Friday, October 23, 2009

Karzai gives his assurances, but will it be enough?

NATO Defense Ministers Endorse Wider Afghan Effort

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Defense ministers from NATO on Friday endorsed the ambitious counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan proposed by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, giving new impetus to his recommendation to pour more troops into the eight-year-old war.

General McChrystal, the senior American and allied commander in Afghanistan, made an unannounced appearance here on Friday to brief the defense ministers on his strategic review of a war in which the American-led campaign has lost momentum to a tenacious Taliban insurgency.

“What we did today was to discuss General McChrystal’s overall assessment, his overall approach, and I have noted a broad support from all ministers of this overall counterinsurgency approach,” said NATO’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

The acceptance by NATO defense ministers of General McChrystal’s approach did not include a decision on new troops, and it was not clear that their judgment would translate into increased willingness by their governments, many of which have been seeking to reduce their military presence in Afghanistan, to contribute further forces to the war.

But it was another in a series of judgments that success there could not be achieved by a narrower effort that did not increase troop levels in Afghanistan substantially and focused more on capturing and killing terrorists linked to Al Qaeda — a counterterrorism strategy identified with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

The NATO briefing, though held privately, thrusts General McChrystal back into the debate over what President Obama should do about Afghanistan — a role that has raised tensions with the White House in the past, and even drawn a rebuke from the general’s boss, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

NATO’s support got no official reaction from the White House. But an administration official noted that an endorsement by defense ministers was not the same as an endorsement by the alliance’s political leadership. Other officials were emphatic that Mr. Obama would not be stampeded in his deliberations and suggested that the NATO statement should not be taken as evidence that the White House has made a decision about how to proceed.

“In no way, shape or form are the president’s options constrained,” said Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, speaking to reporters at the State Department.

General McChrystal’s review calls for adopting a full-scale counterinsurgency strategy that would protect population centers and accelerate training of Afghan Army and police units — both of which would require significant numbers of fresh troops. NATO diplomats noted that it was difficult to see how an acceptance of this broad strategy could be viewed as anything but an endorsement of the need to increase both military and civilian contributions.

Mr. Gates, who has kept his views about additional troops close to his vest and has discouraged his commanders from lobbying too publicly for their positions, declined to be drawn out on this assessment.

“For this meeting, I am here mainly in listening mode,” Mr. Gates said in Bratislava after the NATO briefing, although he noted that “many allies spoke positively about General McChrystal’s assessment.”

Mr. Gates said the administration’s decision on Afghanistan was still two or three weeks away, and he cautioned that it was “vastly premature” to draw conclusions now about whether the president would deploy more troops. He said that allied defense ministers had not voiced concerns about the administration’s decision-making process.

Although NATO will not meet until next month to decide whether to commit more resources to Afghanistan, Mr. Gates did reveal that he had received indications that some allies were prepared to increase their contributions of civilian experts or troops, or both.

Britain and other NATO members have had their own fractious political debates over troop levels. A retired top general in Britain recently said that the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown had rebuffed his requests for more troops, a charge Mr. Brown denied.

Separate from his strategic review, General McChrystal has submitted a request for forces, which is now working its way through both the American and NATO chains of command.

The options submitted by General McChrystal range to a maximum of 85,000 more troops, although his leading option calls for increasing forces by about 40,000, according to officials familiar with the proposal.

The pressure for more troops was a theme throughout the day at the NATO meeting, as other senior international representatives told defense ministers of the need to increase their commitments in order to succeed in Afghanistan.

The United Nations special representative for Afghanistan, Kai Eide, who also flew to the Slovakian capital to meet the ministers, stressed that “additional international troops are required.” He also told the allies, “This cannot be a U.S.-only enterprise.”

Mr. Eide acknowledged that it might be difficult to rally public support for force contributions while allegations of election fraud continued to taint the government of President Hamid Karzai.

Senior American military officers have already endorsed General McChrystal’s overall strategy, including Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the American commander in the Middle East.

Senior NATO officials made clear that additional commitments should go beyond combat forces to include trainers for the Afghan Army and police force, as well as civilians to help rebuild the economy and restore confidence in the government.

“What we need is a much broader strategy, which stabilizes the whole of Afghan society, and this is the essence in the recommendations presented by General McChrystal,” said Mr. Rasmussen, the NATO secretary general. “This won’t happen just because of a good plan. It will also need resources — people and money.”

General McChrystal was not scheduled to make any public comments here. The general’s reticence was not unexpected, as some administration officials have criticized his recent statements as an attempt to press the White House to act.

The general and his aides have denied they were playing politics. General McChrystal said in a recent interview that success required a unified, government-wide strategy.

NATO officials assessing the potential for allied troop contributions said that delicate negotiations were under way, and that NATO capitals were watching the Obama administration for signals even while they sent signals of their own.

Hillary to meet top leadership, revive strategic dialogue in Islamabad

ISLAMABAD: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is arriving in Pakistan next Wednesday on her first visit to the country to meet President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and the country’s military leadership.

However, the US State Department said on Friday that Clinton will travel to Pakistan "soon", adding that dates could not be announced for security reasons.

“The secretary of state is visiting at a crucial time and the purpose of the visit is to strengthen the strategic partnership with Pakistan and assure long-term relations with Pakistan,” a diplomatic source said.

Strategic dialogue: The visit would help revive the Pak-US strategic dialogue, which was already raised to the ministerial level in August.

Clinton and Foreign Minister Qureshi will co-chair the new round of the upgraded dialogue.

The revival of the strategic dialogue would give a major boost to bilateral relations, which have lately been channelled through the US special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke.

The inaugural Pakistan-US strategic dialogue was held in Washington in April 2006 and was co-chaired by Pakistan’s then foreign secretary Riaz Muhammad Khan and US under secretary of state Nicholas Burns.

The decision to launch the strategic dialogue under the Pakistan-US strategic partnership was taken during the March 4, 2006 summit talks between then Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf and his US counterpart George W Bush.

During her meetings with the Pakistani leadership, the US secretary of state will be briefed on the country’s efforts to root out extremism and terrorism.

The government will also inform her about the successful military campaign against the Taliban in Swat, and the ongoing operation in South Waziristan.

The ongoing debate over US aid under the Kerry-Lugar legislation and army’s reservations on the law will also be part of Clinton’s discussions with the Pakistani leadership during her two-day visit.

The diplomatic sources said Clinton would try to assure various stakeholders that the US was not interested in micromanaging Pakistan or enforcing unnecessary restrictions that could harm long-term relations.

Pakistan’s concern over India’s involvement in Afghanistan and Balochistan is also likely to be taken up with Clinton.

Another day, another blast


There is no longer anything unexpected about the terrorist attacks ripping through our country. The suicide attack near Attock and the Peshawar car-bomb blast on Friday cause us pain, anger and grief over the lives lost and misery felt, but not surprise. The military now tops the list of targets. The suicide bomber who struck the check post at the Kamra Aeronautical Complex near Attock was clearly hoping to claim the lives of as many men in uniform as possible. Two PAF personnel were among the seven killed. The Pakistan military have themselves become the hunted; their enemies can, it seems, strike anywhere and at anytime. In response to the operation in South Waziristan the ferocity of the attacks has been stepped up. But perhaps the latest rounds of bombings have a positive dimension. They help lay out in the starkest terms the contours of the war we are fighting. This is a war for survival; it pitches the state of Pakistan and all those who represent it against people who seek its destruction. There no room for ambiguity and no possibility of merely sitting on the fence.

There is reason to believe it is this sense of divide, the doubt over whether or not the Taliban were our real enemies, that allowed them over the past decade to grow in number and strength. We failed to go after them when the task could have been far more easily accomplished than is the case now. We were swayed in our resolve by those who insisted the militants presented no real threat; even that they were essentially good men and that our real fight lay with the US. We are now paying the price for holding such beliefs and for allowing them to shape policy. The elements within the establishment who propounded this point of view have a great deal to answer for. They can now make amends only by doing all that is possible to eliminate a ruthless enemy, before it destroys our nation and all that is good within it.

Asfandyar confines himself to Islamabad

ISLAMABAD: Awami National Party (ANP) President Asfandyar Wali has apparently restricted his movement, like some other politicians, in view of the persistent security threat he faces for his party’s stance against the militancy, The News learnt here Thursday.

After returning from abroad, the first major event he presided over was the tribal jirga in Peshawar on October 8. The next day he chaired a party meeting and then left for Islamabad and continues to live here.

The other day, he chaired a party consultative session here, which was participated among others, by ANP NWFP President Senator Afrasiab Khattak, Central Information Secretary Senator Zahid Khan and MNA Bushra Gohar.

Senior Vice-President Senator Haji Muhammad Adeel, when contacted on telephone for his comment, told this correspondent that the party president was staying back in the federal capital because of his hectic engagements here.

He pointed out that Asfandyar was to be part of the parliament’s joint sitting on October 26 and then regular session of the National Assembly, which may start from November 02. Moreover some important foreign dignitaries are likely to visit Islamabad. “You should remember, he is Chairman of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs,” he quipped.

Asked whether or not his prolonged stay was because of security reasons, the ANP legislator counter-questioned whether it was proper that this question should be asked in the given scene. “Many of us face security threats, but life goes on. Maulana Fazlur Rehman moves in a bullet-proof vehicle so do many others like ex-interior minister Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao,” he said.

The ANP leader made it clear that his party would push ahead with anti-militancy, which was reflective of the nation’s sentiments and that no threat could deter it from pursuing the agenda.

However, he vehemently rejected the impression that the party head had confined himself to Islamabad because of the ongoing military operation in Waziristan and its possible fall out owing to his party’s position on the matter.

Asfandyar had survived a suicide attack in October last year on the first day of Eidul Azha at his guesthouse (Hujra) in his hometown Charsadda. Speaking on the occasion to media, he had reiterated his resolve not to surrender to extremists.

“Naturally, one has to be cautious. ANP has a categorical position on the menace of terrorism and militancy. Hardly any other party head speaks so openly and truly against this horrible challenge as does Asfandyar Wali,” remarked an ANP member of the National Assembly who did not want to be identified.

ANP’s Spokesman Arbab Muhammad Tahir from the Bacha Khan Markaz in Peshawar, when approached on phone, confirmed that the party leader had left for Islamabad in second week of October and was staying there.

After presiding over a party meeting at the Bacha Markaz, the party head had gone to Islamabad and had not returned since, he explained. He mainly attributed the party chief’s engagements for his prolonged stay and also pointed out that ANP was the main target of militants for its policy on Malakand and now on Waziristan.

“We have been calling for an early military action against militants in Waziristan,” he said. Arbab Tahir noted ANP had lost well over 200 party office-bearers and workers during the two years or so in bomb blasts and suicide attacks.

Peshawarites witness another fateful Friday

PESHAWAR: Once again Friday brought grief and misery to the residents of the city as the terrorists chose the holy day to spread terror and fear through a car bombing in the posh Hayatabad town.

Muslims consider Friday a holy and blessed day, which is evident from sayings of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him). On the other hand, terrorists might be using it as a psychological tactic to persuade young suicide bombers to lay down their lives for a “noble” cause on a holy day.

The blast at the Swan Restaurant in Hayatabad was the third consecutive terrorist attack carried out on Friday. No death was reported in the incident but 15 people sustained injuries. On the previous Friday on October 16, a suicide bomber attacked the office of Special Investigation Unit of police near Swati Phatak in Peshawar Cantonment killing 15 people, including three policemen and a minor.

October 9 was another fateful Friday for Peshawarites when an explosives-laden car was blown up at the busy Soekarno Chowk killing 55 people and injuring more than 150. The Friday factor has added to public fears as on Thursday people in the streets were talking about another possible attack the next day. Thin presence in mosques for Friday prayers was witnessed as most of the people remained confined to their homes and offered their prayers at home.

A sense of fear, uncertainty and insecurity could be observed among the residents of the city. Their normal life has changed, compelling people to change their routine. Movement of people has become limited, bazaars are often deserted and people avoid leaving homes unless they have an unavoidable engagement.

The launch of the military operation ‘Rah-e-Nijat’ in South Waziristan Agency against the militants affiliated to the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) a week ago has prompted the terrorists to launch suicide bombings and other attacks across the country, particularly in the NWFP and Punjab.

In the recent past, the government had claimed that it had broken the back of the terrorists who were on the run. The militants have, however, started striking back and showed that they are still capable of hitting back wherever they want despite all the security measures taken by the government agencies.

The terror acts have increased manifold across the country in general and in the province in particular in one month. Very thin presence of people is witnessed in the main shopping hubs of the city, including Qissa Khwani Bazaar, Khyber Bazaar, Namak Mandi, Chowk Yadgar, Hashtnagri, Saddar and University Road for the last few days.

Besides, because of barricades erected at entry points of the city as well as at all important places in the city and cantonment area, Peshawar gives a look of a besieged town.

Though the strict security measures are necessary to avert any terror act, the barricades have added to the miseries of the people as long queues of vehicles could be seen at almost every checkpoint, which could also prove an attractive target for the terrorists. The security personnel should avoid possibility of rush at entry points to avert any sabotage activity.

Dull days and disturbing nights have affected the life of the people and security threats keep them on their toes. No gatherings, partying or other enjoyment could be seen in the city. “People have lost the spirit to enjoy and laugh and even work. Stress and anxiety is visible from people’s faces,” said Ahmad Zeb, a doctor working at a government-run hospital.

Refugees flee heavy fighting in South Waziristan

Pakistani military continues its offensive against Taliban fighters in South Waziristan

Nineteen days of bloodshed in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: A wave of suicide bombings, coordinated grenade, bomb and gun assaults, and drive-by shootings blamed on militants has left more than 190 people dead in Pakistan so far this month.
Here is a timeline of attacks in the past 19 days:
October 23: A suicide attack kills six people near a Pakistan air force base in Kamra, about 60 kilometres west of Islamabad.
October 22: Gunmen kill a Pakistani brigadier on leave from a UN peacekeeping mission and his driver in Islamabad.
October 20: Twin suicide blasts tear through Islamabad's International Islamic University, killing five people as well as the bombers.
October 16: A suicide car bomb rips through a police investigation bureau killing 11 people and wounding 13 others in the northwest city of Peshawar.
October 15: Gunmen armed with suicide vests and grenades attack three police buildings in the eastern city of Lahore and bomb a northwest station, killing 39 people. A car bomb at a government residence in Peshawar kills a child.
October 12: A suicide bomber rips through a market as a paramilitary convoy passes in Shangla, a district neighbouring the northwest Swat valley and the target of a recent anti-Taliban offensive. About 45 people, mainly civilians, are killed. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claims responsibility.
October 10/11: Ten militants besiege army headquarters in the garrison town Rawalpindi, with 23 people killed and 39 hostages freed. The dead included 11 troops, three hostages and nine attackers. TTP claims responsibility.
October 9: A suicide car bomber kills 52 civilians and wounds more than 100 in a crowded market in northwest city Peshawar. It is the sixth attack in four months in the city, near the tribal belt on the Afghan border where tens of thousands have fled a feared offensive against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
October 5: Five UN World Food Programme workers are killed when a suicide bomber walks into their office in Islamabad and blows himself up, dressed in military uniform. The TTP claims responsibility for the attack.

Strong earthquake strikes Afghanistan and Pakistan

KABUL: A strong 6.2-magnitude earthquake hit the border area between northeast Afghanistan and Pakistan on Friday, shaking buildings in both countries, officials said.

The quake struck at 12:21 am (1951 GMT Thursday) at a depth of 196 kilometres (122 miles) in the Hindu Kush area, the US Geological Survey said.

It said the epicentre was 77 kilometres south-southeast of Feyzabad in Afghanistan, near the Tajikistan border, and 115 kilometres northwest of Chitral in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

‘It was a severe earthquake. People woke up and came out of their houses, fortunately there was no damage,’ Chitral resident Momin Khan told AFP.

‘It was a major earthquake. The intensity was 6.3 on the Richter scale and the epicentre was in the Hindu Kush mountains,’ said Riaz Khan, a senior official at Pakistan's meteorological department.

‘It was felt in most parts of Pakistan, including Kashmir, and also in Afghanistan,’ he told AFP.

‘So far we have no reports of human losses but there may be some slight damage in the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan,’ he added.

The tremors woke Pakistanis up in the middle of the night in some areas where panicked residents ran out of their homes, witnesses said.

‘There are reports of five people slightly injured in Dir and Swat owing to cracks in walls,’ said Javed Khan, an official in the main police control room for Pakistan's NWFP.

‘But as a whole, there are no major losses or damage,’ he added.

Northern Afghanistan and Pakistan are frequently hit by earthquakes, especially around the Hindu Kush range near the collision of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates.

A 7.6-magnitude earthquake in northwest Pakistan and Kashmir in October 2005 killed 74,000 people and displaced 3.5 million.