Sunday, January 31, 2010

Russian police break up protests, scores detained

MOSCOW (AP) - Russian police broke up anti-Kremlin protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg on Sunday, and detained scores of demonstrators, including several opposition leaders.

Several hundred demonstrators gathered in a central Moscow square, defying a ban imposed by authorities. The protesters said their rally was banned in violation of the Russian constitution's guarantee of the right to gather.

They denounced the policies of President Dmitry Medvedev and his predecessor and mentor Vladimir Putin, who continues to wield broad powers as Russia's powerful prime minister.

Protesters shouted "Shame!" and "Down with Putin!" as police in riot gear pushed them into buses. Several dozen protesters were detained, including opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov, Eduard Limonov, Ilya Yashin, and the head of the Memorial rights group, Oleg Orlov.

Police spokesman Viktor Biryukov said about 300 people took part in the rally and about 100 were detained.

Police also quickly dispersed a similar rally in St. Petersburg, detaining most of several dozen protesters who gathered on a downtown Nevsky Prospect. Some of the demonstrators were beaten with truncheons.

Protests also were held Sunday in Yekaterinburg, Russia's third-largest city, in the Ural Mountains; in Krasnoyarsk in central Siberia; and in the far eastern port of Vladivostok. Police didn't move to break them up, according to Ekho Moskvy radio.

Similar opposition demonstrations were held in Moscow on the last days of July, August and October. The timing is a nod to the 31st Article of the Russian constitution, which guarantees the right of assembly.

Each time, the city authorities banned the rallies, saying that some other events would be held in the area on that day.

Sunday's protest in Moscow attracted more participants than previous rallies. Opposition leaders said they hope an even larger number will attend a protest on the last day of March.

Russian authorities have shown little tolerance of dissent, banning most opposition rallies and sending riot police to detain protesters.


Embattled US troops take cynical view of progress in Afghanistan

It was meant to be a routine patrol. But when a group of 28 American paratroopers and Afghan soldiers found themselves pinned down by the Taliban it almost ended in a bloodbath.

As many as 90 insurgents almost completely surrounded the platoon from the 82nd Airborne as they walked across open ground. With machine gun and sniper fire coming from almost all sides, the only place to hide was a ditch a foot deep.

Enemy rounds ripped into piled mud sending dust into their eyes. The insurgents trained their fire on anything that came into view – kit, radios and helmets.

"We need help now!" Kell Anderson, the platoon's leader, bellowed into his radio, going on to warn that they were fast running out of ammunition and about to take casualties.

Unable to clearly identify the insurgents' firing positions, the men could not call in mortars and had to wait for a pair of aircraft to arrive and perform swooping gun runs to provide cover for the men to dash to safety, rounds hitting the ground between their feet.

None of this happened in the southern badlands of Afghanistan where the Taliban are exacting a seemingly relentless death toll from mostly US and UK forces, but in Bala Murghab, in Badghis province in the far north-west.

A backwater in the war in Afghanistan, nine miles south of the border of Turkmenistan, it has been neglected for years by both Nato and the Afghan government. But it is places like Bala Murghab, in a supposedly more secure corner of the country, that expose the immense difficulties the country has ahead of it in building self-reliant ­security forces and persuading a new breed of increasingly competent Taliban fighters to lay down their arms.

"They are far more accurate in their firing here than in Helmand," said Jason Holland, squad leader of the patrol. "In Helmand we had more air coverage and indirect fire. We were never pinned down like we were yesterday."

Major Todd Grissom, battalion operations officer, described it as "the worst experience we have had here" since they arrived in October.

The fighting in Bala Murghab has been fierce ever since 4 November when the 82nd Airborne began painstakingly winning back an area where insurgent control began almost at the gates of the valley's small forward operating base.

As foreign ministers meet in London tomorrow, the effort to create a patch of government control nearly 2 miles wide and 4 miles long highlights the power of the counter-insurgency techniques the Americans have been vigorously implementing, but also the difficulties.

For one thing, a rapid "transition strategy" towards Afghan control seems out of the question in a valley where the support of the local population is still far from certain. The close working relationship the Americans have forged with the police and the army is exactly the sort of "embedded" training the US commander, Stanley McChrystal, has called for. But the local police chief is still crawling out from the shadow of the tribal mafia that did much to alienate the local people.

Last Sunday one of the 205 Afghan soldiers working in the area was taken away by helicopter (the roads in and out being under insurgent control). He had been arrested on suspicion of helping the Taliban fire mortars on to the main US base.

Even with extra troops it is hard to see the Afghan National Army (ANA) ever being able to survive the sort of attack the paratroopers came out of unscathed on Tuesday. One soldier, Lieutenant Justin Heddleson, estimated it might require as many as three companies of ANA, compared with the three US platoons who currently do the job.

"But there would be a far higher body count. The Taliban would come back within a year," he said.

Extra Afghan troops are meant to be on their way, but none of the 40,000 US soldiers earmarked as part of Barack Obama's 18-month "surge".

While non-US Nato allies have pledged many additional thousands for northern Afghanistan, they are often of limited use – particularly in Bala Murghab where a contingent of 235 Italians are hamstrung by national caveats imposed in Rome that prevent them from taking part in offensive operations.

While the US platoon were watching bullets whistle over their heads their Italian colleagues with whom they share a house were unable to help, and spent the time paving their section of the compound garden.

Standing up a clean and competent local government is an almost Sisyphean task in an area where a powerful network, part tribal, part criminal, has its hands in everything. Some local officials are believed by the Americans to be passing on "taxes" and information to the Taliban's shadow district governor, while others have close ties to insurgents. At least one government official has not been seen for months, such is his fear of being arrested by the Americans for what they say is his corruption.

In the town of Ludina, at the northernmost edge of the US security bubble, children may wear orange and blue anoraks with the logo of Nato's International Security Assistance Force, but there is little willingness among the town's men to help the Americans, despite gifts of cash and small reconstruction projects.

This week a man passing the checkpoint outside the nearby platoon house had his hands sprayed with a chemical. They turned bright pink – a clear indication he had been handling explosives. To the anger of the Americans, some of whom narrowly missed serious injury from a bomb they encountered while on patrol, the suspect was freed after a delegation of Ludina elders argued his case with the local government.

Reintegration will be high on the London agenda – the attempt to persuade insurgents to lay down their weapons. But but that might be hard for some to swallow, not least the US soldiers nearly cut down by a bomb this week.


Canadian general plans offensive against Taliban

A Canadian general in southern Afghanistan has vowed to "break the back" of Taliban insurgents as the hard-line Islamist movement rejected participation in proposed peace talks with the Afghan government.

Brigadier-General Daniel Ménard is poised to launch a new offensive ahead of this spring's fighting season that will push U.S. and Canadian troops under his command out from platoon houses around Kandahar city to "break the back" of the Taliban in the surrounding countryside.

In an interview Thursday with The Globe and Mail, Ménard warned the fight would be bloody, with higher casualties among the NATO forces in Kandahar province before the situation improves.

But he said that the offensive, coupled with parallel political efforts to wean low-level Taliban fighters away from the hard-core leadership, will create lasting security in Kandahar's most populated areas, so that when the Canadian combat mission ends in 2011, Afghans will be able to live "normal lives."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai told a conference on Afghanistan in London on Thursday that he would offer jobs and homes to Taliban fighters willing to renounce violence and would reach out to leaders of the Islamic militia.

Paul Rogers, a professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, U.K., told CTV News Channel that talk of negotiating with at least some Taliban members was a "positive" development.

"When the Saudis tried it about eight months ago, they got nowhere, but these appear to be a step forward," he said.

He said negotiating with the insurgents is the only "realistic" approach to ending the conflict. "The Taliban is rather brutal, but they have proved popular with the regular people because they are not corrupt and they create order," he said. "Many wars end in compromise."

But the Taliban later denied reports that their representatives met with a UN official to discuss prospects for peace in Afghanistan, calling them "futile and baseless" rumours. "The leadership council emphasizes continuation of Islamic jihad against all invaders as a mean to frustrate these conspiracies," the Taliban said in a statement emailed to news organizations.

The Canadian general in Kandahar said he is ready for them, sending the Canadian and U.S. soldiers out to extend their reach in Kandahar province. He warned the renewed fight would be bloody, with a higher death toll among NATO forces likely before the situation improves.

"Here – where there's almost nobody living – this is where I'm going to fight the insurgency," Ménard told the Globe. He traced his battle plan on a map marked "May 10" during a wide-ranging interview in his office on Kandahar Airfield this week.

Ménard's new strategy coincides with a surge of 30,000 U.S. troops that has already begun. Some of those soldiers are being deployed to neighbouring Helmand province to bolster British forces. But Ménard will also receive additional troops in the form of a U.S. battalion due to arrive in March.

"It's a huge change," he said of the shift in strategy and additional troops. "Where my predecessor had maybe 50 people in a district, I can have up to 1,200."

Rogers said he was skeptical as to whether there were enough coalition troops in Kandahar to achieve the general's goals. "Frankly if you're going to "break the back" you're going to need a third of a million troops to do so," Rogers said.

Ménard's new plan is the latest evolution of Canada's mission in Afghanistan, part of U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy, which now appears aimed at undermining the Taliban rather than defeating it altogether, setting the stage for a political compromise with certain elements of the movement's leadership.

The fight, Ménard said, is no longer about killing insurgents, it's about enlisting the support of local Afghans.


Fort Lewis soldier dies, fell ill in Afghanistan

FORT LEWIS, Wash. -- The Defense Department has identified a Fort Lewis Stryker Brigade soldier who died after becoming ill in Afghanistan.

Sgt. Carlos E. Gill, 25, of Fayetteville, N.C., died Tuesday at Walter Reed Army Medical Center of an unspecified illness.

Fort Lewis says he was evacuated Dec. 19 from Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan.

Gill was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division at Fort Lewis.

His brigade deployed to Afghanistan last July. This was his first deployment.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Restraint the new tactic for UK troops in Afghanistan

As a key summit on the future of Afghanistan starts in London, a shift in emphasis towards protecting civilians has seen British troops employ a new strategy dubbed "courageous restraint".

British troops from the 4th Battalion the Rifles come under fire in one of the most dangerous parts of Helmand province.

One of their snipers is poised to take a shot at the Afghan who appears to be pointing out their exact position to the insurgents, a possible "dicker".

But the sniper holds fire. The man might just be a civilian caught up in the middle.

So, instead, the British soldier aims a shot close by, not to kill or wound but to warn. The man and the insurgents disappear. The threat was enough.

That story is cited by British commanders in Helmand as just one recent example of "courageous restraint".

“ The natural thing for soldiers is to give heaps back if they come under fire - but it is crucial not to jeopardise a single civilian life ”
Lt Col David Wakefield
Gen Stanley McChrystal, the overall commander in Afghanistan, has ordered this to be one of the central tenets of the current counter-insurgency strategy: Putting protecting civilians at the heart of the military operation.

Commanders are all too aware that military force alone cannot defeat the Taliban but that getting it wrong on the battlefield - and killing or injuring Afghan civilians, or damaging their homes and crop - can help fuel the insurgency.

This new restraint means dropping fewer bombs, using fewer munitions and - when fighting - using more brain-power than fire-power.

The British unit in Helmand put together specifically for counter-insurgency - 11 Light Brigade - is trying to put that doctrine into practice on the ground, in some of the most heavily-populated areas of the province.

Use of high-explosive artillery shells by British troops is down more than 60%, while the use of smoke shells to mask movement is up nearly 70%.

Attacks explained

Nato forces around the country are now focused above all on winning over the Afghan people to the side of their government.

According to a recent UN report, the Taliban are now responsible for some 78% of civilian casualties.

"It takes training and discipline not to fire back if you are fired upon," says Lt Col David Wakefield, the Task Force Helmand spokesman.

"The natural thing for soldiers is to give heaps back if they come under fire, but now we look to manoeuvre instead if we can, because it is crucial not to jeopardise a single civilian life."

The current strategy may depend on protecting population centres, as well as building up the Afghan national army and police to take over security, but it still involves striking at Taliban safe havens.

Operations aimed against the Taliban are being heralded in advance to villagers, to explain why they are taking place.

Maj Gen Nick Carter, who commands the British troops in southern Afghanistan, says recent experience of Canadian troops and the Grenadier Guards has shown better progress was made when talks were held first with local people.

Maj Gen Carter is aware that the counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan needs to show "positive trends" quickly, as public support in the UK and many other Nato troop-contributing countries wavers.

He is clear that there are signs of progress. Poppy cultivation in Helmand is down by a third, although that could be down to a drop in opium prices.

“ Much of Helmand is ungoverned at the moment ”
Maj Gen Nick Carter
A subsidised wheat seed programme has reached 40,000 farmers in the province, giving them an alternative to poppy crops.

Some district centres are now under Afghan army and police control, with shops and bazaars re-opening, even in areas such as Sangin.

At the same time, according to British and US trainers, the recent pay rise for the Afghan Army and police means their salary compares favourably with Taliban pay rates and has helped recruitment.

These are all cited as clear glimmers of hope, even though nobody would deny that progress is still fragile.

Corruption remains one of the Afghans' biggest complaints, with a report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime revealing that half the Afghan population had paid a bribe to a public official over the course of the year.

Meanwhile, almost 60% of Afghans thought government corruption was a bigger problem than insecurity.

In some areas of Helmand, in particular, it is acknowledged that the Taliban are managing to out-govern the official government, for example by providing rapid and summary justice to local disputes.

'Asserting control'

"Much of Helmand is ungoverned at the moment," admits Maj Gen Carter.

"If we are going to win the argument, we have to assert our control, especially in central Helmand, where 750,000 people live.

"It all comes back to [the counter-insurgency doctrine of] 'clear, hold and build'. Things are evolving and the Afghans are standing up and being counted."

Ultimately, military commanders - and the extra 30,000 US troops plus others from Nato - know they are just one crucial part of a wider whole.

That needs to work coherently if Afghanistan is to become stable enough to withdraw most foreign troops within three to five years, as the US, UK and other Nato countries would like.

Much of that progress will depend on the Afghan government and which side the Afghan people ultimately believe will win.


A Look at America’s New Hope: The Afghan Tribes

For three decades now, Communism, civil war and Islamic fundamentalism have laid siege to Afghanistan’s tribes. In many ways, Afghanistan’s tribal structure is arguably the weakest it has been in the country’s history.

Nonetheless, American civilian and military leaders are turning to some of these tribes as potentially their best hope for success against the resurgent Taliban after being frustrated by the weak central leadership of President Hamid Karzai.

Tribes have existed for millennia in the area that is present-day Afghanistan. They emerged over centuries in various sections of the country, taking form along extended kinship lines. Led by councils of elders, tribes provided their members with protection, financial support, a means to resolve disputes, and punishment of those who had committed crimes or broken tribal codes of conduct.

For Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group and the Taliban’s primary source of support, tribes are particularly important. Successfully turning Pashtun tribes against the Taliban — or perhaps families or sub-tribes if they deal with the government on their own — could deliver a serious blow to the insurgency and potentially create a means of stabilizing the long-suffering country.

Some Afghans, though, warn that the tribal system is not a panacea and fear that the United States is adopting a quick-fix approach that will not create long-term stability. They see the tribes as inherently anachronistic, sexist and corrupt — a system that further undermines the already extraordinarily difficult task of creating multiethnic, merit-based national institutions. They warn that the country would be thrown into the hands of myriad tribal militias that the central government could never control.

Last week, the importance of the tribes to American strategy became clear when the leaders of the Shinwari tribe in eastern Afghanistan agreed to work with the government and forbid cooperation with the Taliban. The pact was announced as a major first step for the American effort to win over the tribes.

It was not the first time outsiders have turned to Afghanistan’s tribes as allies and surrogates. The British, who fought Russia for control of the region in the 19th century, brought with them a practice of enlisting local leaders. After the British departed, Afghan kings in Kabul relied on the tribal structure to maintain stability and order in remote areas.

But then came Communism in the mid-1970s, which viewed tribes as archaic obstacles to social progress and, most important, as a potential threat to party leaders’ hold on power. Hundreds of tribal elders were taken from their homes and killed in a series of brutal crackdowns.

At the same time, the United States, backed by the Saudi and Pakistani governments, unleashed its own assault on Afghanistan’s tribes. American-backed Wahhabi fundamentalism created hundreds of thousands of young mujahadeen “holy warriors” to attack Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Religiously indoctrinated and flush with American cash, these young Afghan fighters viewed Muslim clerics and mujahadeen commanders — not tribal elders — as their true leaders.

Once the Soviets left — and in turn the Americans — mujahadeen commanders turned on each other and the Taliban emerged as a force that, though repressive, at least provided law and order. The Taliban emphasized Islam as the organizing principle for society and government, not tribes. Across the country, little-known Muslim clerics ran government ministries, provinces and cities. Tribal elders were again ignored.

Since being toppled in 2001, the Taliban have mercilessly targeted tribal elders who support the Karzai government, apparently viewing them as one of their greatest potential rivals. At the same time, President Karzai’s weak government has struggled to protect and strengthen tribal elders, hundreds of whom have been killed in assassinations and bomb attacks.

One hallmark of the American agreement with the Shinwari tribe is that $1 million in American development aid will go directly to Shinwari elders. The money will bypass Karzai government officials, whom Shinwari elders dismiss as corrupt and ineffective.

Here is a rough picture of Afghanistan’s traditional tribal structure and its leading tribes, as well as a description of how a reinvigorated tribal system — in theory — should work.


NATO official: Afghan interpreter kills 2 US service members in eastern Afghanistan

KABUL (AP) - A NATO official says an Afghan interpreter killed two U.S. service members before himself being killed by a U.S. soldier, at a combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan.

The new details emerged Saturday, a day after the deaths were announced in a brief statement.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the attack occurred in Wardak province, near the Pakistani border.

NATO and Afghan officials said an investigation was still under way but the interpreter apparently was upset over job-related issues.

A clash between U.S. and Afghan troops Saturday that left four Afghan soldiers dead also occurred in Wardak province. But the official said the incidents don't appear to be related.

Afghan Men Struggle With Sexual Identity, Study Finds

An unclassified study from a military research unit in southern Afghanistan details how homosexual behavior is unusually common among men in the large ethnic group known as Pashtuns -- though they seem to be in complete denial about it.
As if U.S. troops and diplomats didn't have enough to worry about in trying to understand Afghan culture, a new report suggests an entire region in the country is coping with a sexual identity crisis.

An unclassified study from a military research unit in southern Afghanistan details how homosexual behavior is unusually common among men in the large ethnic group known as Pashtuns -- though they seem to be in complete denial about it.

The study, obtained by Fox News, found that Pashtun men commonly have sex with other men, admire other men physically, have sexual relationships with boys and shun women both socially and sexually -- yet they completely reject the label of "homosexual." The research was conducted as part of a longstanding effort to better understand Afghan culture and improve Western interaction with the local people.

The research unit, which was attached to a Marine battalion in southern Afghanistan, acknowledged that the behavior of some Afghan men has left Western forces "frequently confused."

The report details the bizarre interactions a U.S. Army medic and her colleagues had with Afghan men in the southern province of Kandahar.

In one instance, a group of local male interpreters had contracted gonorrhea anally but refused to believe they could have contracted it sexually -- "because they were not homosexuals."

Apparently, according to the report, Pashtun men interpret the Islamic prohibition on homosexuality to mean they cannot "love" another man -- but that doesn't mean they can't use men for "sexual gratification."

The group of interpreters who had contracted gonorrhea joked in the camp that they actually got the disease by "mixing green and black tea." But since they refused to heed the medics' warnings, many of them re-contracted the disease after receiving treatment.

The U.S. army medic also told members of the research unit that she and her colleagues had to explain to a local man how to get his wife pregnant.

The report said: "When it was explained to him what was necessary, he reacted with disgust and asked, 'How could one feel desire to be with a woman, who God has made unclean, when one could be with a man, who is clean? Surely this must be wrong.'"

The Pashtun populations are concentrated in the southern and eastern parts of the country. The Human Terrain Team that conducted the research is part of a military effort to learn more about local populations.

The report also detailed a disturbing practice in which older "men of status" keep young boys on hand for sexual relationships. One of the country's favorite sayings, the report said, is "women are for children, boys are for pleasure."

The report concluded that the widespread homosexual behavior stems from several factors, including the "severe segregation" of women in the society and the "prohibitive" cost of marriage.

Though U.S. troops are commonly taught in training for Afghanistan that the "effeminate characteristics" of Pashtun men are "normal" and not an indicator of homosexuality, the report said U.S. forces should not "dismiss" the unique version of homosexuality that is actually practiced in the region "out of desire to avoid western discomfort."

Otherwise, the report said, Westerners could "risk failing to comprehend an essential social force underlying Pashtun culture."


Venezuelan police fire tear gas at protesters

CARACAS, Venezuela – Police fired tear gas to chase off thousands of students demonstrating in the capital Thursday, a fifth day of protests against President Hugo Chavez for pressuring cable and satellite TV providers to drop an opposition channel.

Some of the protesters threw rocks at police in riot gear when officers moved to break up the rally outside the offices of the state-run electricity company.

While charging that the government is trying to curb criticism, the students also used their demonstration to call attention to electricity shortages plaguing much of Venezuela and other pressing domestic problems like double-digit inflation.

University students have taken to the streets daily since Sunday, after government pressure led cable TV services to drop Radio Caracas Television International, which has long been a critic of Chavez's socialist policies.

"We are not going to allow continued shutdowns of media outlets that tell the truth, and we are not going to allow ineptitude and inefficiency to continue," said Nizar El Sakih, a student leader.

Critics of the government say Chavez is responsible for domestic problems ranging from double-digit inflation to violent crime to rolling power blackouts.

The government says RCTV was removed for refusing to comply with a new rule requiring media outlets to televise mandatory programming, including Chavez's speeches.

Chavez accused students of trying to stir up violence as a means of destabilizing his government.

"There are some attempting to set fire to the country," Chavez said in a televised address Thursday. "What are they seeking? Death."

He said unidentified assailants armed with assault rifles shot at National Guard troops Wednesday in the city of Merida, where two soldiers suffered gunshot wounds. A military barracks in the city of Barquisimeto was also attacked, he said.

Chavez vowed to crack down on street demonstrations that turn violent.

"We cannot permit this," he said. "The state and the government must impose authority."

Ten students were accused of fomenting public disorder Thursday in the eastern city of Barcelona — a day after they led protests that ended in clashes with police, Fortunato Herrera, a lawyer representing the students, told the local Globovision TV channel.

Student leader Jonathan Zambrano told Globovision that 22 protesters were arrested in the city of Barinas. The students were released, Zambrano said, after university groups agreed to call off street demonstrations.

Two youths were killed in Merida on Monday — a day after the protests began. Dozens of people have been injured during the week's demonstrations.


What's Spanish for Quagmire?

Mexico's current government took office on Dec. 1, 2006, but really only assumed power 10 days later, when Felipe Calderón, winner of a close presidential election that his leftist opponent petulantly refused to concede, donned a military jacket, declared an all-out war on organized crime and drug trafficking, and ordered the Mexican army out of its barracks and into the country's streets, highways, and towns. The bold move against odious adversaries (and change of topic) garnered Calderón broad support from the public and the international community, along with raised eyebrows among Mexico's political, business, and intellectual elites.

Three years and 15,000 deaths later, Calderón's war still commands support at home and backing from abroad, mainly from Barack Obama's administration, though skepticism about the Mexican president's strategy is spreading, as Rubén Aguilar and I discovered when we published El Narco: La Guerra Fallida last fall and found ourselves in the middle of a vigorous debate about where our country is headed. It is long overdue.

The Mexican drug war is costly, unwinnable, and predicated on dangerous myths. Calderón has deployed everything from distorted statistics to bad history as weapons to convince the country, and the world, that the war must be joined.

As Americans are painfully aware, wars predicated on false pretenses that pursue ill-defined aims usually turn into regrettable quagmires. Mexico is still far from being a failed state, but it is already entangled in a failed war. Until and unless it abandons the false narrative of the war as the necessary defense of a desperate land besieged by bad guys, it will be in serious danger of becoming one.

1. Mexico's Druggie Explosion

The Mexican government contends it had to deploy tens of thousands of soldiers to take on the drug cartels as never before in part to keep drugs away from Mexico's children. The argument behind this emotionally powerful rallying cry is that Mexico went from being simply a transit point and producer of drugs to being their consumer.

Mexico has been producing marijuana and heroin for export to the United States for decades; it does not produce cocaine but has been the main conduit from Colombia to the United States since the late 1980s. Over the past decade, it became a significant manufacturer of methamphetamines, also for sale in the United States. But now the government claims that Mexicans have started consuming drugs and that this must be stopped before Mexico City ends up like inner-city Baltimore.

The government's case is undermined, however, by its own statistics. Mexico's health ministry has been carrying out national addiction surveys across the country since 1988; the studies constitute a reliable and constant series of data collected by the same specialists in the same places. The most recent survey shows that there has been no significant increase in the number of users in Mexico. The total went from 307,000 to 465,000 addicts between 2002 and 2008 -- an increase of 26,000 addicts per year in a country of 110 million inhabitants. The overall addiction rate amounts to 0.4 percent of the population, far lower than the rate in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, and lower also than in other Latin American countries such as Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile. The number of Mexicans admitting that they had consumed specific drugs at least once in their lives -- the so-called incidence rate -- has also remained stable or even declined for all drugs over the past decade. The prevalence of drug use -- that is, the number of people who confessed to consuming any drug at least once over the previous year -- has remained stable.

These findings are corroborated by other surveys, for example, those carried out by the National Psychiatry Institute, and at the regional level by the Centros de Integración Juvenil. These figures show that in the country's largest urban centers, such as Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey, as well as in border towns wracked by violence like Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, there is absolutely no evidence pointing to any meaningful increase in drug use, notwithstanding the considerable expansion of Mexico's middle class in recent years. The figures for Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez are especially noteworthy: From 1998 to 2005, the addiction rate in Tijuana fell from 4.4 percent to 3.3 percent; even in Ciudad Juárez, supposedly the narco capital of the world, it rose from 1.6 percent to just 4 percent.

2. Mexico's Violence Explosion

The second rationale given for Calderón's war was the increase in violence leading up to and throughout 2006, and the notion that organized crime's mayhem was undermining public safety, not to mention the rule of law. Gory cartel-on-cartel violence in the second half of that year, including the appearance of five decapitated heads in a disco in Uruapan, in Calderón's home state of Michoacán, had shocked society, and the new administration made much of campaign polls showing that security and violence ranked highest among the electorate's concerns.

Unfortunately, this rationale is also belied by the facts. Violence in Mexico, measured by murders per 100,000 inhabitants, had been falling in the previous decade -- according to the government's own statistics, which Calderón himself has quoted. According to U.N. data, the murder rate had fallen from 14.9 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1998 to less than 11 in 2006. This was higher than in the United States (5.6), but considerably lower than in much of the rest of Latin America, including El Salvador (58), Venezuela (48), Colombia (37), and Brazil (25).

People in Mexico may have felt more insecure when they elected Calderón, but in fact they were living in a significantly less violent and crime-prone country than a decade earlier.

The confusion separating perception from reality springs from a misreading of public-opinion surveys. Mexicans in 2006 were more concerned about ordinary crime and law and order than anything else, partly because financial worries had diminished in the wake of 11 years of macro-economic stability and modest but persistent growth. But they did not associate that concern with cartels, organized crime, or drug trafficking. In poll after poll, these issues ranked very low among Mexicans' preoccupations. Indeed, violence directly linked to the drug business really exploded only after Calderón took office: In 2006, 2,100 drug-related killings took place; in 2007 the number rose to 2,700; in 2008 to 5,660; and in 2009, through late November, to 5,800.

3. The Besieged State

The third rationale for the declaration of war was the specter of the Mexican government being "captured" -- at local, state, and even national levels -- by all-powerful cartels. This argument appears more credible than Calderón's other claims; a growing number of episodes seemed to prove that the cartels were taking over cities, highways, and ports of entry to the United States, charging for protection, putting entire police forces on their payroll, and so on. The Mexican state, Calderón told the country, was losing control of its territory.

Once again, though, the argument is undercut by the government's own repeated assertions, with the Obama administration's backing, that Mexico was not a "failed state." It wasn't and isn't, but one can hardly make the two cases simultaneously: that is, on the one hand, that Mexico is not a failed state, and, on the other, that it is losing control of its territory.

A dose of historical context also undermines the notion that the cartels all of a sudden threatened to infiltrate and corrupt the Mexican government. Mexico is not Norway, and never was. In the 1980s, the entire Federal Security Directorate was disbanded because it had been completely taken over by the drug cartels. The U.S. ambassador at the time, John Gavin, specifically accused several state governors and cabinet members of drug trafficking in private conversations with President Miguel de la Madrid, a charge de la Madrid considered, in some cases, "excessive."

In 1998, President Ernesto Zedillo's newly appointed drug czar, Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, was arrested barely two months after being appointed, when U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey, after first applauding Gutiérrez Rebollo, discovered that his Mexican counterpart worked for the cartels.

The Calderón administration's declaration of war against the cartels and its narrative of local governments at risk of being captured by organized crime presupposed that the cartels' penetration of such governments, as well as of the police and army, must have been much greater in 2006 than over the previous 30 years. Unfortunately for Mexico, history makes clear that this is a dubious proposition. Although violence and the capture of certain prerogatives of statehood by the cartels today may be greater than in mid-2006, the issue is what came first: the war or the ascent of the cartels. Calderón argues that the growing threat of the cartels drove him to war; I believe that the failed war has led to the cartels' greater power.

4. The Gun Dealer Next Door

Calderón has argued persistently that Washington shares responsibility for the drug war because of its bad-neighborly ways. The Mexican government accuses the United States of being its enemy's indispensable weapons supplier, ascribing a significant part of today's violence south of the Rio Grande to the Second Amendment of the Constitution in effect north of that river.

A large proportion of the assault weapons used by the cartels do come from the United States, but the figure is far lower than the oft-quoted 90 percent (90 percent of the guns Mexican authorities give to U.S. authorities to trace turn out to be from the United States -- but better estimates suggest 20 to 35 percent of guns in Mexico are American) or the also oft-quoted claim that 2,000 assault rifles cross into Mexico every day. If true, this would mean that more than 2 million weapons have entered Mexico just since Calderón has been in office. To put it into context, Mexico has an average of 15 guns per 100 inhabitants. Finland has 55.

Global statistics suggest that sharing a border with the United States means little in terms of the availability and price of assault weapons, as the favelados of Brazil, the peasants in Colombia, or the armless children in Sierra Leone may tell you. Mexican authorities would be wise to accept this reality, as the cost to legitimate trade and tourism of clamping down and scrutinizing all north-south border flows would be immense, and the effort, if pursued, would be futile. If there is one type of shadowy merchandise that is almost as easy to purchase on the world market as drugs, it is weaponry.

5. The Neighbors Can Break Their Drug Habit

This fifth myth also binds the United States to Calderón's war and reflects the Mexican lament that if only Americans would curb their appetite for illicit drugs, or truly clamp down on their consumption, Mexico's situation would improve. This, too, is a quixotic fantasy.

U.S. drug consumption has not diminished over the past decade, and there is no reason to think it will in the future. What changes over time are the types of drugs consumed, the sectors of society that consume them, and the geographical location of their consumption. But American society will never reduce its overall demand for drugs, because it simply does not wish to; and it does not because, quite rightly, it does not believe that the cost of doing so is worth bearing.

If anything, the United States seems to be moving in the opposite direction; that is, toward decriminalization of marijuana, greater tolerance for safer forms of heroin, an effort to wean people off methamphetamines, and in general, the adoption of a far more relaxed attitude toward drugs. Hence the Obama administration's decision not to enforce federal anti-marijuana laws in states with legalized "medical" marijuana.

It is absurd for hundreds of Mexican soldiers, police officers, and petty drug dealers to be dying over the drug war in Tijuana when, 100 or so miles to the north in Los Angeles, there are, as the New York Times reported recently, more legal and public dispensaries of marijuana than public schools.

If you accept these myths as truths, it would be possible to remain optimistic about Mexico's war. The Calderón administration sporadically publishes statistics on seizures of drugs, chemicals for methamphetamine production, weapons, airplanes, boats, trucks, and even semisubmersible submarines -- the drug war equivalent of body counts -- all at far higher rates than those announced by previous presidents. It also claims that the best proof of the war's success lies in the higher price of several drugs on U.S. streets, like methamphetamines and cocaine.

In this narrative, almost anything can become a metric of "success." The Calderón government even maintains that the dramatic growth in the number of drug-linked killings in Mexico from 2007 to 2009 should be attributed to victories achieved in the war against the cartels; these unfortunate deaths, it claims, mean that the criminal organizations are killing each other in desperation as the army closes in.

The government has continued the two previous administrations' policy of building a national police force, so far without greater success than either Ernesto Zedillo or Vicente Fox, and is said to be pursuing a strategy of sealing off access to Mexico from the south of the country at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the 137-mile narrow waist of Mexico that is much easier to patrol than the border with Guatemala and Belize.

But these claims, like the myths that led Mexico to war in the first place, are easily debunked. Colombia offers Mexico painful lessons on the need to crack down on the drug business's collateral damage-violence, corruption, kidnappings, extortion, and so on-as well as the hopelessness of attempting to eradicate the drug trade altogether. After 10 years of Plan Colombia, the U.S. policy dating back to Bill Clinton's administration of generously funding Colombia's counternarcotics and counterinsurgency campaigns, violence in that country has diminished dramatically, the guerrillas are on the run, the paramilitary groups have been largely dismantled, and even corruption has dropped slightly. But as of 2007 Colombian cocaine exports have remained stable, along with the amount of land under coca leaf cultivation, and any future changes in supply would in any case be replaced by increases in the cocaine produced by Peru and Bolivia. The street price of cocaine in the United States today is higher than several years ago but well below its level a decade ago.

Indeed, the success of Mexico's frontal assault on drug production and trafficking is about as unlikely as the prospect that American society will clamp down on demand. A wiser course for Mexico would be to join Americans in lobbying to decriminalize marijuana and heroin, the two drugs easiest to deal with (the first because it is the least harmful and the second because it is the most harmful). Although marijuana legalization may not be imminent, recent polls show that more than 40 percent of Americans favor it and 54 percent of Democrats do.

To continue on the present course will require more and more intrusive U.S. cooperation, both for equipment and training of Mexican law enforcement personnel, as well as for intelligence and other tactical support. It is hard to imagine a scenario requiring U.S. boots on the ground, as has been the case in Colombia, but it is worth pointing out that a poll taken last March shows that 40 percent of Mexicans, a surprising proportion, would favor a U.S. military presence in Mexico in the fight against drugs.

What is clear is that Mexico cannot continue to have its joint and smoke it too: wanting greater and more modern forms of U.S. support but continuing to place traditional limits on it. The United States is funding the Mérida Initiative to boost the Mexican fight, but current levels of aid -- about $450 million per year -- are woefully insufficient, and doing the job properly would cost many billions of dollars a year. The Obama administration has followed in former President George W. Bush's footsteps during his last two years in office and made this war the central and practically the only item on the bilateral agenda. The administration signed off on Calderón's strategy as if its premises were rock-solid; this endorsement has been crucial for the ongoing crusade. But the premises proved misleading, the strategy is not working, and the mobilization of the army has led to mounting human rights abuses.

Mexico jumped into this fray without debate or reflection; it was easily misled by Calderón's myths into believing this was a necessary war. But while few Mexicans were originally critical of the war, more and more have emerged to agree with the title of our book. The Failed War, as we called it, has sold more than 20,000 copies in three months and is part of a broader reassessment, in books, essays, and newspaper columns, of the Mexican tragedy.

I voted for Calderón and called on readers and sympathizers to do the same; I actively backed him during the post-election turmoil in 2006, particularly with foreign skeptics. So it was with some chagrin that in mid-2007 I began formulating many of these criticisms.

But the political culture in Mexico still rewards unthinking loyalty; if you question policy, no matter how substantive your case, people are quick to accuse you of having ulterior political motives. The debate on the whys and hows of Calderón's war we have started seeing in print is still largely absent from television, the country's dominant form of media. That's a shame. Until we in Mexico publicly and collectively confront the tough questions the drug war entails, we will not have a sustainable policy or a viable strategy. And as long as the United States doesn't question our answers, it will also lack a policy for the drug war and, more importantly, for Mexican development. This is a problem: If the war is to continue, it will be as much Obama's as Calderón's, and it will continue to distract from far more important matters, mainly, how to consummate Mexico's remarkable, ongoing transition to a middle-class society.


Friday, January 29, 2010

Paulson Says Russia Urged China to Dump Fannie, Freddie Bonds

Jan. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Russia urged China to dump its Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bonds in 2008 in a bid to force a bailout of the largest U.S. mortgage-finance companies, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said.

Paulson learned of the “disruptive scheme” while attending the Beijing Summer Olympics, according to his memoir, “On The Brink.”

The Russians made a “top-level approach” to the Chinese “that together they might sell big chunks of their GSE holdings to force the U.S. to use its emergency authorities to prop up these companies,” Paulson said, referring to the acronym for government sponsored entities. The Chinese declined, he said.

Russia’s five-day war with U.S. ally Georgia started on Aug. 8, the same day as the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Games. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told U.S. President George W. Bush during those ceremonies that “war has started,” according to Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman.

“The report was deeply troubling -- heavy selling could create a sudden loss of confidence in the GSEs and shake the capital markets,” Paulson wrote. “I waited till I was back home and in a secure environment to inform the president.”

Russia never approached China about dumping U.S. bonds, Peskov said today. “This is not the case,” he said by phone.

Russia sold all of its Fannie and Freddie debt in 2008, after holding $65.6 billion of the notes at the start of that year, according to central bank data. Fannie and Freddie were seized by regulators on Sept. 6, 2008, amid the worst U.S. housing slump since the Great Depression.

Putin ‘Combative, Fun’

Paulson said he was surprised not to have been asked about the Fannie and Freddie bonds during a trip to Moscow in June. “I was soon to learn, though, that the Russians had been doing a lot of thinking about our GSE securities,” he said of his meeting with Dmitry Medvedev, who succeeded Putin in the Kremlin the previous month.

Putin kept Paulson waiting before their meeting at the government’s headquarters and made the conversation “fun” by being “direct and a bit combative,” Paulson said. “He never took offense and we could spar back and forth,” he said.

Paulson’s book is scheduled to be released Feb. 1, though Bloomberg News bought a copy at a New York bookstore.


US soldiers halt violence between guards, looters

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) - U.S. soldiers halted a violent confrontation Friday between looters and a private security guard who shot and killed one man inside an appliance store and appeared poised to shoot others.

The chaotic scene unfolded in front of several journalists in a commercial district of downtown Port-au-Prince that was largely destroyed by the Jan. 12 earthquake. Bands of young men have been scavenging through the debris for anything of value, occasionally battling Haitian police.

An Associated Press journalist witnessed dozens of men pry open a steel security gate of the appliance store, which was only slightly damaged in the quake. They crawled underneath the gate and began to cart away ovens, refrigerators and even an air conditioning unit from a wall before a private security guard arrived, firing an automatic pistol at the looters.

As the crowd fled, the guard, wearing a black polo shirt and a private security badge, shot and killed a young man fleeing up the stairs of the shop. He appeared to be about to shoot a boy but stopped after noticing journalists in the store.

Two more security guards, weapons drawn, came into the store and began detaining other looters hidden in a side room and upstairs. The guards began kicking and beating the men, who had been ordered to lie amid broken glass strewn across the floor.

About a dozen members of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division happened to be on patrol nearby and saw the commotion. They rushed up and quickly calmed the situation, shouting "Stop it!" and pulling the guards off the captives.

A crowd that had gathered outside cheered.

The stern-faced soldiers then called Haitian police officers, who took control of the captives.

American troops, part of a 20,000-strong U.S. military humanitarian mission in Haiti, have generally discouraged looting by warning people away from city shops. But usually that method works only briefly, as looters stop scavenging, some even waving American flags, while the troops are in sight, but then quickly go back to breaking into shops.

Although the U.S. mission has generally been peaceful, the incident underscored the tensions and growing frustrations among Haitians in the earthquake's aftermath - frustrations that could present a security challenge to the American military here.

Arresting people for looting is not part of the U.S. military's responsibilities in Haiti, said Jose Ruiz, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees the Haiti humanitarian mission. "They are not there to participate in any police operations," he said.

The military does not disclose its broader rules of engagement. Ruiz said troops can provide security for relief operations but will work with the United Nations and the Haitian National Police on law enforcement issues.

He said he was not aware of the specific incident at the appliance store.

The security guard's identity wasn't known. His badge identified him as working for a company called Professional Security Services.

It wasn't known if he was arrested.


Clinton: China risks isolation over Iran

PARIS (AP) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned China on Friday it risks diplomatic isolation and disruption to its energy supplies unless it helps keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.s

Speaking in Paris, Clinton said she and others who support additional sanctions on Iran over its disputed nuclear program are lobbying China to back new U.N. penalties on the Iranian government.

She said she understood China's reluctance to impose new penalties on Iran, its third-largest supplier of oil. But she stressed that a nuclear-armed Iran would destabilize the Persian Gulf and imperil oil shipments China gets from other Arab states in the region.

There is a new push for sanctions at the U.N. because of Iran's continued refusal to engage on the matter with the five permanent members of the Security Council - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - and Germany.

Administration officials have invited new talks with Iran, but with no sign that Iran wants to do business, the focus has turned to penalties.

"As we move away from the engagement track, which has not produced the result that some had hoped for, and move forward on the pressure and sanctions track, China will be under a lot of pressure to recognize the destabilizing impact that a nuclear-armed Iran would have in the Gulf, from which they receive a significant percentage of their oil supplies," Clinton said.

She spoke a day after the U.S. Senate approved new sanctions against Iran that would extend U.S. prohibitions on business dealings with Iran. The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran and extremely limited commercial interaction, all as a result of the rupture in 1979 when militants took over the U.S. Embassy.

Clinton aid the legislative efforts do not conflict with her work to line up other countries for separate international sanctions against Iran.

"We will do what we can to direct their legislation in a way that supports our efforts internationally," Clinton said in Paris.

"We're going to work as hard as we can to get the strongest possible resolution," at the U.N., Clinton said.

The United States is the most visible leader in the new push for U.N. Security Council sanctions, and Clinton spent much of her time in Europe this week lobbying major powers whose support she needs to pass and enforce new economic penalties. Some of the additional measures that will be proposed target elements of Iran's powerful militia structure, U.S. officials said.

The Security Council has approved three previous sets of restrictions and penalties related to Iran's defiance of international demands for assurances about its nuclear program. The punishments have mostly been mild and directed at government and business entities tied to the nuclear program. In response, Iran has accelerated its work to enrich uranium.

"We certainly expect to come up with an even firmer fourth resolution," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said following a meeting with Clinton on Friday.

The Obama administration has said Iran appears bent on developing nuclear weapons, although Iran claims its nuclear work is peaceful. Iran is thought to have stockpiled more than enough nuclear material to manufacture a single bomb, and more is being made daily.

The risks of an Iranian bomb are manifold, Clinton said.

"It will produce an arms race," in the Persian Gulf, and Israel will feel its very existence threatened, Clinton said in response to a question from an audience member during a speech at a French military academy. "All of that is incredibly dangerous."

The United States has cautioned Israel publicly against a pre-emptive strike on Iran's known nuclear facilities, arguing that such an attack would invite an arms race and retaliation.

China has traditionally resisted U.N. Security Council sanctions, saying they are counterproductive and harm efforts to persuade Iran to prove its claim that the nuclear program is peaceful.

Clinton met Thursday in London with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi to make the case to move ahead with sanctions at the United Nations. U.S. officials said Yang's response was noncommittal.

In Paris, Clinton said her message to the Chinese had been this: "We understand that right now it seems counterproductive to you to sanction a country from which you get so much of the natural resources your growing economy needs. But think about the longer-term implications."

The United States risked tension with China on a different matter, with formal word Friday that an arms sale to Taiwan will go ahead. The deal would provide more than $6 billion in weapons sales to the self-governing island the Chinese claim as their own.


Iranian cleric: More opposition should be executed

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - A powerful hard-line Iranian cleric on Friday called for the execution of more opposition activists to silence anti-government protests, praising the hanging a day earlier of two men caught up in the leadership's postelection crackdown.

Speaking in a Friday prayer sermon, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said the wave of street demonstrations sparked by the disputed June presidential election would not have lasted until now if protesters had been executed early on.

Says it all I guess

Bin Laden blasts US for climate change

CAIRO (AP) - Osama bin Laden sought to draw a wider public into his fight against the United States in a new message Friday, dropping his usual talk of religion and holy war and focusing instead on an unexpected topic: global warming.

The al-Qaida leader blamed the United States and other industrialized nations for climate change and said the only way to prevent disaster was to break the American economy, calling on the world to boycott U.S. goods and stop using the dollar.

Promising to invest in Green IED's

Gunmen holed-up in building in southern Afghanistan

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Four gunmen wearing suicide vests were locked in a gunbattle with Afghan security forces inside a building in southern Afghanistan on Friday, a police official said.

Abdul Qayum, a senior police official at the scene, told Reuters he could hear the sound of rocket-propelled grenades and heavy gunfire. He did not have any more details.

There are more than 110,000 international troops in Afghanistan, including some 70,000 Americans, fighting a resurgent Taliban that have spread their attacks out of traditional strongholds into other previously peaceful areas.

To try and turn the tide, Washington is sending 30,000 more troops this year and other nations are sending some 7,000 more.

Earlier this month, Taliban gunmen launched a brazen assault inside the center of the capital Kabul, with suicide bombers blowing themselves up at several locations and militants battling security forces from inside a shopping center.


Georgia Offers Arms Supply Route to Afghanistan

Georgia has offered to the United States to use its territory for armaments supply route to Afghanistan, President Saakashvili said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The proposal, which Saakashvili said was first presented to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden when the latter visited Georgia in July, 2009, offers use of Georgia’s Black Sea ports to the Alliance’s military supply ships, and its airports for refueling points.

The report also quotes U.S. Navy Capt. Kevin Aandahl, a spokesman for the U.S. Defence Department's Transportation Command, saying that DoD is aware of Georgia's proposal, but has not substantially explored it.

In March, 2005 Georgia and NATO signed an agreement envisaging use of Georgia’s air space, road and rail infrastructure for transit purposes by NATO to send supplies for its troops in Afghanistan. The route operating through Georgia, however, is not sanctioned for arms shipments.

“I don't think that Russia can openly object to this,” Saakashvili was quoted as saying in the interview.

“The best containment of Russia's adventures in this region is political,” he said. “I don't think the Americans have the resources to do it militarily, and I don't think this route can in any way even indirectly serve as military containment or deterrence.”

Georgia sent a company-size unit to Afghanistan to contribute NATO-led forces and in addition it plans to send a battalion-size force this spring.

Russia offers to help NATO, but not for free

MOSCOW -- Russia is willing to help NATO in Afghanistan, but not for free, the Russian envoy to the alliance said Friday.

Dmitry Rogozin also slammed NATO for failing to do more to fight the drug trade in Afghanistan, saying Russia has suffered because of that failure. And he expressed skepticism about a plan to pay Taliban fighters to abandon violence and join the mainstream of Afghan society.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged Russia last month to provide helicopters and training for the Afghan air force and to train more local police.

Rogozin said Russia was looking at the request, but wants to understand who will pay for it. He added that some NATO countries could help share the costs.

"We aren't going to supply NATO with anything free of charge," he said in a video hookup from Brussels. "They can afford to pay for that."

He didn't rule out providing free supplies to the Afghan government, but said that would require a political decision by the Kremlin.

Moscow has repeatedly expressed its willingness to help the war effort in Afghanistan, due to fears that a return to power by Taliban extremists would destabilize Central Asia and endanger Russia's security.

But the country's support for NATO- and US-led operations so far has been limited to offering transit for railway shipments of non-lethal supplies and air corridors for weapons supplies, as supply routes through Pakistan have come under increased Taliban attack.

Rogozin said shipments have been slow to start because NATO has dragged its feet on negotiating transit agreements with Central Asian nations. He also said technical problems regarding U.S. air transit need to be solved, but he refused to elaborate.

He criticized NATO harshly for failing to make stronger efforts to fight drug production.

"NATO doesn't want to do more to fight drugs in Afghanistan, because it fears it would inflict more losses to its forces," he said. "They prefer to turn a blind eye to that. They think it's not their problem, because Afghan heroin mostly goes to Central Asia and Russia."

Rogozin was also openly skeptical of a NATO plan to persuade Taliban fighters to disarm in exchange for jobs and homes, saying that the world community must focus on rebuilding the nation's battered infrastructure. He argued that Russian companies should be awarded contracts for rebuilding factories, power plants and other facilities built by the Soviet Union.


Trained dogs sniff out hidden bombs in Afghanistan

TORA, Afghanistan -- A French officer unleashed Arry, and the tall and muscular dog went to work.

Wagging his tail in the early morning chill, he ran under four Afghan tractor-trailer trucks, sniffing at the exhaust pipes and motor. He then jumped into the cabins, slipping behind the driver's seat and sticking his nose into the glove compartment. A driver's partially eaten snack was ignored.

In less than 10 minutes, the trucks were cleared for entry to Tora Forward Operating Base in eastern Afghanistan, and Arry started barking for more.

The U.S. and its allies are turning increasingly to sniffer dogs to counter roadside bombs and suicide attacks, a major threat in the Afghan war. They can locate low-tech devices without metal parts or traditional explosives, which are nearly impossible to find with mine-detection equipment. The use of so-called "undetectable" bombs appears to be on the rise in Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan's south and east.

"Sniffer dogs have something better than any machine: instinct," said Chief Cpl. Remy, Arry's handler at the French Foreign Legion base.

Remy, who gave only his first name under French military regulations, said he was more than 90 percent confident that a road searched by his dog could be declared free of bombs.

Arry and the four other sniffer dogs deployed by the French in the small region they control have detected dozens of weapons caches, homemade bombs known as IEDs, and explosives hidden in cars over the past year, Remy said.

IEDs, short for improvised explosive devices, were responsible for 129 U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan in 2009, more than 40 percent of the total, according to an Associated Press tally based on daily NATO reports. The devices also take a toll on Afghan civilians, killing 117 in the last four months of 2009.

Arry, a 4-year-old Belgian Malinois, looks much like a German shepherd, only lankier and faster. Malinois were once used to protect cattle herds but now mostly serve as protection dogs or pets.

The dogs with the best sense of smell are usually hunting breeds, such as the Labrador retrievers used by the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan's Helmand province, where they are trained to detect conventional explosives.

But the French army exclusively employs Malinois in Afghanistan, because they are more multipurpose. They can sniff out drugs, guard a camp or help with crowd control. The 3,500 French troops in Afghanistan have a dozen dogs doing these tasks, all of them males.

"Suspects at a checkpoint have no way of telling if they face an attack dog or a sniffer," said Sgt. Sylvain, who handles Agos, a 70-pound (32-kilogram) Malinois attack dog that can easily topple a man, bite a target six-feet (two-meters) high, or break through a car window when wearing a metal-reinforced muzzle.

Homemade bombs are often built with scrap parts and readily available fertilizers, such as ammonium nitrate, or cheap aluminum powder. They are often set off remotely by what some NATO troops call "Pakistani wires" - a tiny electric cable that can run dozens of yards (meters) to a detonator.

It took four months of intense training to teach Arry how to detect such bombs, along with more conventional explosives that use cordite, plastic or dynamite substances.

"We basically added nitrates powder to the range of chemicals the dog reacts to," Remy said.

Arry can now spot more than 20 different molecules, which allows him to detect just about any IED. If the soil has been recently upturned, Arry can smell an explosive hidden up to three feet (one meter) below the surface. And if there's even the slightest breeze blowing in the right direction, he can start sniffing a bomb 100 yards (100 meters) away, Remy says.

"There are only so many basic molecules that can be used to make a bomb, and a good dog can be trained to find them all," Remy said. "Dogs are the very best thing against explosives."

There are limitations to what dogs can do. It's difficult to bring them to the front line or to feed and maintain them in more remote outposts. There are also only so many trained handlers and dogs available, and expanding their numbers would take years.

Dogs such as Arry serve in the French army until they are 8 or 9 years old. Most then retire at their handler's home, except for the more aggressive ones, which are put to death.

Sgt. Major Edouard, the head of a French special intervention bomb squad in Afghanistan, was a skeptic at first but found the dogs to have a 100 percent success rate during trials, when he hid undetectable bombs for them to find. "They were very effective," he said.


To fight deadliest Taliban threat in Afghanistan, US troops go low-tech

Combat Outpost JFM, Afghanistan
The metal detector was almost off the scale.

In front of a dusty track lay a five-foot-wide crater where an Afghan farmer had been killed by a roadside bomb. Scrap metal used for shrapnel was buried everywhere.

For the United States and coalition soldiers fighting the Taliban, every civilian the insurgents kill adds weight to the argument they repeat over and over: "The solution is to make the Taliban go away," Lt. Mark Morrison, a US platoon leader from Albany, N.Y., deployed in southern Afghanistan, told villagers. "That way you won't be in danger, and I won't be in danger."

Homemade bombs were the biggest source of coalition casualties last year, killing 275 out of 520 troops, and almost four times as many civilians.

But with the emphasis of the NATO campaign more firmly fixed than ever on avoiding civilian casualties, insurgents laying improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are usually long gone before confirmation of all the criteria needed to order an attack comes through.

Instead, foreign soldiers focus on cultivating relationships with villagers, trying to persuade them that homemade bombs are just as much a threat to farmers in their fields as they are to NATO soldiers on patrol, and that handing over the insurgents is the only solution. The idea is to beat the IED menace by winning hearts and minds.

"We need your help," Morrison (2nd platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battlion, 12th Infantry Regiment) told a group of Afghan farmers on a recent patrol. "I know how to kill the Taliban – we are very, very good at that. What I need your help with is finding where they come from and where they go to. You need to tell me who doesn't belong with you."

It was phrase he repeated to anyone he stopped to talk to. Making a common cause with the civilians whose support is crucial to the counterinsurgency campaign is an obvious ploy. Only by squeezing the Taliban out of the civilian populations where they hide will NATO be able to push them to the negotiating table, as the architects of US and coalition strategy envision. At a conference in London this week, talk also focused on reaching out to rank-and-file Taliban fighters who might not be ideologically committed to the fight.

But persuading Afghans whose only priority is survival to take a stand is also time-consuming and relentlessly frustrating. Although several civilians had been killed by homemade bombs in Morrison's operations area in Zhari, a volatile district in southern Kandahar Province, few seem ready to risk standing up to the Taliban. Some villagers do oblige; far more profess ignorance of the insurgents' doings or blatantly lie.

Using “night letters,” the insurgents threaten to behead anyone who talks to foreign soldiers. According to locals, they have spies in each village keeping vigil. Laborers in the fields neither want to be seen talking to NATO patrols alone nor questioned in a large group when one of their number may be a Taliban informant. "I have no problem with you guys," one villager says. "But we are scared of the bad guys. They kill innocent people if they see them giving information."

For soldiers engaged in gun battles with the insurgents almost every day, this equivocation is understandable but exasperating.

Says Morrison: "I think more people need to be killed by IEDs before they'll believe ... that the threat is really to everyone.”


Russian Unveils Stealth Fighter Intended to Match U.S. F-22 Raptor

MOSCOW — Russia's first stealth fighter intended to match the latest U.S. design made a successful maiden flight Friday, giving a boost to the country's efforts to modernize its rusting Soviet-built arsenals and retain lucrative export market.

The Sukhoi T-50's flight comes nearly two decades after the first prototype of the U.S. F-22 Raptor took to the air, and Russian officials said it will take another five years for the new jet to enter air force service. Still, the flight marked a major step in Russia's efforts to burnish the faded glory of its once-proud aviation industries and strengthen a beleaguered military.

SLIDESHOW: Russia's Sukhoi T-50 Challenges U.S. Jet

The sleek twin-engined jet closely resembling the Raptor flew for 47-minutes from an airfield at Sukhoi's production plant in the Far Eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur on Friday. Development of the so-called fifth-generation fighter has been veiled in secrecy and no images of it had been released before the maiden flight.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hailed the T-50's flight as a "big step forward," but admitted that "a lot remains to be done in terms of engines and armament."

The NPO Saturn company said in a statement that the jet has new engines, but military analysts suggested that they were a slightly modernized version of the Soviet-era engine powering the Su-27 family of fighters.

"It's a humbug," said independent military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer. "It's just a prototype lacking new engines and a new radar. It takes new materials to build a fifth-generation fighter, and Russia lacks them."

Putin said Friday the first batch of new fighters is set to enter an air force evaluation unit in 2013 and serial production is set to begin in 2015. But analysts were skeptical, pointing at a history of delays in the new fighter program and other Russian weapons projects.

"The schedule will likely be pushed back as usual," said Alexander Konovalov, the head of the Moscow-based Institute of Strategic Assessment, an independent think tank.

Russia's prospective Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile has failed in at least eight of its 12 test launches, dealing a blow to Kremlin's hopes to make the submarine-based weapon a cornerstone of the nation's nuclear arsenal. Officials have blamed the failures on manufacturing flaws resulting from post-Soviet industrial degradation.

Felgenhauer and other observers said the fighter program, which depends on hundreds of subcontractors, has been dogged by similar quality problems.

Russian officials have said the new fighter, like the Raptor, will have a supersonic cruising speed and stealth capabilities. Its pilot, Sergei Bogdan, said in televised remarks that the T-50 was easy and pleasant to fly.

While the new fighter will significantly bolster Russia's air force capability and allow the country to compete more efficiently in the global arms market, some analysts said the country has more pressing needs.

"There is no mission and no adversary for such plane," Konovalov said, adding that the Russian military lacks a modern communications system and satellite navigation. "It would be more expedient to fit modern avionics to older generation jets."

The U.S. administration decided to quit buying the F-22 Raptor plane, the world's most expensive fighter jet at more than $140 million apiece, effectively capping its production at the 186 already ordered.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

French team makes new `miracle' rescue in Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) - A French search team that wouldn't go home pulled off another "miracle" rescue in Port-au-Prince, lifting a 17-year-old girl alive from beneath this cityscape of rubble. Above ground, hundreds of thousands of other survivors hoped for a breakthrough of another kind - the delivery of badly needed food aid.

Key players in the Haiti earthquake relief effort, in what may have been a pivotal meeting, decided to better coordinate by dividing up the city among themselves for handing out food.

Food distribution thus far has often been marked by poor coordination, vast gaps in coverage, and desperate, unruly lines of needy people in which young men at times shoved aside the women and weak and took their food.

"These things should be done in a systematic way, not a random way," Dr. Eddy Delalue, who runs a Haitian relief group, Operation Hope, said Wednesday of the emergency food program. "It's survival of the fittest: The strongest guy gets it."

Wednesday's rescue of teenager Darlene Etienne from a collapsed home near St. Gerard University, 15 days after Haiti's great quake killed an estimated 200,000 people, was the first such recovery since Saturday, when French rescuers extricated a man from the ruins of a hotel grocery store. A man pulled Tuesday from the rubble of a downtown store said he had been trapped during an aftershock, not in the original Jan. 12 quake.

Authorities say it is rare for anyone to survive more than 72 hours without water, let alone more than two weeks. But young Etienne may have had some access to water from a bathroom of the wrecked house, and rescuers said she mumbled something about having a little Coca-Cola with her in the rubble.

Her family said Etienne had just begun studies at St. Gerard when the disaster struck, trapping dozens of students and staff in the rubble of school buildings, hostels and nearby homes. "We thought she was dead," said cousin Jocelyn A. St. Jules.

Then - a half-month after the earthquake - neighbors heard a voice weakly calling from the rubble of a private home down the road from the destroyed university. They called authorities, who brought in the French civil response team.

Rescuer Claude Fuilla walked along the dangerously crumbled roof, heard her voice and saw a little bit of dust-covered black hair in the rubble. Clearing away some debris, he reached the young woman and saw she was alive - barely.

"I don't think she could have survived even a few more hours," Fuilla said.

Digging out a hole big enough to give her oxygen and water, they found she had a very weak pulse. Within 45 minutes they managed to remove her, covered in dust. A neighbor said he believed she was rescued from the house's shower room, where she might have had access to water.

She was extremely dehydrated and weak, with very low blood pressure. She was rushed to a French military field hospital and then the French military hospital ship Sirroco.

France's ambassador to Haiti, Didier le Bret, praised the "stubbornness" of the French rescue squad.

"They should not have been working anymore because, officially, the rescue phase is over," he said. "But they felt that some lives still are to be saved, so we did not say they should leave the country."

At least 135 people buried in rubble have been rescued by search teams since the quake, most in the immediate aftermath.

An Israeli team that earned international praise for its rescue efforts in Haiti returned home Thursday with a 5-year-old boy in need of urgent heart surgery. Israeli leaders gathered at Ben-Gurion airport to welcome the team home.

Also Thursday, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution expressing concern about rights abuses in the wake of the quake and urging the government and aid groups to protect children from violence and exploitation.

The U.N. World Food Program, meanwhile, urgently appealed to governments for more cash for Haiti supplies - $800 million to feed 2 million people through December, more than quadruple the $196 million already pledged.

The WFP, partnered with local and international organizations, had delivered 3.6 million food rations to 458,000 people by Tuesday, the United Nations in Haiti said Thursday.

But food remains scarce for many of the neediest survivors. Relief experts said the scale of this disaster and Haiti's poor infrastructure are presenting unprecedented challenges, but Haitian leaders complain coordination has been poor.

The WFP also noted that rising tensions and security incidents - "including people rushing distribution points for food" - have hampered deliveries.

At some regular distribution points, such as near the Champs de Mars, the central plaza where thousands of homeless are living, daily food handouts have drawn crowds of frantic people. Desperation boiled over earlier this week and Uruguayan peacekeepers retreated as young men rushed forward to grab U.S.-donated bags of beans and rice. A pregnant woman collapsed and was trampled.

Since the relief effort's first days, however, other problems have also delayed aid - blocked and congested roads, shortages of trucks, a crippled seaport and an overloaded Port-au-Prince airport.

In a bid to improve food distribution, representatives of the U.N., the U.S., the Haitian government and private aid groups met Wednesday to discuss coordination. Afterward, Donal Reilly of Catholic Relief Services said they decided to divide Port-au-Prince into zones, designating a major aid agency to be responsible for delivering food to each sector.

That may bring some hope to the newly homeless of the rubble-strewn Bizoton slum, who say they haven't gotten food, water or help with shelter in the two weeks since the earthquake.

"If it rains now, that's it," Wilson St. Ellis, 50, a father of eight, said Wednesday amid plastic sheets stretched here and there as flimsy shields against the elements.


CEN-SAD warns of growing Al-Qaeda, South American drug trade ties

Sahel-Saharan member states must work together to quell the alliance between al-Qaeda and drug traffickers, CEN-SAD Secretary-General Mohamed al-Madani al-Azhari told the bloc's executive session meeting in Libya on Tuesday (January 26th). "Traffic is increasing in our region, particularly drug trafficking from South America. There is close co-operation between drug traffickers and terrorists," Al-Jazeera quoted al-Azhari as saying. An upcoming regional meeting will reportedly address a collective counter-terrorism strategy.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Venezuelan vice president resigns

Venezuelan Vice President Ramon Carrizalez has left the government, reportedly citing personal reasons.

"The President of the Republic… accepted the resignation that was presented for strictly personal reasons by Vice President Ramon Carrizalez," Communications Minister Blanca Eekhout said in a statement on state television, Reuters reported.

The vice president, who also held the defense ministry portfolio, stepped down from that post as well.

Carrizalez previously served as infrastructure minister and housing minister.

State-backed news network Telesur said Carrizalez's wife, Environment Minister Yuviri Ortega, had also stepped down, but the network claimed there was no link between the decision and any differences she had with the government.


Drone Strike on Al Qaeda Scrapped 'Cause Officials Feared Prosecution

White House lawyers are mulling the legality of proposed attempts to kill an American citizen, Anwar al Awlaki, who is believed to be part of the leadership of the al Qaeda group in Yemen behind a series of terror strikes, according to two people briefed by U.S. intelligence officials.

One of the people briefed said opportunities to "take out" Awlaki "may have been missed" because of the legal questions surrounding a lethal attack which would specifically target an American citizen.

A spokesperson said the White House declined to comment.

While Awlaki has not been charged with any crimes under U.S. law, intelligence officials say recent intelligence reports and electronic intercepts show he played an important role in recruiting the accused "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Awlaki also carried on extensive e-mail communication with the accused Fort Hood shooter, Major Nidal Hasan, prior to the attack that killed 12 soldiers and one civilian.

According to the people who were briefed on the issue, American officials fear the possibility of criminal prosecution without approval in advance from the White House for a targeted strike against Awlaki.

An American citizen with suspected al Qaeda ties was killed in Nov. 2002 in Yemen in a CIA predator strike that was aimed at non-American leaders of al Qaeda. The death of the American citizen, Ahmed Hijazi of Lackawanna, NY, was justified as "collateral damage" at the time because he "was just in the wrong place at the wrong time," said a former U.S. official familiar with the case.

In the case of Awlaki, born in New Mexico and a college student in Colorado and California, a strike aimed to kill him would stretch current Presidential authority given to the CIA and the Pentagon to pursue terrorists anywhere in the world.


Tribesmen shot down another US drone

MIRANSHAH: The tribesman on Tuesday shot down another US unmanned spy plane through anti-aircraft gun in North Waziristan region.

According to sources, four US drone aircrafts were hovering over different parts of Waziristan when the tribesmen shot fire at them with anti-aircraft gun. As a result one of the aircrafts crashed in Miranshah area.

According to an eyewitness, the plane’s wreckage fell into Afghanistan’s area.

This was the second drone plane, which was shot down by tribesmen this week.

U.S. in Secret Joint Operations With Yemeni Troops

U.S. military teams and intelligence agencies are deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops, Fox News confirmed.

Yemeni troops in the past six weeks have killed scores of people -- among them six of 15 top leaders of a regional Al Qaeda affiliate -- according to senior administration officials.

The operations, which began six weeks ago, were approved by President Obama and involve several dozen troops from the U.S. military's clandestine Joint Special Operations Command.

A Yemeni official told the Associated Press Tuesday that the U.S. military and intelligence agencies have been participating in joint operations for some time with Yemeni troops, and the two countries are currently in discussions to build a new aviation unit to help bolster Yemen's counterterrorism forces.

Sources say that while the intelligence sharing has been critical, the Yemen military badly needs helicopters for its counterterrorism operations.

U.S. officials have said repeatedly that American advisers do not take part in raids in Yemen, but provide intelligence, surveillance, planning and other weapons assistance.

As part of the operations, Obama approved a Dec. 24 strike against a compound where a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical American-Yemeni Islamic cleric, was thought to be meeting with other regional Al Qaeda leaders. He was not the focus of the strike and was not killed.

Al-Awlaki has been connected with the alleged perpetrators of two recent attacks on American soil: the Nov. 5 shooting rampage at the Fort Hood, Texas, army base and the Christmas airliner bombing attempt.

The broad outlines of the U.S. involvement in Yemen have been reported by the Associated Press and others, but the extent and nature of the operations have not.

A key U.S. complaint is that Yemen's pursuit of Al Qaeda insurgents inside the country has been fitful at best. The low point was the deadly October 2000 Al Qaeda attack on the Navy destroyer USS Cole in Yemen's Aden harbor that killed 17 American sailors.

The terror incubator in Yemen, birthplace of the Christmas Day airliner attack, is forcing the U.S. and allies to pour millions of dollars into a shaky government that officials suspect won't spend the money wisely and isn't fully committed to the battle against Al Qaeda.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other world leaders meet in London on Wednesday to hash out a plan. Efforts to stabilize the impoverished nation, where the government is battling Al Qaeda strongholds with American help, are suddenly urgent after years of faltering.

"Clearly December 25th had an electrifying impact," said Daniel Benjamin, State Department coordinator for counterterrorism. The failed attempt to bring down the Detroit-bound airliner by a Nigerian tied to Yemen's radicals made "many members of the international community think that this was a time to get past the excuses and get back to work."

U.S. officials are uneasy, however, about Yemen's government. President Ali Abdullah Saleh's army has only sporadically pursued the growing Al Qaeda threat in Yemen's vast tribal territory. The United States wants its aid to be closely monitored, and tied to economic and political reforms.

American worries about Yemen's commitment heightened last year after several Yemeni detainees who had been released from Guantanamo Bay prison resurfaced as leaders of the country's growing Al Qaeda faction.

At the same time, the Yemeni government can be undermined by appearing too close to the Americans. The Yemeni people are virulently anti-Israel, and by extension anti-American. Sensitive to that concern, U.S. officials have played down the Pentagon's efforts to provide intelligence and other assistance to the Yemeni military.

The effort, Benjamin acknowledged, will have to overcome a history of failed commitments on all sides.

"The international community made a number of commitments to Yemen and they haven't always been delivered, and Yemenis, as we know, have also sometimes made commitments and haven't always followed through," he said. "The important thing is that the (Yemeni) government's doing the right thing now."

U.S. officials say they want to combine a deeper involvement with the Yemenis on the counterterrorism front with programs designed to alleviate poverty, illiteracy and rapid population growth.

Much like the effort with Pakistan's Frontier Corps, the U.S. military has boosted its counterterrorism training for Yemeni forces, and is providing more intelligence, which probably includes surveillance by unmanned drones, U.S. officials and analysts have told The Associated Press. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the secretive nature of the operations, say the support comes at the request of Yemen.

The Yemeni government largely defeated Al Qaeda forces in 2003, but the terror group was able to rebound more as the government turned its focus to flare-ups by other insurgents. Then, early last year, Al Qaeda groups in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, Yemen's northern neighbor, merged, and turned their efforts toward Islamic jihad beyond those countries' borders.

In the wake of the Christmas attack, Yemen's military has struck repeatedly at Al Qaeda sites. On Tuesday, a Yemeni security official said that 43 people, including several foreigners, are being interrogated there for links to the failed attempt to blow up the Detroit-bound airliner.

Last week, after a meeting in Washington with Clinton, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi stressed "our commitment to continue the fight against terrorism and against radicalization."

Clinton praised Yemen's recent military actions against the Al Qaeda faction there but insisted that extremism could not be rooted out without a focus on economic development, something Saleh has yet to push to U.S. satisfaction.

"Our relationship cannot be just about the terrorists," she said. "As critical as that is to our security and our future ... the best way to really get at some of these underlying problems that exist is through an effective development strategy."

The Yemeni foreign minister praised the American effort, saying that "with the new administration, we have seen a greater understanding to the challenges faced by Yemen and the willingness to help Yemen."

The U.S. currently has a three-year, $121 million development and economic assistance program with Yemen. Separately, it is providing nearly $70 million in military aid this year.

Those numbers are likely to increase, but throughout the past decade, Washington's annual assistance to Yemen hovered in the low $20- to $25-million range.

"Yemen is often overlooked by U.S. policy makers," said Jeremy Sharp, author of a Congressional Research Service report on the country. He described the U.S.-Yemeni relationship as "tepid" with a lack of strong military-to-military ties, commerce and cross-cultural exchanges.

The push for closer ties are also tempered by concerns about Saleh's rule, which has been punctuated by severe disagreements over how Yemen has handled terror suspects, including several detainees implicated in the Cole bombing and detainees released from Guantanamo Bay.

Terrorists from both of those groups have reportedly become leaders of the new Al Qaeda offshoot in Yemen.

But the Yemeni government's response to the terror threat was "basically catch-and-release and that needs to change," said one U.S. official familiar with counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen. "We need to have confidence that the bad guys are locked up." The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.


NATO needs them too.