3 police killed in Afghan bomb attack
By AMIR SHAH, Associated Press Writer
KABUL, Afghanistan - A roadside bomb targeting police involved in poppy eradication killed three officers and wounded three others in western Afghanistan, officials said Monday.
The policemen were returning to their base Sunday after a day of destroying poppy fields in western Farah province when a roadside blast hit their vehicle, said police spokesman Barijalaj Khan.
It was not clear who carried out the attack. Khan blamed Taliban militants, saying they were involved in the drugs trade, but gave no evidence to support his claim.
In Ghor province, meanwhile, a clash between poppy farmers and police conducting eradication left one civilian dead and two wounded, said deputy provincial governor Kramuddin Rezazada.
Some 500 people had gathered to protest government attempts at poppy eradication following last year's record crop.
Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium poppy. In 2006, production in the country rose 49 percent to 6,700 tons — enough to make about 670 tons of heroin.
The government rejected U.S. offers of ground-spraying and pledged it would step up poppy eradication using tractors and manpower.
In southern Afghanistan, suspected insurgents fired a rocket at a Canadian military's armored vehicle in the city of Kandahar on Sunday, but no troops were injured in the attack, said Capt. Alex Watsen, a spokesman for the force.
Canadians fired back, killing one suspected militant, Watsen said. One policeman also was killed in the ensuing gunfight, he said.
Associated Press Writer Noor Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.
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Armored car crash injures 13 Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan
Sun Feb 18, 1:23 PM ET
MONTREAL (AFP) - Thirteen Canadian soldiers were injured in southern Afghanistan after two armored vehicles collided, a Canadian Defense Ministry spokeswoman said.
"We don't have any information on what happened to cause the accident at this point. There is a vehicle accident investigation into it," said spokeswoman Karen Johnstone, adding that the accident occured near dawn in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban.
Another military spokesman told Canadian television that the condition of Kandahar roads may have contributed to the crash.
"Our soldiers receive excellent training before they're deployed to the theater, but I don't think anything can quite fully prepare anyone for the nature of the roads here in Kandahar," spokesman Dale MacEachern told CTV.
"As you know, they are not up to the same standard that we're used to in North America. So there's always a bit of a learning process that our troops have to go through," he said on CBC.
At least four Canadian soldiers have killed in vehicle accidents since Canadian troops arrived in the country in 2002.
Seven of the those injured Sunday were taken to the camp infirmary and six others to a coalition hospital at the Kandahar airport, Johnstone said. All of the injured were expecte to return to duty soon.
The vehicles sustained only minimal damage, the spokeswoman said.
The injured soliders were part of the 2nd batallion of the Royal Canadian Regiment which had recently been deployed to Afghanistan.
Canada, which has 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, has lost 44 since 2002, including 36 in 2006 alone. A Canadian diplomat was also killed there.
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Aurakzai’s remarks irk Kabul
KABUL, Feb 18: Afghanistan angrily demanded on Sunday that Pakistan make clear its position on an “irresponsible” statement by one of its governors that Afghan people support Taliban insurgents.
In a sharply worded media release, the foreign ministry said the comment last week by the governor of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province was a “direct and flagrant interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan.” “Such expressions are further examples of continuing direct and indirect attempts by certain circles within the Pakistani intelligence and political establishment to prevent emergence of an independent, peaceful and democratic Afghanistan in the region,” it said.
Aurakzai told reporters on Saturday he believed the roots of the insurgency were in Afghanistan.
“There are maybe five per cent, 10 per cent, okay 20 per cent (of the Taliban) from this side but 80 per cent of them are in Afghanistan,” he said, adding the insurgency was turning into a “liberation war.” The ministry accused Aurakzai of characterising “terrorism as a liberation movement” and showing his opposition to UN Security Council resolutions on rooting it out, and cited his “contemplative and practical ties” with it.
“In accordance with international norms and laws, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan calls upon the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to clarify its official position on these irresponsible and intrusive statements,” it said.—AFP
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Dutch commander rejects talks of Taliban 'spring offensive'
Sun Feb 18, 1:38 AM ET
TIRIN KOT, Afghanistan (AFP) - The commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan rejected talk of a "spring offensive" by Taliban militants, telling reporters "we are going to take the initiative."
Dutch Major General Ton van Loon, in charge of the region worst-hit by the Taliban-led insurgency, also said he did not believe militants were capable of the same level of conventional battles they fought last year.
"The spring offensive will not happen because we are going to take the initiative," Van Loon said during a visit to an Australian and Dutch International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) base in Uruzgan province.
The Taliban militia has threatened a new wave of violence; some military commanders and officials have downplayed the statements as propaganda but others have warned they expect some kind of offensive.
Van Loon was at the base, near the provincial capital Tirin Kot, for the opening of an Australian-run trade school that authorities said was part of providing development and jobs to undermine the insurgency.
Uruzgan sees regular Taliban violence with critics saying the government and its allies only have limited presence and militants can move around at ease.
"I am quite sure that there are some areas in Uruzgan, but also in other regions in the south and even the east and the north and west, where we do not have full control, where the government does not have full control yet.
"And that is what we need to work on, but you have to start somewhere," he said.
Van Loon said he had not seen anything to back claims by the Taliban that they had thousands of fighters in Helmand province, which has seen some of the most intense fighting this year with rebels holding a town for more than two weeks.
He said there was also nothing to indicate Al-Qaeda were involved in the fighting, as some officials have said.
"Sure there are claims and there will be foreign fighters with the Taliban. It has happened before and it might happen again but it is certainly nothing we can't deal with," he said.
"I truly don't expect a conventional battle of the scale we saw the previous years to take place," Van Loon added. "We do not believe the Taliban will have the capability and if so, we will be able to deal with that as well."
Last year was the deadliest in the insurgency, which was launched after the Taliban were toppled from government by a US-led coalition in late 2001.
The death toll topped 4,000 although most of the dead were fighters.
There are about 2,200 Dutch and 400 Australian troops in the 37-nation ISAF which are trying to help the government bring the country under control using military means as well as reconstruction.
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UK, Afghan troops ‘clear’ Taliban stronghold
KABUL, Feb 18: British and Afghan troops attacked “a major Taliban extremist headquarters” in southern Afghanistan, destroying three compounds and a tunnel that linked them, the Nato-led force said on Sunday.
The operation launched late Saturday was in the southern province of Helmand, which has seen a surge in violence with a town under militant control for more than a fortnight and regular battles in many districts.
The International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) did not say how many people may have been killed in the operation in the Garmser district but said there were no casualties to security forces.
More than 150 British troops supported by Afghan soldiers “conducted a major operation to target a Taliban extremist stronghold in Helmand,” the Nato-led force said.
“The operation commenced late last night, focusing on three major compounds and carried on through this morning. A significant tunnel complex linking the strongholds was also destroyed.” The area was “clear”, it said.
The offensive, called Operation Glacier, was conducted after consultation with elders and the provincial governor.
“Op Glacier marks the continuation of our recent operations in and around Garmser to strike at Taliban extremist targets and command centres,” spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Rory Bruce was quoted as saying.
The British deployment to Isaf, the second biggest after that of the United States, is made up of about 5,200 soldiers mostly based in untamed Helmand, Afghanistan's top producer and trafficker of illicit opium.
The force has been kept busy this year with regular clashes around various districts, notably Kajaki where it is trying to secure a hydropower dam.
Taliban fighters captured the town of Musa Qala early February and have clung onto control despite the killing of two commanders in Isaf precision strikes and attempts by government and tribal elders to negotiate.
Isaf and the Afghan defence ministry have said they could retake the town easily but are awaiting the go-ahead from government, which says it is concerned about civilian casualties.—AFP
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Al Qaeda Chiefs Are Seen to Regain Power
By MARK MAZZETTI and DAVID ROHDE February 19, 2007 The New York Times
WASHINGTON, Feb. 18 — Senior leaders of Al Qaeda operating from Pakistan have re-established significant control over their once-battered worldwide terror network and over the past year have set up a band of training camps in the tribal regions near the Afghan border, according to American intelligence and counterterrorism officials.
American officials said there was mounting evidence that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, had been steadily building an operations hub in the mountainous Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan. Until recently, the Bush administration had described Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahri as detached from their followers and cut off from operational control of Al Qaeda.
The United States has also identified several new Qaeda compounds in North Waziristan, including one that officials said might be training operatives for strikes against targets beyond Afghanistan.
American analysts said recent intelligence showed that the compounds functioned under a loose command structure and were operated by groups of Arab, Pakistani and Afghan militants allied with Al Qaeda. They receive guidance from their commanders and Mr. Zawahri, the analysts said. Mr. bin Laden, who has long played less of an operational role, appears to have little direct involvement.
Officials said the training camps had yet to reach the size and level of sophistication of the Qaeda camps established in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. But groups of 10 to 20 men are being trained at the camps, the officials said, and the Qaeda infrastructure in the region is gradually becoming more mature.
The new warnings are different from those made in recent months by intelligence officials and terrorism experts, who have spoken about the growing abilities of Taliban forces and Pakistani militants to launch attacks into Afghanistan. American officials say that the new intelligence is focused on Al Qaeda and points to the prospect that the terrorist network is gaining in strength despite more than five years of a sustained American-led campaign to weaken it.
The intelligence and counterterrorism officials would discuss the classified intelligence only on the condition of anonymity. They would not provide some of the evidence that led them to their assessments, saying that revealing the information would disclose too much about the sources and methods of intelligence collection.
The concern about a resurgent Al Qaeda has been the subject of intensive discussion at high levels of the Bush administration, the officials said, and has reignited debate about how to address Pakistan’s role as a haven for militants without undermining the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president.
Last week, President Bush’s senior counterterrorism adviser, Frances Fragos Townsend, went to Afghanistan during a Middle East trip to meet with security officials about rising concerns on Al Qaeda’s resurgence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, an administration official said.
Officials from several different American intelligence and counterterrorism agencies presented a consistent picture in describing the developments as a major setback to American efforts against Al Qaeda.
A Split Over Strategy
But debates within the administration about how best to deal with the threat have yet to yield any good solutions, officials in Washington said. One counterterrorism official said that some within the Pentagon were advocating American strikes against the camps, but that others argued that any raids could result in civilian casualties. And State Department officials say increased American pressure could undermine President Musharraf’s military-led government.
Some of the interviews with officials were granted after John D. Negroponte, then the director of national intelligence, told Congress last month that “Al Qaeda’s core elements are resilient” and that the organization was “cultivating stronger operational connections and relationships that radiate outward from their leaders’ secure hide-out in Pakistan to affiliates throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.”
As recently as 2005, American intelligence assessments described senior leaders of Al Qaeda as cut off from their foot soldiers and able only to provide inspiration for future attacks. But more recent intelligence describes the organization’s hierarchy as intact and strengthening.
“The chain of command has been re-established,” said one American government official, who said that the Qaeda “leadership command and control is robust.”
American officials and analysts said a variety of factors in Pakistan had come together to allow “core Al Qaeda” — a reference to Mr. bin Laden and his immediate circle — to regain some of its strength. The emergence of a relative haven in North Waziristan and the surrounding area has helped senior operatives communicate more effectively with the outside world via courier and the Internet.
The investigation into last summer’s failed plot to bomb airliners in London has led counterterrorism officials to what they say are “clear linkages” between the plotters and core Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. American analysts point out that the trials of terrorism suspects in Britain revealed that some of the defendants had been trained in Pakistan.
In a videotaped statement last year, Mr. Zawahri claimed responsibility for the July 2005 London suicide bombings. Included in the same tape was a statement by one of the London suicide bombers, pledging allegiance to Al Qaeda. Two of the four bombers traveled to Pakistan prior to the attack.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, told the House Armed Services Committee last week that Al Qaeda “is on the march.” He said, “Al Qaeda in fact is now functioning exactly as its founder and leader, Osama bin Laden, envisioned it,” because, he said, Qaeda leaders are planning major attacks and inspiring militants to carry out attacks around the globe.
Other experts questioned the seriousness of Pakistan’s commitment. They argued that elements of Pakistan’s military still supported the Taliban and saw them as a valuable proxy to counter the rising influence of India, Pakistan’s regional rival.
Joint Efforts by Militants
Since 2001, members of various militant groups in Pakistan have increased their cooperation with one another in the tribal areas, according to American analysts.
The analysts said that North Waziristan became a hub of militant activity last year, after President Musharraf negotiated a treaty with tribal leaders in the area. He pledged to pull troops back to barracks in the area in exchange for tribal leaders’ ending support for cross-border attacks into Afghanistan, but officials in Washington and Islamabad conceded that the agreement had been a failure.
During a news conference days before last November’s elections, President Bush said of the campaign against Al Qaeda: “Absolutely, we’re winning. Al Qaeda is on the run.”
But in a speech several days ago, Mr. Bush painted a more sober picture of Al Qaeda’s current strength, especially inside Pakistan.
“Taliban and Al Qaeda figures do hide in remote regions of Pakistan,” Mr. Bush said. “This is wild country; this is wilder than the Wild West. And these folks hide and recruit and launch attacks.”
Officials said that both American and foreign intelligence services had collected evidence leading them to conclude that at least one of the camps in Pakistan might be training operatives capable of striking Western targets. A particular concern is that the camps are frequented by British citizens of Pakistani descent who travel to Pakistan on British passports.
In a speech in November, the director general of MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, said that terrorist plots in Britain “often have links back to Al Qaeda in Pakistan.” She said that “through those links, Al Qaeda gives guidance and training to its largely British foot soldiers here on an extensive and growing scale.”
Leaders Appear Secure
Officials said that the United States still had little idea where Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahri had been hiding since 2001, but that the two men were not believed to be present in the camps currently operating in North Waziristan. Among the indicators that American officials cited as a sign that Qaeda leaders felt more secure was the release of 21 statements by Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahri in 2006, roughly twice the number as in the previous year.
In the past, statements issued by Mr. bin Laden and Mr. Zawahri referred to events that were sometimes several weeks old, one official said, suggesting that the men had difficulty creating a secure means of distributing the tapes. Now, the statements are more current, at times referring to events that occurred days earlier.
American intelligence and counterterrorism officials said that most of the men receiving training in Pakistan had been carrying out attacks inside Afghanistan, but that Al Qaeda had also strengthened its ties to groups in Iraq that had sworn allegiance to Mr. bin Laden. They said dozens of seasoned fighters were moving between Pakistan and Iraq, apparently engaging in an “exchange of best practices” for attacking American forces.
Over the past year, insurgent tactics from Iraq have migrated to Afghanistan, where suicide bombings have increased fivefold and roadside bomb attacks have doubled. In testimony to the House Armed Services Committee last week, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the departing commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, said the United States could not prevail in Afghanistan and defeat global terrorism without addressing the havens in Pakistan.
Pakistani officials say that they are doing their best to gain control of the area and that military efforts to pacify it have failed, but that more reconstruction aid is needed.
Officials said that over the past year, Al Qaeda had also shown an increased international capability, citing as an example its alliance with the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, an Algerian-based group that has carried out a series of attacks in recent months.
Last fall, the Algerian group renamed itself Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb. Officials in Washington say they believe that the group is linked to a recent string of sophisticated car bombings and other attacks in Algeria, including a December attack on a bus carrying Halliburton contractors.
David Johnston contributed reporting from Washington, and Carlotta Gall from Islamabad, Pakistan.
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AP Enterprise: Afghan army said improving, but years away from operating unaided
The Associated Press Sunday, February 18, 2007 via International Herald Tribune, France
KABUL, Afghanistan: The Afghan army is struggling with old weaponry, low pay and desertions, yet performs better than the troubled Iraqi army and could defend Afghanistan without U.S. and NATO support in five to 10 years time, military officials and analysts say.
The fledgling force's success is viewed as critical to the Western-backed mission of stabilizing Afghanistan, which faced a record number of insurgent attacks last year. Renewed violence expected this spring threatens President Hamid Karzai's government.
Recruitment for the Afghan National Army is being accelerated, and $8.6 billion (€6.56 billion) in new American funding for Afghan security needs will help equip the 32,000-strong force that U.S. military officials say is proving increasingly resilient in battle.
Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told The Associated Press that a goal of 70,000 Afghan soldiers has been pushed forward to December 2008 from 2011, and it is hoped to have 46,000 in place by April.
"We don't like that international forces suffer here. We think it's a disgrace to us that sons of a faraway land come and shed their blood on our soil," Wardak said. "Our intention is that we ourselves take on the physical security and international forces take a supporting and mentoring role."
The ANA got its first troops in summer after the ouster of the Taliban regime in November, 2001. U.S.-led coalition officials initially hoped to have the force at full strength by the end of 2006, but recruitment and training started slowly and the timetable slipped.
Officials say it will take at least five more years, and likely longer, for the ANA to stand alone, allowing the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces which currently number a record 47,000 and are still struggling to quell the volatile south and east.
"I think to operate alone and still defeat potential insurgents, you're looking at probably a decade," said Seth Jones, an analyst with the RAND Corp. who traveled to Afghanistan last month to study the ANA.
"Current force levels have insufficient capability and capacity, making them heavily reliant upon U.S. and coalition forces," Anthony Cordesman, an expert on Afghanistan and Iraq at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an analysis last month titled "Winning in Afghanistan: Afghan Force Development." He said "far more aid" was needed.
The new funding announced recently by the Bush administration should help answer that call, providing M4 or M16 rifles, body armor, Humvees, aircraft and communications for troops sometimes equipped with little more than uniforms and aging guns inherited from past guerrilla forces.
New weaponry should bring some comfort to soldiers such as Nimmatullah, whose dated AK-47 assault rifle malfunctioned during a battle against Taliban insurgents in remote Nuristan province last summer. The Afghan soldier, who goes by one name, says his gun fired three bullets and then jammed. He nearly quit the army in frustration, he said.
Salary and spartan living conditions are also a sore point among the rank and file, despite recent a pay raise — from $70 to $100 (€50 to €75) a month — which compares well with the average monthly income of about $50 (€38) in Kabul.
Adbul Wazim, an ANA soldier standing guard in the capital in a crisp green and brown camouflage uniform, said that despite the increase, he doesn't plan on re-enlisting after his three-year army commitment is up in six months.
"I will go back to my home area, though I don't know what I'll do," he said. "The salary just isn't enough."
In another example of discontent, 10 ANA soldiers at a security checkpoint in southern Kandahar province last month told U.S. Special Forces soldiers there that they wanted to quit. The Afghan soldiers complained that they had been away from home too long, that they only had one uniform — and that they didn't get enough meat to eat.
Still, U.S. officials say the Afghan soldiers who fight alongside American and NATO troops are playing an increasingly important role in battle.
In November, just north of Kabul, 800 Afghan troops and 250 U.S. forces cleared out a cell of suicide bombers who had been targeting the capital. U.S. officials also championed the grit shown by ANA soldiers who charged up a hill in eastern Paktika province in October to battle Taliban fighters who had ambushed U.S. soldiers.
But the true strength of the army is unclear.
Defense Minister Wardak says he has "close to 40,000" soldiers, though Lt. Cmdr. John Daniels of the U.S.-led training program, said the number is really 32,300 after counting desertions.
He said the desertion rate has declined significantly, to 14 percent from 23 percent in 2003-04. However, other NATO officials say that when recruits who abandon basic training are counted, the rate jumps to 40 percent.
Five Afghan battalions, with 600 to 2,000 soldiers each, are now skilled enough to fight on their own, but lack three things: secure communications, air support and medical expertise, said Brig. Gen. Douglas A. Pritt, who oversees the U.S.-led ANA training program.
Despite its shortcomings, the ANA is better positioned to succeed than Iraq's 135,000-strong army, because its adversary is weaker, said Jones at RAND Corp. It also started training more than a year before the post-Saddam Hussein army battalion graduated.
Ethnic and sectarian tensions are also less divisive than in the Iraq force, dominated by Shiites and distrusted by many Sunnis.
U.S. and Afghan officials boast that despite minor flare-ups and turf disputes, the ANA's broad tribal makeup is a positive step in a country once torn apart by ethnic civil war.
Associated Press reporter Amir Shah contributed to this report.
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US experts to Afghanistan after crash
Mon Feb 19, 1:52 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - An accident investigation team was on its way from the United States to Afghanistan to help find out why a military helicopter crashed killing eight soldiers, the US military said.
The Chinook transport helicopter came down in darkness early Sunday in Zabul province, about 250 kilometres (150 miles) southwest of Kabul, after what the US-led coalition said was a "sudden, unexplained loss of power and control."
Another 14 US military personnel were wounded.
"There have been no indications that there was enemy fire. However, the incident is being investigated," coalition spokesman Lieutenant Colonel David Accetta told AFP on Monday.
A US military investigation team was on its way but had not yet arrived in Afghanistan, he said.
Coalition soldiers were still at the crash site, which residents said was not far from the Kabul to Kandahar highway.
"We do still have the crash site secured. We will not leave the crash site unsecured for the safety of the locals and during the investigation," Accetta said.
The coalition on Sunday advised Afghans to stay away from the area for their own safety, saying "recent reporting indicated a Taliban build-up for operations against the coalition forces in the region."
The investigation will try to determine "exactly what caused the power loss," said coalition media officer Captain Sharon Engelneier.
The crash was the first this year although there have been a string of similar ones involving foreign forces deployed to Afghanistan.
Most of the crashes have been accidents although in June 2005 a US Chinook was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade in the eastern province of Kunar, killing all 16 servicemen on board.
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Australia to beef up military presence in Iraq, Afghanistan
Mon Feb 19, 3:28 AM ET
SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia will send up to 70 additional military instructors to war-torn Iraq and may deploy more troops in Afghanistan, according to Prime Minister John Howard.
His remarks came ahead of a visit this week by US Vice President Dick Cheney, who is expected to urge Canberra to consider beefing up its assistance to US forces fighting in the long-running conflicts.
The move to send more soldiers to Iraq drew immediate criticism from the opposition Labor Party, which has made the withdrawal of Australian troops a major platform in its campaign to oust Howard in elections later this year.
The prime minister, a staunch supporter of US President George W. Bush, said he did not expect Cheney to ask for more combat troops in Iraq during his visit, which begins on Thursday.
But he said extra military trainers could be provided in a bid to make the war-torn country's army more self-sufficient.
"As far as combat troops are concerned, I think the current level is appropriate and I don't expect Australia to be increasing that, and I don't expect a specific request from the vice president," Howard said.
"I wouldn't at the margin rule out some additional trainers because trainers are very important in helping get the Iraqi army ready to do the job we all want it to be able to do," he told Australia's Channel Nine.
Howard later told reporters: "We are talking here probably up to 50 or 70 people."
Australia has about 1,400 troops involved in Iraqi operations, with some 30 instructors training the army near Tallil in the south.
"There is a case for a few more trainers because they're doing a very good job getting the Iraqi army ready and that's what everybody wants," Howard said.
On Afghanistan, Howard said he would keep under review Australia's military commitment of some 550 Australian soldiers.
"The situation in Afghanistan is not easy. We would like to see a greater commitment in the southern part of the country from a number of the non- NATO countries."
Opposition leader Kevin Rudd said the Labor Party would not back any increase in the number of Australian troops in Iraq, even military trainers.
"Our troops have been there for four years now and our policy is our combat forces should come home and secondly there should be no more troops sent," he said.
Rudd signalled, however, that Labor was receptive to the idea of Australia increasing its efforts in Afghanistan.
"This is a task that requires continued commitment," he said.
Howard, who earlier this month attacked US presidential hopeful Barack Obama (news, bio, voting record) over his proposal to bring US forces home from Iraq, repeated his view that the US-led coalition should not abandon the country.
"I do not want to see a precipitate coalition withdrawal because that would plunge the country into much greater bloodshed," he said.
"It would embolden the terrorists, it would be an enormous humiliation for the United States and it would damage Australia's security interests, particularly against terrorists in this part of the world."
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Aussie PM rules out more troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, may raise other assistance
Monday February 19, 03:41 PM
Sydney, Feb 19 (ANI): Australian Prime Minister John Howard has said that his country won't send additional combat troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, but supported the idea of increasing its "assistance" to the two war-ravaged countries.
He said that the current strength of troops in the two countries was enough to bring peace.
"As far as combat troops are concerned, I think the current level is appropriate and I don't expect Australia to be increasing that, and I don't expect a specific request from the vice president," The News quoted Howard as saying.
He added: "I wouldn't at the margin rule out some additional trainers because trainers are very important in helping get the Iraqi army ready to do the job we all want it to be able to do."
Howard stressed that any increase in trainers would be modest. Australia has deployed about 1400 troops to Iraq, and has about 30 army instructors training the army near Tallil, south of Baghdad. (ANI)
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Afghan refugees suspected behind Saturday's Quetta blast
Monday February 19, 03:41 PM
Islamabad, Feb 19 (IANS) The needle of suspicion for the last week's suicide attack in a courtroom in Quetta, Balochistan, is now on Afghan refugees and Islamist extremists, 50 of whom have been detained.
Police investigations into the attack, suspected to have been carried out by two youths, got underway even as Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf said Sunday he was not ruling out 'foreign hand' in the incident.
Sixteen persons, including Senior judge Abdul Waheed Durrani, died and 35 people were injured in the attack.
Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, attended Durrani's funeral. Lawyers announced a three-day mourning period, during which they would boycott the courts, The Daily Times reported Monday.
Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Mohammad Yusuf said the bomber(s) could be Afghan. 'It is still a rough guess that the suicide bomber was an Afghan,' he told reporters.
Yusuf ruled out involvement of Baloch 'nationalists', a term used to describe the militants and separatists opposing Punjab's domination and seeking a greater share of natural resources that Balochistan produces.
'Baloch do not indulge in suicide attacks,' he said.
Twenty-two of those detained for questioning are Afghan refugees. Thousands of Afghan nationals have been living in refugee camps in and around Quetta, some of them since they fled their country in the wake of Soviet invasion in 1979. Authorities say the camps have been the hotbed of crime and drug smuggling.
Western media and think tanks have also found these camps to be a major recruiting base for religious training in seminaries run by Pakistani Islamist organisations. Afghans are trained in handling arms and sent to reinforce the Taliban militia fighting the government forces in Afghanistan.
Although religious extremists have been detained for questioning, Quetta Police Chief Raho Khan Brohi dismissed any link between the attack and the work carried out by the lower court. He said the suspicion focused on Islamist militants believed to be behind a spate of suicide attacks recently. 'It's linked to the overall scenario in the country.'
'The incident appears a targeted attack on government installations or functionaries of the criminal justice system as part of a reaction to the government's firm resolve to combat terrorism and sabotage in the country,' a police statement said.
Meanwhile, the courtroom incident acquired political overtones. Exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto said in a statement that the regime had failed to control lawlessness and terrorism in the country as it was busy 'crushing the political opposition.'
In the last 15 days, six workers of Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party have been killed. While Benazir's sister-in-law escaped an alleged assassination attempt, parliamentarian Sherry Rahman and Pakistan People's Party (PPP) Sindh Secretary Nafees Siddiqui were physically attacked.
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Where the Taliban breeds
Analysis | The porous Afghan-Pakistani border has been lawless since being imposed on Pashtun tribes in 1893. But this wild frontier must be tamed if Afghanistan is to flourish.
Olivia Ward The Toronto Star February 18, 2007
When Hassan Abbas, then a Pakistani police chief, went on a raid in the country's lawless border region, he was surprised to find himself outside his territory – and inside Afghanistan.
"We weren't the only ones who were confused," says Abbas, now a fellow of the Belfer Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
"For hundreds of years, people have been living on both sides of the border, and when it was divided they found it inconceivable that they should suddenly be residents of another country."
The story illustrates how porous is the wild, mountainous frontier that separates the two countries along the 2,400-kilometre line, which is still in dispute more than a century after it was negotiated by British diplomat Sir Henry Mortimer Durand.
But for Canadian and other NATO troops – and the traumatized people of southern Afghanistan – the border is real and menacing as they anxiously await a predicted spring onslaught of Taliban fighters and suicide bombers from Pakistan.
The coming battles are said to be crucial for peace and stability in Afghanistan.
"Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership presence inside of Pakistan remain a very significant problem," said the outgoing American commander in Afghanistan, Lt.-Gen. Karl Eikenberry, urging a "steady, direct attack" on their operations bases in the border areas.
But those who are familiar with the turbulent border regions say the realities there are far more complex than Western policy-makers believe. And they warn that putting a stop to the "Talibanization" that is threatening both Afghanistan and Pakistan will not be accomplished by military means alone.
"The Pashtuns are the historically dominant group in the area, and they have been split by the Durand Line, so that there is a feeling their destiny has been interrupted," says Selig Harrison, director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy and author of five books on the border regions.
Moreover, he says, no foreign army has ever subdued the fierce border tribes.
The Durand Line, which divided Pashtun tribes between British India and Afghanistan in 1893, is viewed with resentment by people on both its sides and many of them of them consider it irrelevant.
"When you look at the partition today, it doesn't make a lot of sense," says geography professor Jack Shroder of University of Nebraska, Omaha, who has mapped the rugged areas.
"In the time of the British Raj, it was a ploy to divide and rule, and they put down white rocks to mark it. But people move the rocks around, because the border doesn't exist for them."
Like the border, law and order is a fluid concept in the tribal lands.
Pakistan has never managed to take control of the largely Pashtun area and created seven semi-autonomous units – Bajaur, Momand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram and North and South Waziristan – administered by federally appointed political agents.
Six smaller Frontier Regions provide a buffer between the agencies and the North West Frontier Province to the east. To the south is the large but sparsely populated province of Baluchistan, whose capital, Quetta, is said to be a Taliban command centre.
In the tribal regions, Pakistani courts and law enforcers have almost no sway, and the real power are the jirgas, or assemblies of elders, says Abbas, author of Pakistan's Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army and America's War on Terror.
The border regions have a population of some 38 million, including members of 60 Pashtun tribes and 400 sub-clans. With a literacy rate of little more than 10 per cent, few job opportunities beyond subsistence farming, deeply conservative religious views and an abundance of guns, the regions are a staging ground for militancy, drug trafficking and numerous smuggling rackets.
All these factors give the Taliban a head start in recruiting.
"The Taliban are sons of the soil, not foreigners," says Kamran Bokhari, a Toronto-based senior analyst for Strategic Forecasting Inc. "Over the past two decades, there has been a drift toward their kind of conservative Islam. An Islamist wave has hit the region, and there are many people who don't believe 9/11 happened and are convinced that there is a war going on against Muslims."
The tribal areas also have sheltered foreign and Afghan fighters fleeing previous wars in Afghanistan, and some of them have married local women and settled there.
Abbas says the Taliban was encouraged by "the Pakistani military's hidden alliance with religious political parties," in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. When the United States urged Pakistan to attack the militants, the campaign was brutal but disastrous. In a territory where revenge is part of the traditional code, secular parties lost out and Islamists gained ground.
But pockets of secular Pashtuns who oppose extremism still remain, with little support from the government and constant threats from Islamist groups.
Some analysts point to these secularists as the hope for future peace on the borders. A leader of the nationalist Pashtun Awami National Party, Asfandyar Wali, recently defeated pro-Taliban politicians in an election in Bajaur Agency.
Nevertheless, Islamists in Bajaur have threatened local men against shaving their beards, and while some men have protested, Abbas says, the episode demonstrates the strength of extremism even in opposition areas.
But even among the Taliban, there are divisions and opportunities for negotiation, says veteran Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of several books on militancy in the borderlands.
"Negotiating with the present leadership (Mullah Omar, Mullah Dadullah and others) is not acceptable," says Rashid, adding that there are "moderate elements" who are willing to talk to the Afghan government and have met with the secular and nationalist Pashtun groups.
Rashid points out that the Pakistani government is deeply suspicious of those groups, fearing a new secession movement if they gain support. Pakistan rejected a recent peace plan put forward by Wali – and approved by Afghan President Hamid Karzai – to hold a jirga of tribal leaders from both sides of the border.
"Wali believes it's the last hope for the region," says Abbas. "But in Pakistan, it is difficult to challenge the military intelligence establishment."
Bokhari, who had a recent meeting with President Pervez Musharraf, says the Pakistani leader admitted he had "no magic wand" for solving the crisis on the borders but was open to political negotiation, as well as fencing and mining the frontier (the latter opposed by Canada). And Musharraf denied reports that the Pakistani intelligence service was supporting militants, saying that creating an unstable neighbour was against his country's interests.
But as the countdown to a predicted spring offensive continues, so will pressure on Musharraf to shut down Taliban bases in Pakistan's borderlands.
Says Harrison: "Since the economic viability of Pakistan depends on continued aid, a credible threat to cut it off would alarm the armed forces and other sectors of the Pakistani business and political establishment, forcing Musharraf to tack with the wind."
But most analysts agree that force alone will not be effective on the frontier. They say that tightly targeted attacks against the hard core of the Taliban, avoiding civilian casualties, should open the way for negotiations with those who are willing to lay down their arms.
"People who want to fight can be tackled militarily, and NATO must not allow (the militants) to believe they will just leave the area," says Abbas.
But Pakistan, he adds, is only part of the problem.
"It's crucial to support development of Afghanistan. A person with a job, and kids in school, will think twice before picking up a gun."
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Two more hanged on spying charges
LASHKARGAH, Feb 17 (Pajhwok Afghan News): Taliban said they had killed two alleged spies in the southern province of Helmand.
Purported spokesman Qari Yousaf Ahmadi told Pajhwok Afghan News one man was hanged to death in Grishk and another in Sangin district on charges of spying for the US and Afghan forces.
Ahmadi said the two were executed early Saturday morning following verdict of a Taliban court. He said one of the alleged spies was detained with some documents in Zambli area of Grishk.
Mohammadullah, resident of Sangin district, said he himself witnessed the hanging of the two people this morning.
Stopping short of confirming the execution of the two people by Taliban militants, provincial police chief Nabi Jan Mulakhel said enemies of the country were involved in such incidents.
A day earlier, Taliban beheaded two people and hanged a third man in the same province.
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Karzai's bodyguard dies in road crash
KABUL, Feb 17 (Pajhwok Afghan News): A bodyguard of President Hamid Karzai died and another wounded in a traffic accident in Kabul Saturday morning, officials and witnesses said.
General Rahmatullah, a senior official associated with the administrative affairs office, said the accident occurred in the morning when the guards were heading towards the airport to escort the president, who was scheduled to arrive here after his three-nation tour.
Ajmal, owner of kiosk on the airport road, said the road was blocked for general traffic since early morning. "I saw several official vehicles heading towards the airport. One of the vehicles skidded off the road and overturned," he informed.
He said people traveling in the other vehicles, shifted the wounded in another car to hospital. Pir Mohammad, a security guard of a government-owned school in the area, said he had seen the overturned vehicle there.
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