Friday, July 3, 2009

Date for IDPs return not fixed yet

PESHAWAR: Though the provincial government has yet to announce an official date for the internally displaced persons (IDPs) to return to their homes, a plan has been chalked out to facilitate the uprooted people from Buner in the first phase.

Under the plan, the return of Buner IDPs will be completed in six days from the announcement of the official return date. Before the announcement, the IDPs will be informed through media about their return plan and points from where they could get the transport.

Official sources said the Emergency Response Unit (ERU) would be responsible for provision of transport to the returning people. A total of 3,000 vehicles would be hired to shift the families and their household to their respective areas in Buner district, sources said.

Officials said majority of the IDPs were presently stationed in different union councils of Swabi district and they would be given a timetable for their return from those areas. The ERU would spent an amount of Rs2,000 on the transportation of each family while separate arrangements would also be made to shift the livestock of those families to their respective areas.

According to official figures, a total of 31,062 people have been displaced from 24 union councils of Buner district. Specific points have been identified which will be finalised after getting a response from the district government of Swabi to be used as pick up points for the IDPs.

Sources said the return operation would last for six days. Initially, people living in Shewa union council of Swabi district would be repatriated to their respective areas. This would be followed by people in other areas in the next five days.

Under the plan, the government will hire 42-seater busses for six to seven families while a truck would carry luggage and cattle of two to three families. Each truck would be partitioned to carry both cattle and luggage of the IDP families.

Besides, small coasters will also be employed for shuttle service to pick the IDPs from camps and houses and drop them at the pick up points. Officials said shelter and drinking water would be provided to the returning families while their vehicles would be accompanied by ambulances and security personnel till their destination points.

Official sources said return of the IDPs would be voluntary and no one would be forced without genuine reasons. Although most of the IDPs are willing to return to their areas, some having problems like presence of trouble or non-availability of proper facilities there would not be forced to go, they said. The provincial government has yet to announce a date for the return of the displaced persons. Earlier, several dates were announced for the return, but the process has yet to be started.

U.S. Faces Resentment in Afghan Region
LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — The mood of the Afghan people has tipped into a popular revolt in some parts of southern Afghanistan, presenting incoming American forces with an even harder job than expected in reversing military losses to the Taliban and winning over the population.

Villagers in some districts have taken up arms against foreign troops to protect their homes or in anger after losing relatives in airstrikes, several community representatives interviewed said. Others have been moved to join the insurgents out of poverty or simply because the Taliban’s influence is so pervasive here.

On Thursday morning, 4,000 American Marines began a major offensive to try to take back the region from the strongest Taliban insurgency in the country. The Marines are part of a larger deployment of additional troops being ordered by the new American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, to concentrate not just on killing Taliban fighters but on protecting the population.

Yet Taliban control of the countryside is so extensive in provinces like Kandahar and Helmand that winning districts back will involve tough fighting and may ignite further tensions, residents and local officials warn. The government has no presence in 5 of Helmand’s 13 districts, and in several others, like Nawa, it holds only the district town, where troops and officials live virtually under siege.

The Taliban’s influence is so strong in rural areas that much of the local population has accepted their rule and is watching the United States troop buildup with trepidation. Villagers interviewed in late June said that they preferred to be left alone under Taliban rule and complained about artillery fire and airstrikes by foreign forces.

“We Muslims don’t like them — they are the source of danger,” said a local villager, Hajji Taj Muhammad, of the foreign forces. His house in Marja, a town west of this provincial capital that has been a major opium trading post and Taliban base, was bombed two months ago, he said.

The southern provinces have suffered the worst civilian casualties since NATO’s deployment to the region in 2006. Thousands of people have already been displaced by fighting and taken refuge in the towns.

“Now there are more people siding with the Taliban than with the government,” said Abdul Qadir Noorzai, head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in southern Afghanistan.

In many places, people have never seen or felt the presence of the Afghan government, or foreign forces, except through violence, but the Taliban are a known quantity, community leaders said.

“People are hostages of the Taliban, but they look at the coalition also as the enemy, because they have not seen anything good from them in seven or eight years,” said Hajji Abdul Ahad Helmandwal, a district council leader from Nadali in Helmand Province.

Foreign troops continue to make mistakes that enrage whole sections of this deeply tribal society, like the killing of a tribal elder’s son and his wife as they were driving to their home in Helmand two months ago. Only their baby daughter survived. The tribal elder, Reis-e-Baghran, a former member of the Taliban who reconciled with the government, is one of the most influential figures in Helmand.

The infusion of more American troops into southern Afghanistan is aimed at ending a stalemate between NATO and Taliban forces. The governor of Helmand, Gulab Mangal, said extra forces were needed since the Taliban were now so entrenched in the region that they had permanent bases.

Last year an American Marine Expeditionary Unit of 2,400 men secured a small but critical area in the district of Garmser in southern Helmand, choking off Taliban supply routes from the Pakistani border while reopening the town for commerce. The operation had a crippling effect on Taliban forces operating farther north in neighboring Oruzgan Province, according to Jelani Popal, who oversees local affairs for President Hamid Karzai’s government.

This year military officials hope to replicate that operation in more places, according to Lt. Gen. James Dutton, the British deputy commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The extra forces will be critical to create confidence among the locals and persuade insurgents to give up the fight, said Mr. Mangal, the Helmand governor. Yet he and others warn that there will be more bloodshed and that the large influx of foreign forces could prompt a backlash.

In parts of Helmand and Kandahar, resentment and frustration are rampant. People who traveled to Lashkar Gah from the districts complained of continued civilian suffering and questioned American intentions. “They come here just to fight, not to bring peace,” said Allah Nazad, a farmer.

People from Marja said that foreign troops carrying out counternarcotics operations conducted nighttime raids on houses, sometimes killed people inside their homes, and used dogs that bit the occupants.

“The people are very scared of the night raids,” said Spin Gul, a local farmer. “When they have night raids, the people join the Taliban and fight.”

“Who are the Taliban? They are local people,” interjected another man, who did not give his name. One man, Hamza, said he would fight if foreigners raided his house. “I will not allow them,” he said. “I will fight them to the last drop of blood.”

Many do not side with the Taliban out of choice, however, and could be won over, community leaders said.

Fazel Muhammad, a member of the district council of Panjwai, an area west of Kandahar, said he knew people who were laying mines for the Taliban in order to feed their families. He estimated that 80 percent of insurgents were local people driven to fight out of poverty and despair. Offered another way out, only 2 percent would support the Taliban, he said.

Yet mistrust of the government remains so strong that even if the Taliban were defeated militarily, the government and the American-led coalition would find the population reluctant to cooperate, said Hajji Abdullah Jan, the leader of the provincial council of Helmand. “These people will still not trust the government,” he said. “Even if security is 100 percent, it will take time because the government did not keep its promises in the past.”

Russia Opens Route for U.S. to Fly Arms to Afghanistan

MOSCOW — The Russian government has agreed to allow American troops and weapons bound for Afghanistan to fly over Russian territory, providing an important new corridor for the United States military as it escalates efforts to win the eight-year-old war, officials from both sides said Friday.

The agreement, to be formally announced when President Obama visits here on Monday and Tuesday, represents one of the most concrete achievements of the effort to rebuild a relationship severely strained by last year’s war between Russia and Georgia. The new transit route will give American forces more alternatives as they encounter increasing trouble elsewhere.

“Afghanistan is one of the areas where we must cooperate,” Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s upper house of Parliament, said in an interview. Russia understands, he said, that the United States and NATO forces in Afghanistan are effectively defending Russia’s southern flank.

Until now, Russia has allowed only restricted use of its territory for the Afghan war, permitting shipments of nonlethal supplies by train. Under the new agreement, American officials said, military planes carrying lethal equipment as well as troops will be allowed to make thousands of flights a year through Russian airspace.

As Mr. Obama prepared to leave Sunday for his first visit here since taking office, negotiators were trying to work out a preliminary agreement on nuclear arms cuts that he could announce along with President Dmitri A. Medvedev. But officials said they were still divided on important elements and not sure whether they would make a breakthrough in time.

If successful, the two leaders hope to lay out a range of possible limits for warheads and delivery vehicles as well as address issues like the verification of conventional arms. The so-called framework agreement under discussion would lay out the parameters of a treaty to be drafted by the end of the year to replace the expiring cold war Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

But Russia wants to tie the negotiations to the dispute over American plans to build a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. While Washington maintains the system is intended to defend against a future threat from Iran, Moscow sees it as aimed at itself and wants the agreement that Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev sign to link limits on offensive and defensive weapons.

The agreement on Afghanistan was a high priority for Mr. Obama, who has ordered an additional 21,000 American troops to join the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda there. Supply routes through Pakistan have become complicated by that country’s increasing volatility, while Uzbekistan evicted American troops from a base a few years ago and Kyrgyzstan threatened recently to do the same. American negotiators recently persuaded Kyrgyzstan to change its mind by increasing payments for the base there.

$2.46 billion sought for Fata uplift

PESHAWAR: Inadequate development funds for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas will hinder rehabilitation of conflict-hit areas in the tribal region, causing more disenchantment among affected people, the Fata Civil Secretariat notes in its recently-released report.

The 46-page report 'Cost of Conflict in Fata', released on Wednesday, makes an elaborate case to solicit $2.46 billion from the federal government and donor agencies. The financial assistance sought will be spent to execute the Fata Sustainable Development Plan.

The plan involves payment of compensation money to families of victims and the injured. It also envisages carrying out infrastructure schemes and mitigating negative impact caused to forests and environment in the conflict-hit areas of Fata.

The actual cost of implementing the development plan, according to the report, would be higher than the existing estimates since the plan was chalked out when insurgency in Fata was of low intensity.

The report serves as a reminder to the federal government and donor agencies for providing funds to start work on the development plan. It dates back to 2006 when a nine-year development strategy for the uplift of Fata was laid down.

The report emphasises the need to implement the proposed suggestions ‘earnestly and expeditiously’. 'It also requires to be ensured that the full benefits reach the people,' it says, adding non-provision of adequate funds would give way to more disappointment and frustration.

The report encompasses estimates of financial losses on account of damage to infrastructure and economy. It gives separate estimates of social and environmental costs, human losses and security and financial costs.

Infrastructure losses have been calculated at $103 million, economic costs at $119 million, social costs at $1.11 billion, environmental costs at $188 million, and security and IDPs costs at $572 million.

In addition, $55 million is required to pay compensation to families of victims, including 3,205 dead and 2,160 injured.

26 dead as Pak Army helicopter crashes in Orakzai

PESHAWAR: A military transport helicopter went down on the border between Khyber and Orakzai tribal region on Friday afternoon, killing all the twenty-six security personnel on board, a government official said.

The official said the helicopter crashed due to a technical fault.

The military spokesman was not available for comment, but a government official said the Russian-made M-17 transport helicopter crashed in a mountainous area, some 20 km from Peshawar, on the border between Khyber and Orakzai tribal region.

‘All those on board the helicopter have been killed,’ the official said. He attributed the cause of the crash to ‘some technical fault.’

The official described the area where the helicopter crashed as remote and inaccessible. Paramilitary force had cordoned off the area and efforts were being made to retrieve the bodies, the official said.

Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has ordered an inquiry into the incident but the crash prompted speculation whether the transport helicopter attracted militant gunfire and was shot down.

So far, no militant group active in the region has claimed responsibility for shooting down the helicopter.

An official said that the actual cause of the crash would be determined after detailed examination of the wreckage was made. ‘It is a lengthy exercise,’ the official said.