Wednesday, September 21, 2011

FBI head visits Pakistan amid tensions

FBI Director Robert Mueller is visiting Pakistan as tensions between the two countries spike over U.S. demands that Islamabad crack down on Afghan militants it says get shelter on Pakistani soil.
A Pakistani government statement says that Mueller met with Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik for talks Wednesday in the capital.
U.S. officials declined to discuss the visit.
Already uneasy relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have soured over the last year, with the unilateral American raid on Osama bin Laden on May 2 bringing ties to a fresh low.
U.S. officials have recently accused Islamabad of maintaining links with the Haqqani network, a band of Islamist fighters Washington says is behind attacks in Afghanistan, including last week's strike on the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

U.S. says Pakistani spies using group for "proxy war"
The United States has accused Pakistan's intelligence agency of using the Haqqani Network to wage a "proxy war," hardening its criticism of Islamabad's ties with Taliban-allied factions fighting NATO and Afghan troops in Afghanistan.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that in a discussion with Pakistan's army chief that lasted about four hours, he had pressed Pakistan to break its links with the militant group.

"We covered ... the need for the Haqqani Network to disengage, specifically the need for the ISI to disconnect from Haqqani and from this proxy war that they're fighting," he said in a speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Tuesday.

"The ISI has been doing this - working for - supporting proxies for an extended period of time. It is a strategy in the country and I think that strategic approach has to shift in the future."

Washington blames the Haqqani Network, one of the most feared Taliban-linked groups fighting in Afghanistan, for last week's attack on the U.S. embassy and other targets in Kabul.

It has in the past suggested that Pakistan's powerful Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) maintains ties to the network to guarantee itself a stake in any political settlement in Afghanistan when American troops withdraw.

Accusing the ISI of using the Haqqanis to wage a "proxy war" goes further, and risks fuelling tension between Islamabad and Washington, which have been running high since al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in a surprise U.S. Navy SEALs raid in Pakistan in May.

"In the past, they have been saying that Pakistan is looking the other way with the Haqqanis, but this term - using them as proxies for Pakistani interests - that is something new," said Rahimullah Yusufzai, editor of the Peshawar edition of the News daily and an expert on Afghanistan.

The Haqqani network is perhaps the most divisive issue between Pakistan and the United States. Washington has repeatedly pressed Pakistan to go after the network, which it believes enjoys sanctuaries in Pakistan's unruly ethnic Pashtun tribal region of North Waziristan on the Afghan border.

The group's patriarch, Jalaluddin Haqqani, gained notoriety as an anti-Soviet mujahideen commander in Afghanistan in the 1980s. His bravery and ability to organize mujahideen fighters won him funding and weapons from U.S. and Pakistani intelligence services and Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan denies that it still has ties to the Haqqanis.

"The Haqqanis are the product of the Soviet Union and Afghan war, and we were partners and they are sons of the soil," Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters after a meeting with U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller in Islamabad on Wednesday.

"But I assured him (Mueller) they are not on the Pakistani side, but if there is any intelligence which is provided by the U.S., we will definitely take action."


The Washington Post reported that U.S. officials had delivered an ultimatum to Islamabad in recent days, warning that if it did not cut ties with the Haqqani Network and help eliminate its leaders then "the United States will act unilaterally."

"Look at the language, it's clear the Americans are very frustrated with the Pakistanis. I think they are preparing the ground for more action against the Haqqanis," Yusufzai said.

He said the United States could step up drone attacks from Afghanistan in North Waziristan or launch long-range attacks on Haqqani hideouts as they did in their helicopter raid on bin Laden in a town just two hours up the road from Islamabad.

Launching a larger military operation would be extremely difficult in the mountainous terrain of North Waziristan and would risk hardening anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.

There has been no public statement suggesting that the United States might itself mount a full-scale offensive against the Haqqanis in North Waziristan, and the official line in background briefings is only that all options are on the table.

A U.S. Military Academy report published in July said the Haqqani Network was believed to be made up of several hundred core members who can draw on a pool of roughly 10,000 to 15,000 fighters.

The group's leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, told Reuters last week that it no longer had sanctuaries in Pakistan, and instead felt secure inside eastern Afghanistan.

While keeping the pressure on Pakistan over its links to insurgent groups, U.S. officials are also trying to shore up relations with a nuclear-armed country it considers a strategic ally in the fight against Islamist militancy.

"What I believe is the relationship with Pakistan is critical," Mullen said. "We walked away from them in the past and ... I think that cut-off has a lot do with where we are."

A senior U.S. official told Reuters on Tuesday that, despite the strains over last week's attack in Kabul, there had been incremental improvements in the relationship in recent weeks.

"I don't have a sense right now that it's falling off the cliff again," he said.

Warren Buffett to headline Obama campaign event

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett will help raise money for President Barack Obama's re-election effort at a $35,800-a-ticket fundraiser next month in Chicago, an Obama campaign official said on Wednesday.

Buffett will attend the October 27 event at a private home on Chicago's North Shore that is expected to include major donors to Obama's 2008 presidential run. The Democratic president, who is not expected to attend, is running for re-election in 2012.

Buffett, the legendary chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., has landed in the center of a growing political battle over Obama's proposal to raise taxes on the wealthy by inspiring the so-called "Buffett Rule."

Buffett wrote a column last month saying rich people like him often pay less in taxes than those who work for them because of loopholes in the tax code, and can afford to pay more.

Obama cited Buffett on Monday in proposing a minimum tax rate for people earning more than $1 million a year. Republicans have condemned the plan as class warfare.

Obama seeks to save Mideast policy from U.N. debacle

President Barack Obama pressed Israel and the Palestinians on Wednesday to relaunch peace talks as he made a last-ditch attempt to avert a U.N. crisis over Palestinian statehood and pull his Middle East policy back from the brink of diplomatic disaster.

Addressing world leaders at the opening of a U.N. General Assembly session, Obama -- whose earlier peace initiatives accomplished little -- put the onus on the two sides to break a yearlong impasse and get back to the negotiating table.

"There is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace is hard work. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations," Obama said.

Grappling with economic woes and low poll numbers at home and growing doubts about his leadership abroad, Obama is wading into Middle East diplomacy at a critical juncture for his presidency and America's credibility around the globe.

He faces the daunting challenge of reasserting Washington's influence in the region by dissuading the Palestinians from going ahead with a push for statehood in the U.N. Security Council this week in defiance of Israeli objections and a U.S. veto threat.

There was widespread skepticism about Obama's chances for success -- not least because of deeply entrenched differences between the two sides -- and he may not be able to do much more than contain the damage.

The Obama administration and Israel both say that only direct peace talks can lead to peace with the Palestinians, who in turn say almost two decades of fruitless negotiation has left them no choice but to turn to the world body.

The drama over the Palestinian U.N. bid is playing out as U.S., Israeli and Palestinian leaders all struggle with the fallout from Arab uprisings that are raising new political tensions across the Middle East.

It also comes as Israel finds itself more isolated than it has been in decades and confronts Washington with the risk that, by again shielding its close ally, the United States will inflame Arab distrust when Obama's outreach to the Muslim world is already faltering.

Obama will hold separate talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the U.N. sidelines.

Taking note of deep frustrations over lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, he said: "Israelis must know that any agreement provides assurances for their security. Palestinians deserve to know the territorial basis of their state."

With the looming showdown overshadowing the rest of Obama's U.N. agenda, failure to defuse the situation will not only mark a diplomatic debacle for Obama but also serve as a stark sign of the new limits of American clout in the Middle East.

Obama also used his wide-ranging speech to tout his support for democratic change sweeping the Arab world, urge further U.N. sanctions against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and call on Iran and North Korea to meet their nuclear obligations -- twin standoffs that have eluded his efforts at resolution.

Pakistan slammed over sectarian killings

The Pakistani government faces tough criticism from Shiite Muslims and human rights watchdog after 29 pilgrims died in the worst attacks on the Shiite minority for a year

In a brutal assault, gunmen ordered Shiite pilgrims out of their bus, lined them up and assassinated 26 in a hail of gunfire in Mastung, a district 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province.

Gunmen then killed another three Shiites on the outskirts of Quetta whom police said were going to collect relatives killed in the first incident. Both attacks occured on Tuesday.

Pakistan's Shiite community declared three days of mourning and more than 3,500 faithful gathered in Quetta on Wednesday for a mass funeral, chanting slogans against the government and demanding protection.

Hundreds of women and children armed with placards and banners staged a protest after funeral prayers in the southwestern city, police said.

Markets closed in the city's Shiite-dominated neighbourhoods and dozens of protestors blocked a main road by setting fire to tyres, police said.

Nazir Ahmad Kurd, another senior police officer, said 85 people had been taken into custody during a search operation to find the attackers.

"These people have been taken into custody for questioning. Those proven innocent will be released later," Kurd told AFP.

Pakistan's independent rights watchdog said the killers had been emboldened by a persistent lack of action against sectarian militant groups, which have been implicated in thousands of deaths in past years.

Tuesday's attack "exposes once again the diminishing writ of the state," warned the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

"Continued sectarian bloodshed across the country... is a direct consequence of the authorities’ perpetual failure to take note of sectarian killings in Quetta which have been going on for many years," it added.

It was the deadliest attack on Shiites in Pakistan since 4 September 2010 when a suicide bomber killed at least 57 people at a rally in Quetta.

"The government must move beyond rhetoric and its current casual and reactive approach to law and order challenges and start functioning as a responsible authority," said the HRCP.

Baluchistan has become an increasing flashpoint for sectarian violence between Pakistan's majority Sunni Muslims and minority Shiites, who account for around a fifth of the country's 167 million population.

Sunni Islamic Terrorists of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claims Balochistan attack

The sectarian militant outfit, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, has accepted responsibility for Tuesday's gun attacks on Shiite Muslim pilgrims in Pakistan's Baluchistan province which left 29 people dead.

The bus carrying 45 pilgrims to the town of Taftan in Iran was attacked by militants in Baluchistan's Mastung district, about 50 km from Quetta, the provincial capital.

The attackers first stopped the bus and killed 26 Shia pilgrims. They later attacked an ambulance carrying injured people to hospital, killing three more.

The sectarian militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was banned by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2001.

Panetta, Mullen hammer Pakistan over Haqqani network


The United States on Tuesday renewed blunt demands that Pakistan crack down on Haqqani militants allegedly based in the country, saying the network posed a serious threat to US forces in Afghanistan.

Defence Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters that Washington would “put as much pressure as possible on the Pakistanis to exercise control from their side of the border.”

“We’ve continued to state that this cannot happen, we cannot have the Haqqanis coming across the border, attacking our forces, attacking Afghanistan…and then disappearing back into a safe haven. That is not tolerable,” Panetta said.

He added: “I think they’ve heard the message, but we’ll see.”

Panetta’s comments reflect a tougher public US line in recent days amid growing frustration in President Barack Obama’s administration over the role of the Haqqani network.

The stern warnings also coincide with increasingly strained relations with Pakistan.

The Americans blame the Haqqani network for a recent bombing attack that wounded 77 US troops at a base in Wardak province and for an elaborate assault on September 13 on the US embassy and Nato headquarters in Kabul.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at an earlier event Tuesday the presence of the Haqqani sanctuaries potentially jeopardised the outcome of the war.

“Without that (Pakistani action), we can’t succeed in the overall effort,” he said.

Mullen said Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency had to sever all ties with the Haqqani militants, who allegedly operate out of sanctuaries in the country’s northwest.

“I think that the ISI has to make the decision to strategically disengage. The ISI has been doing this, supporting proxies for an extended period of time,” he told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Mullen met with his Pakistani counterpart over the weekend in Spain, General Ashfaq Kayani, and repeated Washington’s impatience on the Haqqani militants.

At the Pentagon press conference, Mullen — who has held numerous talks with Kayani during his four year tenure — said there was no doubt about “the clarity with which I addressed this issue” in the meeting with the Pakistani general.

Polio strain spreads to China from Pakistan

Polio has spread to China for the first time since 1999 after being imported from Pakistan, the World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed.

It said a strain of polio (WPV1) found in China was genetically linked with the type now circulating in Pakistan.

At least seven cases have now been confirmed in China's western Xinjiang province, which borders Pakistan.

The WHO warned there was a high risk of the crippling virus spreading further during Muslim pilgrimages to Mecca.

Polio (also called poliomyelitis) is highly infectious and affects the nervous system, sometimes resulting in paralysis.

It is transmitted through contaminated food, drinking water and faeces.

'Right things done'
On Tuesday, the WHO said the polio cases in Xinjiang had been detected in the past two months.

The Chinese authorities are now investigating the cases, and a mass vaccination campaign has been launched in the region.

"So far all the right things are being done," WHO spokesman Oliver Rosenbauer told Reuters news agency.

Polio was last brought into China from India in 1999. China's last indigenous case was in 1994.

Pakistan is one of a handful of countries where polio remains endemic.

WHO officials had been warning for some time that the virus was spreading within the country to previously uninfected areas.

The UN's children fund, Unicef, has said that eradicating polio from Pakistan depends on delivering oral vaccines to each and every child, including the most vulnerable and the hardest to reach.

Polio was virtually eliminated from the Western hemisphere in the 20th Century.

Shiite Pilgrams Headed to Iran Gunned Down on Bus in Pakistan

Protests over killing of SHIA pilgrims BY Sunni MILITANTS in Balochistan

Scores of people took to the streets on Tuesday evening in protest against the killing of some 26 pilgrims in a terrorist attack in a Balochistan district.

Gunmen attacked a bus carrying more than 50 pilgrims near Mastung town, around 50km from the provincial capital of Quetta.

Three more people were killed when assailants opened fire on an ambulance near Quetta as it headed to the attack site in Mastung.

The protesters emerged in different city areas including Jaffer Tayyar Society in Malir, Ancholi in Federal B Area, Abbas Town, Rizvia Society and Numaish and criticised the government and security institutions for failing to protect the life of innocent people.

At a few places, charged youths blocked roads for vehicular traffic and lit bonfires.

The protesters termed the attack an attempt to destroy sectarian harmony.

“The government has failed to end violence against a particular community and no credible action is seen on the ground against banned outfits,” said Allama Abbas Kumaili and Maulana Hasan Zafar Naqvi in a joint statement issued by the Jafria Alliance and Majlis-e-Wahdat-e-Muslimeen.

Afghans protest peace broker's assassination

Hundreds of Afghans protested against the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, chairman of the government's peace council whose murder threatens to fling the country into further turmoil.
President during Afghanistan's bloody 1992-96 civil war and a warlord with a chequered human rights record, the 71-year-old Rabbani was killed at home by a Taliban suicide bomber wearing explosives in his turban, police said.

Although there has been no official word from the Taliban, his killing deals a heavy blow to already remote hopes of an imminent end to 10 years of fighting between Islamist insurgents and the Afghan government backed by Western troops.
President Hamid Karzai was Wednesday rushing back to Afghanistan, cutting short a visit to the UN General Assembly in New York after meeting US President Barack Obama as preparations were being made for Rabbani's funeral.
It was arguably the most high-profile political assassination since the 2001 US-led invasion dislodged the Taliban, two months after President Hamid Karzai's younger brother was killed in the Taliban's southern heartland.Head of Karzai's High Council for Peace for 11 months, Rabbani fronted the government's attempts to broker peace with the Taliban, but his efforts so far appeared to come to little despite growing US interest in a settlement.
Nevertheless the assassination of such a high-profile Karzai ally, at his home close to the US embassy in allegedly the most protected part of the capital, underscores the sharp deterioration in security in Afghanistan.
Regardless of whether Rabbani was even capable of brokering peace in a country ripped apart by three decades of war, his killing is a deep symbolic blow to the government's efforts and highlights the perceived strength of the insurgency.
As a Tajik, Rabbani's killing may also further upset the delicate and at times increasingly fraught relations between Afghanistan's different minority ethnic groups and the dominant Pashtun community.
On Wednesday, several hundred people carrying pictures of Rabbani and banners gathered near his house to remember him and protest against his killing, an AFP photographer said. Many wore black headbands in mourning.
Government forces stepped up security in the diplomatic zone where Rabbani?s house is located, with cars barred from entering the area and police stopping and searching many people on foot.
People gathered at the gate of Rabbani?s house to sit and recite the Koran. A stream of government officials also attended to pay their respects.
It was not immediately clear whether the funeral would be in Kabul or Rabbani's home province of Badakhshan in northeast Afghanistan.Karzai, whose relations with the West have soured drastically since his 2009 re-election mired in fraud, insisted that Rabbani's assassination "will not deter us from continuing down the path we have started".
Obama, who wants all American combat troops out of Afghanistan in the next three years, said Afghans must be allowed to live "in freedom, safety, security and prosperity".
NATO's Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who heads up the alliance leading much of the foreign military effort to reverse the Taliban momentum, said those behind the killing "will not prevail".
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed shock over the killing and underscored the world body's commitment to "supporting Afghanistan and its people attaining peace and stability"Members of his entourage said the attacker and an accomplice were invited to the villa as emissaries bringing "special messages" from the Taliban.
The bomber hugged Rabbani in greeting and detonated his explosives.
Although there were conflicting reports of who brought in the bombers, one source said they arrived with Mohammad Massom Stanikzai, one of Rabbani's deputies, who was one of four people wounded in the attack.
Peace Council member Fazel Karim Aymaq said the two visitors claimed to have "special messages" from the Taliban and were thought to be "very trusted".
"One of them put his head on the shoulder of Rabbani and detonated the explosives hidden in his turban, martyring Rabbani," Aymaq added.
An anonymous source said Rabbani had just returned from Dubai especially to meet the two, seemingly senior Taliban leaders.
It was the second high-profile attack in a week in central Kabul, following a 20-hour siege targeting the US embassy that killed 14 people on September 13.
The 140,000 US-led foreign troops in Afghanistan have another three years to try to reverse the Taliban insurgency before the last of them are scheduled to withdraw in 2014.
The US military's top officer Admiral Mike Mullen insisted assassinations would not force a change in war strategy.
The High Council for Peace, Karzai's brainchild, was intended to open a dialogue with insurgents who have been trying to bring down his government since the US-led invasion overthrew their regime, but has seen little success.
The 68-member council was inaugurated in October 2010. At the time, Rabbani said he was "confident" that peace was possible.
But according to Human Rights Watch, Rabbani was among prominent Afghans implicated in war crimes during the brutal fighting that killed or displaced hundreds of thousands of Afghans in the early 1990s.