Kamis, 22 Maret 2012

Af- Pak items of interest.....


Western countries scramble for Afghan exitsBy Fozil Mashrab

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan - As international forces prepare for withdrawal from Afghanistan, Western countries are already in talks with Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors to bring their troops and military equipment back home.

The Pakistani route and the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) running through Central Asian countries are the two viable routes for international forces to withdraw from Afghanistan.

The United States and Afghanistan are in the process of negotiating an accord for a long-term US presence in Afghanistan after 2014, when most foreign combat forces are due to withdraw. The US wants some advisers and special forces to stay on. 

There are also "emergency scenario options" in the event either or both of the Pakistani route or/and the NDN are closed. This would require airlifting military equipment to Ulyanovsk airport in Russia or even to a suitable military airport in India, and from there transporting it to the nearest port city.

The Pakistani route, which has remained closed since November 2011 after a "friendly fire incident" involving North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces at the AfPak border area which killed 26 Pakistani soldiers and wounded dozens others, was partially reopened earlier this year to allow the US and NATO to ship food items to Afghanistan.

Currently, both US and Pakistani authorities are in search of a mutually acceptable arrangement that would allow both sides to scale down negative feelings and fully reopen the Pakistani route.

Such an arrangement could include a sharp increase in transit fees for US and NATO convoys crossing Pakistani territory, while the US could also insist that Pakistani military forces provide stronger security for these convoys.

Meanwhile, Western governments have already started to cultivate Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors by dispatching their top military officials and defense ministers to various capitals.

Since the beginning of 2012, apart from frequent visits of US military officials to respective Central Asian countries, United Kingdom Defense Secretary Philip Hammond, Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks and more recently Federal Defense Minister of Germany Thomas de Maiziere and Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak have visited Uzbekistan, the key Central Asian country that is part of the NDN. The UK deputy defense secretary is expected to visit Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the near future. It has been reported that the US government has already secured the consent of some of the Central Asian countries to use their territory to bring heavy military equipment out of Afghanistan.

Other NATO member countries, especially those that have large military contingents in Afghanistan, such as the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada, Poland, are also trying to secure similar arrangements for themselves.

However, there have also been some dissenting voices among Western countries with regards to the costs involved in withdrawing troops and equipment from Afghanistan using the NDN though Central Asia.

In particular, French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet was reported recently to have voiced his preference for using the Pakistani route in view of the higher costs involved for transporting military equipment through Central Asian countries compared to the Pakistani route.

France and other NATO countries' military officials have been quietly angry over various negative incidents involving US troops in Afghanistan recently; these they believe help fuel anti-US and anti-Western feelings in Afghanistan and put their troops at increased danger. The killing of several French soldiers by an Afghan trainee recently is a case in point.

Recently, the US government has intensified its efforts to reach out to the Pakistani government by resuming high-level talks to convince it to reopen the Pakistani route.

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar on the margins of the "Somali Conference" in London and the visit of General James Mattis, commander of US Central Command, to Pakistan in February are part of the bilateral efforts to mend ties. Both sides seem to be slowly edging towards reconciliation, for their own reasons. After a decade of military cooperation with the US on Afghanistan, Pakistan seems to have developed dependency on the billions of dollars in US military and financial aid it receives and which was suspended last year when relations between the countries deteriorated precipitously.

What is more, Uzbekistan's "no" to allowing its territory to be used for the transit of "lethal" military equipment to and out of Afghanistan adds urgency to US efforts to talk sweet to Pakistan.

At the same time, the US plans to utilize the "Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan-Russia-Latvia" route bypassing Uzbekistan as an alternative to transport heavy military equipment out of Afghanistan.

Most probably, the US will strip everything "lethal" from its heavy military equipment to transport through Uzbekistan rather than take the long and tortuous route bypassing Uzbekistan though Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Moreover, in an effort to secure Central Asian countries' cooperation and goodwill for transporting equipment out of Afghanistan, the US and British governments have dangled the prospect of donating some of their military equipment to those countries that allow the transit of material. This would be in addition to transit and other fees paid to each Central Asian country.

The high cost involved aside, the NDN also some advantages over the Pakistani route - the security of the convoys.

Previously, frequent attacks by Pakistan based pro-Taliban militant groups on US and NATO convoys and scenes of burning trucks carrying fuel and other military vehicles were part of the picture for using the Pakistani route. Therefore, the security of the convoys will be an important calculation for Western countries that wish to make an "honorable" and smooth exit from Afghanistan, rather than being seen as getting chased out of the country and plundered on the way out.

According to Western observers, both the NDN and the Pakistani routes will need to remain open to allow for a timely and orderly withdrawal of Western troops and military equipment from Afghanistan - the failure to reopen the Pakistani route might lead to the rescheduling of withdrawal deadlines. 



Karzai's team clashes over US relationsBy Qais Azimy and Mujib Mashal

KABUL - The increasing influence of a conservative circle within President Hamid Karzai's palace has impeded progress in signing a crucial strategic agreement with the United States to chart the relationship beyond 2014, officials and analysts have said.

Their outspoken anti-US views have frustrated Karzai's diplomats negotiating with US officials, often resulting in messy clashes.

On March 8, a day before Afghanistan and the US signed an agreement to gradually transfer control of prisons to the Afghangovernment, Jawid Ludin, the deputy foreign minister, and Karim Khurram, Karzai's chief of staff, were summoned to brief Karzai ahead of a video conference with US President Barack Obama. Also in the room were General John Allen, the US commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Afghanistan, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Kabul. 

Just minutes before the call between the two leaders, Karzai left the room for a break, according to three separate sources inside the palace. In the following few minutes, in a confrontation that reportedly verged on physical violence, Khurram and Ludin accused each other of spying - one for Pakistan, the other for the United States. They were split up by the NATO commander and the US ambassador.

It all began with a complaint from Allen, the palace sources said. The US Embassy and NATO declined to comment for this article.

Allen reportedly stated that the prisons would be gradually handed over, one of Karzai's preconditions to signing a long-term strategic agreement on wider issues. But the Afghan government's media wing must tone down its anti-US rhetoric, Allen insisted.

The Government Media and Information Center (GMIC) falls directly under the authority of Khurram, Karzai's chief of staff.

Ludin, one of Karzai's chief negotiators, turned to Khurram and reiterated the general's point - that such comments hindered negotiations with the US

Khurram, according to the palace sources, said the GMIC was only defending Afghanistan's interests - which Ludin took as an insult.

What Khurram insinuated, an official close to Ludin said, was that the Foreign Ministry was betraying Afghanistan in negotiations with the US. Ludin said he would take it upon himself to stop GMIC from making such statements, to which Khurram reportedly responded: "Not even your father can do that."

"You are a spy for the Americans, you do whatever they tell you," Khurram told Ludin at the meeting, according to one official.

Ludin, in return, accused Khurram of spying for Pakistan. At that point, General Allen and Ambassador Crocker are said to have stepped in to prevent a physical confrontation.

Ludin declined to comment for this article. Khurram, after hearing about the premise in person, promised an interview, but then refused to answer his phone.

"Diplomacy was set aside," one senior government official told al-Jazeera about the meeting. "They turned to the Afghan way of arguing."

When Karzai returned to the room, the video-conference went ahead.

The prison deal, gradually transferring control to the Afghan government over six months, was signed before the cameras of the world's media the next day, as planned. But the reported confrontation underlines how divided Karzai's inner court is, with regard to the nature of the long-term relationship with the United States.

Divided palace
"It has been one and half years that the palace has been fractured into two groups," said analyst Abdul Waheed Wafa, the director of the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University.

"On the one side, you have people who say: 'We have not achieved what we want, but we need to stick with the internationals because the alternative is chaos.' Then the other elements - they are against night raids, and against a long-term US and international presence." The strategic agreement is supposed to provide Afghanistan - a poor country that requires foreign donations for roughly 90% of its annual budget - some assurance to continue its new beginning after decades of war. More importantly, the support of the US would bolster Afghan standing in a volatile region, where the country's neighbors have long been accused of interfering in its internal affairs.

For the US, a longer presence in Afghanistan would ensure that it could operate against "threats to US national security", by being able to go after the sanctuaries of those who it believes would use violence against US interests.

But the increasing influence of the conservative chief of staff, and his clashes with what he sees as pro-US elements within Karzai's circle and beyond, has hindered progress to such a point that, in recent weeks, the US announced "it is more important to get the right agreement than to get an agreement". Some interpreted that as the US expressing a decreasing interest in the commitment.

Wafa said the announcement was a bluff that put pressure on the Afghan negotiators, who then compromised, tabling certain preconditions for separate discussions.

"The change of tone in the US was partly to pressure Afghans," said Wafa. "But some Afghans believe it is true - that these people [US officials] are fully frustrated, the US public opinion is against the war, even some senators who were staunch supporters of the war are now saying it is hopeless. That those who wanted an exit got an excuse - that look, the Afghans don't want us, they don't want to sign a long-term commitment."

Three issues have been of contention in the negotiating process: US control over Afghan detainees, night raids, and permanent military bases. The two sides agreed to remove the issues of prison transfer and night raids from the strategic agreement, allowing them to be discussed separately. The prison transfer was signed on March 9, while the memorandum over night raids is being finalized this week, according to an official at the national security council. But the contentious issue of military bases still looms large.

The argument on March 8 was not just a spur of the moment event. Those views were repeated in subsequent interviews.

"Khurram clearly has an agenda - and he wants to disturb any progress in the relations with the US," an official close to Ludin insisted days after the incident. The other side was no different.

"Absolutely, there are circles that see their sustenance in the West's benefits, and they don't think about the nation," said Ghulam Gilani Zwak, the director of Kabul's Afghan Research and Consulting Center. "They insist on not negotiating and bargaining, and their actions are slave-like.

"But there are others who have the interest of the nation in mind, who don't want the repeat of what Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Younus Qanooni signed with the US in December 2001, bringing our independence under question."

Zwak was referring to an alleged agreement signed between the US government and representatives of the northern alliance, then an anti-Taliban group holed up in the north, which helped the US topple the Taliban. But the "status of forces" agreement that stands now, giving US military personnel immunity from criminal prosecution by Afghan law, was actually signed with Karzai's transitional government in 2003, a US congress report says.

The Foreign Ministry's dysfunction is much spoken about in Afghanistan. Zalmai Rasul, an aging foreign minister, has been called a passive operator without much foreign policy experience. Ludin, a former spokesman and chief of staff to Karzai, shoulders most of the responsibility in the Foreign Ministry, where many appointments are allegedly based on kinship. "Our foreign policy weakness is that we haven't had a stable foreign policy, a clear vision. It's all been reactionary, ad hoc," said Wafa.

Ahmad Shuja, a Washington-based Afghan analyst, believes the palace repeatedly steps on the toes of the diplomats, making it difficult for them to do their job.

"Karzai's statement, his dynamism, eclipses the efforts of the Foreign Ministry to set policy. It is diplomacy 'Afghanistan style' - not policy in the conventional sense."

And Khurram's tight grip over the president in the past year has made the job much more difficult for diplomats like Ludin, said analysts.

A controversial former minister of culture, Khurram took over the post of Karzai's chief of staff in early 2011 - a position that has held increasingly more power in the country, particularly under Khurram's predecessor, Omar Dawoodzai.

During his stint as culture minister, Khurram was known as a strict censor of television programs.

Shuja believes Khurram's seemingly anti-US views stem from two sources.

"His political ideology is shaped by his alignment with Hizb-e-Islami, and that seems to figure in his calculations," he said.

Led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Hizb-e-Islami began as a political party that fought the Soviets. It played a major role in Afghanistan's bloody civil war in the 1990s, and now is considered the third (and weakest) faction of the anti-US insurgency.

"But also, let's not forget that they have been trying to reach out to the insurgency. Delaying the signing of a strategic pact will help them in appeasing the Taliban," added Shuja. In purging the GMIC, which is largely funded by the US Embassy, the new chief of staff announced his intention to control the government's message. Frustrated with Khurram's control, the US Embassy cancelled funding for a brief period and withdrew its advisers from the media group.

Khurram also issued a warning to the president's press staff, ordering them not to allow US advisers in press conferences, one palace official told al-Jazeera.

The US Embassy declined to comment for this story. But a US official based in Kabul confirmed the frustrations with the palace.

"For the embassy, it is hard to get any access inside the palace since the chief of staff changed," the official said.

Khurram has at least three private newspapers, a television channel and a radio station under his control, directly or indirectly, one official - who formerly worked for him - said.

"The message is not just an anti-American one, but also divisive internally," said Khurram's former colleague. "His brand of conservative Pashtunism strengthens the notion that all Pashtuns are unilateralist and conservative by nature.

"The president's non-Pashtun allies have been increasingly isolated. The damage that Khurram has inflicted on President Karzai's image in one year - his enemies could not have done the same."


The Christian Science Monitor - CSMonitor.com

Afghan villagers say shootings were revenge

By Deb Riechmann and Mirwais Khan, The Associated Press
posted March 20, 2012 at 11:51 pm EDT
Several Afghans near the villages where an American soldier is alleged to have killed 16 civilians say U.S. troops lined them up against a wall after a roadside bombing and told them that they, and even their children, would pay a price for the attack.
Residents have given similar accounts to both The Associated Press and to Afghan government officials about an alleged bombing in the vicinity, which they said occurred March 7 or 8, and left U.S. troops injured. The residents also said they are convinced that the slayings of the 16 villagers just days later was in retaliation for that bomb.
Although the villagers' accounts could not be independently confirmed, their claim that the shootings by a U.S. soldier may have been payback for a roadside bombing has gained wide currency in the area and has been repeated by politicians testifying about the incident to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
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Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 38, is suspected of leaving a U.S. base in Panjwai district, entering homes and gunning down nine children, four men and three women before dawn on March 11 in the villages of Balandi and Alkozai. Villagers said the earlier bombing occurred in Mokhoyan, a village about 500 yards (meters) east of the base.
A lawyer for Bales in the United States also suggested that Bales was motivated by a bombing in the area.
However, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan declined to give any information on the bombing or even confirm that it occurred, citing the ongoing investigation into the shootings. He also declined to comment on the suggestions that U.S. troops had threatened villagers with retaliation.
"The shooting incident as well as any possibilities that led up to it or might be associated with it will be investigated," Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, the spokesman, said Tuesday.
One Mokhoyan resident, Ahmad Shah Khan, told The Associated Press that after the bombing, U.S. soldiers and their Afghan army counterparts arrived in his village and made many of the male villagers stand against a wall.
"It looked like they were going to shoot us, and I was very afraid," Khan said. "Then a NATO soldier said through his translator that even our children will pay for this. Now they have done it and taken their revenge."
Neighbors of Khan gave similar accounts to the AP, and several Afghan officials, including Kandahar lawmaker Abdul Rahim Ayubi, said people in the two villages that were attacked told them the same story.
Mohammad Sarwar Usmani, one of several lawmakers who went to the area, said the Afghan National Army had confirmed to him that an explosion occurred near Mokhoyan on March 8.
On March 13, Afghan soldier Abdul Salam showed an AP reporter the site of a blast that made a large crater in the road in Panjwai district of Kandahar province, where the shootings occurred. The soldier said the explosion occurred March 8. Salam said he helped gather men in the village, and that troops spoke to them, but he was not close enough to hear what they said.
Ghulam Rasool, a tribal elder from Panjwai district of Kandahar province, where the shootings occurred, gave an account of the bombing at a March 16 meeting in Kabul with President Hamid Karzai.
"After the incident, they took the wreckage of their destroyed tank and their wounded people from the area," Rasool said. "After that, they came back to the village nearby the explosion site.
"The soldiers called all the people to come out of their houses and from the mosque," he said.
"The Americans told the villagers, 'A bomb exploded on our vehicle. ... We will get revenge for this incident by killing at least 20 of your people,'" Rasool said. "These are the reasons why we say they took their revenge by killing women and children in the villages."
Bales' lawyer, John Henry Browne, has said that his client was upset because a buddy had lost a leg in an explosion on March 9. It's unclear if the bombing cited by Browne was the same as the one described by the villagers. After a meeting at a military prison in Fort LeavenworthKansas, Browne said Bales told him a roadside bomb blew off the leg of one of his friends two days before the shootings occurred.
Karzai's investigative team is not convinced that one soldier could have single-handedly left his base, walked to the two villages, and carried out the killings and set fire to some of the victims' bodies. The U.S. military has said that even though its investigation is continuing, everything currently points to one shooter.
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Villagers in Mokhoyan, meanwhile, are convinced that the shootings were a case of revenge.
Naek Mohammad, who lives in Mokhoyan, told the AP that he heard an explosion March 8 and went outside. As he and a neighbor talked about what happened, he said, two Afghan soldiers ordered them to join other men from the village who had been told to stand against a wall.
"One of the villagers asked what was happening," he said. "The Afghan army soldier told him, 'Shut up and stand there.'"
Mohammad said a U.S. soldier, speaking through a translator, then said: "I know you are all involved and you support the insurgents. So now, you will pay for it — you and your children will pay for this.'"
None of the villagers could identify the soldier who they said issued the threat.

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