Thursday, July 21, 2011

Afghanistan War ‘Fragile’ but Doable, General Says

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the incoming chief of the Central Intelligence Agency who until this week was the top American commander in Afghanistan, on Wednesday gave a cautiously optimistic assessment of the United States’ longest-running military campaign but called recent gains in the decade-old Afghan war “fragile and reversible.”

Stressing the importance of rebuilding fraying ties with Pakistan, he also suggested that there was now an opportunity to rekindle trust. He said he had just been to Rawalpindi to meet the Pakistani chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, while Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, had just been to Washington.

After the deep rift that formed between Pakistan and the United States over the secret raid to kill Osama bin Laden, an operation that infuriated both General Kayani and the Pakistani Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, known as the I.S.I., Mr. Petraeus said he hoped the two visits represented a moment when the countries could begin to repair their vital relationship.

He said he had gone “to see if this is the moment where we can start, in a sense, reviving, once again strengthening the relationship” rather than “seeing it spiral further down.”

“I’d like to think that we are at that point and that we can indeed do that,” he said. “Certainly this relationship is in a difficult stage. But however difficult the relationship may be, it is one that we need to continue to work. It is one where we need to recognize what our Pakistani partners have done,” sacrificing several thousands soldiers and police officers in their own counterinsurgency efforts.

Speaking at the Forum for New Diplomacy in Paris at an event cohosted by the International Herald Tribune, Mr. Petraeus called the Afghan Army and police forces “increasingly credible.” He also described how they were steadily taking more responsibility from NATO allies as a gradual withdrawal of tens of thousands of U.S. troops looms.

Afghan forces participate in all counterterrorism night raids and take the lead in 20 percent of them, he said, and there are now 43 validated Afghan police districts across the country, counting some 6,938 members among their ranks. The number of insurgent attacks has spiked less than expected during the current fighting season, declining in eight of the last 12 weeks compared to the same period in past years, while allies have made some important territorial gains, he said.

But the general stressed that “those gains remain fragile and they remain reversible.”

“We are there to ensure that that country does not once again become a sanctuary to Al Qaeda or other terrorists,” he said. “The only way to achieve that is to ensure that the Afghans secure themselves and govern themselves.”

It has been a long and slow process, he admitted, and one that is far from accomplished. Out of 160 Afghan battalions, only one is considered truly independent in terms of its capability; the majority still depend on U.S. advice or active assistance. Some 2,303 former insurgents have been reintegrated into local communities — a “great success,” Mr. Petraeus said, though he acknowledged that in a country with as many as 35,000 insurgents the national impact of that program had not yet been felt.

Gen. Petraeus said little about his plans at the helm of the C.I.A., stressing only that the battle against terrorism must not distract the United States and its allies from other monumental challenges facing Western countries, like the emergence of China as a political and economic heavyweight.

“We must continue the effort against extremists, but we cannot get so riveted on that that we lose sight of what we loosely term the global coverage mission,” he said, shorthand for “gathering information and intelligence on other activities around the world, being sure that we’re not surprised by the next developments in the Arab Spring, that we understand what is going internally in China where the dynamics are vastly complex.”

The appointment of a war general who was a chief architect of the fight against terrorism in the Bush administration to the helm of the C.I.A., a nominally civilian agency, has raised some eyebrows at a time when war fatigue is rapidly spreading in United States and caused some worry that his focus will be too much on terrorism.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, the country has spent $1.3 trillion on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a sum that has taken on a different meaning in the current economic crisis.

Polls show that since the raid that killed Bin Laden, support for deployments in the Middle East has plunged even lower. If liberal Democrats were once the main protagonists of the anti-war lobby, now several Republicans are joining the calls to bring American soldiers home “as soon as we possibly can,” according to Mitt Romney, one of early the front-runners in the Republican race for the presidential nomination.

Saudi women can’t even drive to the hospital in an emergency

Medical emergency or not, if you’re a woman and you try to drive in Saudi Arabia, you will get arrested and charged with… driving.

A 35-year-old woman who was arrested in Jeddah earlier this month, reportedly told police she was suffering from a hemorrhage and chose to get behind the wheel because she didn’t have a personal driver to take her to the hospital. Public transportation, she added, was scarce.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women from driving. And it’s not written into the law, but religious edicts enforced by police keep women from driving.

In June, a campaign by the Women2Drive movement – called on women to take a stand and get behind the wheel.

Five women were reportedly arrested.

Earlier this month, representatives from ‘Saudi Women for Driving,’ an activist group, said they received a letter of support from top European Union diplomat Catherin Ashton calling on the kingdom to implement the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Ashton first issued a public statement of support via a representative in June, after more than 7,000 people signed a petition on online activism platform

Follow the #Women2Drive hashtag on Twitter and posting YouTube videos to document their experiences.

'Bahrain royal family tortures detainees'

Bahraini poetess Ayat al-Qurmezi

says some members of the ruling Al Khalifa family have personally tortured anti-regime protesters in jails.

"There is no doubt about the government's official supervision over the torture, even some members of the ruling family personally take part in torturing detainees," she said in an interview with Al-Alam news channel on Wednesday.

Al-Qurmezi noted that some detainees have been killed under torture.

She was arrested on March 30 after being caught on film reading poems critical of Bahrain's ruling regime to a group of protesters at Pearl Square in the capital Manama.

The 20-year-old poetess was released on July 13, but her sentence has not been revoked. She is currently under house arrest.

She said that beating and electronic shocks are the most common ways of torturing in Bahrain's prisoners.

In the latest development on Wednesday, Bahraini forces once again attacked peaceful protesters in several villages and towns surrounding the capital including Nuwaidrat, Sanabis, Eker, and Sitra.

Anti-regime protesters have been holding demonstrations across the country since mid-February, calling on the Al Khalifa ruling family to relinquish power.

PAKISTAN: Collapsing medical facilities in conflict-ridden northwest

For the last three years or so, doctors and nurses at the sprawling Lady Reading Hospital in the northwestern Pakistan city of Peshawar have been especially busy.

The hospital, one of the largest in the country, treats people across Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa Province (KP), but lately demands on it have grown.

“Since the conflict began in the tribal areas and elsewhere, around three years ago, we have a 20-25 percent increase in patient load. We now see 5,500-6,000 patients daily in the outpatient and emergency departments. I cannot give a precise figure but there were significantly fewer patients previously,” hospital chief executive Hamid Afridi told IRIN.

He agreed one reason for this was the collapse of medical facilities as a result of fighting in many areas.

“There are simply no doctors, and especially no female doctors, left in South Waziristan [one of the tribal agencies in northwestern Pakistan] - not even in the principal city, Wana. Most have got jobs in other places and moved away since the conflict began there,” Haroon Wazir, 25, told IRIN in a waiting area at Lady Reading.

He described a harrowing journey, over rough roads, he had made with his six-month pregnant, and sick, wife. “We travelled nearly 400km [from the tribal agency on the Pakistan-Afghan border] over two days in my brother’s van. We found a female doctor along the way but she said my wife, who is only 18 and pregnant for the first time, must be brought here, to a big hospital. The doctors are trying to save her and our baby.”

The situation is especially difficult for women in conflict areas, who are often reluctant to see male doctors. Many refuse to do so altogether.

Women doctors threatened

The Taliban’s discouragement of women in employment has meant women doctors and nurses have often fled areas under militant control, or stopped working. Those who refused to do so have sometimes suffered terrible punishment, as happened to Shahida Bibi, a “lady health visitor” working under a government scheme in the small town of Shabqadar in the Charsadda District of KP, close to the Mohmand tribal agency, after it was taken over by the Taliban between 2008 and 2009. Despite threats she refused to quit her work.

“Shahida lived in the bazaar area. She was kidnapped by the Taliban. And after a couple of days her mutilated body was found under the Subhan Khwar bridge, near the Shabqadar bazaar. Her crime was that she worked,” Sher Ali, president of the Shabqadar Press Club, told the media.

Given such reports, it is understandable why women who can offer medical help are reluctant to return to work even in areas that have been freed of militants, such as Swat Valley in KP, where a military offensive drove out militants in the middle of 2009, allowing displaced people to return.

“Things are much better now. Many of us no longer wear burkas but just our traditional shawls. However, even though I am a qualified doctor I remain fearful of resuming work - though I feel very guilty because I see all around me women and children who need help. Not all can afford to travel elsewhere for assistance,” said Asma Khan, in Mingora, the main city in Swat. She had received threats for working during the Taliban insurgency.

Among those who need help are women like Hamida, who has heart problems. “We cannot afford to go elsewhere for medical help. Good women doctors are hard to find in Mingora, and my husband refuses to let me see a male doctor,” she told IRIN.”I often fear for the future of my children,” she said.


Things are tougher still in areas like the Kurram Agency where conflict has continued since 2007 and has recently intensified.

Humanitarian agencies, since the conflict began in earnest in 2008, have also expressed growing concern over the situation and the lack of access to health care.

Médicins Sans Frontières stated in a recent report: “Sectarian violence in Kurram Agency, one of seven agencies in FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas], has meant that providing assistance in the towns of Alizai and Sadda is increasingly difficult. Sectarian tensions are reaching new levels against the backdrop of fighting.”

“We get men, women and children from all over the tribal belt and even from Afghanistan coming to us to seek the medical help they cannot get at home,” Lady Reading Hospital’s Afridi said.