Sadr Is Silent, but Backers Work Behind Scenes


BAGHDAD — One voice largely missing in this election is that of Moktada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric who more than any other Iraqi figure came to symbolize the Shiite insurgency in this country.

Mr. Sadr’s movement has not fielded a list of candidates under the Sadr name, although the movement is backing two parties. Mr. Sadr himself has not been seen publicly in Iraq for months. The conventional wisdom among Iraqis is that he no longer controls his movement.

None of this means that he can be counted out. But his profile and tactics seem far less confrontational than in the past, when his militia was responsible for brutal crimes against thousands of Sunnis.

In the wake of sectarian violence in 2004, 2005 and 2006, Mr. Sadr judged that he was losing more support than he was gaining and called for a cease-fire. Sectarian violence plummeted. But some did not heed his call; these people became known as “special groups” and were widely believed to be controlled by Iran. They continued to attack American soldiers.

Mr. Sadr did not find a substitute for the violent and extortionist activities that previously had bound some of the impoverished youth to him, and while he regained some credibility in the poor Shiite areas where he is popular in Baghdad and Iraq’s south, the movement was diluted.

At the same time his political wing became frustrated and disillusioned. Those who ran ministries — the bloc had six slots, including the powerful Ministry of Health — were pushed out. Some faced charges of corruption and sectarian murders. Then even the special groups began to fracture.

Now Mr. Sadr’s supporters claim that they are recalibrating his movement and looking to a future without the Americans. “Politics will be the dominant work of the movement,” said Liwa Smeism, who heads the movement’s political board, and who spoke at the cleric’s headquarters in Najaf.

“Our strategic goal is to serve the country. Once the occupation leaves, the Sadrists will have an instrumental role.” As he spoke, four candidates from Najaf running on one of the slates endorsed by the movement were anxiously tracking on television and via their cellphones the proceedings of the early voting on Wednesday.
In many ways, it seems the movement is trying to regain its relevance and transform itself into something like the American lobbying group MoveOn — a group that candidates and parties seek out for support, but that is not a party istelf.

Yet the movement wants to be “a kingmaker” in the current political process, said Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, the movement’s spokesman and political strategist. Given its wide appeal among millions of impoverished Iraqis, it has a good shot at doing so.

Mr. Sadr urged his followers earlier this month to vote for two slates, the Integrity and Construction List and the Independent Movement of the Free. Both parties have been heavily influenced by the cleric’s closest associates. They vetted many of the candidates.

Publicly, the cleric’s aides insist that they are not involved in the campaign and that the movement has merely endorsed a group of “independent” candidates. In part that is because the Sadr movement recognizes that the political process in Iraq now has a bad name and is viewed as dysfunctional and corrupt. By distancing itself from any particular political party, the Sadr movement has the flexibility to criticize and throw its weight behind different groups without being blamed for the government’s mistakes. “We have pulled ourselves out of the circle of accusations,” Sheik Obeidi said.
READ MORE - Sadr Is Silent, but Backers Work Behind Scenes

New Afghan security unit to police dangerous areas

KABUL - Plans are being drawn up to form a new Afghan security unit to patrol dangerous areas where the Taliban insurgency is most acute, government officials said on Saturday.

The unit, to be funded by the United States, will have its own uniform and work alongside the Afghan National Police (ANP), using the same weapons as the ANP who have AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles, Interior Minister Hanif Atmar told a news conference.

He did not say how the unit would be recruited, how large it would be or exactly where it would be deployed.
Both NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan have spoken in the past few months about plans to recruit police from within communities by cooperating with community leaders and tribal elders in order to secure remote areas overrun by insurgents.

Some Afghan politicians have raised concerns about the units' resemblance to earlier and failed attempts to police hard-to-reach and hostile districts, which effectively out-sourced police work to local militias.

But Atmar insisted the new unit would come under the command of Afghan national security forces and would not use, or resemble, any kind of militia.

"They are part of the security forces of Afghanistan and by no means will they be under the command of anyone else, other than the leadership of the Afghan government," he said.

He said the plans had the support of the commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, but he would not say how many police were needed, if any had been recruited so far, or where they would be deployed.

"They will help to protect and secure highways, streets, schools and clinics in insecure parts of the country," he said.

The number of recruits to the new unit, called the Public Protection Unit, will depend on an area's security needs: "It could be 10,000 to 20,000 in one area or 50,000 to 100,000, right now I can't give you a number," Atmar said.

The ANP have been accused of rampant corruption, from taking traffic bribes to working with opium barons, as well as helping the Taliban, and Atmar said that while such problems persisted, they had been reduced significantly in the past three months.

(Reporting by Golnar Motevalli; editing by Tim Pearce)
READ MORE - New Afghan security unit to police dangerous areas

Swat Valley: Whose war is this?

Part 1: A battle before a battle
Part 2: Faceless Taliban rule

Swat is a valley and an administrative district in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) located 160 kilometers from the capital Islamabad. The capital of Swat is Saidu Sharif, but the main town in the Swat Valley is Mingora. With high mountains, green meadows and clear lakes, it is a place of stunning natural beauty, so much so it earned the tag "the Switzerland of Pakistan". All that has changed in the past year; it has now become a hotbed for the Taliban. In the third report in a series of articles exploring Pakistan's tribal areas, Syed Saleem Shahzad visits the valley to examine the differing natures and strategies of various Taliban groups.

The Afghan national resistance against the Soviets in the 1980s gave birth to various Islamic groups in the Pakistani tribal areas.

The Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM - Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law) was founded in 1994 in

Malakand Agency in NWFP, while the Promotion of Virtues and the Prevention of Vices was formed in Bajaur Agency. Different Islamic madrassas (seminaries) were established in the South Waziristan and North Waziristan tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan.

Taliban rule in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 ideologically fueled these organizations and seminaries. Nevertheless, neither Pakistan nor the international community took notice of these low-profile developments in the 1990s as people in those areas had been practising Muslims for centuries and such reformist Islamic movements, at the local level, were more or less part of age-old traditions.

In the years after the Taliban were driven out of power by the United States-led invasion in late 2001, these perceptions changed in line with the events that unfolded on both sides of the border.

Initially, the Taliban were scattered and Western intelligence organizations and military establishments estimated their strength at little more than a few thousand fighters with no central command, believing that the foreign forces in Afghanistan would face little resistance.

However, within four years all their estimates were proved wrong. The Taliban regrouped and launched a powerful comeback with their spring offensive in 2006. In southern Afghanistan especially they consolidated their strength and instituted a sound command system.

A key factor in the Taliban's revival was that from 2004 onwards they established a strong network in Pakistan coordinated by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. A focal point of this was the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad, which was stormed in July 2007 by Pakistani security forces to clear it of militants.

By this time Western intelligence had realized that this development in Pakistan was a major factor behind the "fireworks" in Afghanistan, and Islamabad was told as much. The Pakistanis were also warned that militants could also launch a revolution in Pakistan.

This was a major turning point in the "war on terror" in the South Asian theater. For the first time, Islamabad felt a chill up its spine and viewed the situation from a different perspective - not as an American war in which its participation was drawn out of compulsion, but as a war necessary to maintain the status quo of its own system. This system was a blend of the country's deep relationship with the US and the perpetuation of the military oligarchy, combined with a particular brand of Islam that could co-exist with this setup.

The attack on the Lal Masjid was the first shot fired in this battle, and its reverberations soon spread to the Swat Valley, South Waziristan and then Bajaur Agency, in effect turning the whole of NWFP into a war theater. A series of military operations in the tribal areas drove the militants from stand-alone sanctuaries into population centers.

In Malakand, which includes the Swat area, the militants are a part of the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Taliban and the vanguard of the Taliban's cause in the region against Western occupation forces in Afghanistan and their ally - Pakistan. They have established their own writ with a parallel system that includes courts, police and even a electric power-distribution network and road construction.

The manner in which the militants have established themselves in the Swat Valley is surprising as 65% of the local population - mostly from secular schools - is literate, yet the central government has failed to muster mass support against the militants.

All in the valley they rode ...
Former British prime minister Sir Winston Churchill and the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, were two of the valley's more famous admirers. Jinnah coined the phrase "Switzerland of Pakistan" while Churchill, gazing down the valley from his mountain resort, once commented that all the inhabitants must be poets. He was not far off, Swat is widely known for its poetry recitals.

Poetry still thrives in the valley, but now in the form of jihadi songs promoting jihad and the mujahideen. One, with the cries of a child in the background, narrates the miseries of the children of Swat who have fallen victim to the Pakistan army's indiscriminate shelling of the area.

Nowadays, the army does not have a ground presence in the valley, apart from some manned checkpoints in the mountains and garrisons. Most attacks on militants rain from the skies.

The reason for the collateral damage is clear. Near the place from where Churchill used to gaze in wonder at the valley's beauty - known as Churchill's Picket - stands Chakdara Fort, heavily manned by the Pakistan army. It is mounted with 8mm guns which fire indiscriminately at villages many kilometers away.

These include Tigak, Koza Bandi and Fuchaar. The latter is the headquarters of Mullah Fazlullah, nicknamed "Radio Mullah", the leader of the TNSM who controls the insurgency in the Swat Valley. Koza Bandi and Tigak are also believed to be strongholds of the militants.

These three villages are still well inhabited by common folk as they do not have the resources to go anywhere else, and they have almost by default sided with the militants, even if they don't agree with them ideologically.

In dealing with the militants in the Swat Valley and elsewhere, the Pakistan military had to contend with the fact that it was waging war against countrymen and followers of the same religion.

To justify this to its soldiers, the top brass came up with the explanation that the insurgency was controlled by India's external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). This has even been repeated by one of the biggest supporters of the Taliban, retired Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, a former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence, who has said he has no doubt that RAW is behind the unrest.

The Pakistani military repeatedly holds briefings at which its claims that Hindus, launched by India to fuel the insurgency, have been arrested in the Swat Valley. This is clearly nonsense - in such a closed tribal society any stranger would be instantly recognized.

Nevertheless, such claims make soldiers believe they are fighting against Indian proxies whose financiers and handlers are Hindus, and the shells keep on falling. The local population is left with no option but to view the shelling as enemy fire, causing them to side with the militants, who are at least their country cousins, if not their ideological comrades.

There is another reason for the locals supporting the militancy and enabling it to force the troops to vacate more than 90% of the valley over the past one-and-a-half years - incompetent and bad governance.

During my visit, every sub-district and village I passed through told of the alienation caused by bad governance which had allowed a Taliban vigilante force to emerge and flourish.

One of the first things these vigilantes were able to do was wipe out rampant abductions and car theft by criminal gangs. Many of the once-numerous military checkpoints on the way into the valley have been abandoned in the face of the militancy.

On our way in we passed through Engaroberai Dera (Blacksmith Village), where a checkpoint had also been abolished. This area was known for its "Khans" and their cruelty. Khan is originally a Central Asian Turk title for honor, but in NWFP it came to mean rich, feudal, or feudalism.

Engaroberai Dera was also known for its begar camp (bonded labor). The native people of the village used to work in the orchards and fields owned by the Khans. In return, they were given free accommodation and food for themselves and their families, but no cash wages.

The valley is famous for its fruit, such as apples and oranges, which were grown for both local consumption and export. In this environment, the Khans prospered both financially - one Khan was found to own 500 houses - and in terms of political clout.

Once the Taliban established a foothold, they asked the people to present evidence of the Khans' wrongdoings and after investigations the Taliban settled the claims of the people. Significantly, the Taliban never called this a class war, rather, they saw it as a battle between good and bad, oppressor against oppressed.

"It is wrong to say that we are against the Khans in general. There are people who are rich and own vast lands, jungles and mountains here in the Swat Valley who are called Khan, but we never bothered them because they acquired those things from righteous sources," Haji Muslim Khan, a leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Taliban and now the official spokesperson of the Taliban in the Swat Valley, told Asia Times Online.

"However, there are people who are known for their cruelty against the people. Their grandfathers sided with the British during the liberation movement to invade the local population and now they have fled to Islamabad or Peshawar and instigated the government to bomb us. Indeed, they are wanted criminals and we take action against them," Khan said.

Most of the "bad" Khans have left the valley, although Afzal Khan has stayed. He is a leader of the Awami National Party, a secular Pashtun political party with major electoral influence in the Pashtun-dominated areas of NWFP.

Afzal Khan sent a message to the Taliban saying that he was a son of the soil and he would risk being killed by not leaving his land. The Taliban were impressed with the note and allowed him to live and he has now become a main point of communication between the Taliban and the government. However, recently he has fallen out of favor with the Taliban and now lives under heavy security provided by the army.

Traveling with the Taliban
We had just entered Tigak village when two people, one clean-shaven and the other with a long beard, approached us. One was holding an AK-47, the other a wireless radio set. They signaled the car to stop.

"Is it safe to park the car here?" I asked.

"Nobody will touch the car," the armed man answered. "If you find even a scratch, I am the in-charge for security and I will compensate you."

I then followed him into an alley and a house. A jihadi song was playing and I was greeted by three tall, light-skinned men in their early 20s.

One of them - Hussain - greeted me and told me he was familiar with Asia Times Online and my work, which he follows on our Internet site, even while fighting an insurgency. The province is one of the more high-tech in the country.

Hessian has a master of arts in mass communication, while the other two have a post-graduate science degree and a graduate degree. My guide, also from the Swat Valley and a sympathizer of the Taliban movement, is a science graduate and a former national-level field hockey player.

"Is it not odd that all of you are educated in secular schools but still support the Taliban, who blow up schools,?" I asked.

"This is a blatant lie," said Hussain. "The Taliban do not blow up schools. The media do not cover our perspective. We will take you all around. There are several school buildings in the area which we have never touched. The fact is that the military occupied the buildings and established bunkers.

"We attacked their positions, not the schools, but the buildings were damaged or destroyed. The irony is that nobody ever says that the army has occupied the school buildings and prevented children from going to school for months. But when the Taliban attack their positions, they are accused of being the enemy of education," Hussain said.

I talked to another group of Taliban until late in the night. We covered a variety of issues, ranging from the partition of British India in 1947 to the present law-and-order situation in the country.

One issue that unites the men is their abhorrence of the Pakistan military, whether for the events of the breakup of Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 or what they have done against Pashtuns in NWFP.

"But the military has vacated much of the Swat Valley," I commented to Muslim Khan.

"That is a strategic retreat. We hear that they are planning a strategy in which they will use some sort of nerve gases to make us unconscious," Muslim Khan commented. "If they apply such tactics, we will not be able to defend ourselves and we will have to run, but then this war will expand to Islamabad. We will go there and carry out attacks," Muslim Khan said.

"Unfortunately we are fighting with an army which said in 1970 in East Pakistan that the country needed land, not the people. They have the same principle here."

Before I could start to video the interview, the electricity went off. I thought it was loadshedding, which happens in other parts of the country.

Hussain's cell phone rang and after a brief call he said the power would be back on within an hour as there was a fault in the system, according to the executive engineer of the Water and Power Development Authority.

Later, I learned that the Taliban have strictly warned the local power staff not to dare resort to loadshedding in the Swat Valley, and apparently the warning is religiously adhered to.

The Taliban had arranged a separate room with attached bath for me and I missed the first morning prayer call, but woke to the voice of Mullah Fazlullah on the radio giving one of his famous speeches.

One of the Taliban guards was listening; I only heard the last sentence "May Allah guide us to a path where we can sacrifice our lives for his religion." After prayers and a modest breakfast, the Taliban took me in a powerful jeep around the valley.

At many places the houses were damaged by shelling. The Taliban are quick in rescue operations and they provide funds and volunteers to rebuild houses. That's part of the reason they have won mass sympathies, especially as the government is unable to provide such support to victims caught in the crossfire. The government's supplies for the troops are looted by the Taliban so they have to be delivered by helicopter.

In the sub-district Kabal, I saw houses previously occupied by the army. The Taliban have destroyed the police station, but school buildings are intact.

At Sarsanai Kabal, I encountered the first paramilitary checkpoint. I thought they would grill me, but they did not even get out of their cement bunker. The Talib sitting beside me said they never left their bunkers as they were afraid of snipers.

A sign at the checkpoint read "Alone person is not allowed to pass". In Swat, an "alone person" in a car is a possible suicide bomber. With several people in our car, we were able to continue.

Both lanes of the road leading to Saidu Sharif airport were blocked with stones and barbed wire so we took an alternative route. After a while we came across a crowd gathered around a man with long hair and long beard.

The man was commander Hamud Khan, said to have recently destroyed four al-Khalid army tanks. He was the owner of a laboratory and pharmacy in Swat, but due to his association with the Taliban movement the army destroyed these.

The day before, Hamud Khan had lashed three thieves. He said I could get a video of the event from a Taliban studio. For technical reasons I could not see the video, but I got a chance to talk to the head of the media center, Mohammad Shoaib.

"In Islamic law, the hands of thieves are cut off. Why did you only lash them?" I asked.

"Such punishment can only be executed by the Islamic state. We don't have one. Nevertheless, we need to put in place a system of justice that will prevent wrongdoing," said Mohammad Shoaib.

"The biggest problem is that our system, including politicians and police, encourages crimes. They provide protection to the criminals and suggest that this is the only way to live and progress.

"When we caught these thieves and our court announced the punishment, we kept them with us for a week. We were affectionate and sympathetic towards them because they were poor and had committed the crime out of compulsion.

"Nevertheless, we made it very clear that once they had committed the crime they had to face the punishment. Even if they skipped punishment in this world, in the hereafter they would have to face painful punishment for their crimes. They were regretful of their crime and willingly faced the punishment, and afterwards they promised not to commit the crime again," Mohammed Shoaib said.

Militancy unchecked
Over the past year and a half, Islamabad has without success tried various means to check the militancy in the Swat Valley.

Initially, local police and paramilitary forces were used, but they failed. Then the army directly intervened, with a similar result.

After elections early last year when the Awami National Party's (ANP's) rule was established in NWFP, its leaders offered an olive branch, but the militants refused to lay down their weapons.

Local militias were then formed through ANP structures to fight against the Taliban. The result was a disaster. Dozens of ANP workers, leaders and members of the provincial assembly lost their lives and property and now the party has been wiped out in the valley. Some ANP members resigned and announced in a local newspaper their support for the enforcement of Islamic sharia law.

The military operation that began in the valley 18 months ago to break the network of militants supporting the Afghan insurgency has turned much of NWFP into a war theater, and given the militants valuable training in fighting.

The Swat area is not situated on the Afghanistan border, but the Americans view it as the most dangerous theater as it feeds into the Taliban in Afghanistan and has the potential to dampen Pakistan's support in the "war on terror".

Pakistan army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani visited Swat this week, apparently ahead of another push to crush the militants. The way things have gone to date, there is not much likelihood of this happening.
READ MORE - Swat Valley: Whose war is this?

Fallujah the hotspot once more

By Dahr Jamail

FALLUJAH - The threat of violence again hangs over Fallujah, where local leaders of the Awakening Councils have threatened to react violently should results in Saturday's provincial elections not go their way.

The Awakening Councils were initially set up in 2005 by the US military to battle then spiraling insurgency in Iraq. Most of its recruits were former resistance fighters and the militia grew to a strength of about 100,000 men, with each paid $300 a month by the American taxpayer.

But US aid to the councils was cut off in October on the understanding that the members would be absorbed into Iraqi 
government forces. To date, less than a third have been given government jobs.

The Awakening Councils, now more political movements than militias, control most of al-Anbar province. Covering about a third of the country, Anbar is Iraq's largest province and considered the heart of the Awakening movement.

Anbar has a largely Sunni population of about two million, and is of great strategic importance due to its borders with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. The province saw some of the worst violence throughout the US occupation as two sieges in 2004 destroyed most of Fallujah and violence perpetually plagued the provincial capital of Ramadi.

The Awakening Councils are largely responsible for the stabilization of the security situation, but now could become the problem as they jostle for control with political rivals and amongst themselves ahead of the vote.

Saturday's poll will decide control of 444 seats in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces and be contested by 14,431 candidates from more than 400 parties. Some 15 million of Iraq's 25 million population have registered to vote.

The vote is widely seen as a test of the nation's stability ahead of parliamentary elections later in the year and the planned withdrawal of US troops in 2011. Observers have hailed the participation of the Sunni groups, many of which boycotted Iraq's last elections, as a positive sign.

But in Fallujah council leaders are threatening violence if they do not win. The president of the Fallujah Awakening Council, Sheikh Aifan Sadun, like many other Awakening leaders, has hundreds of security personnel under his control.

Sadun, standing as a local representative, is accusing rivals from the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) of planning to defraud the upcoming vote.

"The Islamic Party is placing their people as observers in the voting centers in Fallujah," Sadun told IPS. "They are also pressuring people who they think will be voting for Awakening members like me."

Sadun, speaking in his heavily armored BMW while driving in a convoy around Fallujah, said he would use "any means necessary" to fight the IIP if they "stole" the elections.

The IIP have been in power here because most other Sunni political groups boycotted the last elections in 2005.

In some places rivalry has developed between competing council leaders. In Ramadi, Sheikh Ahmad Abo Risha is president of the Awakening Council for the entire province. Abo Risha's rival, Sheikh Hamid Al-Hayis, is also a council leader in the city, and from the same tribe.

Abo Risha does not have kind words for Al-Hayis. "Al-Hayis has relations with government people and oil contracts, and he gets money from this by using his position which we helped him acquire," Abo Risha told IPS at the Awakening Council of Ramadi headquarters.

"I'm from a long line of sheikhs, but Al-Hayis has only been a sheikh since 2006, when we started the Awakening," Abo Risha said. If Al-Hayis were to win the elections, he added, "there will be a revolution".

And, he told IPS, it will be a disaster if the IIP takes the election by fraud. "It will be like Darfur," he said.

(Inter Press Service)
READ MORE - Fallujah the hotspot once more

Interview: For Holbrooke, Situation in Pakistan, Afghanistan Is 'Dim and Dismal'

Interviewee: Bruce O. Riedel, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy,
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, Council on Foreign Relations
Bruce O. Riedel, an expert on South Asia, who has worked for the CIA, Pentagon, and National Security Council, says new special envoy Richard Holbrooke inherits a "dim and dismal" situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan. What is needed, he says, is for Holbrooke to reverse the negative momentum in both countries. He says the Taliban's military successes in Afghanistan have to be reversed, and Pakistan must help close their sanctuaries on Pakistani territory. But Riedel says "trying to get that cooperation out of the Pakistani government in my judgment will be the single hardest test that Ambassador Holbrooke faces and in fact may be the single hardest foreign policy challenge President Obama faces."
With Richard Holbrooke being named the new special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, what's going on in that part of the world? When Asif Ali Zardari, the new president of Pakistan, was inaugurated last year, he invited Afghan President Hamid Karzai to the inauguration. Is there better coordination between the two countries?
The good news is that the relationship between President Zardari and President Karzai is a fairly good one, and the two of them are comfortable working with each other. That has yet to translate, though, into a real productive relationship along the border. It's an opening, certainly, that we should exploit. The inheritance that Ambassador Holbrooke gets, though, on the whole is pretty dim and dismal. The war in Afghanistan is going badly, the southern half of the country is increasingly in chaos, and the Taliban is encroaching more and more frequently into Kabul and the surrounding provinces. And in Pakistan, the jihadist Frankenstein monster that was created by the Pakistani army and the Pakistani intelligence service is now increasingly turning on its creators. It's trying to take over the laboratory.
Does the Pakistani military have a strategy for the FATA [the Federally Administered Tribal Areas] along the borders with Afghanistan?
It's of two minds about the FATA. On the one hand, it has always used the Federally Administered Tribal Areas as the place where it could create groups like the Taliban, or encourage the development of the Taliban, where it could train people to operate in Kashmir or to operate in India. But now that it sees that it's losing control of that area, it's increasingly concerned about the future. Unfortunately, the Pakistani army is not very well prepared either in training or in equipment for the kind of counterinsurgency warfare that needs to be fought in the badlands along the Afghan border. And here is another opening for the United States to offer to Pakistan the kinds of counterinsurgency training and doctrine and the kinds of equipment that would be useful in this war. Helicopters in particular. The Bush administration gave Pakistan about a dozen helicopters. What they really need is several hundred to operate in this very difficult terrain where air mobility is really the key to battlefield success.
And is there a lot of talk about the U.S. Predator attacks on supposedly al-Qaeda targets in that area? Is there an implicit agreement that these attacks should go ahead even as Pakistan protests?
I don't know what the discussions between Washington and Islamabad have been over that. These Predator attacks have scored some important successes. Significant al-Qaeda figures have been killed. But they also have a counterproductive element to them, which is that they further the alienation of the Pakistani people away from us. One of the biggest challenges, if not the biggest challenge we face in Pakistan today, is that the American brand image has been badly eroded. Polling in Pakistan shows that a majority of Pakistanis blame America for the country's internal violence. India comes in second place, and al-Qaeda and the militancy comes in third place. Any time that you are outpolling India as the bad guy in Pakistan, you're in deep, deep trouble.
What do you think the reaction is to President Obama, who gave an interview to Al-Arabiya, an Arab TV network, in which he talked about his great interest in improving relations with the Muslim world. Will that get much vibe, do you think, in Pakistan?
This is the kind of message that can start the process of changing opinions, not just in Pakistan, but in much of the Muslim world. The interview hit all the right points. But of course talk needs to be followed by action, and that's what people will be looking for. The American brand image suffered a big setback because of the Gaza war. The war in Gaza with American-made F-16s and American-made Apache helicopters piloted by Israelis dropping bombs on 1.5 million Palestinians was just about the worst backdrop to a transfer of power in the United States that you could hope for. Al-Qaeda called it "Obama's gift to the Palestinians," but the truth is that it was really a gift to al-Qaeda by giving them a great propaganda boost to undermine the image of the United States again on the eve of the transfer of power. But, a quick getting off the mark, sending [former] Senator George J. Mitchell out to the region to start addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict will resonate throughout the Muslim world, including in Pakistan.
Let's look at it from Ambassador Holbrooke's perspective now. I don't know where he'll go first, Afghanistan or Pakistan, but what would you say the top priorities are for him?
The top priorities, and they are very much linked, is first to reverse the momentum on the ground in Afghanistan. The Taliban have a sense that they're winning, and objectively if you look at the numbers--the number of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] casualties, the number of bombings--it does look like they are winning. That momentum has to be broken. And then, secondly, and quite critically, the safe haven that the Taliban and al-Qaeda and other jihadists have built in Pakistan has to be closed down. That can only happen with the cooperation of the Pakistani government. And trying to get that cooperation out of the Pakistani government in my judgment will be the single hardest test that Ambassador Holbrooke faces and in fact may be the single hardest foreign policy challenge President Obama faces.
But haven't you implied that President Zardari wants to do it? That seems to be his policy isn't it?
Pakistani President Zardari wants to do it because he recognizes the safe haven is now a threat to him personally. His capacity to get the Pakistani state to do much about this is limited. He has only notional control over the Pakistani army and the Pakistani intelligence services, which remain fixated on their eternal enemy, India, and which believes that India wants to create a client state in Afghanistan in order to encircle Pakistan. Breaking those kinds of perceptions is going to be very hard to do.
Is India in fact involved that deeply in Afghanistan?
It is a fact that India is very engaged in Afghanistan. In fact, this last weekend, India announced completion of a $1 billion project to build a road connecting Afghanistan's main highway to a main highway in Iran, giving Afghanistan access to the Indian Ocean without having to go through Pakistan. It's a good thing, but in the eyes of Pakistanis who are obsessed with the threat from India, it looks like encirclement. That's what makes the challenge of trying to change Pakistani behavior so complex.
READ MORE - Interview: For Holbrooke, Situation in Pakistan, Afghanistan Is 'Dim and Dismal'

Mullen Says Close to 30,000 New Soldiers Likely for Afghanistan

By Ken Fireman
Jan. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Admiral Michael Mullen, the most senior American military officer, said the U.S. will probably deploy close to 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to shore up deteriorating security there.
In an interview, Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, also said he is hopeful that other NATO nations will contribute additional military and civilian resources this year to the fight against a resurgent Taliban. The Islamist militia, which once ruled Afghanistan and sheltered al-Qaeda, is threatening large areas of the country with mounting attacks.
Mullen said the new resources are needed to buy time for a broad, long-term buildup of Afghan security forces that will allow the U.S. to “put an Afghan face” on the effort and dispel perceptions of a foreign occupation.
“It’s fine for me to say this isn’t an occupation,” Mullen told Bloomberg editors and reporters yesterday. “But it’s important that the people of Afghanistan don’t think it’s an occupation.”
Mullen, 62, has said in recent weeks that the U.S. will probably send between 20,000 and 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan in response to a request from Army General David McKiernan, the American commander there. Yesterday, he said he anticipates the final level will “tend toward the higher number of those two” figures.
“I believe it’s not going well,” Mullen said of the Afghan conflict, “which is one of the reasons it’s important that we get these forces moving.”
Election Delayed
Afghanistan’s presidential election was postponed this week to Aug. 20 from May 22 because of security concerns and logistical difficulties. U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai has been unable to extend his authority much beyond the capital, Kabul, which itself is now menaced by the Taliban.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Jan. 27 Senate hearing that Afghanistan is “our greatest military challenge.”
“There is no purely military solution,” Gates said. “But it is also clear that we have not had enough troops to provide a baseline level of security in some of the most dangerous areas.”
Mullen said the military’s capacity to fulfill McKiernan’s request remains dependent on its ability to keep withdrawing forces from Iraq.
And that, he said, will in turn be shaped by whether Iraq continues to draw back from the sectarian violence that convulsed the country in 2006 and progresses toward political reconciliation along milestones like tomorrow’s provincial elections, which he called “absolutely vital.”
Improving Conditions
“It would be very difficult to slip back to the chaos that was there in 2006,” Mullen said. “The longer we are able to see conditions continue to improve, those words ‘fragile and reversible’ start to disappear.”
He cautioned that hard-core insurgents such as the group Al-Qaeda in Iraq still pose a danger. “They’re very much diminished, but there are still pockets of al-Qaeda, and the potential for major events is still there.”
In addition, he said, Iraqi leaders must still resolve some difficult political issues, such as passage of a law that gives all regions and ethnic groups a share of energy revenue and a dispute between Arabs and Kurds over control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
As a consequence, Mullen said, “we are in great part dependent on how the politics play out in 2009” as U.S. leaders consider prospects for new troop withdrawals from Iraq.
Deployed Troops
There are currently about 142,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq and about 36,000 in Afghanistan, according to the Defense Department. Other North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries have about 30,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, although some of those nations bar their forces from deployment in areas of intense combat.
The goal of the buildup in Afghanistan, Mullen said, is to enable the U.S.-led coalition to execute what he called the “classic counter-insurgency” strategy of expelling enemy fighters from an area, holding the territory against new incursions and then building up the area’s economic and physical infrastructure.
At present, the coalition has only enough resources to accomplish the first of those three stages, he said.
“When we’ve been in situations where we’ve been in combat, we’ve actually been able to significantly impact the Taliban,” he said. “The problem is, we haven’t had enough forces there once that occurs to hold the territory, so that we would then build in the classic counter-insurgency mode.”
Tribal Areas
Mullen said the situation in Afghanistan is closely linked to events in Pakistan, where Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters are roosting in the rugged mountains of that country’s northwest tribal areas.
Mullen has made eight trips to Pakistan in the past year to prod military leaders to take action against the fighters. He said he is encouraged that Pakistani leaders now are serious about battling the insurgents.
Even the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which is often accused of collaborating with Islamic extremists, is “evolving in the right direction,” at least at the leadership level, he said.
Mullen also said the Pakistanis have taken new and significant steps in recent weeks to crack down on Lashkar-e- Taiba, an Islamic extremist group blamed by India for the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
‘More Steps’ Needed
“There are still more steps to be taken” against the group, Mullen said, adding that Pakistani authorities were “working to get those who have been arrested into their judicial system.”
U.S. and Indian officials have previously asserted that Pakistani intelligence authorities have assisted and turned a blind eye to the group’s violent activities and training camps. Lashkar-e-Taiba, or “Army of the Good,” is dedicated to overthrowing Indian control of the disputed, Muslim-majority territory of Kashmir.
The group is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. It was outlawed by Pakistan in 2002, although its training camps in the Pakistani part of Kashmir continued to operate, according to U.S. and Indian intelligence officials.
In the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, Pakistani authorities arrested several alleged Lashkar militants.
To contact the reporter on this story: Ken Fireman in Washington at
READ MORE - Mullen Says Close to 30,000 New Soldiers Likely for Afghanistan

Israeli killed in Gaza border clash

An Israeli soldier and a Palestinian are reported to have been killed in a clash near the Kissufim crossing along the border with the Gaza Strip.

A bomb planted by Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli soldier and wounded three other troops close to the border with the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, the Israeli military said, confirming media reports of the death.
The Israeli military said the blast targeted a patrol near the Kissufim border crossing into Gaza.
Palestinian medical workers said that after the incident, Israeli forces fired into the Gaza Strip near the scene of the explosion, killing a Palestinian farmer caught in the crossfire.
Tamer Mishal, Al Jazeera's correspondent, reporting from Gaza, said an anti-armour shell was fired from inside the territory at an Israeli tank near the area of Khan Younis.
"Witnesses told Al Jazeera that the grenade directly hit an Israeli jeep," he said.
"Palestinian residents reported the sound of gunfire and Israeli helicopters in the area."

Exchange of fire

The residents of Kissufim said the army patrol and Palestinian fighters exchanged fire shortly after the blast.

Ayman Mohyeldin, Al Jazeera's correspondent, reporting from Gaza, said no Palestinian group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.

"The likely scenario is that an improvised explosion device of some sort was under that patrol as it was driving and detonated ... but some reports suggest it was a mortar round that was used against the patrol," he said.

"We are not sure if it was remotely detonated or if a pressure sensor caused it to trigger, but we do know that as a result of that explosion one Israeli solder was killed and three are in a critical state of injury.

"Immediately after a large blast of gunfire was heard in the area, there were several farmers out on their land, and we understand that one Palestinian farmer was killed."

It is the first apparent breach of a January 18 ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which controls Gaza.

Israeli troops withdrew from Gaza last week after a three-week offensive whose stated aim was to stop Palestinian rocket fire into southern Israel.

Egyptian mediators have been meeting separately with Israel and Hamas to negotiate a more permanent ceasefire. Hamas's demand

Hamas wants the border crossings into Gaza re-opened, including the Rafah crossing into Egypt, to end the Israeli blockade in the territory.

Israel wants to stop the rocket fire and prevent Hamas fighters from using smuggling tunnels under the border with Egypt to rearm themselves with weapons.

Barack Obama, the US president, has sent George Mitchell, his newly appointed Middle East envoy, to the region to discuss the ceasefire efforts.

Obama instructed Mitchell, who played a prominent role in the Northern Ireland peace process, to "engage vigorously" to achieve real progress between Israel and the Palestinians.

READ MORE - Israeli killed in Gaza border clash

Taliban spreads malevolent message through radio

The Taliban are spreading terror through Pakistan’s Swat Valley through the medium of radio.

The Taliban has insisted, under threat of beheading, that Swat residents listen to radio each evening for the latest dictates from Taliban officials.

The New York Times has reported that Taliban leaders have announced as "un-Islamic", activities such as selling DVDs, watching cable television, singing, dancing, criticizing the Taliban, shaving beards and allowing girls to attend school.

The broadcasts also note the names of people the Taliban has recently killed or is planning to kill for violating their radio orders.

Recently, different Talibani announcements warned of the killing of a dancing girl for violating Islamic laws.

Consequently, the residents were shocked to find the bullet-ridden body of the city's most famous dancing girls splayed on the main square.

The Swat Valley is relatively close to Pakistan's three major cities, Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

Despite President Zardari's pledge to fight Taliban in Swat, Pakistan's 15,000 troops have remained fairly ambivalent toward the 4,000 Taliban fighters in the region.

Swat residents have said that the soldiers have never raided a small village, which is widely known as the Taliban's headquarters in Swat, nor have they destroyed mobile radio transmitters.
READ MORE - Taliban spreads malevolent message through radio

Sri Lankan military corners Tamil Tigers

The Sri Lankan army has claimed Tamil Tigers' now have nowhere to go, with their last urban stronghold being captured.

The remaining Tigers are now confined to a small stretch of jungle in the northeast.

On Sunday military officials reported the army had completely captured the northeastern port of Mullaittivu.

Troops entered the fortified town, the last to be under Tamil Tiger control, about three weeks after skirting around its edges.

The capture of Mullaittivu follows many military victories in recent weeks, including the capture of the rebels' de-facto capital, Kilinochchi, and the seizure of the strategic Elephant Pass.
READ MORE - Sri Lankan military corners Tamil Tigers

First strike: 17 dead as Obama aims missiles at Pakistan-Afghanistan Good Job Bossman!!!

WASHINGTON - U.S. Predator drones hit two suspected AlQaeda dens in Pakistan with Hellfire missiles Friday - the first cross-border strikes from Afghanistan on President Obama's watch.

Pakistani officials said at least 15 people were killed, including three children and four civilians. The attacks signaled Obama had given the green light to the CIA and the military to continue former President Bush's policy of targeting Al Qaeda and Taliban safe havens in Pakistan.

New White House press secretary Robert Gibbs repeatedly declined to say whether Obama had personally signed off on the missile attacks that hit two villages in Pakistan's lawless northwest frontier zone. "I'm not going to speak about these matters," Gibbs said.

But U.S. intelligence sources told the Daily News neither the military nor the CIA was authorized to carry out such attacks without presidential approval.

In one of the strikes, "A militant den was successfully destroyed. At least five foreign Al Qaeda militants were killed," a Pakistani official told Agence France-Presse.

During the campaign, Obama warned that he would authorize cross-border operations to go after Osama Bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, with or without the approval of Pakistan, which complained about the missile strikes.

"It helps us in no way conducting our operations" against Islamic militants, Pakistani Army Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told CNN.

"We face much more difficulty as a result of drone strikes, and we have conveyed our position on that" to the U.S., Abbas said.

Pakistan routinely protests the air strikes as violations of sovereignty, but U.S. sources have suggested that Pakistan secretly supports the tactic to hit militants that also threaten the central government.

The U.S. has carried out more than 30 air strikes on targets in Pakistan since last July, killing more than 260 people.

Among those killed were top operatives planning attacks against the West, sources told The News. The list included:

* Khalid Habib, a veteran combat leader and operations chief involved in plots to attack the West. He was deputy to AlQaeda No. 3, Shaikh Sa'id al-Masri.
* Rashid Rauf, the mastermind of the 2006 British airliner plot.
* Abu Khabab al-Masri, Al Qaeda's most seasoned explosives expert and trainer, who headed its chemical and biological weapons efforts.
* Abdallah Azzam, also a top aide to Shaikh Sa'id al-Masri.
* Abu al-Hassan al-Rimi, who led cross-border operations against coalition forces in Afghanistan.
READ MORE - First strike: 17 dead as Obama aims missiles at Pakistan-Afghanistan Good Job Bossman!!!

Fifteen militants killed in Afghanistan

TalibanKabul, Jan 24 (Xinhua) US-led coalition forces have killed 15 militants during an operation in Laghman province, some 60 km northeast of Afghan capital Kabul, a statement issued by the coalition here said Saturday.The operation targeted a Taliban commander who carried out attacks in Kabul, Laghman and Kapisa provinces, including the August 2008 attack in which 10 French soldiers were killed, the statement said.

The statement said that coalition forces engaged the militants with small-arms fire and close-air support killing 15 militants including one woman carrying a rocket-propelled grenade.

“During the search of the compounds, coalition forces discovered 10 AK-47s, four rocket-propelled grenades, multiple rocket-propelled grenade rounds, a hand grenade, bandoleers of ammunitions and other military equipment, all of which were destroyed to prevent future use,” it added.
READ MORE - Fifteen militants killed in Afghanistan

Pak & Afghanistan central front in terror war: Obama

NEW DELHI: US president Barack Obama called Pakistan along with Afghanistan the epicentre of terrorism threatening world security and said that
his administration would tackle both countries as a single problem.

His comments were immediately appreciated in India, which has maintained that terror coming out of Pakistan is a threat to not just India but the international community. The linking of Afghanistan and Pakistan as one problem is also being seen here as a positive development for the region.

The new president, who has not been shy of overturning decisions and changing policies of his predecessor, is clearly looking at reshaping policy saying that Pakistan and Afghanistan
countries were the “central front” in the war on terror. He further said that the “deteriorating” situation in the region was “truly an international challenge of the highest order.”

“This is the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism,” Mr Obama was quoted as saying. He further argued that the problem of terrorism in the two countries could not be solved in isolation and that there has to be a regional approach to it. “There, as in the Middle East, we must understand that we cannot deal with our problems in isolation,” he said.

Mr Obama also maintained that the problem of terror in the region would not be resolved immediately as insurgency has deep roots. “The American people and the international community must understand that the situation is perilous and progress will take time. Violence is up dramatically in Afghanistan. A deadly insurgency has taken deep root. The opium trade is far and away the largest in the world,” Mr Obama said .

His remarks further indicated that the new administration is working fast to reshape policy for the region. “We are pursuing a careful review of our policy,” he said.

Mr Obama was speaking after naming former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke as special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mr Holbrooke, who is known as the main architect of the agreement that ended the war in Bosnia, had written in Foreign Affairs before the US elections that there was a need for new policies with regard to the tribal areas in Pakistan. He had written that Pakistan had the ability to destablise Afghanistan at will and that countries like India should be given a stake in the development of Afghanistan.

“This is a very difficult assignment as we all know,” Mr Holbrooke said after his appointment. Reports said that he would soon be undertaking a visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

At the same time, the new US president also chalked out his plan to improve the economic condition of people in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “There is no answer in Afghanistan that does not confront the al Qaeda and Taliban bases along the border, and there will be no lasting peace unless we expand spheres of opportunity for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Anyway the new administration has already announced that the US would be tripling non-military aid to Pakistan but conditional to the action against insurgents in the tribal belts of Pakistan.
READ MORE - Pak & Afghanistan central front in terror war: Obama

Taliban Gun Down Teacher for Not Hiking 'Salwar' Above Ankles

Islamabad, Jan 23: A teacher who once fought as a mujahideen against Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan has been gunned down by the Taliban in Pakistan's troubled Swat valley for not hiking up his 'salwar' or trousers above his ankles.

Though the Pakistani Taliban have not issued any edict for the salwar to be worn in this manner, there have been reports of the militants threatening men for not hiking up their trousers.

The militants say hiking up the trousers is essential for offering prayers.

Former mujahideen Amjad Islam, who was working as a teacher in a private school in Swat, was gunned down yesterday for not hiking his salwar above his ankles. The militants then went to Islam's house and gunned down his father, Ghani Akbar, a lawyer by profession.

Islam's body was later hung by the militants from a pole in the College Square in Matta town and local residents were warned not to touch it till Friday morning. The body was taken down and moved to Islam's house after a local jirga intervened.

Local residents said the militants had asked Islam to hitch his salwar above his ankles last morning. The teacher told them he was a former mujahideen and knew everything about Islam. He also said nobody could be forced to pull up his salwar above the ankles, The News daily reported.

Islam said he had also seen the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which had not forced men to wear their salwar in this manner. His arguments angered the militants and led to a scuffle.

The teacher, who had a pistol, fired at the militants and killed a Taliban fighter and wounded two more. He then tried to flee but the militants shot and stabbed him, killing him instantly. Locals also said Islam's father was a religious and humble man who was well respected in the area.

Large tracts of the Swat valley in the North West Frontier Province are now controlled by local Taliban fighters led by radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah despite a major anti-militancy operation launched in the area by the Pakistan Army in October 2007.

The Taliban have set up their own courts and patrol many towns and villages in the valley located just 160 km from Islamabad.

On January 15, the Taliban banned girls' education in Swat, leading to the closure of some 400 schools. The militants have also directed men to wear Muslim skull caps and stop shaving their beards by January 25.
READ MORE - Taliban Gun Down Teacher for Not Hiking 'Salwar' Above Ankles

Partial war' looming between China, India?

Military suggests border dispute is 'threat' to Beijing

Arunachal Pradesh
A border dispute could become the spark that launches China and India into a military conflict, with Chinese strategists resurrecting the concept of a "partial war" to recover what they call "Southern Tibet," the region India calls "Arunachal Pradesh," according to a report from Joseph Farah's G2 Bulletin.

The area in northeast India has a 650-mile unfenced border with China, which lays claim to the region and refers to it as Southern Tibet.

Some of the threats are emanating from Chinese publications that reflect the opinion of the Chinese leadership without making official comments.

For example, the China Institute of International Strategic Studies, or IISS, has said it visualizes "two crises" for the People's Liberation Army in the immediate future. One was the succession in the North Korean leadership should Kim Jong-Il die.

The other was India's continued presence in territory China claims as its own.

India regards Arunachal Pradesh as the 24th state in the Indian Union. Yet China still claims much of it as part of the Tibet Autonomous Region and may be prepared to launch an action to regain it.

Ironically, the veiled threat comes at a time when China looks upon its relationship with India as being in the "best period" of their joint history.

Called the "land of the rising sun," Arunachal Pradesh means "land of the dawn lit mountains," since it is in the Himalayas.

The Burma Road, known to have helped supply China during World War II, passes through the region. Burma, or Myanmar, borders on the East.

The 650-mile Chinese-Indian border in Arunachal Pradesh is separated by the so-called McMahon Line, also known as the Line of Actual Control.

The dispute dates back to the time India was ruled by Britain, whose officials in 1914 held a conference over the boundary. In 1962, China and India fought a serious border war, with Chinese troops advancing well into Arunachal Pradesh but later withdrawing. The region flared up again in 1986.

Now, the region is becoming a focal point again.

A Chinese military website that reflects official positions observed that the border issue may be symbolic of how India looks upon China as the "greatest obstacle" to its rise.

The website suggested that the border dispute over Southern Tibet constitutes a security threat to China and that Beijing may need to adopt a strategy to weaken control of the Indian central government.

For the complete report and full immediate access to Joseph Farah's G2 Bulletin, subscribe now.
READ MORE - Partial war' looming between China, India?

In Pakistan, Muslims are killing Muslims in the name of Islam

There are two aspects to Muslims killing each other in Pakistan

One is the Shia Sunni clashes. Violence between Sunni and Shia factions began from early 1980s. More than 150 people have been killed in the past year alone. Around 4,000 people have killed in total. More here.
January 10, 2009

Seventeen people have been killed and 30 wounded in clashes between Sunni and Shia groups in villages in the Hangu District in northwest Pakistan, police said Saturday.

7 killed in Pak Shia-Sunni clashes

19 Jun 2008 source

The second is extremist Jihadis killing Muslims in Pakistan they dont’ agree with. All In all a big killing party by members of the peace religion.

Muslims are killing Muslims in the name of Islam

For full article read here 

To be sure, terrorist violence in Pakistan predates the arrival of NATO forces in Afghanistan. In the first 9 months of 2001, even before September 11, Pakistan went through 45 bomb blasts including 12 in Quetta, 10 in Karachi, 3 in Rawalpindi and 2 each in Lahore and Peshawar (there were bomb blasts in Okara, Gujranwalla, Sialkot and Gujrat). To be certain, attacks on cable television operators, beauty parlors and on women who either refuse to wear a veil or wear western attire had become common in settled Pakistani areas several years prior to September 11. At least 2 years prior to September 11, the state of Pakistan had lost its writ over some 10,000 square kilometers of physical terrain between Tochi and Gomal rivers (all figures are based on data bases maintained by the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), the Institute of Conflict Management and news reports).

Raison d’ĂȘtre behind terrorism in Pakistan: In effect, Muslims who reject the current world order want to impose their own world view on the rest of Pakistan–and that too through violence. In essence, it is a struggle for political power, a struggle between two world views. The struggle is for the soul of Pakistan and the origin of this struggle is older than September 11. Pakistan now has more casualties from terrorist violence than does Iraq or Afghanistan. In NWFP, the entire political leadership is on the run and extremists are winning. In Punjab, there is no political consensus on fighting terrorism. Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the largest political party in Punjab, does not even view the current terrorist threat as a clash between two world views. Shahbaz Sharif says, “The government should shun someone else’s war.” Nawaz Sharif says, “There’s no reason not to engage in a dialogue with those involved in terrorist activities.”
READ MORE - In Pakistan, Muslims are killing Muslims in the name of Islam

28 Taliban killed in Afghanistan

Afghan and NATO-led soldiers killed 22 militants in Afghanistan in a clash near the border with Pakistan, while the US-led international coalition forces killed six suspected militants in the southern region, officials said Thursday.

A group of Taliban militants attacked Afghan army soldiers and NATO forces in south-eastern province of Khost Wednesday, sparking a fierce battle that continued until early hours of Thursday, the defence ministry said in a statement.
Initially the Afghan defence ministry had said that at least eight insurgents were killed and two others were wounded in the clash and their bodies were left behind by the fleeing militants.

But the NATO alliance said in a statement later that the clash left 22 militants dead, but caused no casualties among the civilians as it took place in a remote area away from the residential houses.

Afghan defence ministry said that foreign fighters were also among the dead militants, but did not disclose their nationalities.

Afghan and NATO officials have repeatedly said that foreign fighters including Pakistanis, Arabs, Chechens, and militants from Central Asian countries are fighting alongside the Taliban against Afghan government and international forces in the country. The foreign forces are mostly under the command of Al Qaeda leaders in the region.

Separately, US-led coalition forces targeted a network of roadside bomb makers and foreign fighters in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing six insurgents.

The militants were killed in Day Chopan district of the southern province of Zabul after they refused to surrender and opened fire on forces approaching their hideout, the US military said in a statement.
The prime target of the operation was a Taliban commander, who was wanted for his ties to a roadside bombing network and trafficking of foreign fighters to the region, the statement said, but did not say if the man was among those killed.

Five of the militants were killed in a small-arms fight, while the sixth was taken out by ‘precision airstrikes,’ the statement said, adding the troops protected 23 women and 31 civilians during firefight.

Unlike previous years, NATO and coalition forces, who together have more than 650,000 troops in the country, continued to engage the militants despite the cold winter weather.

The militants retreated to their rear bases inside Pakistani tribal areas during the winter months in the past six years, according to Afghan and NATO military officials.

But as they penetrated new towns and urban areas in 2008, the Taliban-led insurgents have remained in the country this winter, prompting the military commanders on the ground to expect an early spring offensive.
Taking advantage of modern technology and sophisticated intelligence gathering, the international forces have heavily targeted the Taliban hideouts, where they make roadside bombs, in the recent months.

Roadside and suicide bombings are the common tactics for the Taliban militants. They carried out around 2,000 roadside attacks in 2008.

Taliban militants have steadily gained power in the past three years. The militants have intensified their attacks in recent months and are adamant to topple the Western-backed Afghan government.

Up to 30,000 more US troops are expected to arrive in Afghanistan this year to contain insurgency. US President Barack Obama has announced that he would make the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan one of his administration’s top priorities.
READ MORE - 28 Taliban killed in Afghanistan

In Afghan South, Taliban Fill NATO’s Big Gaps

Danfung Dennis for The New York Times
American Army soldiers, thinly spread, patrolled the Afghan village of Tsapowzai recently.

TSAPOWZAI, Afghanistan — The Taliban are everywhere the soldiers are not, the saying goes in the southern part of the country.

Troops Spread Thin in Southern Afghanistan

Troops Spread Thin in Southern Afghanistan

Tsapowzai, Afghanistan

Tsapowzai, Afghanistan

And that is a lot of places. For starters, there is the 550 miles of border with Pakistan, where the Taliban’s busiest infiltration routes lie.

“We’re not there,” said Brig. Gen. John W. Nicholson, the deputy commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. “The borders are wide open.”

Then there is the 100-mile stretch of Helmand River running south from the town of Garmser, where the Taliban and their money crop, poppy, bloom in isolation.

“No one,” General Nicholson said, pointing to the area on the map.
Then there is Nimroz Province, all of it, which borders Iran. No troops there. And the Ghorak district northwest of Kandahar, which officers refer to as the “jet stream” for the Taliban fighters who flow through.
Ditto the districts of Shah Wali Kot, Kharkrez and Nesh, where the presence of NATO troops is minimal or nil.

“We don’t have enough forces to secure the population,” General Nicholson said.

The general is going to get a lot more troops very soon. American commanders in southern Afghanistan have been told to make plans to accept nearly all of the 20,000 to 30,000 additional troops that the Obama administration has agreed to deploy.

The influx promises to significantly reshape the environment of southern Afghanistan, the birthplace of the Taliban. The region now produces an estimated 90 percent of the world’s opium, which bankrolls the Taliban.
While the American-led coalition holds the cities and highways, it appears to have ceded much of the countryside to the Taliban, because it lacks sufficient forces to confront them.

A force of about 20,000 American, British, Canadian and Dutch soldiers have been trying for years to secure the 78,000 square miles of villages, cities, mountains and deserts that make up southern Afghanistan. The region is one of the two centers of the Taliban insurgency, which has made a remarkable resurgence since being booted from power in November 2001.

The other center is in the eastern mountains, where 22,500 American troops are battling a multiheaded enemy, which includes Al Qaeda. Its operational center is based in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Here in southern Afghanistan, the insurgency is homegrown and self-sustaining. The home village of the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, is 30 miles from here. Poppy fields, now fallow in winter, dot the countryside here and in neighboring Helmand Province. The United Nations estimates that the opium trade provides the Taliban with about $300 million a year.

American commanders say the open borders allow the opium to move unimpeded into Pakistan and other places, and for weapons and other supplies to flow in. Five of the six busiest Taliban infiltration routes are in the south, American officers said.

“Drugs out,” one American officer said, “guns in.”

The commanders here call the current situation “stalemate,” meaning they can hold what they have but cannot do much else. Of the 20,000 British, American and other troops here, only roughly 300 — a group of British Royal Marines — can be moved around the region to strike the Taliban. All the other units must stay where they are, lest the area they hold slip from their grasp.

It is perhaps in Kandahar, one of the provincial capitals, where the lack of troops is most evident. About 3,000 Canadian soldiers are assigned to secure the city, home to about 500,000 people. In a recent visit, this reporter traveled the city for five days and did not see a single Canadian soldier on the streets.

The lack of troops has allowed the Taliban to mount significant attacks inside the city. Two clerics who joined a pro-government advisory council, for instance, have been gunned down in the past two months, bringing the total assassinated council members to 24. Over the summer, a Taliban force invaded Kandahar and stormed its main prison, freeing more than 1,200 inmates.

But whether extra troops will have the desired impact is unclear. Adding 20,000 new troops to the 20,000 Western soldiers already here — in addition to an equal number of Afghan policemen and army personnel — would bring the total to 60,000. The six provinces that make up southern Afghanistan have a population of 3.2 million. In that case, the ratio of troops to population would just match that recommended by the United States Army’s counterinsurgency manual: 50 people per soldier or police officer.

American commanders say the extra troops will better enable them to pursue a more sophisticated campaign against the insurgents; the overriding objective, rather than killing Taliban fighters, is to provide security for the civilian population and thereby isolate the insurgents.

Even so, many of the Western troops already here are not deployed among the population. And Afghanistan, with its predominantly rural population living in mostly small villages, presents unique challenges.

Across much of the countryside, the Taliban appear to hold the upper hand, not necessarily because they are popular, but because they are unopposed. Hediatullah Hediat, for instance, is a businessman from Musa Qala, a city in Helmand Province that was occupied by the Taliban for much of 2007 until the insurgents were expelled by British troops at the end of that year. (The British have about 8,000 troops in Helmand Province.) The British, Mr. Hediat said, control the center of Musa Qala and nothing more.

“The Taliban are everywhere,” Mr. Hediat said in an interview in Kandahar, where he had come for business. “The Taliban are so near to the city that you can see them from the city itself. The British can see them. They can see each other.”

Mr. Hediat said he had no great gripes with the British soldiers who were occupying the town — for one thing, he said, they do not raid houses and peer at the women. But the biggest complaint, he said, was the Afghan the British installed as the district governor, Mullah Salam. The governor is unpopular and corrupt, demanding bribes and tributes from anyone who needs something.

“This is why people hate the British, because they put Mullah Salam in power, and they keep him there,” he said.

In the mud-brick villages that line the Arghandab River, winning over the people is no easy job. The Taliban are here, in the villages; earlier this month, a suicide bomber killed two American soldiers and nine Afghans in the Maiwand bazaar. But the Taliban are mostly invisible.

On a recent foot patrol through the village of Tsapowzai, about thirty miles west of Kandahar, a platoon of American soldiers ventured inside and found empty streets. It was a sunny day. A pair of Afghans stared at them from a wheat field, and neither of them waved. No one stepped from his house to say hello.

“Where’s everybody at, Jimmy?” Lt. Brian James asked a comrade.

“Don’t know,” Lt. James Holloway replied.

Finally, the soldiers came across three Afghan men. They were sitting on a blanket and listening to music on a radio. What followed seemed, more than anything, a game.

“So, seen any Taliban lately?” Lieutenant Holloway asked the men.

“We haven’t seen the Taliban in eight months,” a man named Niamatullah said, looking up.
“Do you ever see anyone moving through here at night?” Lieutenant Holloway asked.

“We don’t go outside at night,” said Mr. Niamatullah, who, like many Afghans, uses one name. “When we do, you guys search us and hold us for hours. And you never find anything.”

Lieutenant Holloway shook his head.

“The last person we stopped in this village, we held for 20 minutes,” the lieutenant said. “We never detain anyone.”

“We are afraid of you,” Mr. Niamatullah said.

“Is there a Taliban curfew?” Lieutenant Holloway asked.

“Only a man with a white shawl is allowed outside at night,” Mr. Niamatullah said.

“A white shawl?” Lieutenant Holloway squinted.

Mr. Niamatullah did not offer to explain.

“But he has no gun, so you cannot detain him.”

After several minutes, Lieutenant Holloway gave up.

“Everybody knows something,” Lieutenant Holloway said, walking away, “But no one tells us anything.”
READ MORE - In Afghan South, Taliban Fill NATO’s Big Gaps

Sri Lankan navy fires at suspicious aircraft

Colombo, Jan 22 The Sri Lankan Navy has detected and fired at a suspicious aircraft flying at a very high altitude off Mullaitivu area, a military official said here Wednesday.
The official told IANS that navy vessels detected the aircraft with its lights on at around 8.25 p.m. Tuesday, flying towards Chalai in Mullaitivu district in the country’s northeast.
‘It was missing for about 30 minutes. The naval craft (later) detected a suspicious aircraft, maybe the same one, leaving Chalai area,’ the official said on the condition of anonymity.

‘The Israeli-built Dvora Fast Attack Crafts this time opened fire at the aircraft using long range guns but it disappeared from the sky,’ said the official.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have their Sea Tigers bases and the military installations in Chalai. The rebels also reportedly have an airstrip in Chalai.

According to official sources, the navy has four defence barriers off the coast of Mullaitivu consisting of more than 25 fast attack crafts, offshore patrol vessels and a Special Boat Squadron to cut off the escape routes of LTTE cadres by sea.
Air Force spokesman Wing Commander Janaka Nanayakkara said the air force had also observed a ‘bright light in the sky over the general area of Mullaitivu’ Tuesday night.
‘The air force have observed a very bright light at a very high altitude for short period around 9.00 p.m.,’ said Wing Commander Nanayakkara.
The LTTE is believed to be in possession of an unknown number of Czech-built Zlin-Z-143 lightwing aircraft. The low-flying aircraft have carried out dozens of night raids targeting military installations.
Encouraged by the fall of LTTE strongholds one after other in quick successions, the troops have now boxed the rebels into a chunk of forests in Mullaitivu.
With the navy spotting an aircraft flying at a high altitude, questions are being raised if attempts were being made by some outside forces to help the Tamil Tiger leaders to escape from Sri Lanka.
READ MORE - Sri Lankan navy fires at suspicious aircraft
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