drivers

Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, but in the spirit of the Arab Spring, a protest is planned for June 17. Supporters want Hillary Clinton to speak out publicly on it. More useful would be a massive turnout, including men.
hat struck me about watching a YouTube video of Manal al-Sharif driving along in a Saudi city scene is how normal it looked: The modern Arab woman, wearing her hijab and black sunglasses, looking left before she makes a turn, checking her rear-view mirror, but mostly staring straight ahead as she chats with the woman in the passenger seat who is filming her.But this simple act is utterly un-normal in Saudi Arabia, where women are banned from driving – not because any law forbids it, but because custom and religious clerics say it's a no-no. With no public transport system, this makes getting to work, or getting the kids to school, or running errands more than a chore.

Ms. al-Sharif, who is a divorced mother and a computer-security consultant, was arrested May 22 after posting a video of herself driving. She was finally released 10 days later, but only after promising not to participate in the "Women2Drive" campaign. The campaign urges women to drive en masse in Saudi Arabia on June 17 to protest the entrenched driving ban.

The campaign is promoting itself through Facebook and Twitter, just as the organizers of the Arab Spring did. But will it galvanize support inside the conservative kingdom, which is the most restrictive Islamic government for women in the world? Women there cannot vote, have no property rights, and make up only 5 percent of the work force?

From behind her steering wheel, al-Sharif makes her case for the right to drive. Not all women can afford a hired driver, she says. And what about the morals of the drivers themselves? Hers got in an accident in the first week she hired him. "He used to harass me," she explained. "He'd adjust [the] rear-view mirror to see what I was wearing." This week, a Saudi businesswoman reported being raped at gunpoint by her chauffeur.

In the video, al-Shariff and her passenger talk about other disadvantages to a driveless life: No taxis available at rush hour; drivers shared by so many women that a 10-minute trip to the office takes two hours; having to stand on the street to wave down a driver. "When I stand by the roadside, everybody, good and bad, will look at me. The good and the bad humiliate me because they don’t like the amount of money that I offer," says al-Sharif. But driving herself, she adds, "There is nobody getting in my way and nobody harassing me, because I am in my own car with the doors locked."

Women's rights advocates in Saudi Arabia have written an open letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton asking her to publicly support a woman's right to drive, a campaign they describe as the most significant women's rights movement in Saudi Arabia in two decades. "Wikileaks" reveals that US diplomats have made this appeal in private, but to no avail. The group is making a similar appeal to the European Union's top foreign affairs official, Catherine Ashton.

That would be a welcome, supportive step, but perhaps not the "game changing moment" that the letter's authors hope. The June 17 protest is sure to attract stiff opposition inside the kingdom. A counter campaign calls on men to use the cords of their headdresses to whip the women protesters. Not only is there stiff religious opposition to the protest, but many men fear that if women drive, they will take away men's jobs.

What's needed on June 17 is the same as everywhere in the Arab uprising: A massive and ongoing protest. That is what gets the attention of rulers. And in this endeavor, women must bring their male friends and family members who support them.