Monday, November 30, 2009

Pakistan seeks plan with US and Britain to tackle Taliban

PAKISTAN’S PRIME minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has demanded that the United States and the United Kingdom enter a joint strategy with his country to tackle the Taliban on the Afghanistan/ Pakistan border.

Also speaking yesterday, British prime minister Gordon Brown said Pakistan had “to do more” to capture al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

It was not acceptable that eight years on from the 9/11 attacks, he was still free.

The focus on Pakistan by Mr Brown and a series of ministers is striking given Pakistan’s continuing assault on Taliban fighters in its northern border region.

Speaking before he left for Germany, Mr Gilani said extra US and British troops in Afghanistan could make his difficulties worse if it simply led to the Taliban slipping across the border to escape.

“We have highlighted our concerns about the possible increase in US forces in Afghanistan. Our fear is that if the troops are increased, the militants might spill over to Pakistan,” he said.

Meanwhile, the January meeting in London of international leaders will sign off on a plan to prepare to hand over security to Afghan police and military, following extra training for new Afghan soldiers.

Four hundred provincial and district governors will be appointed within nine months to improve local governance and end corruption, while Afghan security should take the lead in five of the country’s 34 provinces by the end of next year.

The January 28th conference in London is expected to be attended by Afghan president Hamid Karzai, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and the foreign ministers of 42 other countries involved in Afghanistan.

In television interviews yesterday, Mr Brown said questions had to be asked why no one had been able to “spot or detail or get close to” the al-Qaeda leader, and said Pakistan must do more “to break” the organisation.

Pakistan had to join “in the major effort that the world is committing resources to, and that is not only to isolate al-Qaeda, but to break them in Pakistan”, Mr Brown told the BBC.

Mr Brown will meet Mr Gilani in Downing Street on Thursday.

Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari was given notice in a telephone conversation of Mr Brown’s determination to focus on the al-Qaeda leader.

“We should have been able to do more . . . to get to the bottom of where al-Qaeda is operating from,” he said.

He added that Pakistan had to make sure it was taking on the Taliban directly during its current military operations in South Waziristan.

“We want, after eight years, to see more progress in taking out these two people at the top of al-Qaeda, who have done so much damage and are clearly the brains behind many of the operations that have hit Britain,” said Mr Brown.

However, the focus on bin Laden has surprised some security quarters, given a prevailing view among many of them that bin Laden is little more than a figurehead, and not directly running terrorist operations.

Supporting Mr Brown, foreign secretary David Miliband said: “We want the Pakistan government, the Pakistan security forces, to join us in upping our game in ensuring that the badlands of the Afghan-Pakistan border are no longer able to be a centre for international terrorism.”

Given that US president Barack Obama will this week announce major troop increases, Mr Miliband said that it is “right that we recognise that stability in Afghanistan requires stability in Pakistan”.

* Pakistan’s president has transfered authority over the nation’s nuclear weapons to the prime ministership, as the unpopular leader tries to deflect growing criticism he has too much power.

President Asif Ali Zardari, beset by corruption allegations, has been under pressure to give up sweeping powers that his predecessor Pervez Musharraf accumulated for the presidency.

The transfer of the chairmanship of the National Command Authority (NCA), which oversees Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, came as Mr Zardari could face pressure after the lapse of an amnesty opened several of his top aides to prosecution on graft charges.That amnesty, and growing criticism that Mr Zardari has too much power, may herald more political instability in Pakistan.

The prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, told reporters the transfer of the chairmanship was a “a true litmus test” of relations between him and Zardari.

Taliban enticed with jobs, cash

THE US-led coalition and the Afghan government are launching an initiative to persuade Taliban insurgents to lay down their weapons, offering jobs and protection to the militants who abandon their fight.

While President Hamid Karzai's government has been trying to woo these insurgents for years, the new program marks the first time that NATO forces are systematically reaching out to Taliban fighters.

The Afghan government has had a reconciliation program in place since 2004, and claims to have turned more than 8000 insurgents. That program, however, is widely derided as corrupt and ineffective. Insurgents were enticed with offers of jobs but rarely received the promised assistance, leading many to rejoin the fight.

Western officials behind the new reconciliation program say most insurgents are fighting for money - the Taliban often pay their members - or because of personal grievances. Luring such men from the battlefield is a central component of the US's new counter-insurgency strategy crafted by US General Stanley McChrystal.

"It is an issue of dialogue. We need to establish respect, even if they are the enemy," said Graeme Lamb, a retired British general who spearheaded a similar effort to turn Sunni insurgents in Iraq, and who oversees the campaign out of NATO headquarters in Kabul.

The Afghan government and coalition military officials have already begun using tribal elders and other influential figures to reach out to the Taliban in southern Helmand province. The elders negotiate on behalf of the government, and insurgents are offered jobs with the local police force. Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal said, if necessary, the authorities would pay cash to those willing to lay down arms.

The Taliban's senior leadership met the new reconciliation efforts with scorn. The Islamist movement is "considering this decision as a sign of weakness and complete despondency of the enemy", Mullah Brader Akhund, the Afghan Taliban's second-in-command, said in a statement.

Gul Wazir, a Taliban commander who fought the Americans for nearly eight years south of Kabul, has been disappointed with the Afghan government's current reconciliation program. When Mr Wazir decided to stop fighting in September, the government promised to protect him from his erstwhile comrades and find him a job.

But no job or protection materialised, and Mr Wazir said he was forced to flee to Kabul. "The government hasn't done a single thing for me," he says. "My life was better when I was fighting."

Taliban fighters escape Pakistani offensive, but to where?

ISLAMABAD -- Most of the Taliban fighters and all of their leaders apparently have escaped Pakistan's widely publicized six-week-old offensive in South Waziristan, forcing the army to begin pounding other parts of the country's lawless tribal area.

Since Nov. 22, Pakistan has been launching aerial attacks on suspected militant hideouts in Orakzai, another part of the tribal area, and on Tuesday it extended operations to Khyber, the tribal territory closest to Peshawar, the provincial capital.

Though the army has extended its reach and now controls much of the former Taliban fiefdom in South Waziristan, the threat that was supposed to be extinguished seems likely to persist.

The Pakistani military also is likely to remain preoccupied with chasing the domestic threat rather than bowing to U.S. pressure to take on the Afghan Taliban groups, who've used North Waziristan as a base for attacking the U.S. and allied troops and the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan.

In Khyber, which houses the main supply route for NATO troops in Afghanistan, government forces killed 18 militants and seized their arms dumps, according to the Frontier Corp paramilitary force. In Orakzai, thought by many to be the most likely hiding place now of Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud, government forces have killed at least 20 extremists.

"The Waziristan operation is real, I'm sure of that, but where are the bad guys?" asked one Western security official visiting Pakistan, who couldn't be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.

The Pakistani operation, carried out by about 30,000 troops, targeted the part of South Waziristan occupied by the Mehsud tribe and was meant to eliminate the bulk of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, the group behind most of the terrorist attacks inside the country, along with their Arab and Central Asian partners who are closely associated with al-Qaida.

Many, however, think that the government blundered by announcing the operation four months in advance, giving plenty of time to the extremists to plan a retreat.

With more than half the targeted territory now conquered, the Pakistani army has claimed it killed fewer than 600 militants, at a cost of 70 soldiers. Before the operation began, the army had estimated enemy strength at 10,000 to 15,000 fighters, leaving the whereabouts of the rest a mystery. They're considered unlikely to be in North Waziristan, as it houses the rival Wazir tribe and a competing faction of Taliban.

There's no word on the location of Mehsud, while his spokesman, Azam Tariq, is able to continue issuing propaganda.

"We have not been defeated. We have voluntarily withdrawn into the mountains under a strategy that will trap the Pakistan army in the area," Azam Tariq told a news conference recently at a secret location.

The army took nearly a week to subdue Mehsud's birthplace of Kotkai in South Waziristan, one of its first major objectives, and it met strong resistance in the towns of Kaniguram and Sararogha.

Then, the victories got easier. As the army pressed forward to the extremist "capital" of Makeen, which is now in army hands, the insurgents vacated areas - though the army points out that 17 soldiers died taking Makeen.

"We still receive RPG (rocket propelled grenade) fire from areas sometimes, but the troops quickly respond to kill them or force them to flee. There's no direct fighting here right now," a mid-ranking Pakistan military official who had seen the operation in South Waziristan. "The troops are busy removing IEDs (improvised explosive devices), searching for bunkers and arms caches; many have been removed. We are consolidating our positions now in the hilly areas to block militants from using them for launching attacks."

The official couldn't be identified by name because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.

Not only do the Taliban appear to have largely escaped but their ability to stage terrorist attacks inside Pakistan also is undiminished, as evidenced by a savage onslaught against Peshawar.

However, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the chief army spokesman, insisted that the army achieved a "huge change," by dividing the TTP into scattered groups, and taking over their training camps and other infrastructure. He said many could still be hiding in remote forests and mountains inside South Waziristan.

"Once we consolidate our position, it will radiate effects all around," Abbas said. "It is not the numbers of those who escaped that matters. I think we have broken the TTP."

Analysts think that the Taliban will stage a comeback, in tactics similar to their Afghan allies' withdrawal from Helmand in Afghanistan this summer, in the face of an American offensive, only to return later with hit-and-run tactics that have inflicted the worst monthly casualties of the war on U.S. forces.

"The strategy that the army has adopted (in South Waziristan) is very conventional and very predictable," said Javed Hussain, formerly a brigadier with the Pakistani special forces. "Three or four months from now, they (the Taliban) are going to bounce back. When the army is deployed to hold the area, the guerrillas will start their hit-and-run attacks against the army's lines of communication, and all over the tribal area."

(Shah is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)

Under fire Pakistan president claims success against Taliban

ISLAMABAD — Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has claimed "considerable success" in a military offensive against the Taliban, but criticism of his rule mounted Sunday threatening further instability.

Zardari, who is battling a Taliban insurgency, increasing unpopularity and strained relations with the military, made the remarks during a telephone conversation late Saturday with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

They come as an amnesty protecting Zardari and key aides from corruption cases expired, and after he handed over control of the country's nuclear arsenal to the prime minister in an apparent move to appease his critics.

"Referring to the ongoing drive against militancy in the tribal areas of South Waziristan, the president said that considerable success had been achieved," presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said in a statement.

"The operation would continue until the area is cleared of terrorists and the objectives are achieved," Zardari told the British prime minister.

But Brown told BBC television on Sunday that Pakistan must do more to hunt down the Al-Qaeda-linked militants hiding out along its borders, saying it was not enough to isolate them, but Islamabad must "break them in Pakistan."

"We have to ask ourselves why eight years after September the 11th, nobody has been able to spot or detain or get close to Osama bin Laden," he said.

Pakistan sent about 30,000 troops backed by fighter jets and helicopter gunships into South Waziristan on October 17, in the most ambitious operation yet against the Taliban in their mountain stronghold near the Afghan border.

Although there has been some resistance in the region, many officials and analysts believe most of the estimated 10,000 Taliban guerrillas in the district have escaped into neighbouring Orakzai and North Waziristan.

Pakistan is also facing political uncertainty after the legal amnesty protecting dozens of politicians from prosecution expired Saturday.

Zardari enjoys immunity as president, but his government is seen as too weak to secure an extension of the ordinance in parliament, and its expiration opens the door for possible legal cases against senior cabinet ministers.

The president on Saturday gave control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, widely seen as a move to fend off criticism by making good on electoral promises to devolve greater power to parliament.

"Now the time has come to fulfil promises and Mr President should keep his promises," said opposition politician Shahbaz Sharif, brother of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

"He has been making promises to repeal the 17th amendment and now the time has come that finally he should honour his promises."

The 17th amendment to the constitution was introduced by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, and gives the president the power to dissolve parliament and sack the prime minister.

Zardari replaced Musharraf as president last year after his Pakistan People's Party won elections, but his approval ratings are at rock bottom as the nation struggles with Taliban violence and a recession.

Security has drastically deteriorated in Pakistan since Islamabad joined the US-led "war on terror". Hundreds of Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants fled into the tribal belt after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.

The South Waziristan offensive has also prompted a retaliatory surge in suicide attacks targeting civilians and security officials.

The United States has welcomed Pakistan's military efforts but is reportedly pressuring the civilian government to also counter militants on Pakistani soil who attack NATO and US troops across the border in Afghanistan.

On Sunday, eight militants were reported killed in clashes with troops in the tribal districts of Khyber -- the main supply route for NATO trucks heading to Afghanistan -- and in South Waziristan, military officials said.


Why did US-Taliban talks fail?

LAHORE: The American initiative to hold talks with the Afghan Taliban through Saudi and Pakistani intelligence agencies has failed to produce desired results so far primarily due to the trust deficit between the two sides and the obstinacy of the former rulers of Afghanistan who are still determined to fight out along with the US-led allies before re-establishing their erstwhile empire, the Islamic Emirate of Taliban.

Amidst fresh media reports that the US has undertaken a re-think of its Afghan policy, well informed diplomatic circles in Islamabad say Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, pushed by the decision makers in Washington and London, had been brokering talks between the Taliban and the Karzai government for almost two years now but without any results, chiefly because the Taliban representatives have never been easy to talk to.

These circles added that the American Central Investigation Agency (CIA) is busy holding secret talks with the Taliban with the help of the Saudi leadership and the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) of Saudi Arabia and the Pakistani leadership and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).

The Pakistani Foreign Office sources in Islamabad say the back-channel talks were motivated by the fact that eight years after the US invasion of Afghanistan, the deteriorating security situation in the country has prompted a review of the US strategists who have failed to deliver victory to the resourceful NATO forces against the ragtag Taliban militia. There is a military standoff despite the fact that the lightly armed Taliban guerrilla fighters in terms of firepower should have been no match for the world’s only superpower and the best western armies. Subsequently, having declared the Afghan war un-winnable, even the NATO military commanders now want to engage the Taliban not in the battlefield but at the negotiating table. Therefore, there is talk of negotiations with the Taliban and even offering them a share in the Afghan administration as part of a political settlement.

Under these circumstances, the head of the US Central Command, General David Petraeus has already stated that the US should be prepared to talk to its enemies, followed by the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke’s November 24 statement that Saudi Arabia has initiated a dialogue with the Taliban and that the United States would support any Saudi initiative.

This is a sea change in the views of the Western nations that followed US to send troops to Afghanistan to fight the supposedly common enemy, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Until now they seemed determined to defeat al-Qaeda and Taliban and extend the writ of President Karzai’s government to all corners of Afghanistan. But lately, it appears that the emphasis is shifting and the game plan is to bring the Taliban on board and wean them away from Al-Qaeda. The outcasts of yesterday, after being demonised, are being lobbied hard and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are being used to rope them in. Therefore, the US has already, for the first time, declared officially that the Afghan problem needs to be resolved politicaally, through reconciliation.

According to the Pakistani establishment circles, the secret talks involve officials from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, United States and Britain, some key leaders of the Afghan Taliban and the chief of the Islamabad-based Jamiatul Ansar Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil. The sources say the representatives of the Karzai government and the Afghan Taliban had already held secret talks in Makkah from September 24 to 27, 2008. Yet the parleys remained futile even after four-day long marathon session as the Saudis failed to give a timeframe on behalf of the US for the withdrawal of the western forces from Afghanistan.

The Taliban representatives had maintained during the Makkah talks that the exit of the NATO and ISAF forces was a pre-requisite to strike a peace deal with the Karzai regime, in line with Osama’s stance that the US troops should leave Saudi Arabia as well as other Muslim countries. At least 18 Afghans met with Saudi leader King Abdullah and other Saudi officials in September 2008.

The Pakistani establishment sources say it was actually Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the former head of the Saudi intelligence agency, who had requested Pakistan to use its influence on the Taliban and to make them agree to hold talks at Makkah. A senor Saudi official reportedly travelled to the troubled North Waziristan on the Pak-Afghan border before the Makkah talks to interact with the Taliban top brass. He wanted to see Dr Ayman Al Zawahiri but he was not allowed a meeting and instead was asked to see the third-tier leaders. Taliban eventually agreed to dispatch some of their representatives to Saudia to attend the Makkah talks.

During the talks, the representatives of the US and the Karzai regime had their own preconditions, the most important being that the Taliban militia should accept Afghanistan’s new constitution and join the political mainstream under the existing system of governance.

The Americans also wanted the Ameer of the Afghhan Taliban Mullah Mohammad Omar to ditch Al-Qaeda and help arrest Osama bin Laden. The talks eventually failed due to the obstinacy of the Taliban representatives who wanted the withdrawal of the US-led allied forces from Afghanistan before initiating a formal dialogue with the US and the Karzai administration.

Taliban leader rules out talks with Karzai

KABUL — The Taliban's reclusive leader has ruled out talks with President Hamid Karzai and called on Afghans to break off relations with his "stooge" administration.

In a statement, Mullah Omar also insisted foreign troops were losing the war in Afghanistan.

His message, issued Wednesday ahead of the Muslim Eid holiday, came a week after Karzai reached out to the Taliban during his inauguration speech, saying it was important to include in the government former Taliban who were ready to renounce terrorism. The hardline militia has long refused to negotiate with the Karzai government or join what it considers a puppet administration.

"Ground realities in our beloved country indicate that the invaders are about to escape," Omar said in the message posted on a Web site used by the Taliban and e-mailed to journalists from an address often used to send out his statements.

Omar led the Taliban regime that was toppled by the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and has not been seen since. Afghan officials claim he is in hiding in Pakistan.

As the Taliban insurgency gathers strength, President Barack Obama has been considering plans to send tens of thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. U.S. military officials expect an infusion of approximately 32,000 to 35,000 troops to begin in February or March. It would be the largest expansion since the beginning of the war eight years ago.

NATO countries are also preparing to send more soldiers, with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown saying 10 NATO nations are ready to offer about 5,000 more troops. Britain, which has 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, the second-largest contingent after the United States, has not named the countries it claims will provide the extra troops.

As part of efforts to bolster Afghanistan's own security forces, the Interior Ministry announced Wednesday a salary hike for police to help boost recruitment and retention and curb rampant corruption in the force that suffers a higher death rate than the nation's army.

Bolstering Afghanistan's police force, which is underpaid and under-equipped, is seen as crucial to improving security and eventually allowing foreign troops to go home.

Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar said monthly salaries for police working in high-risk areas will increase from $180 to $240, while those of police in lower risk areas will increase from $120 to $210.

Chief spokesman for the NATO-led force in Afghanistan acknowledged the Taliban had gained momentum in their insurgency. "We need to neutralize locally some of those initiatives to slow them down," Canadian Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay said.

But he also said the militants were aware of progress made in the country with international support, so were trying to undermine the government.

"At the end, President Karzai has been quite clear that reconciliation and reintegration is on the table," Tremblay said.

In his message, the Taliban leader urged Afghans to eschew the Karzai government.

"I hope you will continue your legitimate jihad (holy war) and struggle in the way of realizing your Islamic aspirations ... and break off all relations with the stooge Kabul administration," Omar said.

Omar said there would be no negotiations that would prolong or legitimize the presence of foreign forces in the country.

"Those who have occupied our country and taken our people as hostage, want to use the stratagem of negotiation like they used the drama of elections for some time in order to achieve their colonialist objectives," he said. "However, the people of Afghanistan will not agree to negotiation which prolongs and legitimizes the invaders' military presence."

The Taliban leader lambasted U.S.-backed efforts to create militias that would fight the militants — a plan that has been compared to the U.S.-fostered Awakening Councils in Iraq, which have often been credited with reducing violence there, and similar to neighboring Pakistan's tribal armies which also have been touted as a success.

Omar called on Taliban militants to "mete out an exemplary punishment to those who are leading these mischief-making activities."

But he urged them to avoid civilian deaths. Taliban bombs often kill civilians in their pursuit of government or military targets.

Militants were to blame for about three-quarters of the 1,500 civilian deaths in the first eight months of 2009, according to the United Nations. However, the Taliban statement blamed U.S. and NATO forces for killing civilians in military operations, and said these nations are guilty of human rights abuses because of the mistreatment of prisoners.

Separately, the Danish army said Wednesday a Danish soldier had been killed by an explosive device during foot patrol in southern Afghanistan.

Elsewhere, the U.S. military said Wednesday that it had lost contact with a Predator drone in southern Afghanistan on Saturday.

The U.S. Air Force Central Command said in a statement that there was "no indication enemy action was involved." It said the unmanned aircraft's primary mission was reconnaissance.


US in back-channel talks with Afghan Taliban

ISLAMABAD: After fighting a bloody war in Afghanistan for more than eight years, the United States appears to have undertaken a re-think of its policy and has started engaging the Taliban in negotiations through Saudi and Pakistani intelligence agencies, highly-placed sources told Dawn here on Monday.

‘We have started ‘engagement’ with the Afghan Taliban and are hopeful that our efforts will bear fruit,’ a source involved in secret negotiations told this correspondent.

He said that four ‘major neutral players’ were engaged with the Afghan Taliban on behalf of the Saudi leadership and the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) of Saudi Arabia and the Pakistani leadership and Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).

The GID and ISI have been doing the job on behalf of the US government and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The source said that one of the main objectives of the recent visit to Pakistan by CIA chief Leon Panetta was to assess progress in the back-channel negotiations.

The source said that four leaders were playing the role of mediators on behalf of the Saudis and the Afghan Taliban.

Among them is Abdullah Anas, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden’s mentor Abdullah Azzam who was killed in Peshawar in 1989 along with his two sons. Anas lives in the UK, but maintains close links with the Afghan Taliban and even Al Qaida.

Saudi national Abul Hassan Madni, once a prominent leader of Rabta-i-Alam-i-Islami, has also been in the picture. He lives in Madina.

Abu Jud Mehmood Samrai, an Iraqi who is married to a Pakistani woman, has also been contacted. He was given Pakistani nationality by former president Ziaul Haq for his role in the Afghan war.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, a Pakistani militant leader, is also in the loop. Khalil, who co-founded the Harkatul Ansar, currently heads Hizbul Mujahideen.

He had signed the famous decree issued by Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri in 1998 calling for killing the Americans. Khalil commands respect among both Pakistani and Afghani Taliban and is said to have played a secret mediatory role with Pakistani authorities for peace in the country.

Reliable sources also told Dawn that Mullah Umar, the chief of Afghan Taliban, has nominated his shadow foreign minister, Agha Motasam, to negotiate with the Americans. They said that talks held so far were of a preliminary nature, but may resume on a serious note after Eid.

On Monday, Barack Obama will call for a troop surge. What really matters is a potential sea change in U.S. policy toward its enemy

WASHINGTON–If the horns of his dilemma weren't already obvious, President Barack Obama now has this unsavoury sequence at hand.

Monday, in what promises to be the foreign policy speech of his young presidency, Obama will take ownership of the faltering war in Afghanistan.

And barely a week later, in a moment of impending irony too close for comfort, he will fly to Oslo and take ownership of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Between these two unlikely events, Congress will return belly-full from Thanksgiving turkey to chew on Obama's agonizing decision – (another) troop surge, (another) retooled strategy, this time designed around the counterintuitive ideal that America will go big in Afghanistan in order to go home – and decide whether to pay for it.

With the war already bleeding the U.S. Treasury more than $3.6 billion a month, the extra 30,000 soldiers in this ante-upping plan are expected to drive the cost to $6 billion.

Soured by eight unbroken years of overseas fighting and an economic tailspin of unemployment, Americans will brace for the bitter taste of hard-sell as the White House lines up not just Obama but its entire Afghanistan war council to make the case that more is less. That in ramping up, the U.S. will simultaneously locate the road home for the troops.

Yet while the debate has been all about the surge, what matters most is not numbers but strategy – not just in the words from Obama, but actual change on the ground. And here, a case for dramatically lowered expectations – a healthy dose of realism that Afghanistan cannot be made good, but maybe, just maybe good enough – appears imminent.

White House and U.S. military sources have signalled for weeks that part of the way forward will be a redefinition of the Taliban as perhaps not so bad after all. Or not so very much worse, at least, than the corruption-plagued regime that has metastasized beneath Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"We believe our strategic problem with the Taliban begins and ends with their support for al Qaeda and their aggression against the United States and our allies," a U.S. official in Kabul told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"If the Taliban made clear that they have broken with al Qaeda and that their own objectives were nonviolent and political – however abhorrent to us – we wouldn't be keeping 68,000-plus troops here."

In this respect, at least, the U.S. now appears to be coming around to the candid view articulated by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the sidelines of last year's NATO summit in Bucharest – that the lofty ideals articulated in the early years of the conflict are unrealistic. Afghanistan will still be a mess when NATO leaves. Violence will continue. That perhaps now the best-case scenario to end this latest chapter of the Great Game is a grand bargain with the other side – Afghan reconciliation, involving those who can be reconciled.

But in upping the ante, Team Obama accepts that the U.S.-led effort first must establish a firmer hold on the country to improve its leverage, even as it dispatches academics such as New York University scholar Barnett Rubin, one of the country's foremost authorities on Afghanistan, to work the back channels toward rapprochement.

Taliban leader-in-exile, one-eyed Mullah Mohammad Omar, again rejected the prospect for peace talks in a statement this week, saying: "The people of Afghanistan will not agree to negotiation which prolongs and legitimizes the invader's military presence in our beloved country. Afghanistan is our home."

But beneath the bluster, the U.S. senses room for movement. Rubin and fellow Washington insider Thomas Pickering, leading a joint task force earlier this year, reported that "the (Taliban) Quetta shura is showing signs of willingness to distance itself from al Qaeda and seek a political settlement."

In the wake of Karzai's fraud-soaked re-election, Obama is expected to hinge all future commitments on the discredited Afghan regime's ability to mend its ways. And also on the broader, comprehensive strategy that amps up pressure on neighbouring Pakistan.

All this is more than a tall order as Obama tilts toward the grudging terrain of Republican hawks, for whom the military can do no wrong and the President can do no right. And an enormously bitter pill for America's doves – anti-war Democrats who helped engineer last year's presidential victory on the promise of exit from Iraq.

The long-suffering leadership in NATO capitals everywhere will hang on Obama's every word when he speaks Monday at West Point military academy in New York. They, too, are feeling the White House heat, with amped-up pleas for another 10,000 soldiers to fill the gap demanded by Obama's military overseer in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Other numbers matter more – the rising public distaste for the conflict on almost every home front. The Netherlands and Canada, barring a last-minute change of heart by the Harper government, have had enough of the heavy lifting and appear politically incapable of answering U.S. pleas for more.

Germany, now wracked with its own internal scandal over an alleged cover-up of its military role in September air strikes on stolen fuel tankers that caused scores of Afghan civilian deaths, also appears stuck. French President Nicolas Sarkozy last month vowed he "will not send a single soldier more."

Britain, where public support for the conflict also is plummeting – and where Defence Minister Bob Ainsworth this week openly criticized Obama for dragging out his decision – appears willing to buck the tide with a modest infusion of new troops.

And quietly, in an echo of what turned the tide in Iraq, the U.S. appears to be readying a push toward winning Afghanistan valley by valley with offers of cash for local Afghan militia leaders willing to come onside the renewed U.S. effort. The program, reportedly led by U.S. Special Forces, could see as much as $1.3 billion made available to bring Afghan militias into a stand against anti-government guerrillas.

The latter move worries many longtime Afghan analysts, given that it runs counter to the earlier United Nations effort at disarming militias throughout the country. Afghanistan, they warn, is massively more complex than Iraq and empowering yet more local armies might only make it worse.

But with an estimated 25 per cent of the Afghan National Army resigning each year at the end of the traditional summer fighting season, there appear drastically few options for placing enough control in Afghan hands to enable a way out for U.S. and its NATO allies.

With such a range of unenviable choices and the certainty that these will bring still more U.S. bodybags home, little wonder Team Obama spent months poring over the details.

Now comes the hard part selling it to Americans and the rest of the world. And the infinitely harder part – making it work.

The IoS Christmas Appeal: The Taliban are being routed, but at a terrible price in human misery

Sher Ahmed Khan, a Pakistani subsistence farmer and day labourer, is 35, but his red-rimmed eyes and thinning hair make him look older. When he relates what happened to his family on 28 April this year, you begin to understand why he seems weighed down by care. "We knew the army was about to attack the Taliban, but we didn't understand what that would mean," he said. "I was working when the operation started, and people escaping the fighting told me my house had been hit. I found my four-year-old son Bilal dead. My wife and the other four children were wounded. The house was destroyed, and everything was soaked in blood." A rocket-propelled grenade fired by the Taliban at a military helicopter had missed its target.

After two months in a camp, the family returned to their village in Buner district, but their lives remain shattered. "We are all living in one room, I don't have the money to rebuild any more of the house," said Sher Ahmed. "I used to sell milk from our cow and hire out my horse and cart, but my animals were also killed. Now and then I can earn about 250 rupees [less than £2] a day unloading goods in the market."

To most people in the West, the battle against al-Qa'ida and its allies seems remote. But Sher Ahmed Khan and his family are among millions of ordinary Pakistanis to whom the struggle has meant death or terror, as well as the loss of homes and livelihoods. While Britain and America applaud Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari for finally cracking down on creeping extremism within his country's borders, many innocent civilians are caught in the middle.

This year's Christmas appeal by The Independent on Sunday is in support of the work of ActionAid in Buner and Swat, two districts in north-west Pakistan that were engulfed in this year's fighting which drove nearly two million people from their homes. Though most have since returned, they often found their houses looted or in ruins. Farmers have lost their crops and livestock, hundreds of schools and clinics have been bombed or trashed, and official food handouts are reaching only a fraction of the population. A cash-strapped Pakistani government has promised 25,000 rupees (about £180) in compensation to each family, but Sher Ahmed has yet to see it.

Nor can the situation in Buner and Swat be called stable, even now. Pockets of militants remain in the mountains, and in many areas people hear shooting at night. The army maintains a 6pm to 6am curfew in Buner, hampering the work of farmers. They have also been forbidden to plant maize, a staple crop in the region, because the military says the tall stalks could hide Taliban infiltrators.

Above all, there is still pervasive fear. Particularly in the Swat valley, which suffered for years from the ambivalent attitude of the previous military government towards the Taliban – vacillating between half-hearted attacks and attempts to buy them off – people are terrified that the militants could come back, so they measure their words with extreme caution. "The scales are in favour of one side now, but who knows what will happen in the future?" asked one man in Mingora, the capital of Swat.

Zohra Bibi, 49, a widow in Buner, was one person unafraid to speak out. "My husband and I were very much against the Taliban, because they have destroyed the peace of our land," she told me. "He hated them so much that you couldn't mention the Taliban in front of him." A bitter irony, then, to learn that Bakht Karim Shah, a 52-year-old secondary school principal, was killed not by the extremists, but by the army.

"Karim was acting as an external examiner at another school, and was driving home, completely unaware that the soldiers had declared a curfew," said Zohra, who has been left with 10 children, the youngest aged three. "When he passed a checkpoint without stopping, an armoured vehicle opened fire on the car. He bled to death on the spot, because no one was allowed to give him first aid."

The army had never apologised. "They said it was a difficult time, he had violated the curfew, and for all they knew, he could have been a terrorist," Zohra added.

A week earlier in a village a few miles away, 44-year-old Tajori's husband was killed by the Taliban. Gul Saeed, 49, was one of six policemen shot by the extremists to terrorise the population of Buner. "He told us that the Taliban might come, but never spoke of his own fears," said Tajori. Their eldest son Iqrar, 23, added: "I begged him not to go to work that day, but he said he had to do his duty."

The army operation of April and May halted a nightmare process lasting several years, in which the extremists extended their influence from the mountains of northern Swat into the plain, and southwards into Buner, only a couple of hours by road from the capital, Islamabad. Many people I spoke to said that initially they sympathised with the Pakistani wing of the Taliban against the unpopular, unelected government of Pervez Musharraf. "It was only this year that we saw the Taliban's true nature," said one.

The catalyst for that was a disastrous attempt by President Zardari to compromise with the militants, who were allowed to introduce their version of Islamic law (sharia) in the Swat and Buner valleys in return for an agreement to disarm, which was never honoured. Instead women were forced into the burqa, girls' schools were bombed along with music and video shops, and barbers who continued giving their customers shaves and haircuts – Islamist zealots insist on untrimmed beards and hair – had their throats cut and their bodies strung up.

In the spring, the government lost patience and launched an all-out military assault, preceded by heavy airstrikes and artillery barrages. As an elected administration it could claim popular support, but the operation killed scores of civilians and caused 90 per cent of the population of Buner and Swat to escape to camps and relatives' homes in other parts of Pakistan. Now they are back, they face a harsh winter with scarce resources.

People here know all too well what lies ahead in South Waziristan, where some 350,000 civilians have fled the latest offensive, and where ActionAid is also preparing to help. With the international spotlight having moved away from Buner and Swat, however, there is a danger that the ordeal of its inhabitants will pass unnoticed. A fertile region, once prosperous by Pakistani standards, with a thriving tourist and honeymoon trade founded on Swat's mountainous scenery, has been left devastated. Zohra Bibi did not learn her husband was dead until half an hour before he was buried, such was the haste of her entire village to flee the fighting. "I have never recovered," she said. "As I looked at his body I wondered,'What is the future for my children?'" The family is grateful to ActionAid and its local partners, which have given them a cow. "Even if the younger children have nothing to eat, they at least have milk," said their mother.

With your support, Actionaid can send help to many more victims of the conflict, such as Sher Ahmed Khan. He said: "We are still in shock. At night I cannot help but think about what happened to the family, and the son we lost. Whenever the other children hear a helicopter, they are terrified. They will remember this all their lives."

What your money buys

The Independent on Sunday's Christmas appeal is for the work of ActionAid in Pakistan, where millions of innocent civilians have lost their homes and livelihoods in the battle against al-Qa'ida and its allies. Your donations to ActionAid, which has been working in the country since 1992, will help these people rebuild their lives.

Taliban amnesty betrays US connivance with war criminals

A front-page New York Times story Nov. 28, "Afghans Offer Jobs to Taliban If They Defect," indicates that Hamid Karzai's government—presumably with Washington's support—is enlisting traditional tribal elders "to lure local fighters and commanders away from the Taliban by offering them jobs in development projects..." Note the "and commanders"—claims that the amnesty was just aimed at Taliban cannon fodder appear to have been the thin end of the wedge. The Canadian Press meanwhile reports that with the insurgency gaining ground—and a corrupt government unable to keep its promises—the amnesty effort is winning few former fighters. "The Taliban are getting stronger than they were before," said Haji Agha Lalai, a prominent Panjwaii district elder and former director of Kandahar's reconciliation program. "Also the government does not support us very well and we could not fulfill our promises to Taliban."

Coming on the heels of revelations that US contractors are paying the Taliban protection money and that the Taliban fight with captured US weapons, as well as a popular conspiracy theory in Afghanistan that the US is actively collaborating with the Taliban, this news recalls Karzai's 2007 amnesty for Mujahedeen fighters—including some of the bloodiest fundamentalist warlords. All these developments reveal the hypocrisy of US claims to be defending democracy, secularism and women's rights in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, too many anti-war voices are openly encouraged at this betrayal of Afghanistan's women, ethnic minorities and other intended Taliban targets. For instance, the October issue of Jim Hightower's Hightower Lowdown enthuses:

Let's be clear. As a group, the Taliban is a nasty outfit—especially in its rigid and brutal subjugation of girls and women. But not every member or even every leader is barbaric thug, and the moderates are the ones we should be working with.

The typical song-and-dance: a lukewarm and perfunctory admission that the Taliban are a "nasty outfit" (how about "war criminals"?), followed by a call to "work with" their "moderates"—and not only foot-soldiers but "leaders."

Authentic Afghan voices for democracy, secularism and women's rights oppose the US/NATO occupation precisely because the US has connived with fundamentalist war criminals from the day it arrived in Afghanistan. Foremost among these voices is the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), who maintained clandestine schools for girls under Taliban rule at the ultimate personal risk. Their website has a page outlining Taliban restrictions and mistreatment of women under their 1996-2003 rule, including:

Complete ban on women's activity outside the home unless accompanied by a mahram (close male relative such as a father, brother or husband).

Whipping of women in public for having non-covered ankles.

Public stoning of women accused of having sex outside marriage.

Ban on women talking or shaking hands with non-mahram males.

Ban on women laughing loudly. (No stranger should hear a woman's voice).

This goes somewhat beyond "rigid." RAWA's representative Zoya toured the US earlier this fall, and voiced unequivocal opposition to the US occupation and fundamentalist warlords alike—whether they are in collaboration or insurgency. Speaking to the Daily News of Newburyport following a presentation at the Friend's Meeting House in the Massachusetts town of Amesbury Oct. 19, Zoya had this to say when asked about the danger of a civil war should the US pull out:

"It will happen tomorrow or in 35 years," she said. "I'd rather it happen sooner, than having our people die slowly under occupation. We must face our own problems and create our own democracy. You cannot make a democracy under gunpoint."

India Wants US-Led Military Offensive Against Taliban To Continue In Afghanistan

India has mentioned it needs military offensive led by the US for continuing its fights against Taliban in Afghanistan.

When asked about India’s stance stance on US-led military offensive in Afghanistan, Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor has mentioned that India wants the pressure on Taliban as well as other uprising groups to continue and “should not be eased".

Citing that Afghanistan sustained India’s role in reforming the nation, he said that it is a proven fact that "our efforts are appreciated and acknowledged by the people of Afghanistan".

He said that the Centre is waiting for the reports of the probe of Afghanistan over the blasts which happened at Indian Embassy in Kabul.

Afghans Offer Jobs to Taliban Rank and File if They Defect

JALALABAD, Afghanistan — The American-backed campaign to persuade legions of Taliban gunmen to stop fighting got under way here recently, in an ornate palace filled with Afghan tribal leaders and one very large former warlord leading the way.

“O.K., I want you guys to go out there and persuade the Taliban to sit down and talk,” Gul Agha Shirzai, the governor of Nangarhar Province, told a group of 25 tribal leaders from four eastern provinces. In a previous incarnation, Mr. Shirzai was the American-picked governor of Kandahar Province after the Taliban fell in 2001.

“Do whatever you have to do,” the rotund Mr. Shirzai told the assembled elders. “I’ll back you up

After about two hours of talking, Mr. Shirzai and the tribal elders rose, left for their respective provinces and promised to start turning the enemy.

The meeting is part of a battlefield push to lure local fighters and commanders away from the Taliban by offering them jobs in development projects that Afghan tribal leaders help select, paid by the American military and the Afghan government.

By enlisting the tribal leaders to help choose the development projects, the Americans also hope to help strengthen both the Afghan government and the Pashtun tribal networks.

These efforts are focusing on rank-and-file Taliban; while there are some efforts under way to negotiate with the leaders of the main insurgent groups, neither American nor Afghan officials have much faith that those talks will succeed soon.

Afghanistan has a long history of fighters switching sides — sometimes more than once. Still, efforts so far to persuade large numbers of Taliban fighters to give up have been less than a complete success. To date, about 9,000 insurgents have turned in their weapons and agreed to abide by the Afghan Constitution, said Muhammad Akram Khapalwak, the chief administrator for the Peace and Reconciliation Commission in Kabul.

But in an impoverished country ruined by 30 years of war, tribal leaders said that many more insurgents would happily put down their guns if there was something more worthwhile to do.

“Most of the Taliban in my area are young men who need jobs,” said Hajji Fazul Rahim, a leader of the Abdulrahimzai tribe, which spans three eastern provinces. “We just need to make them busy. If we give them work, we can weaken the Taliban.”

In the Jalalabad program, tribal elders would reach out to Taliban commanders to press them to change sides. The commanders and their fighters then would be offered jobs created by local development programs.

The Pashtuns, who form the core of the Taliban, make up a largely tribal society, with families connected to one another by kinship and led by groups of elders. Over the years, the Pashtun tribes have been substantially weakened, with elders singled out by three groups: Taliban fighters, the rebels who fought the former Soviet Union and the soldiers of the former Soviet Union itself. The decimation of the tribes has left Afghan society largely atomized.

Afghan and American officials hope that the plan to make peace with groups of Taliban fighters will complement an American-led effort to set up anti-Taliban militias in many parts of the country: the Pashtun tribes will help fight the Taliban, and they will make deals with the Taliban. And, by so doing, Afghan tribal society can be reinvigorated.

“We’re trying to put pressure on the leaders, and at the same time peel away their young fighters,” said an American military official in Kabul involved in the reconciliation effort. “This is not about handing bags of money to an insurgent.”

The Afghan reconciliation plan is intended to duplicate the Awakening movement in Iraq, where Sunni tribal leaders, many of them insurgents, agreed to stop fighting and in many cases were paid to do so. The Awakening contributed to the remarkable decline in violence in Iraq.

In the autumn of 2001, during the opening phase of the American-led war in Afghanistan, dozens of warlords fighting for the Taliban agreed to defect to the American-backed rebels. As in Iraq, the defectors were often enticed by cash, sometimes handed out by American Army Special Forces officers.

At a ceremony earlier this month in Kabul, about 70 insurgents laid down their guns before the commissioners and agreed to accept the Afghan Constitution. Some of the men had fought for the Taliban, some for Hezb-i-Islami, another insurgent group. The fighters’ motives ranged from disillusion to exhaustion.

“How long should we fight the government? How many more years?” said Molawi Fazullah, a Taliban lieutenant who surrendered with nine others. “Our leaders misled us, and we destroyed our country.”

Like many fighters who gave up at the ceremony, he shrouded his face with a scarf and sunglasses, for fear of being identified by his erstwhile comrades.

The Americans say they have no plans to give cash to local Taliban commanders. They say they would rather give them jobs.

In a defense appropriations bill recently approved by Congress, lawmakers set aside $1.3 billion for a program known by its acronym, CERP, a discretionary fund for American officers. Ordinarily, CERP money is used for development projects, but the language in the bill says officers can use the money to support the “reintegration into Afghan society” of those who have given up fighting.

For all the efforts under way to entice Taliban fighters to change sides, there will always be the old-fashioned approach: deadly force. American commanders also want to squeeze them; such is the rationale behind Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for tens of thousands of additional American troops.

Indeed, sometimes force alone does the trick. On Oct. 9, American Special Forces soldiers killed Ghulam Yahia, an insurgent commander believed responsible for, among other things, sending several suicide bombers into the western city of Herat. Mr. Yahia had changed sides himself in the past: earlier in the decade, he was Herat’s mayor.

When the Americans killed Mr. Yahia, in a mountain village called Bedak, 120 of his fighters defected to the Afghan government. Others went into hiding. Abdul Wahab, a former lieutenant of Mr. Yahia’s who led the defectors, said that the Afghan government had so far done nothing to protect them or offer them jobs. But he said he was glad he had made the jump anyway.

“We are tired of war,” he said. “We don’t want it anymore.”

Sangar Rahimi and Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.

‘Al-Qaeda, Taliban leaders not in Pakistan’

ISLAMABAD: Strongly reacting to some of the reports of the presence of al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership in Pakistan by the US newspapers and some intelligence agencies, President Asif Ali Zardari on Friday said that Pakistan was seriously cooperating with the international community in the war against terrorism and the sacrifices rendered by it were unassailable.

The president expressed these views during his meeting with CIA Director Leon Panetta at the Presidency here. The CIA chief arrived in Pakistan on Thursday on a two-day unannounced visit.

Sources said President Zardari again made it clear to the US that al-Qaeda and the Taliban leaderships were not present in Pakistan, adding the US leadership must share all kinds of information with Pakistan as it was not “our war” only. He also urged the CIA chief to get US drone attacks in Pakistani tribal areas stopped.

Panetta also met ISI Director-General Lt-Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha separately.According to sources, the ISI director-general said there must be an effective intelligence sharing between the US and Pakistan.

He recorded his strong protest with the CIA director on linking the ISI with the Taliban, terming it fabricated and baseless. He again made it clear that neither Mulla Omer nor any Taliban leadership was in Quetta or Karachi.

Sources said that the CIA chief lauded the efforts of Pakistan in the war against terrorism and said neither high-level leadership of the US nor the CIA on official level had given any statement against the ISI at any forum.

Panetta said the US wanted to enhance its ties with Pakistan, as both countries were cooperating against terrorism.

Our correspondent adds: In his meeting with the CIA chief, held separately at the Prime Minister’s House, Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani asked the United Sates that their new Afghan strategy should not disturb the balance of power in South Asia.

Gilani and Panetta discussed in detail the new US strategy on Afghanistan and its impact on the region. The prime minister underscored that the US policy towards Afghanistan must take into account Pakistan’s concerns relating to the possible surge of the US and the Isaf forces in Afghanistan, which may entail negative implications for Balochistan.

He said it was imperative for the US to remove misgivings, build trust and seek to align the respective strategic concepts of both Pakistan and the US to steadfastly move forward in the strategic partnership between the two countries.

He underlined the need for close coordination between the intelligence agencies of both sides to effectively counter the prevalent misperceptions in the relationship. Panetta assured Prime Minister Gilani that the US was fully conscious of Pakistan’s pivotal role in the war against terrorism and in the restoration of stability in Afghanistan.

“The US considers Pakistan a strategic partner with whom it wants to build a long-term and sustained relationship even beyond the cooperation in countering the militancy and extremism,” the CIA director said.

He agreed with Gilani that operational functioning between the two militaries and intelligence agencies was the need of the hour for eliminating the threat of terrorism.

Police return to former Taliban haven

Police are once again visible on the streets of Mingora, the main town in Pakistan's Swat valley. Just months ago many had been driven out of their jobs by Taliban militants.

But things changed after Swat became the centre of a major three-month military offensive to drive the insurgents from their regional stronghold.

And as Pakistan's army continues its offensive against militants elsewhere in South Waziristan, a certain kind of normality is returning to the Swat valley.

On the surface everything looks as it should.

But an AK-47 draped over the shoulder of a traffic warden shows that things are not yet completely safe.

The police have been the main target of the Taliban in this area for years. The latest attack on police recruits in neighbouring Shangla district in October killed about 45 people.

Restoring calm

But the area has moved on some way from a few months ago when people were forced to flee the intense fighting between the Taliban and government forces.

The authorities say they are now in control of the region and they are trying to rebuild a seriously depleted police force.

To avoid being attacked, some officers had even placed advertisements in local newspapers publicising the fact that they no longer were associated with the police.

Many who stayed refused to wear trousers for fear of being targeted by the Taliban for being in western dress.

But the offensive against the militants has now created opportunities for the police to return - and with some confidence.

"Our morale is definitely improving. We're getting what we need in terms of finances and weapons," Swat's district police officer Qazi Ghulam Farooq says.

But he warns more has to be done.

"We have made some additional demands such as the provision of armoured personal carriers for each police station. This will further make us stand on our own two feet."

Taking control

In his office is a framed certificate of appreciation from the government, a clear signal that boosting morale in this region is the main focus of the authorities.

Out on the streets there also visible signs that the government has invested in improving security.

Police stations are now fortified by strong walls, barbed wire and blockades.

Nine old and five newly established police stations are now functional and the authorities have set up four new police sub-divisional offices to restore peace in the valley.

Mingora was the scene of intense fighting but is now calm
Outside the District Police Officers office, a dozen youngsters were queuing up to join the police - an encouraging sign.

Initially there were not enough applicants, so the department had to re-advertise for recruits.

But Qazi Farooq says the shortfall was because the police changed the criteria that new recruits had to meet.

Some of these new recruits, mostly in their early 20s, seem undeterred by the fact that they are choosing a dangerous career.

Take for example Abdus Sattar, who asks the question - if young people like him don't join up to bring peace then who will?

Unemployment is high in the region and he admits that "'yes, unemployment was a factor, but with this job I am able to manage my finances.

"The real issue though is peace and for that someone has to come forward," he adds.

The youths are not the only ones who are volunteering; retired soldiers are also being re-employed.

"We received five platoons of retired army officers a few days back," exclaims a delighted Qazi Farooq.

Taliban revenge

The Taliban though have not completely gone away.

October's blast targeting a security convoy occurred in Shangla - an area previously thought to be clear of militants.

The Taliban have vowed to avenge the killing of Pakistan's Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud and to retaliate against the current offensive in South Waziristan.

The Taliban leader in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, had earlier issued a message to the media warning people not to join government departments that do not adhere to Sharia or Islamic law.

He also said "those already in government service should also reconsider their options".

The army are also patrolling the streets of Mingora
On the streets of Mingora, residents who endured years of Taliban rule say they are happy to see the police back on duty.

"It is a reassuring sight," says one local shopper Zahid Khan.

"But I don't know whether they have the ability to stop the Taliban from resurfacing or not. I hope they do have it."

The government seems determined not to let the region fall back into the hands of the Taliban.

Several important installations which were once controlled by the militants are now being manned by the military, who can also be seen patrolling the streets.

However many people here think it will take a long time and a lot of investment before the police can really operate independently with strength and effectiveness.

More than three dozen Taliban killed across Afghanistan

KABUL: Local security forces backed by NATO troops killed more than three dozen Taliban in a series of military operations across Afghanistan, Afghan authorities said on Wednesday. The raids were announced on the eve of President Hamid Karzai’s inauguration for a second term as president. Karzai is under pressure from the West to curb corruption and restore legitimacy after a presidential election marred by fraud as the US considers sending thousands more troops to quell a Taliban-led insurgency. Twenty-three Taliban-linked militants were killed in an operation by Afghan and Western troops in the Paktika province late on Tuesday, Hamidullah Zhwak, a provincial spokesman, said in a statement. afp

Help The Afghans Defeat The Taliban

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has arrived in Kabul for the inauguration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai Thursday after an August election that was riddled with fraud. Clinton has said Karzai must "do better" in battling corruption and government mismanagement if he wants the U.S. to continue its support of an increasingly unpopular war. The visit comes at a crucial time, as President Obama is expected to announce a new strategy for Afghanistan in the coming weeks.

Obama has reportedly rejected four strategies for Afghanistan put forward by his staff. And rightly so. A surge carries the risk of vastly elevated American casualties and no guarantee of success, pulling our overstretched military deeper into the quagmire of an asymmetric conflict. A "focused mini-surge" concentrating only on securing major urban centers will almost certainly lead to internal chaos as tens of thousands of internal refugees flood into the supposed safe zones.
A withdrawal amounts to exactly what we have sworn for the last eight years not to do: abandon the Afghans and lose all that was invested in blood and money. And talking with the Taliban, at least under the present circumstances, is not a negotiation but a sell-out. These are not attractive choices, and it is not surprising that the president has not rushed to embrace any one of them.

There is, however, a fifth option. It won't necessarily be easy, but it does enable us to remain true to our principles, minimize our casualties and keep our promise to the Afghan people. It is also the most likely to succeed.

That option is to get behind the Afghans, rather than in front of them--to help them fight their own battle. This requires us to identify, mobilize, fortify and build up those (many) forces within Afghanistan that oppose renewed Taliban rule and that desire progress, practice clean governance and are intent on moving forward into the global community.

Not at all incidentally, this is the method that has worked for us before. It was the Afghan mujahedeen, a rag-tag band of local foot soldiers who, fortified by our training, tactical guidance and weaponry, drove out the vastly superior troops of the Soviet superpower. In 2001 it was the Afghan Northern Alliance, a nearly defeated army huddled at the outermost margins of their country, who with our help and weapons rallied to march in triumph across Afghanistan, overthrowing the then ruling Taliban.

Nato tempts Taliban in from cold

When American commandos killed a Taliban commander in his mountain lair in western Afghanistan last month, they celebrated the end of the operations he had masterminded: rocket attacks on their base, suicide bombings and the kidnappings of businessmen.

They also worried that the death of Ghulam Yahya Akbari, a former mayor of Herat, might trigger revenge strikes from his heavily armed followers.

As mayor, Akbari had won popularity by nailing the ear lobes of greedy merchants to lampposts; and, as head of public works, he had brought electricity to Herat when Kabul, the capital, was in darkness six nights a week.

Three years ago, however, Akbari fell out with a new provincial governor. He took to the mountains with his 12 sons and 200 fighters, and allied himself with the Taliban. He had survived two American assassination attempts by the time he died on October 8.

The next act in the Akbari saga surprised his pursuers and supporters alike. Instead of striking back, five of his commanders and 114 soldiers approached the local office of the peace and reconciliation commission, handed in their battered Kalashnikov rifles and pledged allegiance to President Hamid Karzai.

“They’d had enough of fighting,” said Mohammed Shoaib Mojaddedi, the commission’s chief in Herat.

Even US troops who hunted down Akbari thought this was the best way forward. “We’ve been killing people in this country for eight years,” said a member of the US marine special operations unit that targeted Akbari. “We’re not going to win by killing people.”

His comment sums up a newly expanded initiative aimed at luring Taliban foot soldiers and low-level commanders away from the battlefield by offering them security and a chance of work.

President Barack Obama’s push for “reintegration”, which he is expected to highlight when he announces his strategy for the war on Tuesday, is one of the few areas of effective co-operation between Washington and Karzai’s corrupt administration. It represents a significant shift in thinking among western military officials and diplomats and includes many of the lessons learnt from Iraq.

Talking to the Taliban, which was once considered anathema, is gaining acceptance as senior generals acknowledge that military might alone will not win this war.

The initiative is being led by Major-General Richard Barrons, the British director of the newly formed force reintegration cell in Kabul. He answers directly to General Stanley McChrystal, the architect of the US strategy.

“We’re picking up local signs that a proportion of insurgents are tired of fighting,” said Barrons, sitting at his desk in the headquarters of Nato’s International Security Assistance Force in Kabul.

“Some are forced to fight, some are in the ranks of the Taliban because they have local grievances, some have joined only because they need to feed their family.”

The $10 a day that the Taliban offer their fighters is one of the few wages on offer here, far better than the $120 a month paid to the police. But the initiative has already persuaded hundreds of former Taliban to stop fighting. It will be stepped up next year.

Last week Barrons was keen to emphasise that the reintegration programme will be Afghan-led and from the “bottom up”. It will focus on bringing in rank-and-file soldiers and junior commanders.

The Afghan government will have to decide on what Nato commanders call “reconciliation”, the establishment of political agreement with senior Talilban leaders.

Karzai used the Muslim holiday of Eid last week to repeat the invitation in his inaugural speech to his “Taliban brothers” to “embrace their land” and join him in peace talks.

Barrons admits that this will have to be handled sensitively. “We need to make sure that those who come in have security, order and safety,” he said.

“They need to know that they won’t be targeted, or arrested, or murdered. And they need to know that they have a livelihood.”

He is well aware of the threat. In Wardak province, Abdul Jameel, commander of a small group of Taliban fighters, persuaded his men to surrender to the government in exchange for an amnesty and a return to their families.

He never got the chance to lay down his arms. Weeks after he approached the government, Jameel and several members of his family were gunned down. The story spread around Wardak, discouraging anyone who might have been tempted to follow him.

Taliban fighters are more likely to make the leap of faith if employment and security are assured.

Last Saturday, 80 Taliban militants gave up their weapons and joined the police force in Herat, accepting a government amnesty. But while Asmatullah Alizai, the police chief, was prepared to accept the men, other forces have proved reluctant to embrace their former enemies.

A squad of Afghan soldiers searching for bombs planted along a road in the village of Shinkay, east of Kabul, dived for cover last week when a battered taxi pulled up. They recognised a local Taliban fighter in the passenger seat and feared a suicide attack.

“Relax, guys,” said Rahimullah, 22, still in his scruffy Taliban uniform. He stepped out of the taxi, holding high his Kalashnikov. “Can’t you see it’s new? It’s from the government. I’ve changed sides.”

Rahimullah said he was heading to the capital, where officials had promised him a police uniform and a warrant card. It turned out to be true, and the tension dissipated.

McChrystal has decided that protecting the civilian population, rather than simply hunting down insurgents, should be a key component of the US strategy. If the people are secure enough, he believes, they will kick out the Taliban themselves.

Another of his recommendations to Obama is to “identify opportunities to reintegrate former mid- to low-level insurgent fighters into normal society by offering them a way out”.

Barrons said the programme would be tailored to local needs and planned district by district. Job offers would range from vocational training for a former Taliban who wanted work and was literate, to help with a farm if someone preferred to return to the land.

“There is no shortage of international donors,” Barrons said. He emphasised that each tribe, or area, would be treated individually, citing a village where aid went badly wrong. “The donors built a school,” said Barrons. “The problem was that the village already had a school, so they are using the building to stable their cattle. That’s what they really needed. We’re not going to tell people what they need — we’re going to ask.”

The programme faces acute challenges. It was late in starting and this has been a bad year for coalition casualties — Britain alone has lost 98 soldiers. Many Taliban now scent victory and may believe they are in a position to demand more attractive terms to stop fighting.

“A couple of years ago, the price would have been low but nobody was listening to us,” said Said Sharif Yusufi, of the reconciliation committee. “Now, the senior Taliban have big demands, like sharing in the government and ministries.”

Barrons and his team are betting on people like Ziauddin, 35, a former Taliban commander with 12 fighters who yesterday celebrated Eid with his family at his home in Shindun, a village near Herat.

He turned in his rocket-propelled-grenade launcher and nine Kalashnikovs. He has no regrets. “I was tired of this fighting, of running from one place to the other. Now I’m back in my shop, with my wife and my family. I know this is the life.”

18 Taliban, 7 soldiers killed in FATA violence

RAWALPINDI/LAHORE/KHAR: The army killed at least 18 more Taliban in South Waziristan, Kurram Agency and Bajaur Agency on Monday.

“Taliban fired rockets at a checkpost in Makeen, South Waziristan ... killing four soldiers. Meanwhile, eight Taliban were killed [in fighting],” said the ISPR, adding that security forces cleared Tauda China Khola and established a checkpost near Makeen.

Makeen is one of the most notorious Taliban-held towns in South Waziristan and close to where former TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud had a house, which the military said on Friday had been demolished.

The ISPR said the army also consolidated its positions around the “Jandola-Sararogha axis”.

Troops conducted a search-and-clearance operation in Bangalkhel, Totai Langarkhel and Kanigurm, and demolished Taliban commander Mumtaz Burki’s hideout on the “Shakai-Kaniguram axis”.

In Swat, troops arrested two Taliban from Batkhela Bazaar and Usmanabad near Mingora. Also, a Taliban surrendered to security forces in Charbagh.

In Kurram Agency, a private TV channel reported that at least eight Taliban were killed and several injured when fighter jets bombed Taliban hideouts.

According to the channel, air force jets bombed Chanark, Wormegai and Spairkot, destroying nine Taliban hideouts.

In Bajaur Agency, troops killed at least two Taliban. However, three soldiers were also killed.

A remote-controlled bomb explosion killed two security personnel and injured another in Mulla Sayed area of Salarzai tehsil. Taliban had planted the bomb in a military vehicle.

In the agency headquarters of Khar, Taliban gunned down a third soldier – identified as Noor Zada of the Bajaur Levies. The area was cordoned off following the attack.

Taliban rockets: Meanwhile, Taliban also fired rockets at the Scouts Fort in Mamoond tehsil. Troops retaliated and killed at least two Taliban.

During a search operation in Charmang, security forces seized three anti-aircraft guns from an underground bunker.



CRUEL Taliban fighters are using donkeys as deadly bombs to attack Brit troops in Afghanistan.
The latest terrorist ploy was uncovered when a sentry shot one galloping towards a military camp in Helmand province.

There was a huge blast when a bundle of hay tied to its back was lit with a flare. Major Richard Streatfeild of the The Rifles regiment said: “The insurgents have really outdone themselves”.

Airstrikes kill 18 Taliban in Orakzai Agency

HANGU: At least 18 Taliban were killed and 14 injured when fighter jets and helicopter gunships targeted Taliban positions in Orakzai Agency on Thursday, sources told Daily Times.

At seven Taliban hideouts were also destroyed in the raids.

Eight Taliban were killed when fighter jets and helicopter gunships bombed the Chapri Ferozkhel area of Lower Orakzai, while 10 Taliban were killed in airstrikes that targeted Dabori, Alf Khel and Toorsimt areas of Upper Orakzai. The sources said security forces had gained full control of Shahukhel, defusing eight mines and arresting four Taliban.

Wanted Taliban: Meanwhile in South Waziristan, security forces said they had arrested a wanted Taliban – identified as Abdullah Shah Mehsud, who had a head money of Rs 10 million.

“Troops arrested a wanted terrorist, Abdullah Shah Mehsud … from Tank … the head money has been paid to the informer,” said the ISPR. In Jandola, the forces cleared Bangiwal, Janata, Kunj Mela, Zawar Killi, Gund and Umar Raghzai, arresting four suspects from Shahu and defusing 10 improvised explosive devices.

Troops also cleared Spinkot, Sharkai Sar near Kot Langarkhel and Narakai, establishing links in Khuni Mor and Sarwekai and defusing 15 improvised explosive devices. Forces also consolidated their positions in Behram Shah village near Laki Ghund, while troops cleared 15 compounds in Pash Ziarat and 20 compounds at Salarai Shag near Kandai Sar. Security forces also discovered a training centre in Tauda China Khula.

Security forces also conducted a search operation in Gashkor village and Kalam in Swat, and apprehended two Taliban, while eight others surrendered in Shangwatai, Qambar and Kabal.

Paramilitary and army soldiers are pursuing a major offensive against TTP strongholds in South Waziristan, part of a tribal belt where US officials say Al Qaeda terrorists are plotting attacks on the West.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Town where Taliban were driven out learns to live again

Nawa in the heart of poppy-growing country south of Lashkar Gah is not a particularly pretty place.

But it is not as ugly as it was last summer, when the Taliban had the community in its grip and the small British training garrison of 60 under siege.

It took a three-day battle involving 1,000 US Marines, aircraft and helicopters to drive back the Taliban.

Over the past few weeks Nawa has moved from being the heart of darkness to the heart of the matter in the battle of wills against the Taliban.

The council is now up and running, a clinic is being built, the school and barracks renovated. More than 80 stalls and shops now open most days in the bazaar.

At the beginning of the Muslim festival of Eid yesterday, Gulab Mangal, the provincial governor of Helmand, made a gesture of thanks to Nawa by giving out rice and cooking oil to 300 of the poorest families, chosen because each had suffered bereavement at the hands of the Taliban.

He said: "Don't trust the Taliban because they preach a false Islam. They believe in killing, not helping people, and that is not true Islam."

Haji Mohammed Khan, the administrator of the district council, tells me: "Since peace came here, it is like Eid every day."

He recalls the dreadful days in autumn when the head of the council was kidnapped and executed by the Taliban and two councillors were shot.

At first only six of the remaining 42 councillors would turn up for meetings, now they always get a quorum of at least 25.

"The British didn't have enough numbers when they were here - only 60 soldiers. Now the US Marines have enough men that we can win peace.

"If the international forces go away, there will be a big disaster, and the world will fight here - and we will have a really big war."

A few weeks back the bazaar was a battleground. But today US Marine escorts and British aid workers do not have to wear flak jackets or helmet.

"We try to get out among the people whenever possible," said US Captain Brian Huysman of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion the 5th Marine Brigades.

"I really feel we are beginning to win. We've learned some lessons from Iraq. First you have to work out the right approach to the people, second you have to apply the right force numbers - and that's something the British have learned the hard way."

Taliban resistance dwindling’

* ISPR chief says Taliban leadership in hiding, majority of group has fled region

ISLAMABAD: The resistance in South Waziristan has dwindled significantly because of the army’s effective strategy, and “sensing defeat”, the majority of the group has either fled from the area or gone into hiding, ISPR Director General Maj Gen Athar Abbas said on Thursday.

Abbas said in an interview that the ability of the Taliban to strike as a cohesive force had been reduced significantly. “A number of Taliban have already been killed,” he said. He said the supply line of the group had been cut off, and it was not possible for them to escape through normal routes. He, however, said Taliban could still use the rugged terrain to escape the region.

Abbas said the Taliban leadership was still in hiding because normal routes had been blocked. Intelligence reports showed that the leadership was hiding in Waziristan areas, he added. He said a total of 42 soldiers had been killed and 123 injured during the ongoing operation in South Waziristan. “The operation is being conducted to ensure a safer and prosperous Pakistan. The Pakistan Army has suffered more than 5,000 casualties in the war on terror … which is more than combined killings of NATO forces in Afghanistan,” he said. Abbas said that posts vacated by NATO forces adjacent to operation areas could provide “sanctuaries” to the fleeing Taliban. “Concerns over the situation have already been conveyed to NATO,” he said.

He also expressed satisfaction over the nation’s support for the army’s offensive in South Waziristan. About the presence of Taliban in Southern Punjab, he said the situation was totally different from Waziristan, as government’s institutions were fully working in Southern Punjab while the Taliban had ousted state departments from Waziristan and were collecting taxes. Replying to a question, Abbas said the ammunition recovered from Waziristan included anti-aircraft guns, mines and anti-tank weapons. He said the weapons had been supplied by various foreign countries. app

Taliban Militants Fire Rockets on Crowded Bazaar Northeast of Kabul

KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban militants fired rockets on a bazaar northeast of Kabul on Monday, near the site of a meeting between French soldiers and local tribal leaders, and police officials said 10 Afghan civilians were killed and 28 wounded.

NATO troops reported that 4 civilians had been killed and 40 wounded. No troops were reported wounded or killed in the attack. Soldiers helped to ferry the wounded to local hospitals and to a nearby NATO base for medical care, a spokesman said.

The attack took place in the Tagab District, about 35 miles from Kabul in a mountainous area of Kapisa Province, a little after noon, when merchants and customers thronged the bazaar, exchanging goods for the week. The area, which is mixed Pashtun and Tajik, has been under pressure from local Taliban forces, who are in nearby valleys.

“The Taliban fired the rockets from Badrab, where they have a base,” said the deputy police chief, Haji Mohammed Akbar. “They are strong there,” he said.

Christophe Prazuck, a spokesman for the French military, said the attack came as a French general and other French officers met with tribal leaders in a building a few hundred yards from the market. He said it was unclear whether militants had singled out that gathering, or whether they had aimed at the market.

“They were explaining what they were doing, what they intended to do in terms of development projects, and they wanted to know what the villages needed for the following month,” Mr. Prazuck said about the meeting.

Mr. Akbar said he did not think that the attackers had intended to strike the French. It was relatively easy for the Taliban to hit the French base, but the militants seemed to aim at the bazaar and civilians, he said. “There were no French forces in the bazaar at the time,” he added.

Hours earlier in the Arghandab District, near the southern city of Kandahar, local officials said Taliban attackers raided a police station, killing eight officers and wounding three. Three other police officers in the station disappeared, and a spokesman for the Kandahar governor’s office, who asked not to be identified by name, said he was not sure if the officers who disappeared had a connection to the Taliban.

There have been a number of cases in which local police officers are actually Taliban fighters who help to set up attacks.

The Kandahar provincial police chief, Zardar Muhammed Zazai, said the raid was under investigation.

17 Taliban killed in fierce Afghan battle

KABUL: Afghan troops and NATO jets pounded Taliban positions during a “fierce battle” in southern Afghanistan, killing 17 insurgents, the Defence Ministry said on Sunday. The fighting erupted after Taliban militants fired several mortars at an Afghan army position in the southern province of Zabul, a known Taliban hotspot, the ministry said in a statement.

“Afghan troops were dispatched after the enemy position was identified and a very fierce battle took place,” it said. “During the battle, which was backed by international forces’ air support and lasted for one hour, 17 Taliban were killed,” the statement said, adding that another militant wounded in the fighting had been captured.

Militants, mainly remnants of the Taliban regime, have been waging an insurgency to overthrow the US-backed government of President Hamid Karzai since they were ousted from power in a US-led invasion in 2001. The insurgency has intensified each year since then, with 2009 now the deadliest for Afghan security forces and their international military backers who have deployed more than 100,000 troops to defeat the insurgency. afp

U.S. reassesses Taliban

The Taliban leaders are inspired by a harsh religious doctrine, but the U.S. is reassessing whether its troops are. Western officials believe that most Taliban troops are fighting to earn a living or for personal grievances. If they can be offered a living outside the rebellion, they can be peeled away from it. This is Gen. McChrystal’s strategy. It was, with the surge, successful in Iraq. Winning enemy troops over requires treating them with respect. It may mean letting tribal elders be intermediaries. It means local application, not a heavy-handed or one-size-fits-all procedure by the national government.

The chief difficulty of instituting the strategy in Afghanistan is that the national government is so corrupt and incompetent, that it lured away thousands of insurgents on false promises of jobs and protection, left them in the lurch, and finds them back in the trenches now embittered (Agand Gopal, Wall St. J.,