Archive for May 12th, 2010

Obama, Karzai Strive To Project Unity, Deny Serious Differences

By Jonathan Landay for The Kansas City Star

President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai asserted Wednesday that progress is being made toward crushing the Taliban-led insurgency, but new studies on the Afghan army and police raise serious doubts about whether the strategy can succeed before a U.S. troop drawdown begins in July 2011.

Flanked by Karzai at a White House news conference, Obama urged Americans to have patience with the “joint strategy” that he unveiled in December to stabilize Afghanistan, defeat the insurgency and prevent the country’s reversion to a Qaida sanctuary. He warned, however, that “there is going to be some hard fighting over the next couple of months.”

He apparently was referring to the summer “fighting season” that’s traditionally racked Afghanistan and that this year will see a drive to clear the Taliban from the southern city of Kandahar that’s being supplemented by an additional 30,000 U.S. troops.

The joint news conference was the public high point of a tightly scripted four-day visit in which Karzai was feted, praised and lavished with the full red-carpet treatment by the U.S. administration, which is determined to reset a relationship scarred by feuding and anti-American tirades by the Afghan leader amid record bloodshed.

The administration concluded that the tensions were an obstacle to Afghan cooperation on a number of fronts central to Obama’s strategy, especially the operations to drive the Taliban from their strongholds in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, turn them over to government control and jump-start economic development.

Moreover, U.S. officials want to reassure Karzai and ordinary Afghans – as well as regional powers that already are jockeying for influence – that the U.S. troop drawdown doesn’t mean that the United States will abandon Afghanistan as it did after the 1979-89 Soviet occupation, which was followed by a vicious 12-year civil war.

“We are not suddenly as of July 2011 finished with Afghanistan,” Obama said. “This is a long-term partnership that is not simply defined by our military presence.”

Obama and Karzai sought to present a portrait of unity, saying that progress is being made by the U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign, by an American effort to avert civilian casualties and by Karzai on his vows to clean up narcotics-fueled corruption and boost public services, the rule of law and good governance.

“Our solidarity today sends an unmistakable message to those who would stand in the way of Afghanistan’s progress,” Obama said. “They will try to drive us apart, but we will partner with the Afghan people for the long term, toward a future of greater security, prosperity, justice and progress. And I am absolutely convinced we will succeed.”

Obama conceded that “there are going to be tensions in such a complicated and difficult environment and in a situation in which, on the ground, both Afghans and Americans are making enormous sacrifices.”

However, he said, a lot of “perceived tensions” between the sides “were simply overstated.”

“It’s a real relationship,” Karzai agreed. “It’s based on some very hard realities. We are in a campaign against terrorism together. There are days that we are happy. There are days that we are not happy.

“The bottom line is that we are much more strongly related to each other than we ever were before. That is a good message that I will take back to the Afghan people.”

U.S.-led international efforts have made considerable progress in helping to bring stability, education, health care and development to many parts of the country of 32 million people since the 2001 invasion drove the Taliban and al-Qaida leadership into neighboring Pakistan.

However, the Taliban and allied groups – aided by al-Qaida and the former Bush administration’s diversion of U.S. forces, time and money to Iraq – staged a major comeback that’s surged as U.S. commanders struggle to implement Obama’s strategy.

New reports on the Afghan army and police – each a crucial element of Obama’s plan to transfer responsibility for districts cleared of insurgents to Afghan government control as the U.S. troop drawdown begins – underscore the enormous hurdles that persist.

A report released Wednesday by the International Crisis Group, a respected conflict-prevention organization, says that the Afghan army is suffused with corruption, desertions, ethnic tensions and disputes between its highest leaders.

The report warns that Obama’s plan to expand the Afghan National Army to 240,000 troops from 90,000 by 2013 could worsen those problems and “risk the army’s disintegration after the withdrawal of international forces.”

A report by the Rand Corp. research center on the Afghan Civil Order Police, an elite unit that’s playing a key role in Helmand and Kandahar, found that the contingent is infected with the same problems of corruption and ineptitude that plague other police forces.

ANCOP members have set up checkpoints to shake down residents, been kicked out of the unit for drug use and been shunned in some areas as outsiders, according to U.S. officials briefed on the Rand Corp. analysis, who spoke to McClatchy only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Relations between Kabul and Washington have been brittle since Obama took office last year, shaken by U.S. criticism of Karzai’s failure to crack down on official corruption, his dubious dependability, his reliance on a patronage network of warlords and family members, and the massive fraud that marred his re-election to another term last August.

For his part, Karzai has complained about civilian casualties caused by U.S. military operations and launched tirades against the United States and his other international backers, reflecting his unpopularity among ordinary Afghans, who are angry that the war is still raging nearly nine years after the U.S.-led invasion.

“We have an interest in reducing civilian casualties not because it’s a problem for President Karzai. We have an interest in reducing civilian casualties because I don’t want civilians killed,” said Obama, who noted that the Taliban have killed more civilians.

A Pentagon report last month said the overall level of violence in Afghanistan rose 87 percent from February 2009 to March 2010. More than 1,760 international troops – including 1,068 Americans – have been killed, according to iCasualties.org, a website that tracks casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tens of thousands of Afghan security forces, officials and civilians have been killed and wounded. There are currently 102,000 troops from 46 nations, including the United States, in Afghanistan. There will be 98,000 U.S. troops there when the surge is completed later this summer.

Pressure Builds on Pakistan’s Military

By Omar Waraich for Time.com

“When in doubt, do nothing” could have served as the Pakistani military’s unofficial motto until now on the tricky question of tackling militant strongholds in the tribal badlands of North Waziristan. But doing nothing may no longer be an option, now that the Obama Administration is blaming the failed Times Square bomb attack on the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Washington has long cajoled the Pakistani army to extend its campaign against militants on its own soil into North Waziristan, where the TTP leadership has set up shop amid a viper’s nest of militant groups that include al-Qaeda, but the generals have until now demurred, claiming a lack of resources. Following reports that Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad was trained by TTP elements in North Waziristan, the pressure on Pakistan from Washington has sharply increased, leaving the Pakistani military leadership in an increasingly uncomfortable position.

On May 7, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, met with Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, reportedly to coax Pakistan into moving into North Waziristan. And on May 9, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sternly warned of “very severe consequences” for Pakistan if an attack similar to the one tried in Times Square were to prove successful.

Pakistanis are already embarrassed at the fact that Shahzad was not only born in Pakistan and is alleged to have been trained there, but is also the son of a retired senior military officer. More alarming still is the apparent move by the TTP, until now a domestic insurgency directed at the Pakistani state, to target a U.S. city in retaliation for drone attacks in Pakistan. That leaves Pakistan’s political and military leadership to find a response sensitive to both the needs of a key ally and the concerns of a skeptical public.

Wary of U.S. motives at the best of times, Pakistani public opinion was rankled by Clinton’s warning. Even liberal newspapers committed to fighting militancy warned of the statement’s unintended effects. “Ms. Clinton’s comments are unfortunate and will rekindle suspicions here that America is no real friend of Pakistan,” said an editorial in Dawn, Pakistan’s leading newspaper. The fear is that those who oppose the campaign against jihadist militancy will turn Pakistani ire at Clinton’s perceived bullying to their advantage in the battle for Pakistani hearts and minds.

But while an offensive launched under pressure from the U.S. could antagonize the Pakistani public, there could be an even greater backlash should the U.S. decide to take matters into its own hands. This year alone has seen at least 32 U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, principally at targets in North Waziristan, and that program — which infuriates many Pakistanis — is set to continue. While the authorities may be able to absorb the political fallout from the increasingly accurate drone strikes, their real worry is that Washington might decide to send its own ground forces into North Waziristan. “[The presence of U.S. troops] would be truly disastrous,” says Aftab Sherpao, who served as Interior Minister under former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf. The mere presence of foreign soldiers, he believes, would inflame public opinion to dangerous proportions, weakening the hand of the civilian government and the army. In September 2008, the only known case of an American boots-on-the-ground operation triggered a chorus of outrage, led by General Kayani himself.

Even if the U.S. refrained from expanding its own actions on Pakistani soil, the generals and politicians also fear that failure to act could jeopardize the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars in civilian and military aid from Washington. Given the risks that follow from doing nothing, Pakistan will have to take action. “The army realizes that it must go into North Waziristan,” says retired Pakistani general and analyst Talat Masood. “They have been looking at this option for quite some time, but they have been hesitant, as they are overstretched.” Tens of thousands of Pakistani troops are already fanned out across the northwest and the tribal areas in an effort to consolidate gains made in recent offensives. “Washington should appreciate that we have covered a lot of area,” insists Sherpao, the former Interior Minister. “There have been operations in Swat, Bajaur, Mohmand and South Waziristan. We cannot move troops from the eastern border because there’s no comfort as far as India is concerned.” As the military’s decision to test-fire two ballistic missiles at the weekend demonstrates, India remains its principal focus.

The Pakistani military has long drawn a distinction between the Taliban, and related insurgent groups, using its soil as a base from which to attack NATO forces in Afghanistan and those waging war on the Pakistani state. The Afghanistan-oriented groups have been allowed to operate largely unmolested in keeping with Pakistan’s desire to recover lost influence in Afghanistan, while the military has gone after the TTP. But as the army pushed into the TTP’s strongholds in South Waziristan, the group moved north, into territory controlled by Hafiz Gul Bahadur — a militant leader who enjoys a fragile nonaggression pact with the Pakistan army. “It’s a very complex area,” says Masood, “particularly because there are elements there that are not so hostile to the Pakistani military.” By that he means the Haqqani network, an al-Qaeda linked Afghan Taliban group deemed one of the most dangerous confronting the U.S. in Afghanistan but viewed as a strategic asset by Pakistan’s intelligence services. “The army will prefer to take a limited operation, one that is confined to the Mehsud areas,” says Masood, referring to TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud.

But North Waziristan is only one part of the jihadist infrastructure that enables terror attacks beyond Pakistan’s borders. As Shahzad’s alleged story — making contact with militant elements in Karachi before heading off to North Waziristan for training — demonstrates, there are jihadist groups seeded throughout the country, and they’re strengthening their cooperative ties with one another.

Dismantling that infrastructure will take years, say Pakistani analysts and politicians. “You can’t start operations against all these groups simultaneously,” says Sherpao. “You have to proceed step by step. You have to consolidate your gains first, then move on to the next target.” But the Shahzad case, says Sherpao, should serve as a wake-up call. “The political and military leadership have to sit down now and devise a serious response,” he says. “Otherwise, it will become very difficult.”

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