Wednesday, September 30, 2009

UN official out after Afghan vote fraud dispute

KABUL (AP) - The top American official at the U.N. mission in Afghanistan is losing his job after he disagreed with superiors over how to deal with widespread fraud charges from the presidential election, people familiar with the decision said Wednesday. The U.S. diplomat, Peter Galbraith, denied he had been fired.

The delay in final results from the Aug. 20 vote has led to fears of a power vacuum in the Afghan government that could endure until spring, even as Taliban violence against U.S. and NATO soldiers and Afghan civilians continues to rise. On Wednesday, an American service member died in a suicide car attack on a military convoy in Khost province, near the Pakistani border.

Two U.N. officials confirmed that Galbraith was being recalled by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon from his job as deputy special representative for Afghanistan. They spoke anonymously because the information has not been officially released.

In an e-mail to the British Broadcasting Corp., which first reported Galbraith had lost his job, Galbraith said: "The secretary general appointed me and has not fired me so far as I know."

A U.N. spokesman declined to confirm reports that Galbraith was fired.

"We are aware of the reports. An announcement of this nature would usually come from the secretary-general's office in New York, but so far there has been no announcement," Dan McNorton said.

Galbraith oversaw electoral matters for the U.N. before and after the vote. He has been in the United States since mid-September, when he left Afghanistan following a dispute with his boss over the best way to handle vote fraud investigations. Both Galbraith and his boss, top U.N. Afghan envoy Kai Eide, said then he was expected to resume his duties in Afghanistan.

Neither Galbraith nor Eide have offered details of the disagreement, though Eide has confirmed that the two split over election issues. "Primarily, we had a somewhat different approach to the election process," he told The Associated Press. He declined to elaborate.

The vote has been marred by charges of ballot stuffing and tally rigging that have delayed final results for weeks and opened the possibility of a government in limbo well into the spring. Preliminary results show President Hamid Karzai winning with 54.6 percent of the vote, but enough votes are questionable that he could dip below the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff with his top challenger.

Election officials have said a runoff needs to be held by late October to avoid winter snows that block whole sections of the mountainous country until spring.

Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, which is in charge of running the election, voted overwhelmingly to apply a set of fraud standards to their count that likely would have excluded tens of thousands of votes, only to reverse the decision next day, saying it lacked the authority to enforce the standards, said Galbraith, who had advised the commission. He said at the time the reversal was part of his reason for leaving.

"I leave it to others to decide the plausibility of their decision," he said in a phone interview from Vermont in mid-September.

At the U.N. on Tuesday, Ban said Galbraith had not been removed from his post at that time, but declined to comment on whether Galbraith would remain in the position.

Galbraith worked for the U.N. in East Timor in 2000-2001 and as the U.S. ambassador to Croatia from 1993 to 1998.

Separately on Wednesday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he would do whatever is necessary in response to calls from the American commander in Afghanistan for more troops.

U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal - who also commands NATO forces - is expected to ask for 40,000 more troops to fight the Taliban-led insurgency and help Afghanistan rebuild.

When asked on Sky News if he was prepared to commit more British troops, Brown said "we will do whatever is necessary."

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen has stopped short of calling for more combat troops to be sent to Afghanistan, as the Obama administration currently is discussing.

But Fogh Rasmussen says more needs to be done to prepare Afghan military and civilian forces to secure and rebuild their nation.


Sounds to me like they're running scared.

Like Bush did.

Search for captured US soldier yields few clues

KABUL (AP) - The troops hunting for the young private have little to go on: He disappeared near the border with Pakistan, his Taliban captors released a propaganda video of him two weeks later, downcast and frightened. Then, at least publicly, nothing about the only U.S. soldier missing in the Afghan war.

U.S. military officials in Afghanistan say they are still searching for 23-year-old Pfc. Bowe R. Bergdahl, who disappeared June 30 - three months ago on Wednesday - but they reveal little else for fear of jeopardizing the search or his safety. Advanced intelligence gathering aircraft are being used for the hunt, but it's not even clear if Bergdahl is being held in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

There has been no public update on the Hailey, Idaho, native since his captors posted the video of him in mid-July.

At home in Idaho, the streets are lined with yellow ribbons, and the local TV station displays one in the corner of the screen throughout the day. Bergdahl's family receives regular updates from the military, said Lt. Col. Tim Marsano, a spokesman for the Idaho National Guard who is in weekly contact with the family.

"They've prepared themselves for this to last as long as it's going to last," Marsano said.

The U.S. military classifies Bergdahl as "missing-captured." Officials will not comment on most questions surrounding his case, including the circumstances of his disappearance, which Marsano said "are not fully established."

The top Afghan police official in the eastern province of Paktika, where Bergdahl was based, said his police forces have joined Afghan soldiers and U.S. troops on operations looking for Bergdahl, "but unfortunately we were not able to find him."

"We don't have any information," said the police chief, Gen. Dawlat Khan. "Our intelligence sources were not able to find out anything about him. I'm not able to tell you where he is, whether Pakistan, or Afghanistan, because I have no idea."

One possibility is that Bergdahl's captors are holding him in Pakistan, which is off-limits to the thousands of U.S. forces based in Afghanistan. When militants captured a reporter for The New York Times in a dangerous region of Afghanistan last year, he was transported to Pakistan and held for months there. The reporter, David Rohde, eventually escaped.

In Pakistan, a senior military official said: "We have not heard anything about that soldier. We do not have any information on his whereabouts." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Taliban spokesmen in Afghanistan said they had no information. In August a Taliban commander, Maulvi Sangin, told The Associated Press that he had Bergdahl and that Taliban leader Mullah Omar's council was waiting for a response to its demands before deciding the American's fate. Sangin couldn't be reached for comment.

"We are doing everything we can to locate him and bring him home," said U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Brian Naranjo, a military spokesman in Kabul.

A kidnapping and recovery expert, Chris Voss, the managing director of the New York-based Insite Security, said whether Bergdahl is in Afghanistan or Pakistan is less relevant than what kind of village he is being held in.

"It's more relevant as to what tribe is in control of the area, where the caves are they can go, where the villages are they can go," Voss said.

Voss said he thought it was possible Bergdahl could be found, noting that the July hostage video contained no harsh demands or threatening language.

"That tends to indicate that they haven't chosen to harm him and the opportunity to recover him is there," Voss said.

In Idaho, a POW-MIA group held a motorcycle rally for Bergdahl last month that attracted more than 150 riders, said Casey Jackman, a spokesman for the POW-MIA Awareness Rally Corp. of Pocatello, Idaho.

"We want to keep him in the forefront of people's minds because our daily life does go on," Jackman said. "You get tied up in your daily life and sometimes you forget that there are people out there paying a big price for our freedom. You always want to see the last one (service member) come home."


Taliban has a new haven in Pakistan: US

ISLAMABAD: As American troops move deeper into southern Afghanistan to fight Taliban insurgents, US officials are expressing new concerns about the role of fugitive Taliban leader Mohammad Omar and his council of lieutenants, who reportedly plan and launch cross-border strikes from safe havens around the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, according to The Washington Post.

But US officials acknowledge they know relatively little about the remote and arid Pakistani border region, have no capacity to strike there, and have few windows into the turbulent mix of Pashtun tribal and religious politics that has turned the area into a sanctuary for the Taliban leaders, who are known collectively as the Quetta Shura.

Pakistani officials, in turn, have been accused of allowing the Taliban movement to regroup in the Quetta area, viewing it as a strategic asset rather than a domestic threat, while the army has been heavily focused on curbing violent extremists in the northwest border region hundreds of miles away.

As a result, Pakistani and foreign analysts here said, Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province, has suddenly emerged as an urgent but elusive new target as Washington grapples with the Taliban's rapidly spreading arc of influence and terror across Afghanistan.

'In the past, we focused on al-Qaeda because they were a threat to us. The Quetta Shura mattered less to us because we had no troops in the region,' said Anne W. Patterson, the US ambassador to Pakistan.

'Now our troops are there on the other side of the border, and the Quetta Shura is high on Washington's list.'

Patterson also acknowledged that the United States is far less familiar with the vast desert region than with the northwestern tribal areas, where it has been cooperating closely with Pakistan for several years in the hunt for al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders and where it periodically kills insurgents with missiles fired from remotely piloted aircraft. The United States does not carry out such drone strikes in the Quetta region.

As Patterson put it, bluntly: 'Our intelligence on Quetta is vastly less. We have no people there, no cross-border operations, no Predators.'

According to Pakistani analysts, the Taliban's presence in the Quetta region is more discreet than it was earlier in the decade, when Omar fled there from US and Afghan military attacks.

He was joined by thousands of fighters, who blended into ethnic Pashtun neighborhoods and refugee camps.
But although Omar and his associates now keep a low profile and move constantly among villages and mosques in the lawless Pashtun strip between Quetta and the border, Pakistani and foreign experts said Balochistan has reemerged as a Taliban sanctuary, recruiting ground and command post.

'Quetta is absolutely crucial to the Taliban today,' said Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani expert on the Taliban, in a telephone interview.

'From there they get recruits, fuel and fertilizer for explosives, weapons, and food. Suicide bombers are trained on that side. They have support from the mosques and madrassas.'

Michael Semple, a former UN official in Afghanistan now based in Islamabad, described the Quetta region's refugee camps as 'a great reserve army' for the Taliban.

He said Pashtun tribes in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan, the Taliban's ethnic and spiritual base, have strong ties with those on the Pakistan side.

'They are intermarried, they have Pakistani ID cards, and you can't tell the difference,' Semple said.
On the other hand, he said, reports of Taliban leaders living openly in Quetta, even attending weddings, are nonsense. 'They are deeply suspicious of the Pakistanis, and they have their own agenda,' he said.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Villages 'wiped out' by tsunami after Samoa quake: report

APIA (AFP) – A powerful earthquake with a magnitude of 8.0 struck off the South Pacific island nation of Samoa on Tuesday, wiping out villages and killing 19 people in the region, reports said.

At least 14 people were reported to have died in American Samoa, and five in Samoa as enormous waves battered the island states, with one witness saying the wall of water had been up to 30 feet (nine metres) high.

One local journalist told AFP entire villages had been wiped out in Samoa on the worst-hit south and southwest coasts in an area where thousands of people live.

The Samoan capital of Apia was evacuated as authorities scrambled to get thousands of people to higher ground.

Witnesses said cars were swept out to sea in American Samoa where buildings were destroyed in what the US congressman for the territory said was a scene of "devastation."

The US Geological Survey said an 8.0-magnitude quake struck at 6:48 am (1748 GMT) at a depth of 18 kilometres (11 miles), 195 kilometres south of the Samoan capital Apia.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre initially issued a tsunami alert over a vast swathe of the Pacific, as far as Hawaii, but later withdrew the warning.

The centre said waves of up to 1.57 metres (over five feet) above the average sea level had smashed into American Samoa.

Eyewitnesses said the waves were much larger.

Mike Reynolds, superintendent of the National Park of American Samoa, which has its headquarters in the territory's capital Pago Pago told colleagues in California there had been widescale destruction.

National Park Service spokeswoman Holly Bundock said she had spoken to Reynolds, who was sheltering under a coconut tree.

"Park staff when they are able to make cell phone calls are calling in to our offices," she said.

"They said five tsunami waves have hit the park visitor centre in Pago Pago. It would appear park offices and the visitor centre there have been destroyed. "One of the waves was about 30 feet high."

Samoan journalist Jona Tuiletufuga told AFP there was widespread destruction with possibly thousands of people left homeless on the island.

"We are getting reports of missing people in areas were damage is extensive on the south and southeast coasts," he told AFP.

"Entire villages have been wiped out."

Tuiletufuga said there were up to 70 villages in the worst-hit area and each housed from 300-800 people.

A New Zealand tourist who called Radio New Zealand to appeal for help said he was looking over an area of destruction from high ground near Apia.

"We clambered up a hill and one of the party has a broken leg. We just need help. There will be people in a great lot of need around here, it's flattened."

Information from both islands was patchy.

American Samoan radio station KSBS-FM said at least 14 people had been killed by the quake and resulting tsunami.

New Zealand deputy high commissioner to Apia, David Dolphin, said five people were reported to have died on the island.

Most of the damage appeared to be centred on southern coast where waves of six to eight metres were recorded, he said.

"There are reports of some quite serious damage, at least five fatalities and quite a few reports of people missing," said Dolphin, who was on the north coast at the time.

"It was pretty scary but the house didn't appear to be falling apart so we just took what precautions we could and hunkered down," Dolphin said.

"There were windows rattling, light fittings swaying, a number of light things fell off tables and shelves," he told AFP.

A series of powerful aftershocks rattled the South Pacific in the hours after the initial quake.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre initially issued a tsunami warning for a large area of the South Pacific including Fiji, New Zealand and Tonga.

The USGS said the 8.0-magnitude quake struck at a depth of 18 kilometres.

Several of the Earth's tectonic plates meet in South Pacific and violent geological activity is common.

Large quakes with an under-ocean epicentre can trigger tsunamis that can have devastating effects.

In December 2004 an undersea earthquake off Indonesia's Sumatra set off a tsunami that killed more than 220,000 people around the Indian Ocean and laid waste to huge areas of coastline.


Obama-Joker, Action Figure Edition

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Honduras clamps down on dissenters

The de facto government of Honduras on Monday frustrated attempts by supporters of Manuel Zelaya, the ousted president, to hold mass protests in Tegucigalpa as it posted troops throughout the nation’s capital and closed down two opposition media outlets.

Soldiers and anti-riot police descended on the Globo de Tegucigalpa radio station on Monday morning and stopped it from broadcasting. Cholusat, a television satellite channel, was also taken off the air.

The media crackdown follows a decree passed on Sunday by the de facto government that strips Hondurans of constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties, including the right to hold unauthorised protests.

Critics saw the move as a direct response to calls by Mr Zelaya to mark the three-month anniversary of his removal from office by holding mass demonstrations as part of what he dubbed the “final offensive” in his bid to regain office.

There were media reports on Monday that only a few hundred Zelaya supporters gathered at the capital’s Pedagogica University, fazed by the decree and unsure of their next move. Many wore tape across their mouths, alluding to the media crackdown.

Mr Zelaya was removed from power on June 28 at gunpoint and forced to leave the country. Last week, however, he returned and is now in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa.

Honduras’ de facto government has invited a commission from the Organization of American States to visit next week, the Foreign Ministry said on Monday according to Reuters.

At an extraordinary meeting of the OAS earlier on Monday, Lewis Amselem, US representative to the international body, criticised the de facto government headed by Roberto Micheletti, and its actions as “deplorable and foolish”. However, he also criticised the unexpected return of Mr Zelaya, a theatrical figure known for his trademark oversized white cowboy hat. In particular, he said that Mr Zelaya should “desist from making wild allegations and from acting as though he were starring in an old movie”.

International organisations said on Monday that the suspension of liberties and media crackdown signalled a deterioration in the crisis.

José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch told the Financial Times: “Things are getting out of hand.”

Yet in spite of mounting international pressure to reinstate Mr Zelaya to the presidency, the de facto government appears determined to remain in office until the next presidential elections, which are scheduled for November 29.

On Sunday, it denied entry to four members of an advance diplomatic mission sent, with Mr Micheletti’s initial agreement, by the OAS to help to mediate a solution to the crisis. Carlos López, the de facto government’s foreign minister, justified the decision by arguing that the group had arrived ahead of the agreed time.

On the same day, Mr López issued Brazil with a 10-day deadline either to grant Mr Zelaya political asylum or hand him over to Honduran authorities. Mr Zelaya stands accused of more than a dozen charges, among them treason and abuse of authority.

Mr López said that if Brasilia failed to comply with the deadline, the ring-fenced embassy could lose its diplomatic status. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazilian president, responded by saying that his country would not bow to threats from “coup plotters”


US accepts Hamid Karzai as Afghan leader despite poll fraud claims

The White House has ended weeks of hesitation over how to respond to the Afghan election by accepting President Karzai as the winner despite evidence that up to 20 per cent of ballots cast may have been fraudulent.

Abandoning its previous policy of not prejudging investigations of vote rigging, the Obama Administration has conceded that Mr Karzai will be President for another five years on the basis that even if he were forced into a second round of voting he would almost certainly win it.

The decision will increase pressure on President Obama to justify further US troop deployments to Afghanistan to prop up a regime now regarded as systemically corrupt.

The acceptance was conveyed by Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, in a meeting with her Afghan counterpart hours before Mr Obama received a formal request from General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, for up to 40,000 more troops.

Mrs Clinton told Rangin Dadfar Spanta, the Afghan Foreign Minister, that she and her Nato colleagues — including David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary — had reached a consensus that Mr Karzai would remain President even if investigations now under way cut his share of the first-round vote to below 50 per cent. The meeting took place last Friday but details emerged yesterday.

The Administration has also told Kabul that it will support what Mr Karzai calls a policy of “reconciliation”, which is intended to induce low and mid-ranking Taleban fighters into swapping sides or at least to lay down their arms. The same tactic, which boils down to paying fighters to leave the insurgency, is central to a new counter-insurgency strategy recommended by General McChrystal in a bleak assessment of Afghan security leaked last week to the journalist Bob Woodward.

The effort, modelled on the “Sons of Iraq” movement that proved critical to the success of the US-led surge in Iraq two years ago, is to be led by the British general Sir Graeme Lamb, according to Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Discussions on whether to grant General McChrystal’s troop request will dominate a meeting of the National Security Council today. It will be the first of a series that Mr Obama will chair as he chooses between the advice of his military to flood Afghanistan’s towns and cities with fresh troops, and that of his Vice-President and others to tear up his strategy lest it drag him into a Vietnam-style quagmire.

Publicly Mr Obama has insisted that General McChrystal, whom he handpicked in March, retains his full confidence. Reports of tension gained credibility, though, with the disclosure by the general on Sunday that they had spoken only once since he took up his post in Kabul. “I’ve talked to the President, since I’ve been here, once on a VTC [video teleconference],” he told the CBS programme 60 Minutes.

British officials said yesterday that accepting Mr Karzai as winner of the election was “a recognition of the facts on the ground”. The British preference had been for Mr Karzai to form a national unity government taking in his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah — a scenario that the White House would also have welcomed — but Dr Abdullah appears to have ruled it out.


O's first big mistake, it's all down hill from here.

N.Korean Workers Earn Dollars for Construction Work in Russia

With the international community tightening economic sanctions on North Korean entities for their alleged involvement in nuclear and weapons activities, Pyongyang is ever more eager to earn hard currency. One of the few options for the regime to get foreign dollars is to rely on its own labor exports. VOA's Korean Service reporter Young Ran-jeon recently visited Vladivostok, Russia and filed this report voiced by Kate Woodsome. Pseudonyms were used to protect the workers interviewed for this story.

◆ Skilled Laborers

In Russia's largest port city on the Pacific Ocean, Vladivostok, several small-framed Asian men are bustling around a half-built apartment building, trying to move large metal beams. They are North Koreans sent out by their government to earn much-needed foreign currency for the country.

Kim Dong-gil came from North Korea's second largest city of Hamhung. He brags that North Korean workers have the best skills in the Russian construction market, which is also filled with laborers from Central Asia and Vietnam. The estimated 5,000 North Koreans in Vladivostok come from various backgrounds and even include doctors.

"I didn't have any construction skills since I used to be with the military," said Kim Soon-nam, who served in the army back home. "I learned from scratch when I arrived here. I got trained by a really young person who used to curse and swear at me all the time."

Appreciation for Capitalism

Despite the stress of living and working in a foreign country, the North Koreans have come to appreciate the culture of capitalism. "Back home I couldn't make money even if I wanted to. But here if I work hard, I can make a dozen times more," explained Han Jong-rok.

Choi Jong-kun, an assistant professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul, says money is just one reason to leave home. The other is improving one's status among North Korea's political elite. "If they bring in more money, then they would sort of have sort of upward mobility in their social class," explained Choi Jong-kun.

◆ Potential Political Opening

Communist North Korea has one of the most isolated and centrally controlled economies in the world. After the country suffered a deadly famine in the mid-1990s, the government allowed private farmers markets for a few years. But it tightened the policy in 2005.

Pyongyang is known to pour money into weapons programs instead of public services. And it has kicked out many international development agencies, allowing just limited food aid primarily from China and South Korea. That has saved the population from starvation, but North Koreans still struggle with malnutrition and poor health conditions.

Pyongyang earns foreign currency from South Korean companies employing North Korean workers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. But opening up to cross-border commerce means opening up politically, too. Professor Choi suggests it is easier to send workers overseas than to deal with the impact of liberalizing the economy. "They have to think of not only economic prosperity but also they have to think of so-called regional security," said Choi. "What kinds of implications would it have to their regional security."

◆ Key Source of Foreign Currency

North Korea does not reveal significant economic data, but exporting workers is considered a key source of hard foreign currency.

A report by the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy in Seoul estimated in 2007 that Pyongyang earns at least US$40 million to $60 million a year from labor exports. Outside of Russia, the institute has tracked North Korean workers in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bangladesh, China and Mongolia.

In Vladivostok, every North Korean worker is required to pay the Pyongyang government around $800 each month.

Kim Soon-nam says he works extra hours to make sure he has money for himself. "If we want to save some money, we have to work Sundays and holidays, too," he said. "We must earn a lot of money no matter what. North Koreans have to work from 8 am to 10 pm."

◆ Sacrifices Help Family Members

The North Koreans in Vladivostok usually get a five-year visa, but many get extensions to earn more money. They sleep in dormitories and live to work, spending much of their time outside the construction sites doing extra jobs in local Russian homes.

Kim Chul-woong, a welder, says he is willing to sacrifice time from his family back in Pyongyang to give his son opportunities few North Koreans enjoy, like a computer. "The video footage on the computer can enhance children's intellectual development, but I don't have the kind of money," he said. "When I go back home after working in Russia I'll have a good amount of money. I can buy expensive stuff for my son. If he wants to do music I can buy him a violin or a guitar."

He says he is taking advantage of the work while he can get it. Kim Chul-woong says the construction jobs are dwindling in Russia because of the economic crisis. There is also greater competition from newly arriving Central Asians who are as hungry for dollars as he is.


Yeah sure, the Chinese are going to dump the dollar, and the Russians too.

Taliban roadway attacks spread fear in Afghanistan

KABUL (AP) - Taliban militants are sowing fear along Afghanistan's highways with stepped-up checkpoints, hijackings and bombs - including one Tuesday that killed at least 30 bus passengers in the south. Afghan authorities say the attacks, often carried out by only a handful of militants, are part of a psychological campaign to convince civilians that Taliban control is spreading.

"It is quite possible for a group of three to five insurgents to come out on the highway and attack a convoy," said the Interior Ministry spokesman, Zemarai Bashary. "Maybe thousands of people will travel that day and they are watching that convoy burning."

Militants are planting more roadside bombs than ever, killing far more Afghan civilians than Afghan or coalition soldiers. The bombings - and ambushes with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades - are increasingly taking place on main roads against trucks and buses.

Some attacks are in areas where Taliban have long held sway, such as Kandahar, the group's spiritual birthplace, but others are in regions where militant activity has risen only recently, such as in the north.

Earlier this week, militants at a checkpoint in eastern Afghanistan ambushed a convoy loaded with construction materials, killed six drivers, kidnapped one and left their trucks burning by the roadside. The same day, a crowded van hit a roadside bomb in northern Faryab province, killing six people.

The bomb on Tuesday struck the crowded bus as it was traveling from the western province of Nimroz to Kandahar city, a trip that winds through some of the country's most dangerous districts in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

The attack, on the outskirts of Kandahar city, killed 30 people and wounded 39 others, said Sardar Mohammad Zazai, Kandahar's provincial police chief. Officials said the bus driver came upon a NATO team clearing mines and pulled off onto a parallel unpaved road where the bomb was hidden.

"An explosion hit the bus. I don't know what happened. When I came to, I got out of the bus and saw that the bus was totally wrecked," Lal Jan, a survivor, said at Kandahar's hospital.

An elderly woman named Zulaikha Bibi wept over the death of her daughter-in-law. Two of her nephews were wounded.

U.S. and NATO troops have long come under criticism for civilian deaths as a result of airstrikes. But U.S. military officials say they believe the Taliban will also face a popular backlash for the civilian deaths caused by roadside bombs.

A U.N. report issued Saturday said August was the deadliest month of the year for civilians because of violence from the insurgency. A total of 1,500 civilians died in Afghanistan from January through August, up from 1,145 for the same period of 2008. About 68 percent of the deaths were due to the insurgents, the report said.

"The enemies of Afghanistan are planting mines on the main highway and killing innocent women and children," Zazai said.

Bashary said the Taliban are trying to carry out attacks "that have a psychological impact, rather than an economic and security impact."

"I see a change of militant strategy," said Gen. Khaliullah Zaiyi, police chief of Kunar, the province where the convoy ambush took place on Sunday. "They know it is very easy for them to come out on the road and attack civilian convoys by burning their trucks, killing innocent people."

He said the attacks give the militants a presence and make the government appear impotent, even in areas that have been relatively secure.

"Everyone will say this road is dangerous because the Taliban came last week," he said. "They don't have the ability to fight our forces directly. But by conducting guerrilla attacks directly against civilians, not security forces, they can kill people, burn down trucks, and they can block the road."

Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who advised U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Kabul this summer, said Taliban attacks against civilians have been rising sharply since 2003 and have spread in recent months to parts of the north and west.

"It's been a very very sharp geometric increase," Cordesman said. "The Taliban has learned as have other movements how to exploit violence but they've also learned how to exploit presence."

In Baghlan and Kunduz provinces, north of Kabul, militants have periodically grabbed control of stretches of highway outside the provincial capital.

"They will not attack NATO convoys, only poor innocent Afghans," said Amhad Jawid, a 43-year-old car dealer. His companions at the car lot said Taliban checkpoints went up in the late afternoon - only in places where they could be assured of no police.

Sometimes the fear even reaches security forces themselves.

After a recent interview, the deputy police commander of Baghlan asked an American Associated Press reporter and an Afghan colleague where they planned to travel next.

Upon hearing it was the next town up the road - outside the capital Pol-i-Kumri - he smiled. If they went there, he said, they would need an escort of multiple police trucks, equipped with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. Then he stopped smiling.

"Please don't go," he said.

The pair turned back to Kabul.


Russia seeks guarantees on new US missile plans

MOSCOW (AP) - Russia's envoy to NATO on Tuesday called for guarantees from Washington that a revised U.S. missile defense plan won't threaten Moscow.

Dmitry Rogozin said the prospective U.S. system - involving missiles on navy ships - could potentially cause Russia concern.

He said Moscow wants assurances that the system would only be aimed to counter short- and medium-range missiles, and would not be moved near Russian borders or compromise Russia's own strike capability.

"If this system goes mobile, then where are the guarantees that this mobile thing, be it a boat, a cruiser, or a battleship ... will not sail into our northern seas?" Rogozin said at a news conference.

President Barack Obama this month dumped a plan for 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a related radar in the Czech Republic, which Moscow fervently opposed. Obama said a missile shield involving a network of sensors and missiles at sea or on land would be deployed instead.

The missile defense issue has been a thorn in Washington-Moscow relations, and the Kremlin has cautiously welcomed Obama's move.


Of course not...don't be silly, we would never do that.

BMD fleet plans Europe defense mission

The Navy’s new mission of protecting Europe from ballistic-missile attacks has widespread implications for the surface fleet, potentially affecting everything from deployment schedules to crewing arrangements to command-and-control procedures for cruisers and destroyers.

Ballistic-missile defense warships have become the keystone in a new national strategy to shield European allies from potential attacks by Iran. Rather than field sensors and missiles on the ground in Poland and the Czech Republic, the U.S. will first maintain a presence of at least two or three Aegis BMD ships in the waters around Europe, starting in 2011.

That announcement — which defined a new mission for the surface force: continent defense — immediately raised many questions that Navy planners must answer over the next two years:

Which ships will take the patrol mission? What will the deployments look like — will ships participate in exercises, make port visits or be confined to a narrow patrol box? How long will ships be assigned picket duty? Will BMD patrol ships sail with the crews they would have taken on normal deployments, or will they have fewer sailors to account for the narrower mission?

Navy officials had few answers in the week after Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the new BMD mission. Spokesmen at the Pentagon and for 3rd Fleet, which is responsible for Navy Air and Missile Defense Command, said officials were working out the details.

Some hints could come from the deployment this summer of the BMD destroyer Stout, which spent six months in the Mediterranean and Black seas, training with Turkish, Romanian, Georgian and other sailors. When the mission was finished, Stout returned to Norfolk, Va., in early September.

But that traditional model might not be best for the new BMD patrols, said retired Rear Adm. Ben Wachendorf. He said top commanders might consider reviving crew-swaps — flying replacement sailors to a forward port to relieve a ship’s company when its time at sea is over, keeping the ship at sea for extended periods of time.

Wachendorf, who worked on the Navy’s original crew-swap experiments in the early 2000s, said it would be expensive, but crew swaps would enable commanders to keep BMD ships in place in European ports and save long transits home. Most of the Navy’s BMD fleet is based in the Pacific, meaning ships would need a month at sea just to get to Europe and then another month for the trip home.

One reason the fleet might reconsider crew swaps is that BMD-patrol ships could sail with fewer people. If a cruiser or destroyer is loaded only with Standard Missile-3 interceptors and will be tasked only with picket duty, it may not need some elements of a normal crew, making it easier to fly fewer people to a forward port.

Then again, that concept could backfire.

“You might be able to cut back on some things. Do you need a towed array? Are you ever going to stream it out? Do you need a [helicopter] detachment?” Wachendorf asked. “I could say no, but Big Navy worries, ‘If we have a helo-capable ship that never operates helos, they’re not going to be ready to do that.’ Same thing with [anti-submarine warfare].”

Who pushes the button?
There were broader questions beyond crewing and deployments: For the first time, the commanding officer of a surface warship will have strategic responsibilities — the ship could be the only thing standing between a nuclear attacker and its victim. What discretion will commanders have in responding to attacks?

“You’ve put these commanders on a par with [ballistic-missile submarine] commanders,” said Steven Cimbala, an expert on ballistic-missile issues.

“But unlike an SSBN commander, who is unlikely to be under immediate tactical threat, an Aegis cruiser or a [destroyer] could very easily be attacked by surface or subsurface craft, or aircraft, as part of a first strike,” Cimbala said.

According to new intelligence described by Gates, the stakes for an engagement are very high: Rather than one or two rogue launches, Gates described the threat from Iran as involving volleys of many missiles fired simultaneously.

That also means a BMD captain could be responsible for a big, complex, dangerous battle in the space over Europe, needing to fire dozens of missiles to try to destroy dozens of attackers.

BMD Basics
Today, 18 ships are equipped with Aegis BMD, and most of them are based in the Pacific. The Navy’s missile defense ships and their home ports:

• Norfolk, Va.: Destroyers Ramage and Stout.

• San Diego: Destroyers Decatur, Benfold, Milius, Higgins and John Paul Jones.

• Pearl Harbor, Hawaii: Cruisers Lake Erie and Port Royal; destroyers Russell, O'Kane, Paul Hamilton and Hopper.

• Yokosuka, Japan: Cruiser Shiloh; destroyers Stethem, Curtis Wilbur, John S. McCain and Fitzgerald.

The Navy hopes to have 28 ships by 2013. Three of the first nine ships have been determined: the cruisers Vella Gulf and Monterey, and the destroyer The Sullivans. The eventual goal is to field a fleet of 32 ships by 2015.

Navy Times

Fuck the Russians.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Camille Paglia: US Out Of Afghanistan

Well, I can't disagree with Camille's evaluation of situation:

Which brings us to Afghanistan: Let's get the hell out! While I vociferously opposed the incursion into Iraq, I was always strongly in favor of bombing the mountains of Afghanistan to smithereens in our search for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida training camps. But committing our land forces to a long, open-ended mission to reshape the political future of that country has been a fool's errand from the start. Every invader has been frustrated and eventually defeated by that maze-like mountain terrain, from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union. In a larger sense, outsiders will never be able to fix the fate of the roiling peoples of the Near East and Greater Middle East, who have been disputing territorial borderlines and slaughtering each other for 5,000 years. There is too much lingering ethnic and sectarian acrimony for a tranquil solution to be possible for generations to come. The presence of Western military forces merely inflames and prolongs the process and creates new militias of patriotic young radicals who hate us and want to take the war into our own cities. The technological West is too infatuated with easy fixes. But tribally based peoples think in terms of centuries and millennia. They know how to wait us out. Our presence in Afghanistan is not worth the price of any more American lives or treasure.

As Paglia, the author of Sexual Personae (one of the most interesting books I've read in my life) and Vamps and Tramps would say, History does not look kindly on the US efforts to drag Afghanistan kicking and screaming into the 21st century or even the 9th century.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Reality Bites

"There's a war in Afghanistan that hasn't reached the media by its design: the information counterinsurgency. Mike Yon has been disembedded from the much sought after unit 2 Rifles following his criticism of the purseholders of the Ministry of Defense (namely the shameful lack of helicopters in theater). The media ops of the British military made it their mission to complicate Mike's critical job of reporting on the soldiers in Helmand Province, the flashpoint of Taliban resistance. He has a clear and indelible respect for the British fighting men, so to see him tossed out on his ear by some desk riding pogue is most alarming. One particular line about a media ops major caught my attention:"
Army of Dude

Look ma, I be learning!

"We told the man we wanted money for college, to serve our country, or to travel and see the world; he said for us to sign on the dotted line. We gave what we owed, and they took more than we bargained for.

Now it's time for THEM to GIVE back to US.

This is the account of one veteran, or many, finally taking back. This is where we discuss the issues we face in returning from war, and transitioning into the classroom. We've DX'd our rucksacks for backpacks, our boots for flip flops, and have sworn off haircuts, shaving, and whatever else we're tired of. We gave what we did, to be where we are now, and these are our stories."
Rucksack to Backpack

US threatens airstrikes in Pakistan

The United States is threatening to launch airstrikes on Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership in the Pakistani city of Quetta as frustration mounts about the ease with which they find sanctuary across the border from Afghanistan.

The threat comes amid growing divisions in Washington about whether to deal with the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan by sending more troops or by reducing them and targeting the terrorists.

This weekend the US military was expected to send a request to Robert Gates, the defence secretary, for more troops, as urged by General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander there.

In a leaked strategic assessment of the war, McChrystal warned that he needed extra reinforcements within a year to avert the risk of failure. Although no figure was given, he is believed to be seeking up to 40,000 troops to add to the 68,000 who will be in Afghanistan by the end of this year.

However, with President Barack Obama under pressure from fellow Democrats not to intensify the war, the administration has let it be known that it is rethinking strategy. Vice-President Joe Biden has suggested reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan and focusing on the Taliban and AlQaeda in Pakistan.

Last week McChrystal denied any rift with the administration, saying “a policy debate is warranted”.

According to The New York Times, he flew from Kabul to Ramstein airbase in Germany on Friday for a secret meeting with Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to discuss the request for more troops.

So sensitive is the subject that when Obama addressed the United Nations summit in New York, he barely mentioned Afghanistan. The unspoken problem is that if the priority is to destroy Al-Qaeda and reduce the global terrorist threat, western troops might be fighting on the wrong side of the border.

The Biden camp argues that attacks by unmanned drones on Pakistan’s tribal areas, where Al-Qaeda’s leaders are hiding, have been successful. Sending more troops to Afghanistan has only inflamed tensions. “Pakistan is the nuclear elephant in the room,” said a western diplomat.

It is a view echoed by Richard Barrett, head of the UN Commission on Monitoring Taliban and Al-Qaeda, who believes the presence of foreign troops has increased militant activity and made it easier for the Taliban to recruit.

“If Obama sends more troops it had better be clear what they are to do,” he said.

“A few thousand more boots on the ground may not make much difference except push the fight into areas which are currently quiet because no one is there to challenge the Taliban. I cannot see any number of troops eliminating the Taliban. Obama has a really difficult decision to make.”

The debate has been intensified by the debacle of the Afghan election, which has left many European leaders struggling to justify sending soldiers to support a government that has been fraudulently elected.

According to preliminary results, President Hamid Karzai won 54.6% of the vote, compared with 27.8% for Abdullah Abdullah, his main challenger. But there have been complaints that fraudulent ballots may account for up to 20% of the 5.5m votes cast.

The Electoral Complaints Commission, overseen by a UN watchdog, has begun to recount about 10% of the disputed votes. Final results are not expected for two weeks. If Karzai is left without the 50% needed for outright victory, there must be a second round unless he agrees to form a unity government.

In the meantime, the country is in limbo and the Taliban is taking advantage, opening up new fronts in the north and west.

Al-Qaeda is also trying to capitalise on the uncertainty. Osama Bin Laden issued a call to European nations to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, and threatened reprisals with an allusion to the bombings in Madrid and London. The recording, released on Friday, seemed to be directed at Germany in the run-up to parliamentary elections today.

The Afghan election has strengthened the position of those in Washington who advocate eliminating Taliban leaders in Pakistan.

Senior Pakistani officials in New York revealed that the US had asked to extend the drone attacks into Quetta and the province of Baluchistan.

“It wasn’t so much a threat as an understanding that if you don’t do anything, we’ll take matters into our own hands,” said one.

The problem is that while the government of President Asif Zardari is committed to wiping out terrorism, Pakistan’s powerful military does not entirely share this view.

Earlier this year there was optimism that Pakistan had turned a corner after it confronted a Taliban group that had taken over the Swat valley and moved to within 70 miles of Islamabad.

There has been tacit co-operation over the use of drones. Some are even stationed inside Pakistan, although publicly the government denounces their use.

Suspicions remain among US officials that parts of Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, the ISI, are supporting the Taliban and protecting Mullah Omar and other leaders in Quetta.

It was to shore up Zardari’s domestic standing that Obama attended a Friends of Pakistan summit in New York on Thursday. On the same day, the US Senate tripled non-military aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year.

The Obama administration hopes such moves will reduce anti-American feeling in Pakistan. A survey last month by the Pew Research Centre found that almost two-thirds regarded the US as an enemy.

Drone attacks on Quetta would intensify this sentiment, causing some British officials to argue that such missions would be “unthinkable”.

The Pakistani government is reluctant to take its own action, however. “We need real-time intelligence,” said Rehman Malik, the interior minister. “The Americans have never told us any location.”

Western intelligence officers say Pakistan has been moving Taliban leaders to the volatile city of Karachi, where it would be impossible to strike. US officials have even discussed sending commandos to Quetta to capture or kill the Taliban chiefs before they are moved.


Bill Clinton speaks of vast, right-wing conspiracy

WASHINGTON — Bill Clinton says a vast, right-wing conspiracy that once targeted him is now focusing on President Barack Obama.

The ex-president made the comment in a television interview when he was asked about one of the signature moments of the Monica Lewinsky affair over a decade ago. Back then, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton used the term "vast, right-wing conspiracy" to describe how her husband's political enemies were out to destroy his presidency.

Bill Clinton was asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" whether the conspiracy is still there. He replied: "You bet. Sure it is. It's not as strong as it was because America has changed demographically. But it's as virulent as it was."

Clinton said that this time around, the focus is on Obama and "their agenda seems to be wanting him to fail."


I told you.

Conservatives blast Burl. Twp. school video

A video of Burlington Township elementary school students singing about President Obama during Black History Month has mushroomed into a national debate over the role of politics in the classroom.

In the video, children at B. Bernice Young Elementary School recite barely audible lyrics that repeat the name "Barack Hussein Obama" and describe the president's views on equality.

The children then sing verses such as "Hello, Mr. President / we honor you today / for all your great accomplishments we all [say] hooray. Hooray Mr. President, you are No. 1 / the first black American to lead the nation."

School district officials said the YouTube video was made in February, a month after the presidential inauguration. It became an Internet phenomenon this week after its discovery by conservative opinion leaders including Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity of Fox News and columnist and blogger Michelle Malkin.

The state education commissioner has directed Burlington Township School District Superintendent Chris Manno to conduct a thorough review of the incident to ensure that students can celebrate the achievements of African Americans during Black History Month "without inappropriate partisan politics in the classroom," said Beth Auerswald, state education spokeswoman. The review also would determine whether the privacy of the children had been violated, she said.

Auerswald noted that the teacher heard leading the class retired at the end of the last school year. Sources said the state Department of Education had received 80 e-mails about the video, 65 of them from out of state.

"Our curriculum studies, honors, and recognizes those who serve our country," Manno said in a statement. "The recording and distribution of the class activity were unauthorized."

Manno could not be reached yesterday. A day earlier, he told the Burlington County Times that there had been no intention to "indoctrinate" the children, as conservative critics have suggested. "The teacher's intention was to engage the children in an activity to recognize famous and accomplished African Americans," Manno said.

Yesterday, a Fox News truck was parked across from the school as children were dismissed for the day. A school employee responded to a reporter's request to talk to Principal Denise King by calling local police. Leslie Gibson, 38, who has two children at the school, said yesterday she didn't think it was appropriate for educators to tell children the president is "No. 1." That distinction, she said, should be reserved for a role model such as the child's father or mother.

"I want my kids' horizons to be broadened, but not religiously or politically," said Gibson, who described herself as a political independent. She identified the class as a group of second-graders last year who were taught by now-retired teacher Elvira James. Efforts by The Inquirer to reach James were unsuccessful.

And to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, makes you wonder, Who are the radicals?

Honduras issues deadline to Brazil over ousted president

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (CNN) -- Honduras is accusing Brazil's government of instigating an insurrection within its borders, and gave the Brazilian Embassy 10 days to decide the status of ousted Honduran President Jose Manuel Zelaya, who has taken refuge there.

"Since the clandestine arrival to Honduras by ex-president Zelaya, the Brazil embassy has been used to instigate violence and insurrection against the Honduran people and the constitutional government," the secretary of foreign affairs for Honduras' de facto government said in a statement late Saturday night.
The statement said Honduras would be forced to take measures against Brazil if Brazil did not define its position on Zelaya. It did not specify what those measures would be.

"No country is able to tolerate that a foreign embassy is used as a command base to generate violence and break tranquility like Mr. Zelaya has been doing in our country since his arrival," the statement said.

Zelaya was removed from power in a military-backed coup in June.

Claiming he is still the president, Zelaya returned to Honduras on Monday and has been staying at the Brazilian embassy since then.

On Friday, Zelaya said he and supporters were victims of a "neurotoxic" gas attack that caused many people to have nose bleeds and breathing difficulties.

Roberto Micheletti, who was named president after the coup that removed Zelaya, said his government did not launch a gas attack on the embassy


Court orders Guantanamo detainee release, rebukes US government

* District judge says government relied on scant evidence, uncredible witnesses and coerced confessions to hold Kuwaiti man for more than seven years

WASHINGTON: A federal judge has ordered the release of a Kuwaiti man held at Guantanamo Bay and rebuked the US government for relying on scant evidence, uncredible witnesses and coerced confessions to hold him for more than seven years.

In an opinion declassified on Friday, US District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said government attorneys presented a “surprisingly bare” record during four days of classified hearings last month to oppose Fouad Al Rabiah’s request for release from the US naval detention facility in Cuba. She said the aviation engineer is being held almost exclusively on confessions obtained through abusive techniques, and his own interrogators repeatedly concluded they were not believable.

“Incredibly, these are the confessions that the government has asked the court to accept as truthful in this case,” Kollar-Kotelly wrote in a 65-page opinion that was partially redacted to remove classified material. She called the coerced confessions “entirely incredible” and said they “defy belief”.

“If there exists a basis for Al Rabiah’s indefinite detention, it most certainly has not been presented to this court,” she found.

Al Rabiah is the 30th Guantanamo detainee to be ordered released by federal judges after they reviewed evidence justifying detention. Seven detainees have been denied bids for freedom after judges determined the evidence suggested they supported terrorism. Some detainees who have won their freedom from judges remain at Guantanamo because no other country is willing to accept them. Al Rabiah’s attorney David Cynamon said Kuwait has said it would allow him to return home, and he will be pushing aggressively for quick release.

“This case exemplifies everything that is wrong with Guantanamo,” Cynamon said. “He’s a completely innocent man and they torture him into confessing, right out of the North Korean and communist Chinese play book. It turns your stomach.” The Justice Department would not comment on the judge’s opinion. ap

Daily Times

US forces move into central Afghan city

NILI, Afghanistan – The soldiers hesitated as the mullah preached, unsure if they would be welcome at the celebration of one of Islam's highest holidays.

But when the sermon ended, the Afghans draped bright scarves over the soldiers' tanned necks. Then they pushed Chief Warrant Officer Chaka, a Puerto Rican with a thick black beard and a deep tan who could easily pass for Afghan, up front to speak. Chaka thanked the elders and showed them his hands stained orange for the Eid celebration.

"This is our home away from home," said Chaka. "We wanted to come over and be with our neighbors."

The event showed how these dozen Special Force soldiers have joined in the daily life of the town's 95,000 residents since they moved in a month ago. The team is among only a few U.S. troops to live in the midst of Afghans, but there will likely be more. The hope is to push Special Forces teams into villages throughout Afghanistan, giving them the mission of rebuilding and training Afghan police and soldiers.

For its part, the village of Nili, the provincial capital of Day Kundi in central Afghanistan, had built a living compound in hopes of attracting Western aid workers roaming Afghanistan in search of projects. It stood empty for two years, until Day Kundi's governor lobbied international forces for help. The request dovetailed with a plan by the top commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to forge closer ties between the U.S. military and Afghans.

"We are enthusiastic about this initiative and believe that it will go a long way to increasing security and enabling villagers to defend themselves," said Col. James E. Kraft, commander of the 7th Special Forces Group. "Everyday we are here, we are making our Afghan partners better. In the final analysis, the onus of security in Afghanistan will rest with its security forces. We want to work ourselves out of a job."

Day Kundi is one of Afghanistan's most peaceful regions, dominated by ethnic Hazaras with long-standing grievances against the mostly Pashtun Taliban. Nili sits in a sharp valley surrounded by towering peaks. Between the biscuit colored compounds and houses that make up the town are acres of almond trees, which the locals harvest. There is little industry and the province exports next to nothing.

Established in 2004 from several isolated northern districts in Uruzgan province, Day Kundi is dominated by ethnic Hazaras, who complain of persecution from their Pashtun neighbors. A Taliban saying about non-Pashtuns goes: "Tajiks to Tajikistan, Uzbeks to Uzbekistan, and Hazaras to goristan (graveyard)."

Day Kundi is a perfect testing ground in many ways, because it is so peaceful and progressive — it is home to one of Afghanistan's few female mayors — and so poor. Overlooked by development projects and the military alike, its streets are dirt, its schools are in shambles and it faces a shortage of water for crops. With winter fast approaching, any building projects will be difficult to complete until spring when the passes are clear.

The Special Forces soldiers spend their days in and around Nili meeting with local leaders, visiting schools and helping the doctors at the province's two hospitals. Everywhere they go, they bring soccer balls and backpacks for the children and radios and food for the adults. They never give out aid directly, relying instead on the elders or Afghan police.

"These guys have to learn how to do this," said Capt. Mark, a former enlisted Green Beret and helicopter pilot whose deep blue eyes draw immediate notice among Afghans. "That way when we are gone, the ideals are already in place." The Special Forces soldiers, who all have thick beards to blend in with Afghan culture, are only identified by their first names under rules for journalists embedded with them.

Last week, they surveyed a school south of Nili that was nothing more than a collection of torn white tents tacked into the mountainside. Dusty, threadbare rugs covered the dirt floors and there were no desks or school supplies for the 400 students.

"It has been nine years that these students have worked out of these tents," said Khanali, the school's 28-year-old principal.

Mark urged Khanali to get him plans for the new school so that he could send up a proposal for funding.

After a month, the Afghans are anxious for some of the building projects to start. Chief Mortaza, the provincial police chief who like many Afghans goes by only one name, said all people want is for the team to start fixing the schools and the mosque.

"If you put one stone on a building, we'll have a party," Mortaza told the soldiers. "Put one stone and the people will be trusting."

But the team is still in the assessment phase and is trying to figure out the needs of the province so they can target the best projects.

The soldiers joke that their Nili compound looks like a trailer park, surrounded by a head-high stone berm and razor wire. It lacks the guard towers and thick walls of the usual imposing Special Forces base. Supplied by helicopters and the occasional air drop from a cargo plane, the base is one of the most remote in Afghanistan.

Since its creation, Special Forces have trained foreign armies and toppled the Taliban by mentoring Northern Alliance fighters. But in the almost nine years since, Coalition units have focused much of their resources on raids. Mark, the team commander, said thousands of soldiers are attacking the "branches" of the insurgency in Afghanistan, but only living among Afghans will get to the root of the problem.

"We lost our way, but have found it again," he said.

Bolstering the strength and numbers of local security forces is also a historic Special Forces mission — and a central tenet of McChrystal's strategy. In Day Kundi, that means the Afghan National Police.

On Friday, a green Afghan police truck led the way over the mountains toward a makeshift range outside of Nili. It was a day off for the Afghan officers, but they were going to learn marksmanship.

"They don't just have to deal with shoplifters and car thieves, but the Taliban," said Staff Sgt. James, the team's 23-year-old weapons sergeant.

He set out targets — black silhouettes a few feet apart on plywood stands — and briefed the Afghans, then walked the line of nine officers to adjust their stances and get them to relax.

"Bend your knees," he said, his words translated by an interpreter. "Bring the gun to you, don't bend to it."

One police officer on the end of the firing line wasn't getting it. He became James' favorite student.

"Watch me," he said, showing the officer the proper movements.

By noon, the Afghans were catching on and firing full magazines, more accurately.

"They left better than when they came," James said.

Despite Day Kundi's poverty and isolation, the provincial governor — Sultan Ali Uruzgani — who appealed successfully for the Special Forces team — said he hopes it can be an example for Afghanistan's future.

"Day Kundi is a role model for the other provinces," he said. "The (Special Forces Team) is working very hard and the future of this province is very bright."


Pakistan blasts show Taliban's ability to strike

ISLAMABAD (AP) - The suicide blasts that rocked northwest Pakistan over the weekend signal the Taliban remain a threat despite intensified military operations and unmanned drone attacks targeting the group's leaders, analysts said Sunday.

Twenty-two people were killed and more than 150 wounded Saturday in two attacks hours apart in North West Frontier Province. The Taliban claimed responsibility for one of the strikes.

Pakistan is battling al-Qaida and Taliban militants close to the Afghan border blamed for scores of attacks over the last two years. The insurgents are linked to those in Afghanistan, where violence against NATO and U.S. troops is running at record levels.

The leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a CIA missile strike in the northwest last month. While the militants have named a new leader, some have speculated the group may have lost some of its ability to stage attacks.

A retired former intelligence chief of the region, Asad Munir, said Saturday's attacks were a reminder of the threat from Islamist extremists.

"That area is the safe haven for the al-Qaida and Taliban leadership and they don't want to lose it," Munir told The Associated Press. "Yesterday's attacks were a show of strength and indicated the potential threat from militants in those areas."

Two explosives-packed vehicles driven by suicide attackers leveled a police station in the rural district of Bannu, killing 11, and tore through a commercial area in the main city of Peshawar, killing 11. More than 150 people were wounded, officials said.

The killing of Mehsud followed a largely successful army offensive in the Swat Valley region against the Taliban, which to some extent had reassured Western governments of Pakistan's ability and intent to fight the insurgency.

"In spite of the reverses they have suffered in Swat, and the death and arrest of some of their ringleaders, the Taliban have demonstrated tenacity and proved they are capable of sowing terror whenever and wherever they wish," the Dawn daily newspaper said in a Sunday editorial. "Their command structure is still intact and their sources of funding and arms remain virtually unscathed."

A senior Peshawar police officer said Saturday's bombings were in response to government pressure. "The security forces' offensive against militants is on, and in desperation they are now targeting innocent citizens," said Liaquat Ali Khan.

The Taliban called The Associated Press after the first bombing outside the police station to claim responsibility and warn of more attacks. Taliban spokesman Qari Hussain Mehsud said the militants had been holding back but the "pause" was now over. He urged civilians to stay away from police and security force installations.

Munir said with the recent killing of the Taliban chief, it is an opportune moment for the military to launch a major offensive in the northwest to eliminate the militants.

"This is the right time for a comprehensive and detailed operation in Waziristan and adjoining areas as they are still in disarray after the death of Baitullah Mehsud. I think the army is determined to do it in October," he said.

Targets in the North and South Waziristan tribal regions have been hit by Pakistani airstrikes, but the military has yet to launch a major ground offensive there. The government has said it will begin army operations in the region at the "appropriate" time.

Some 500 tribesmen gathered Sunday in the northwestern town of Dera Ismail Khan to discuss how to bring peace to the area. Tribal elders urged the government to ensure safe passage for those who flee if it launches an offensive in Waziristan, and financial assistance for people who already left because of airstrikes, local official Maulana Hassamuddin said.

Also Sunday, the military announced a 5 million rupee ($60,000) bounty had been placed on the head of Mangal Bagh, a top militant leader in the Khyber region near the Afghan border. Bounties of 2 million rupees ($24,000) were offered for four other commanders in the area.


Top Afghan official threatens to quit after attack

KABUL (AP) - A powerful member of President Hamid Karzai's Cabinet threatened to quit after a suicide car bomb attack targeted him Sunday, killing five people, in the latest Taliban attempt to destabilize Afghanistan's struggling government. Two Americans were among six NATO troop deaths elsewhere.

Shortly after the bombing in the western city of Herat, Energy Minister Ismail Khan railed against the dramatic rise in violence in Afghanistan, saying that thousands of new refugees are seeking shelter in Herat because of militant attacks in outlying districts. Five civilians died in the failed assassination attempt, police said.

Two days ago, Khan said, a young man was hanged by militants only a couple miles (kilometers) outside a NATO base and Afghan government center. Kidnappings of wealthy family members are on the rise, including the abduction of girls, he said.

Khan said government security agents had warned him that insurgents planned to target him. Two earlier assassination attempts had been foiled, he said.

"Very clearly I want to say that if the government does not form a clear strategy to bring peace and security, and the situation continues like this, I will not participate in the Cabinet anymore," Khan said.

Taliban assassination attempts against Afghan officials have intensified this year, with more than 100 officials and pro-government tribal elders attacked - half of them fatally. Echoing a strategy of insurgents in Iraq, the targeted violence undermines the weak government and drives educated and competent Afghans away from official posts.

The convoy carrying Khan, a powerbroker in Herat and former governor of that western province, was headed to the airport when a suicide car bomb exploded outside a high school, said Raouf Ahmadi, a police spokesman. Khan said five civilians died and 17 people were wounded, including four of Khan's bodyguards.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed responsibility and said the target was Khan.

The Taliban assassination campaign is a strong sign of deteriorating security in the country, where a record number of U.S. and NATO troops have also died this year. The Obama administration is now debating whether to send more American troops to Afghanistan as its government faces allegations of widespread fraud from the disputed Aug. 20 presidential election.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a stern warning to critics of a continued troop presence in Afghanistan Sunday, saying the Islamic extremist Taliban and al-Qaida would perceive an early pullout as a victory similar to the Soviet Union's humiliating withdrawal in 1989 after a 10-year war.

"Taliban and al-Qaida, as far as they're concerned, defeated one superpower. For them to be seen to defeat a second, I think, would have catastrophic consequences in terms of energizing the extremist movement, al-Qaida recruitment, operations, fundraising, and so on. I think it would be a huge setback for the United States," Gates said in an interview broadcast Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."

But many Americans are skeptical of sending more troops to support a government in the midst of recounting votes from a tainted presidential election. Karzai currently has about 54 percent of the vote. If enough questionable ballots get thrown out he could drop below the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff.

Karzai's main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, said Sunday he was satisfied so far with the recount, which is using a sampling of votes to speed the process and meet a narrowing timeframe to hold a possible runoff before winter snows block much of the country.

"We will follow up that process step by step till, God willing, a government acceptable to you comes to power," he told a crowd in Kabul.

Two U.S. service members died Saturday in the country's south - one from a roadside bomb explosion and the other from an insurgent attack, the NATO-led force said Sunday. A British soldier died Sunday from a bomb explosion while patrolling in southern Afghanistan, Britain's Defense Ministry said.

Elsewhere, three French soldiers died in a violent storm in northeastern Afghanistan late Saturday. One soldier was struck by lightning, while two were swept away by a rain-swollen river during an operation in Kapisa province, said military spokesman Christophe Prazuck.

This year has been the deadliest of the eight-year war for U.S. and NATO troops. The six latest deaths bring to 64 the number of NATO troops killed this month.

An airstrike Saturday by international forces in Wardak province, bordering Kabul, killed three Afghan civilians, said Shahidullah Shahid, spokesman for the provincial governor. Civilian deaths in airstrikes have infuriated Afghans, and the top NATO commander, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has made protecting innocent Afghans a top priority.


There must be something wrong with the air conditioning over at the WH.

Philippine storm leaves 106 dead and missing

MANILA, Philippines (AP) - Many Filipino villagers managed to save only the clothes on their backs but began to rebuild Sunday as the flood waters receded from a tropical storm that set off the worst flooding in the Philippine capital in 42 years and left about 80 dead.

Army troops, police and civilian volunteers plucked dead bodies from muddy flood waters and rescued drenched survivors from rooftops after Tropical Storm Ketsana tore through the northern Philippines a day earlier, leaving at least 106 people dead and missing.

Some residents began to clean up as the flood waters receded. Still, many parts of the capital remained flooded. A brief period of sunshine showed the extent of the devastation in many neighborhoods - destroyed houses, overturned vehicles, and roads covered in debris and mud.

Ketsana dumped more than a month's worth of rain in just 12 hours, causing the government to declare a "state of calamity" in metropolitan Manila and 25 storm-hit provinces. The declaration allowed officials to use emergency funds for relief and rescue.

The rains swamped entire towns and set off landslides that have left at least 83 people dead and 23 others missing, Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro said. Garbage-choked drains and waterways, along with high tide, compounded the flooding, officials said.

Governor Joselito Mendoza of Bulacan province, north of the capital, said it was tragic that "people drowned in their own houses" as the storm raged.

Meteorologists say the Philippines' location in the northwestern Pacific puts it right in the pathway of the world's No. 1 typhoon generator. Doomed by geography and hobbled by poverty, the Philippines has long tried to minimize the damage caused by the 20 or so typhoons that hit the sprawling archipelago every year. Despite a combination of preparation and mitigation measures, high death tolls and destruction persist.

"We're back to zero," said Ronald Manlangit, a resident of Marikina city, a suburb of the capital, Manila. Floodwaters engulfed the ground floor of his home and drowned his TV set and other prized belongings. Still, he expressed relief that he managed to move his children to the second floor.

"Suddenly, all of our belongings were floating," the 30-year-old said. "If the water rose farther, all of us in the neighborhood would have been killed."

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo toured the devastated areas and prodded villagers to move on. She said the storm and the flooding were "an extreme event" that "strained our response capabilities to the limit but ultimately did not break us."

TV footage shot from a military helicopter showed drenched survivors still marooned on top of half-submerged passenger buses and rooftops in suburban Manila Sunday. Some dangerously clung to high-voltage power lines while others plodded through waist-high waters.

In Marikina, a rescuer gingerly lifted the mud-covered body of a child from a boat. An Associated Press photographer saw rescuers carry away four other bodies, including that of a woman found in a church in a flooded neighborhood.

Authorities deployed rescue teams on boats to save survivors.

More than 330,000 people were affected by storm, including some 59,000 people who were brought to about 100 schools, churches and other evacuation shelters, officials said. Troops, police and volunteers have so far been able to rescue more than 5,100 people, Teodoro said.

The 16.7 inches (42.4 centimeters) of rain that swamped metropolitan Manila in just 12 hours on Saturday exceeded the 15.4-inch (39.2-centimeter) average for all of September, chief government weather forecaster Nathaniel Cruz said. He said the rainfall also broke the previous record of 13.2 inches (33.4 centimeters), which fell in a 24-hour period in June 1967.

Ketsana, which packed winds of 53 miles per hour (85 kilometers) with gusts of up to 63 miles per hour (100 kilometers per hour), hit land early Saturday then roared across the main northern Luzon island toward the South China Sea.

It's the 15th of about 20 typhoons and storms that forecasters expect will lash the country this year.


Friday, September 25, 2009

NASA data: Greenland, Antarctic ice melt worsening

WASHINGTON (AP) - New satellite information shows that ice sheets in Greenland and western Antarctica continue to shrink faster than scientists thought and in some places are already in runaway melt mode.

British scientists for the first time calculated changes in the height of the vulnerable but massive ice sheets and found them especially worse at their edges. That's where warmer water eats away from below. In some parts of Antarctica, ice sheets have been losing 30 feet a year in thickness since 2003, according to a paper published online Thursday in the journal Nature.

Some of those areas are about a mile thick, so they've still got plenty of ice to burn through. But the drop in thickness is speeding up. In parts of Antarctica, the yearly rate of thinning from 2003 to 2007 is 50 percent higher than it was from 1995 to 2003.

These new measurements, based on 50 million laser readings from a NASA satellite, confirm what some of the more pessimistic scientists thought: The melting along the crucial edges of the two major ice sheets is accelerating and is in a self-feeding loop. The more the ice melts, the more water surrounds and eats away at the remaining ice.

"To some extent it's a runaway effect. The question is how far will it run?" said the study's lead author, Hamish Pritchard of the British Antarctic Survey. "It's more widespread than we previously thought."

The study doesn't answer the crucial question of how much this worsening melt will add to projections of sea level rise from man-made global warming. Some scientists have previously estimated that steady melting of the two ice sheets will add about 3 feet, maybe more, to sea levels by the end of the century. But the ice sheets are so big it would probably take hundreds of years for them to completely disappear.

As scientists watch ice shelves retreat or just plain collapse, some thought the problem could slow or be temporary. The latest measurements eliminate "the most optimistic view," said Penn State University professor Richard Alley, who wasn't part of the study.

The research found that 81 of the 111 Greenland glaciers surveyed are thinning at an accelerating, self-feeding pace.

The key problem is not heat in the air, but the water near the ice sheets, Pritchard said. The water is not just warmer but its circulation is also adding to the melt.

"It is alarming," said Jason Box of Ohio State University, who also wasn't part of the study.

Worsening data, including this report, keep proving "that we're underestimating" how sensitive the ice sheets are to changes, he said.


US sends 2 missile defense satellites into orbit

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - Two satellites are heading to orbit as part of a missile defense program demonstration.

The pair was launched aboard a Delta 2 rocket on Friday morning as part of the Space Tracking and Surveillance System demonstration for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.

According to Bob Bishop, media relations manager for satellite developer Northrop Grumman, the satellites will demonstrate technology that can detect infrared and visible light from missiles launched from earth. The space surveillance system will provide global tracking for the ballistic missile defense system.

Data from the satellites' onboard sensors will be used by the military to intercept missile targets.

Northern Afghan violence undercuts US supply route

POL-I-KUMRI, Afghanistan (AP) - Growing Taliban influence in northern Afghanistan is threatening a new military supply line painstakingly negotiated by the U.S., as rising violence takes hold on the one-time Silk Road route.

The north has deteriorated over just a few months, showing how quickly Taliban influence is spreading in a once peaceful area. Local officials say the Taliban are establishing a shadow government along the dilapidated road that ultimately could prevent vital supplies carried in hundreds of trucks every week from reaching the military. It also raises the danger that the supplies could end up in militant hands as fodder for suicide attacks.

People in Baghlan and Kunduz provinces complain that international forces, the government in Kabul and aid have passed them by in favor of more troublesome regions. Militants are taking advantage of that resentment, and control by either Afghan or international forces is slipping.

"For the past two to three years, it's deteriorated day by day," said Ahmad Jawid, 43, a car dealer who sat in the shade with a half-dozen friends watching the highway in Baghlan's provincial capital, Pol-i-Kumri. "The people are demoralized."

A young man in the group had an easy smile but spoke bitterly on Wednesday when asked about the Taliban.

"I'm engaged and I can't go to the village of my fiancee," said 23-year-old Farshad, who like many Afghans goes by only one name. The village fell to the Taliban before the wedding could be planned. "I'm going to wait for the situation to get worse or get better. Otherwise I'll have to become a Talib."

Just to the north, Kunduz province is home to the first leg of the highway. The full northern route, which starts in Europe and snakes through Central Asia to Afghanistan, was cobbled together by the U.S. earlier this year after Taliban violence repeatedly disrupted the two main Pakistani routes.

Local officials and analysts say the militants want to show they can control the north and take over the supplies. Taliban militants hijacked two fuel trucks on the highway on Sept. 4, and German forces in Kunduz called in an airstrike by U.S. fighter pilots, saying they feared the trucks could be used in suicide bombings. Thirty civilians and 69 armed Taliban died in the strike, according to a probe by an Afghan presidential commission.

"The mere fact that the trucks were hijacked, the mere fact that we had this level of challenge to the government's control and sovereignty to me shows we need an effort here," U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said in a recent news conference.

Kunduz was among the last Taliban strongholds during the 2001 U.S. invasion that drove the Islamic government from power, and - until this year - had been relatively peaceful, despite a largely Pashtun population sympathetic to the militants. That began to change after the Taliban solidified control in the south as U.S. supply lines from Pakistan came under increasing attack.

The U.S. looked to Afghanistan's north for alternatives. So did militants.

The more than 200-mile (300 kilometer) highway from Kunduz down to the Kabul area is one of four overland lifelines for the supplies that enter Afghanistan every day. By Afghan standards the road is good, but the highway is punctuated every few miles by stretches that are nothing more than rough rock and passes under towering mountains through a crumbling tunnel that is often flooded and barely paved.

Navy Capt. Carl Weiss, of the U.S. Transportation Command, which handles the logistics of supplying American troops, said the northern route, which also includes a train line from Uzbekistan, supplies about 300 containers a week to coalition forces.

"We move the cargo in plain sight. Our containers look like every other container on the road," Weiss said. Because they are unmarked and the U.S. contracts with local transportation companies, he said, they don't draw particular attention.

Paul Quinn-Judge, Central Asian project director for International Crisis Group, suggested the U.S. reliance on the northern route may be a miscalculation.

"I think they are overly sanguine about the amount they can push through Central Asia and you really hope that they're doing some planning. This is one of those situations where things could conceivably go bad very fast," he said.

Meanwhile, Quinn-Judge said, the newly paved highway and bridge leading into Central Asia essentially means "the jihadists' own route has been reopened."

Abdul Razaq Yaqoubi, the Kunduz police chief, said the convoys have made a tenuous situation worse. The Americans, he complained, tell no one when the trucks are coming through or how many to expect and the police forces are understaffed.

In Baghlan, Zalmay Mangal, the province's deputy police chief, said violence worsened right around the same time that the supplies started moving through in large numbers. He does not blame the convoys, but he and the Kunduz police chief said the truck traffic is a tempting target.

"One of the main reasons (for the new insecurity) is the NATO and coalition supply convoys," said Yaqoubi. The other reasons, he added, are poverty and anger at the government.

Mangal said more coalition troops could help; McChrystal and the Germans prefer to emphasize building up local Afghan forces.

"The enemy is not afraid of us," Mangal said of his police force. "They are afraid of our international allies."


More veterans in UK justice system than in combat

LONDON (AP) - Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse are behind an alarming rise in the number of former British soldiers ending up in prison, a report says - and more veterans have had tangles with the law than there are British troops in Afghanistan.

The National Association of Probation Officers report, issued Friday, added that most veterans don't receive adequate counseling or support when they leave the armed forces.

The report comes at a difficult time for Britain, which has sent thousands of troops to Afghanistan and whose National Health Service - a service that provides free health care to everyone - is already overstretched.

Many fear that as the situation worsens in Afghanistan more troops will return with a need for counseling.

"The (National Health Service) says they're able to cope with the referrals they get," said Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary for Napo, which is a union. "But whether they can cope with a massive increase is another matter."

By surveying probation officers across England and Wales, the union found that about 20,000 veterans have become entangled in the criminal justice system - compared to around 9,000 troops in Afghanistan.

The union estimated there are about 12,000 on parole or probation in England and Wales and another 8,500 veterans in custody in all of Britain, making up about 8.5 percent of the prison population, Fletcher said, compared to an estimated five percent of the prison population in 2001.

The Ministry of Justice said work was under way to match data on prisoners with the Ministry of Defense's information on veterans to "identify both the scale and scope of the problem of veterans in custody."

The defense ministry said in a statement that the majority of people who leave the military successfully return to civilian life, and that a report last year found that 94 percent of veterans got jobs within 6 months of leaving.

"A small minority can face serious difficulties and we provide a wide range of support, before, during and after leaving the services," the ministry said. Programs have been set up for veterans in prison, including visits by psychiatrists, a spokesman said on condition of anonymity in line with department policy.

According to the data provided by probation officers, the majority of cases - most of which were for violent offenses like domestic abuse - had alcohol or drug misuse as a factor. Nearly half of offenders were suffering from diagnosed or undiagnosed PTSD or depression.

"I've been to prison, and I bumped into a lot of people in the short time I was in prison, ex-servicemen," said Mark Smith, who left the British Army in 1997. "And a lot of them were in there for violence-related issues."

A lance-corporal with the Coldstream Guards, Smith served in Northern Ireland, the first Gulf War and Bosnia. After he returned, he fell into trouble with the police, had flashbacks and nightmares, and tried to kill himself twice. He was eventually diagnosed with PTSD.

Smith said that once they leave the service, many veterans are essentially left to find their own way.

"I wish there was a lot more support so they could have their lives back after what they've been doing for their country."

Smith found help at Combat Stress, a mental health charity for veterans, and is now waiting for an appointment with an NHS doctor to be treated for PTSD. But with a long backlog of cases, he estimated that could take as long as eight months.

There are places in the health service where veterans can find help. Along with the Department of Health, the Ministry of Defense recently set up a pilot program of six clinics across the country aimed specifically at providing treatment to veterans with mental health problems. The program is under evaluation, with a final report due in 2011.

Graham Fawcett, a clinical psychologist in the program's London location, spends two days a week treating veterans, though he said he could stay busy full-time.

His 70 or so patients have problems ranging from PTSD to obsessive compulsive disorder and depression.

Fawcett - who is not a veteran but did spend time in hostile places as an aid worker - says the treatment for ex-soldiers and civilians is the same.

"We treat veterans no differently to any of our other clients, and the recovery rates are the same," Fawcett told a recent meeting of politicians, charitable organizations and mental health professionals gathered to discuss veterans' mental health care.

"This is in the community, with no other support. We find that once we entice veterans through the front door, it's business as usual. The difficulty is getting them through the front door."

The Department of Health said in a statement that mental health care for veterans is a priority, and that "the great majority of veterans with mental health problems are treated effectively within the NHS under mainstream mental health services."

They also said that by next year, an additional 173 million pounds ($276 million) will have been invested in psychological therapies.

Those that don't find help in the health service may, like Smith, find assistance with charities like Combat Stress, which assists veterans with mental health problems.

David Hill, the charity's chief executive, said that the health service is capable of looking after veterans with mental health issues, but that in some areas, people are looked after better than in others.

"I think the fact is in some areas the NHS can do it, in some areas they're doing it extremely well," he said. "But it's not consistent, it certainly doesn't cover the entire United Kingdom, and in some places I suspect the NHS simply wouldn't have the capacity to do that yet, and we are some time away from being in that position."

Combat Stress usually sees veterans about 14 years after they've left the service - due in part to the reluctance of many veterans to seek help - but Hill said that veterans of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming to them earlier.

"We're usually not the first stop," Hill said. "I think it's fair to say that by the time the veteran comes to us they've all but given up, really, hope of getting help."