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May 17, 2008 

10 militants, 4 Afghans killed in violence
By AMIR SHAH, Associated Press Writer Sat May 17, 6:25 AM ET
KABUL, Afghanistan - A series of clashes, airstrikes and bomb blasts left 10 militants and four civilians killed in Afghanistan, officials said Saturday.

Kidnapped Pakistan diplomat back home after end of captivity
by Rana Jawad Sat May 17, 8:31 AM ET
ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan returned home safely Saturday after being released from his captivity by suspected Taliban militants who held him captive for 96 days, officials said.

Afghan census depends on security
Sat May 17, 5:58 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - A historic population count due to start in war-ravaged Afghanistan next month is dependent on the security situation, census authorities assessing safety on the ground warned Saturday.

U.S. Planning Big New Prison in Afghanistan
By ERIC SCHMITT and TIM GOLDEN The New York Times May 17, 2008
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is moving forward with plans to build a new, 40-acre detention complex on the main American military base in Afghanistan, officials said, in a stark acknowledgment that the United States is likely to continue to hold

The fears of a former Afghan minister
Economic Aid; Worries Afghanistan a 'failed state'
Peter Goodspeed, National Post Saturday, May 17, 2008
Afghanistan is a tortured country in an unforgiving corner of the world, but it will always be home to Ashraf Ghani, a 58-year-old academic and former World Bank executive who was the interim government's finance minister for two years after the Taliban were expelled.

Pakistan says coalition in Afghanistan launched missile strike
Fri May 16, 3:38 PM ET
KHAR, Pakistan (AFP) - Pakistan on Friday said that coalition forces in Afghanistan earlier this week launched a missile strike into Pakistan's tribal region, killing 14 people.

Interview with Taliban leader in Pakistan
Face-to-face with 'slight' man driven by a cause
Thursday, May 15, 2008 By Stephen Puddicombe CBC News Canada
I have spent a lot of time in Pakistan and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, but the longer I'm here, the less I seem to understand the tribal politics.

Clegg voices Afghan campaign fear
Saturday, 17 May 2008 14:47 UK BBC News
Failure in Afghanistan would be "devastating" while the Nato mission was "hanging in the balance", Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has said on a visit.

Suicide bomber as young as 10 hits Canadians
Two soldiers injured near Kandahar
MURRAY BREWSTER The Canadian Press, with a report from Unnati Gandhi, The Globe and Mail May 17, 2008
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- A boy, possibly as young as 10, was used in a suicide-bomb attack against a joint Canadian and Afghan army patrol in Afghanistan yesterday.

India, Afghanistan sign MoU for JWG on local governance
New Delhi (PTI): India and Afghanistan have signed an MoU envisaging setting up of an India-Afghanistan Joint Working Group (JWG) on local governance.

Bush says Saudi oil boost doesn't solve US problem
By JENNIFER LOVEN
SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt (AP) — President Bush said Saturday that the Saudis' modest increase in oil production is "something but it doesn't solve our problem" of soaring gas prices.

Bin Laden driver's trial delayed
BBC News, UK Saturday, 17 May 2008
A military judge has postponed the trial of Osama Bin Laden's former driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, to allow a Supreme Court ruling to be made.

Talks with Taliban in national interest, says Mukhtar
* Defence minister says peace deal will help curb cross-border attacks
Daily Times Saturday, May 17, 2008
KARACHI-The government is negotiating with local Taliban in the national interest and a peace agreement would help curb cross-border attacks, Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar said on Friday.
Talking to reporters

Parsing Good and Evil, Politics and the Mideast
Wall Street Journal THE MORNING BRIEF By JOSEPH SCHUMAN May 16, 2008
The Morning Brief, a look at the day's biggest news, is emailed to subscribers by 7 a.m. every business day. Sign up for the e-mail here.

Dry weather may hit Afghan grain crops-FAO
MILAN, May 16 (Reuters) - Dry and hot weather in central Afghanistan may hit grain crops and worsen tight food supplies in the impoverished country, the United Nations' food agency FAO said on Friday.

Afghanistan's president wants $50bn but must show what he'd do with it
Bronwen Maddox: World Briefing  From The Times (UK) May 16, 2008
This week Afghanistan's President has asked the world for $50 billion. It has not yet given its answer, beyond a sharp, sceptical yelp that the country could actually absorb funds on that scale.

Pakistan Defies U.S. on Halting Afghanistan Raids
By JANE PERLEZ, The New York Times May 16, 2008
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Pakistani officials are making it increasingly clear that they have no interest in stopping cross-border attacks by militants into Afghanistan, prompting a new level of frustration from Americans who see the infiltration

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10 militants, 4 Afghans killed in violence
By AMIR SHAH, Associated Press Writer Sat May 17, 6:25 AM ET
KABUL, Afghanistan - A series of clashes, airstrikes and bomb blasts left 10 militants and four civilians killed in Afghanistan, officials said Saturday.

A roadside blast hit a vehicle in the eastern Paktia province, leaving three civilians dead early Saturday, said government spokesman Ghamai Mohammadi.

Another bomb placed on a bicycle exploded as a police vehicle passed by outside Kandahar city in southern Afghanistan. The blast killed a 10-year old boy and wounded another civilian, said police officer Mohammad Nabi. There were no police casualties from the blast.

Militants regularly use roadside bombs against Afghan and foreign troops in the country, but most of those killed in such attack have been civilian.

In the western Farah province Afghan and foreign troops bombed a Taliban hideout where two hostages were being held, leaving eight militants dead, said Afghan army commander Gen. Jalander Shah.

Both hostages were freed during the Friday operation, Shah said.

Also Friday, U.S.-led coalition and Afghan troops clashed and called in airstrikes on insurgents in eastern Khost province, during a raid on a compound suspected of housing militants involved in bomb making activities.

Two militants were killed and four others detained during the operation in Khost's Sabari district, the coalition said in a statement.

The joint force searched several compounds during the operation and recovered weapons and ammunition, it said.

More than 1,200 people — mostly militants — have died in insurgency-related violence so far this year, according to a tally compiled by The Associated Press.
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Kidnapped Pakistan diplomat back home after end of captivity
by Rana Jawad Sat May 17, 8:31 AM ET
ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan returned home safely Saturday after being released from his captivity by suspected Taliban militants who held him captive for 96 days, officials said.

Envoy Tariq Azizuddin was heading to the Afghan capital Kabul with his driver when he disappeared in the troubled Khyber tribal district bordering Afghanistan on February 11.

Relatives, friends and media thronged the ambassador's residence in the garrison city of Rawalpindi near Islamabad after Azizuddin, 56, was flown here by a special flight from the northwestern city of Peshawar.

The ambassador's recovery comes amid recent headway in peace talks between the Pakistani Taliban and the six-week-old coalition government led by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

The head of the interior ministry, Rehman Malik, denied any deal was struck to get the envoy back.

"We have exchanged no one, and released no one to secure his release," Malik told reporters, rejecting suggestions the ambassador was released after the government freed dozens of Taliban suspects.

"His recovery last evening (Friday) is purely a result of law enforcement efforts," Malik told reporters, standing beside the envoy who had grown a long beard and appeared exhausted.

Malik did not explain what action the security forces took.

The envoy who repeatedly waved at the media said he was thankful to God and praised the efforts of the government to secure his freedom.

"I am thankful to Allah and the government of Pakistan and very happy to be back in life with my family."

He said he was treated well in the captivity. "When they kidnapped me I was hit twice in the head with a rifle but afterwards they gave me food and a place to sleep."

The foreign ministry earlier said Azizuddin driver and bodyguard were also safe and sound with the authorities.

Taliban sources told AFP the envoy was handed over to security agency officials in the tribal area after the government released some 12 people in its custody, including members of the Afghan Taliban, earlier this week.

The release came nearly four weeks after Azizuddin appeared in a video aired by Dubai-based Al-Arabiya news channel in which he said he was being held by the Taliban.

Azizuddin had pleaded in the video for the government and the foreign ministry "to do all they can to protect our lives and to answer all the demands of the Mujahedeen of Taliban in order to secure our release."

The day of his kidnap coincided with Pakistani security forces seizing a senior Taliban commander, Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, in southwestern Baluchistan province, also bordering Afghanistan.

Pakistan's new government defeated the backers of President Pervez Musharraf in elections in February and has pledged to completely overhaul the key US ally's pursuit of the "war on terror".

As part of the ongoing peace process, the authorities last month also released some 30 tribesmen held in various prisons in return for the release of 55 soldiers detained by pro-Taliban militants, according to an official.

The Pakistan government is also said to be holding the Taliban's former defence minister Mullah Obaidullah Akhund who was captured last year in March from the Baluchistan capital Quetta.

He was the most senior figure from the 1996-2001 Taliban regime in Afghanistan to be captured since it fell after a US-led invasion in late-2001. The Pakistan government has not so far officially admitted his arrest.
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Afghan census depends on security
Sat May 17, 5:58 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - A historic population count due to start in war-ravaged Afghanistan next month is dependent on the security situation, census authorities assessing safety on the ground warned Saturday.

Census workers have fanned out across the insurgency-hit country to check if it is safe enough to go ahead with the head count, Central Statistics Office chief Abdul Rahman Ghafoori said.

"We are in the process of analysing the security situation to see if we are able or not to conduct the population census," he told reporters.

"After we have analysed the situation, we will ask the government for go-ahead orders," he said.

Ghafoori rejected the possibility of Afghan security forces or international troops being brought in to protect census takers, saying, "We want the process to be independent."

In April a district census official was killed in an ambush in the eastern province of Paktia that was blamed on Taliban insurgents. Insurgency related unrest has also hampered UN backed polio vaccination programmes for children in rebel strongholds in the south.

The Taliban, who were in government between 1996 and 2001, have led a wave of attacks that have made many parts of eastern and southern Afghanistan no-go areas for outsiders.

Afghanistan's only previous census was started in 1979 but was not completed after the Soviet invasion that year plunged the country into decades of war.

An unofficial household count in 2002 had suggested there were then roughly 24.5 million people in the country, Ghafoori told AFP.

The US Central Intelligence Agency "world factbook" puts the Afghan population at 33 million this year.
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U.S. Planning Big New Prison in Afghanistan
By ERIC SCHMITT and TIM GOLDEN The New York Times May 17, 2008
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is moving forward with plans to build a new, 40-acre detention complex on the main American military base in Afghanistan, officials said, in a stark acknowledgment that the United States is likely to continue to hold prisoners overseas for years to come.

The proposed detention center would replace the cavernous, makeshift American prison on the Bagram military base north of Kabul, which is now typically packed with about 630 prisoners, compared with the 270 held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Until now, the Bush administration had signaled that it intended to scale back American involvement in detention operations in Afghanistan. It had planned to transfer a large majority of the prisoners to Afghan custody, in an American-financed, high-security prison outside Kabul to be guarded by Afghan soldiers.

But American officials now concede that the new Afghan-run prison cannot absorb all the Afghans now detained by the United States, much less the waves of new prisoners from the escalating fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The proposal for a new American prison at Bagram underscores the daunting scope and persistence of the United States military’s detention problem, at a time when Bush administration officials continue to say they want to close down the facility at Guantánamo Bay.

Military officials have long been aware of serious problems with the existing detention center in Afghanistan, the Bagram Theater Internment Facility. After the prison was set up in early 2002, it became a primary site for screening prisoners captured in the fighting. Harsh interrogation methods and sleep deprivation were used widely, and two Afghan detainees died there in December 2002, after being repeatedly struck by American soldiers.

Conditions and treatment have improved markedly since then, but hundreds of Afghans and other men are still held in wire-mesh pens surrounded by coils of razor wire. There are only minimal areas for the prisoners to exercise, and kitchen, shower and bathroom space is also inadequate.

Faced with that, American officials said they wanted to replace the Bagram prison, a converted aircraft hangar that still holds some of the decrepit aircraft-repair machinery left by the Soviet troops who occupied the country in the 1980s. In its place the United States will build what officials described as a more modern and humane detention center that would usually accommodate about 600 detainees — or as many as 1,100 in a surge — and cost more than $60 million.

“Our existing theater internment facility is deteriorating,” said Sandra L. Hodgkinson, the senior Pentagon official for detention policy, in a telephone interview. “It was renovated to do a temporary mission. There is a sense that this is the right time to build a new facility.”

American officials also acknowledged that there are serious health risks to detainees and American military personnel who work at the Bagram prison, because of their exposure to heavy metals from the aircraft-repair machinery and asbestos.

“It’s just not suitable,” another Pentagon official said. “At some point, you have to say, ‘That’s it. This place was not made to keep people there indefinitely.’ ”

That point came about six months ago. It became clear to Pentagon officials that the original plan of releasing some Afghan prisoners outright and transferring other detainees to Afghan custody would not come close to emptying the existing detention center.

Although a special Afghan court has been established to prosecute detainees formerly held at Bagram and Guantánamo, American officials have been hesitant to turn over those prisoners they consider most dangerous. In late February the head of detainee operations in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone, traveled to Bagram to assess conditions there.

In Iraq, General Stone has encouraged prison officials to build ties to tribal leaders, families and communities, said a Congressional official who has been briefed on the general’s work. As a result, American officials are giving Iraqi detainees job training and engaging them in religious discussions to help prepare them to re-enter Iraqi society.

About 8,000 detainees have been released in Iraq since last September. Fewer than 1 percent of them have been returned to the prison, said Lt. Cmdr. K. C. Marshall, General Stone’s spokesman.

The new detention center at Bagram will incorporate some of the lessons learned by the United States in Iraq. Classrooms will be built for vocational training and religious discussion, and there will be more space for recreation and family visits, officials said. After years of entreaties by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United States recently began to allow relatives to speak with prisoners at Bagram through video hookups.

“The driving factor behind this is to ensure that in all instances we are giving the highest standards of treatment and care,” said Ms. Hodgkinson, who has briefed Senate and House officials on the construction plans.

The Pentagon is planning to use $60 million in emergency construction funds this fiscal year to build a complex of 6 to 10 semi-permanent structures resembling Quonset huts, each the size of a football field, a Defense Department official said. The structures will have more natural light, and each will have its own recreation area. There will be a half-dozen other buildings for administration, medical care and other purposes, the official said.

The new Bagram compound is expected to be built away from the existing center of operations on the base, on the other side of a long airfield from the headquarters building that now sits almost directly adjacent to the detention center, one military official said.

It will have its own perimeter security wall, and its own perimeter security guards, a change that will increase the number of soldiers required to operate the detention center.

The military plans to request $24 million in fiscal year 2009 and $7.4 million in fiscal year 2010 to pay for educational programs, job training and other parts of what American officials call a reintegration plan. After that, the Pentagon plans to pay about $7 million a year in training and operational costs.

There has been mixed support for the project on Capitol Hill. Two prominent Senate Democrats, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Tim Johnson of South Dakota, have been briefed on the new American-run prison, and have praised the decision to make conditions there more humane.

But the senators, in a May 15 letter to the deputy defense secretary, Gordon England, demanded that the Pentagon explain its long-term plans for detention in Afghanistan and consult the Afghan government on the project.

The population at Bagram began to swell after administration officials halted the flow of prisoners to Guantánamo in September 2004, a cutoff that largely remains in effect. At the same time, the population of detainees at Bagram also began to rise with the resurgence of the Taliban.

Military personnel who know both Bagram and Guantánamo describe the Afghan site, 40 miles north of Kabul, as far more spartan. Bagram prisoners have fewer privileges, less ability to contest their detention and no access to lawyers.

Some detainees have been held without charge for more than five years, officials said. As of April, about 10 juveniles were being held at Bagram, according to a recent American report to a United Nations committee.
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The fears of a former Afghan minister
Economic Aid; Worries Afghanistan a 'failed state'
Peter Goodspeed, National Post Saturday, May 17, 2008
Afghanistan is a tortured country in an unforgiving corner of the world, but it will always be home to Ashraf Ghani, a 58-year-old academic and former World Bank executive who was the interim government's finance minister for two years after the Taliban were expelled.

Now, he worries his homeland may once again be becoming a failed state, riddled with corruption, preyed on by terrorists and incapable of providing good government for its citizens.

And he thinks the international community, well-intentioned as it may be, is unprepared to do much to help.

"We have rushed to address each problem without understanding the whole, using atavistic, haphazard, fragmented and short-term responses that sometimes exacerbate the collection of problems we set out to fix," he says in a newly published book, Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World.

"While we all agree that global poverty is intolerable, we attempt to deal with it by using mechanisms developed 50 years ago. From Sudan and Somalia to Nepal, East Timor and Kosovo, the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars over half a century has resulted only in disenchantment and mutual recrimination without many significant breakthroughs in wealth creation.

"Rather than allowing those we are trying to help to drive he process forward themselves, we insist on imposing our own outdated solutions," he adds.

The key to state building, Mr. Ghani argues, is to recognize that legitimacy flows from citizens, then agree on the goals and functions of a state, from a citizen's point of view, and search for pragmatic ways to support those goals.

When states fail to meet their citizens' basic needs, they enter a vicious downward cycle, where power struggles distort priorities, people lose trust in government, institutions lose legitimacy, the economy becomes criminalized and the populace is disenfranchised.

Neglected failing states quickly become breeding grounds for terror and "vicious networks of criminality, violence and drugs feed on disenfranchised populations and uncontrolled territory."

Seven years after the Taliban were overthrown, Afghanistan is still struggling to re-establish itself as a successful state, says Mr. Ghani.

It has racked up some victories, rallying international help and receiving promises of billions of dollars in foreign aid, but few Afghans have seen significant improvement in their lives. Rampant corruption, the absence of the rule of law and a failure to provide equitable social services are all undermining government support.

"Corruption has become a major problem in Afghanistan. It is a cancer that has eaten through," he says. "No high-ranking official of the government has been prosecuted for corruption and sentenced and unless that happens, there will be disgust.

"The Afghanistan political class has failed to offer a national vision to the people. They have pursued their personal interests at the expense of the national interest and corruption has resulted in disappointment."

"It is the weakness of the government, not the strength of the Taliban that is the issue," he adds.

But outdated international aid efforts must share some of the blame. UN agencies frequently fail to practise the transparency they preach and refuse to be held accountable for their work, Mr. Ghani says.

"Six of the UN agencies in Afghanistan are not even willing to disclose their audits to their own board of governors," he says.

"These agencies are not coherent; they are no co-ordinated under one UN program. In Afghanistan, every agency has a separate set of priorities and we do not know how capable they are because they are unaccountable."

"International technical assistance is considered to be largely wasted," he adds. "Hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into technical assistance only to increase corruption and misgovernance."

He cites U. S. contractors whose staff are paid $1,500 a day to do basic accounting procedures, when locals could be trained to do the same job in less than six months for a fraction of the cost.

In addition, the UN and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have virtually stripped Afghanistan of the capable civil servants it needs to be successful.

"We had 240,000 civil servants in 2001, who were quite willing to work for $50 a month," he says.

"By 2004, all the talented ones had left to become drivers for the UN or World Bank or the NGOs. A driver for the UN was being paid $400, a university professor was being paid $50. So, 60,000 Afghans went."

While international aid workers have rushed to push up enrollments in primary schools, they have done little to provide higher education for young Afghans.

"In a country that has had decades of war, how are you going to run a government without investment in higher education?" he asks.

"Youth can't have ownership of the country unless they are at the forefront of assuming responsibility.

"Putting millions of people in primary school, without giving them a functioning economy is not the way to stability."

More than anything, Mr. Ghani wants to see Afghanistan approached not as a charity case, but as an investment. If it could only be given access to globalized markets, it could unleash new opportunities.

"If 40 of the top corporations in the world give us market access for our major products, it will change economic opportunities radically," he says.

"We need to convene people from the corporate world, who know how to manage risk and handle value chains and how to create jobs. The aid community does not know these things and the military is being asked to assume tasks for which they have never been prepared."
pgoodspeed@nationalpost.com
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Pakistan says coalition in Afghanistan launched missile strike
Fri May 16, 3:38 PM ET
KHAR, Pakistan (AFP) - Pakistan on Friday said that coalition forces in Afghanistan earlier this week launched a missile strike into Pakistan's tribal region, killing 14 people.
 
"We confirm that the two missiles were fired from a drone which belongs to coalition forces deployed in Afghanistan," Pakistan's chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told AFP, referring to Wednesday's strike.

"We have conveyed our protest and waiting for response by the coalition forces," Abbas added.

He said the attack killed 14 people but gave no further details on exactly who launched the strike. There is a US-led coalition in Afghanistan, and a separate NATO coalition.

Taliban spokesman Maulvi Omar on Thursday blamed the United States for carrying out the missile strike and vowed to avenge the attack.

A senior security official in Islamabad said two houses belonging to local Taliban militant leaders were the target of the attack, which destroyed the buildings.

Security officials told AFP Thursday at least 12 militants including some foreigners were among those killed.

The US military in Afghanistan was not immediately available for comment.

Suspected US missile attacks in the past have claimed the lives of several militants in Pakistan's volatile tribal belt.

A US Predator drone targeted Al-Qaeda's deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the same area in 2006, killing several rebels but missing him.

Pakistani authorities on Friday found the body of a paramilitary soldier beheaded by Taliban insurgents in the tribal area targeted by Wednesday's strike.

A note left on the corpse said the Pakistani soldier had been killed in revenge for the missile attack in the Bajaur tribal district near the Afghan border.

The strike came as militants were negotiating a deal with the new Pakistani government, which came to power after the defeat of US ally President Pervez Musharraf's supporters in February elections.

The soldier was kidnapped overnight and his decapitated body dumped on the roadside outside the main town of Khar, local official Mowaz Khan said.

"This is our revenge for the US missile attack," the note signed by militant group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, said.

Militants in the troubled semi-autonomous region have previously kidnapped and killed soldiers, officials and pro-government figures accused of working with the Americans, as part of a campaign to maintain their stronghold.

On Friday, around 100 students belonging to Islamic seminaries held a noisy demonstration in the central city of Multan and burned effigies of US President George W. Bush.

Protesters shouted "Americans are killers. Stop spilling the blood of Pakistanis," an AFP correspondent witnessed.

The fundamentalist Jamaat-i-Islami party said the missile attack was "outright terrorism" by US forces across the border.

"The lives of Pakistanis are being sacrificed for the sake of US aid," party chief Qazi Hussain Ahmad told a press conference in the eastern city of Lahore.

Hundreds of people rallied in the northwestern city of Peshawar after Friday's prayers in protest at the missile attack, witnesses said.

"The attack is an interference in the affairs of a sovereign country," local Islamist leader Sabir Hassain Awan told the rally.

Protestors carried placards and banners saying: "US is the biggest terrorist in the world. We condemn the attack in Bajaur."

Pakistan is a key ally of Washington in the "war on terror" and has deployed nearly 100,000 troops in the lawless tribal territory that the US says is a safe haven for Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.
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Interview with Taliban leader in Pakistan
Face-to-face with 'slight' man driven by a cause
Thursday, May 15, 2008 By Stephen Puddicombe CBC News Canada
I have spent a lot of time in Pakistan and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, but the longer I'm here, the less I seem to understand the tribal politics.

My cameraman Sat Nandlall and I were able to travel up into the tribal areas of Pakistan, to the village of Butkhela, a Taliban stronghold, about 30 minutes, I am told, from the Afghan border by horse (longer by car).

Our driver weaved his way over winding mountain roads past jingle trucks (Pakistani dump trucks with little bells on the bumpers) barrelling down from the other direction.

We had to make several stops along the way to make sure we had safe passage. This is an area rife with militants and criminals whose favourite pastime is armed robbery and kidnapping.

We stopped at one place and had tea and cookies for an hour, a Pakistani tradition. Then we got the nod to say we could visit Sufi Muhammad's home.

I had never seen a picture of this Taliban leader, a man some authorities call one of the more dangerous militants in the country. He had spent the past six years in prison after being captured leading more than 10,000 Taliban into Afghanistan in 2001. Most of them were killed. He and a few of his followers made it back to Pakistan, where they were arrested.

The Pakistan government recently released him from prison, a goodwill gesture to show how serious it is about cutting a peace deal with the militants. The new government figures that sending thousands of troops into the tribal belt to crush them by force didn't work, so the other option is to talk to them.

We felt pretty safe on the way up, but I was a little nervous (to say the least) when we arrived in his village. He agreed to do an interview with us, the only one he has granted since being released from prison.

First we had to dress in traditional Pakistani clothes, which are actually quite comfortable. But Muhammad's people told us when we got there he wouldn't allow us to film him. Not a great deal for a television story. We could however, record his voice.

Finally meeting this terror of the Taliban, however, I was taken aback. He was slight in stature, with thick glasses and a long beard, wearing a black turban. It was difficult to believe this soft-spoken man had led all those fighters.

Don't think I am soft on the Taliban, as I have seen their work all over Afghanistan and Pakistan; it was just surprising how meek and mild he was, though six years in a Pakistani prison will do that.

But this blog is not so much about interviewing Taliban leaders as it is a discussion of talking peace with militants responsible for blowing up cars, killing innocent people in markets, even bombing the funeral of a victim killed in a suicide bombing.

Shariah law is the issue
I sat down and had a rational, reasonable conversation with this man. His solution to achieving peace was simply that Pakistan had to adopt Shariah law. Yes, that's the sometimes oppressive religious law: women are required to wear burkas, they can't go to school, men risk severe punishment if their beards aren't long enough, no music, no billiards, no dancing, few if any modern-day appliances. Violators face brutal punishment.

There are some positive things about Shariah law though; a council of elders listens to disputes and decides the outcome based on evidence, sort of like a native healing circle back home, but that's not enough to sell it to the West. But if the new government introduces Shariah law, Muhammad says he will renounce violence. I don't think that is going to happen.

Just visit parliament in Islamabad, and you will see plenty of SUVs and spiffy Italian tailored suits. No, this parliament won't give into threats and lose all that. And Pakistan, believe it or not, is a fairly liberal society. There are burkas here, abuse against women is an enormous problem, but there are a lot of modern, forward-thinking people as well.

The prospect of Pakistan negotiating with the Taliban tends to make Western leaders sick. They fear, as do many critics here, that a deal would allow the Taliban to focus its attention on Western forces in Afghanistan, including Canadians.

That's a question I put to another Taliban leader who agreed to speak with us. Mohallanh Alham is a large man who runs a religious school in a nearby village. He and one of his co-leaders invited us in after prayers for the interview.

You would never think these men were Taliban. They laughed and made us feel quite at ease. One of them was like a favourite uncle, a little portly, with a grand laugh and a flair for telling a good joke.

But when it came down to a discussion about the peace talks, their demand was inflexible: the implementation of Shariah law, or else a fight.

No simple answer
So here's the problem: President Musharraf's way of dealing with the militants didn't work. He poured thousands of troops into the tribal region of Pakistan to crush the militants, and, if anything, they are stronger today then they were a few years ago.

The new government wants to talk and work out a deal to bring peace. But what happens with Afghanistan? The militants won't give up fighting there until the Western troops are gone, but the West has invested far too much to leave.

Tighten up the border, so the Taliban can't cross back and forth at will? Well, anyone who has been there, or seen a map of the region, knows the rugged terrain makes that impossible.

Some believe it's necessary to win over the local population, which has largely been ignored by Pakistan, receiving few services, education or medical facilities. But all the Taliban have to do is use a few well-placed bombs to scare people off.

Some of our sources have told us there are many negotiations with the Taliban, both open and secret; there have even been suggestions the Canadians are doing it, though I have no evidence of that.

But after visiting with these men, it was clear to me they are willing to die for what they believe in, regardless of whether we think it is right or wrong. Afghani, Pakistani and Western troops are also making the same sacrifices. Each side thinks the other is wrong. So what's to negotiate here? Neither side will ever convince the other its position is right. So do we keep fighting, keep talking, or just abandon the people of Afghanistan? I don't have an answer.

It boils down to a system of beliefs that neither side is willing to compromise on. Unless that changes, unless some tangible bridge between these divides is found, my grandkids will be reporting this same story, 20 years from now.
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Clegg voices Afghan campaign fear
Saturday, 17 May 2008 14:47 UK BBC News
Failure in Afghanistan would be "devastating" while the Nato mission was "hanging in the balance", Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has said on a visit.

Speaking during his first trip there, Mr Clegg warned that without lasting peace and stability Afghanistan could revert to a "pariah state".

"The consequences of failure would be devastating," he said.

Mr Clegg is spending two days visiting British troops and holding talks with Afghan leaders.

"Afghanistan is the most important conflict of our generation," he said.

"If we fail to secure lasting peace and stability, Afghanistan will revert to a pariah state, feeding the international drugs trade and offering a haven for terrorism that will threaten global security for the conceivable future.

"Yet the success of our mission in Afghanistan hangs in the balance. International efforts have not yet delivered the stability and security that the people of Afghanistan deserve.

"So we must ask tough questions, of ourselves and our allies, to ensure we succeed."

Mr Clegg said the international community needed to demonstrate "greater unity in the way aid and reconstruction support is provided".

There were also crucial questions over how many UK troops should be on the ground, how to tackle the opium trade, and how to engage with neighbouring states, he added.

"My aim in travelling to Afghanistan is to discuss these vital issues on the ground with politicians, military commanders and soldiers serving on the front line," he said.

"I want to listen, learn and seek answers to the difficult question marks hanging over the success of our mission in Afghanistan."
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Suicide bomber as young as 10 hits Canadians
Two soldiers injured near Kandahar
MURRAY BREWSTER The Canadian Press, with a report from Unnati Gandhi, The Globe and Mail May 17, 2008
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- A boy, possibly as young as 10, was used in a suicide-bomb attack against a joint Canadian and Afghan army patrol in Afghanistan yesterday.

Two Canadian soldiers and two Afghan soldiers were wounded in the attack about 40 kilometres from Kandahar city, the military said.

Military sources told CTV the boy was about 10, and that he approached the soldiers with his hands in the air, alluding to the possibility the bomb was possibly detonated from a distance by remote control.

"The suicide bomber was a boy wearing a vest," a military spokesman told The Globe and Mail last night.

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Bineau, a Canadian Forces spokeswoman in Kandahar, condemned the attack as a "last ditch-attempt" by militants to disrupt the progress of Afghan and NATO forces in establishing security.

"These types of attacks demonstrate a weakness in the insurgency and do not impede the resolve of those who work to make Kandahar province a safe and stable environment," she said in a statement.

The Forces released no further information on the nature of the attack, but Afghan police officials also speculated the bomb carried by the child was remotely triggered.

If true, it would represent a disturbing turn in the Taliban's campaign of suicide bombings that has been going on for more than two years.

"It would be of deep concern, but it's not that surprising," said Seth Jones, an analyst at RAND Corporation, who was at the airport on his way to Kandahar yesterday. "Children have been involved in fighting for decades, picking up AK-47s and shooting at coalition forces. If this became a pattern, it would be a deadly pattern of what you see in the West Bank, where there actually are younger kids that are suicide attackers."

Mr. Jones said if the suicide bomber was, in fact, as young as 10, this would show the depth of the Taliban's recruiting ability.

"It would actually show the opposite, not that they're desperate, but that they've been able to reach across so many different age groups."

In recent years, most suicide bombers have been teenagers or men in their 20s, Mr. Jones said. The attack came just more than a week after a Canadian soldier was killed while on foot patrol in the Pashmul region outside Kandahar City.

Corporal Michael Starker, a Calgary paramedic, was shot and killed May 6. His funeral was in Calgary yesterday. Another Canadian was injured in the incident but is expected to recover.

Yesterday's blast was the second suicide bombing this week in Afghanistan.
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India, Afghanistan sign MoU for JWG on local governance
New Delhi (PTI): India and Afghanistan have signed an MoU envisaging setting up of an India-Afghanistan Joint Working Group (JWG) on local governance.

The MoU was signed as part of Minister for Panchayati Raj Mani Shankar Aiyar's three-day visit to Afghanistan which began on Saturday.

The JWG will recommend a schedule of activities for bilateral exchanges between India and Afghanistan to the Joint Forum on Local Governance with Aiyar and Afghan Minister for Rural Rehabilitation and Development Mohammed Ehsan Zia as the co-chairs.

This will include technical assistance programmes for strengthening local self-governance in Afghanistan, including capacity building of individuals, institutions and elected representatives of local administration focusing on areas relating to micro-planning, devolution of powers and funds as well as mobilisation of resources, officials said.

Aiyar would also be visiting some local-level community development programmes in Kapisa and Paghman provinces.
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Bush says Saudi oil boost doesn't solve US problem
By JENNIFER LOVEN
SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt (AP) — President Bush said Saturday that the Saudis' modest increase in oil production is "something but it doesn't solve our problem" of soaring gas prices.

Taking note of the kingdom's recent decision to raise production by 300,000 barrels a day, the president said the United States must act, too, to ease the gasoline crisis. He mentioned steps such as developing alternate fuels, improving conservation and expanding domestic exploration.

"We've got to do more at home," the president said on a lawn of a resort overlooking the Red Sea. He spoke after a private meeting with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.

Bush said he told Saudi King Abdullah during their talks this week that the king should be concerned that high energy prices are hurting some of Saudi Arabia's biggest oil customers, including the United States.

The kingdom decided May 10 on the production increase to help meet U.S. needs after Venezuela and Mexico cut back on oil deliveries. Oil minister Ali al-Naimi made that announcement Friday.

"One of the interesting things about American politics is, those who are screaming the loudest for increased production from Saudi Arabia are the very same people who are the fighting the fiercest against domestic exploration, against the development of nuclear power and against expanding refining capacity," Bush told reporters.

"So I was pleased they had increased production by 300,000, but I'm also realistic to say to the American people, we've got to do more at home," the president said.

As gas prices keep climbing, Bush is promoting moves that long have been part of his agenda. They include opening a coastal strip of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil exploration and production and making it easier to build new oil refineries and nuclear power plants in the United States.

All those ideas have been stymied in Congress, and critics say Bush's ideas would do nothing to offer short-term relief to families.

Bush said he made his concerns about the oil supply clear to King Abdullah on Friday in Saudi Arabia, telling the king: "You've got to be concerned about the effects of high oil prices on some of the biggest customers in the world. And not only that, of course, high energy prices are going to cause countries like mine to accelerate our move to alternative energy."

He said Saudi Arabia was increasing refining capacity as well as pumping more oil.

"It's not enough. It's something but it doesn't solve our problem," Bush said. "Our problem in America gets solved when we aggressively go for domestic exploration. Our problem in America gets solved if we expand our refining capacity, promote nuclear energy and continue our strategy for the advancement of alternative energies as well as conservation."

After talks in Saudi Arabia and a warm welcome in Jerusalem, Bush arrived in Egypt to harsh criticism in the state-run media that he was tilting too far toward Israel in Mideast peace negotiations.

In his first meeting, Bush said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak "wanted to make sure that my approach toward the Middle Eastern peace is firm and that we work hard to get the Palestinian state defined."

Bush said that in a speech in Egypt on Sunday, "I'll make clear that I believe we can get a (Palestinian) state defined by the end of my presidency and we'll work hard to achieve that objective."

Taking note of his meetings in Israel, Saudi Arabia and in Egypt, Bush said, every meeting "helps advance" progress toward the goal of getting a state defined and dealing with complex challenges. They include border issues, the fate of Palestinian refugees and security concerns, before he leaves office in January.

"I believe we can do that," Bush declared.

On Afghanistan, Bush praised Karzai as a courageous leader and urged other nations to help Afghanistan at a donors' meeting in Paris with problems ranging from agriculture to energy. "I hope the world rallies to your behalf," Bush told Karzai. "We'll certainly help."

Karzai thanked Bush for U.S. assistance over the past 6 1/2 years. "Please convey that gratitude to the American people," he said.

Long after the U.S.-led invasion to drive the al-Qaida-supported Taliban from power, Afghanistan remains gripped by fierce fighting.
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Bin Laden driver's trial delayed
BBC News, UK Saturday, 17 May 2008
A military judge has postponed the trial of Osama Bin Laden's former driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, to allow a Supreme Court ruling to be made.

Navy Captain Keith Allred postponed what was to be Guantanamo Bay's first war crimes tribunal until 21 July.

He said the Supreme Court should first rule on the rights of inmates to contest their detention, to see if that ruling affects Mr Hamdan's case.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule by 30 June.

The ruling is the latest delay for the US government which is trying to prosecute Mr Hamdan, a Yemeni, for helping the al-Qaeda chief avoid capture in Afghanistan following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon dropped charges against a Saudi citizen, Mohammad al-Qahtani, alleged to have been the "20th hijacker" in the attacks.

But it said the case against the other five defendants Guantanamo Bay inmates charged with murder and war crimes would proceed.

Six years in custody
Mr Hamdan's lawyers had requested a postponement of the trial's scheduled 2 June start date, insisting his client was not an al-Qaeda member and should not be treated as an unlawful enemy combatant.

Mr Hamdan, who has been in custody for nearly six years, is charged with conspiracy and supporting terrorism and faces life in prison if convicted.

He has acknowledged working for Bin Laden in Afghanistan for $200 (£99) a month, but denies being part of the militant group or taking part in any attacks.

Two cases at the Supreme Court challenge the removal by Congress of the "habeas corpus" right of detainees under the US constitution to be heard by an independent judge.

Habeas corpus is a writ which requires a person held by authorities to be brought before a court of law so the legality of the detention may be examined.

The cases have been brought on behalf of 37 foreign nationals who remain among the 305 detainees held at the US Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

If the court rules in their favour, indefinite detention under military control could be declared unlawful.

About 3,000 people were killed in the 11 September attacks when three hijacked planes targeted New York's World Trade Centre buildings and the Pentagon in Washington while a fourth crashed in Pennsylvania.
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Talks with Taliban in national interest, says Mukhtar
* Defence minister says peace deal will help curb cross-border attacks
Daily Times Saturday, May 17, 2008
KARACHI-The government is negotiating with local Taliban in the national interest and a peace agreement would help curb cross-border attacks, Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar said on Friday.
Talking to reporters, he said talks with Taliban would also bring peace and normalcy to the bordering tribal regions.

Mukhtar said the Bush administration had no reservations on the peace agreement and it was only concerned with its outcome. They were concerned that the deal could give free land to militants to carry out terrorist activities, he added.

“We are trying our best to protect our western border in collaboration with NATO, the local leadership and Afghanistan,” the Defence minister said, adding that Pakistan’s eastern borders were completely safe.

Commenting on Wednesday’s missile attack in Damadola apparently by the United States, he said the government was investigating the incident. The attack could be a mistake, he said, adding that such attacks had reduced after the Pakistani government talked to the US.

He rejected India’s allegations of firing by Pakistani forces at the Line of Control and said India made such allegations whenever an Indian minister was about to visit Pakistan.

Mukhtar, who also the chairman of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), said the PIA was facing a Rs 40 million loss per day but vowed that the company would begin to make profit within six months.
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Parsing Good and Evil, Politics and the Mideast
Wall Street Journal THE MORNING BRIEF By JOSEPH SCHUMAN May 16, 2008
The Morning Brief, a look at the day's biggest news, is emailed to subscribers by 7 a.m. every business day. Sign up for the e-mail here.

For all the ado over politics stopping at the border, foreign policy and presidential rhetoric abroad have always been inextricably woven into election campaigns, and have taken particular prominence since 9/11. The 2008 election cycle is no different.

President Bush's address to the Israeli Knesset yesterday included his usual description of 21st century conflicts as part of "an ancient battle between good and evil," assigning the Palestinian political and militant faction Hamas, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, Osama bin Laden and the Iranian government to the side of evil. It seemed unlikely he'd find much dissent among his audience of Israeli cabinet members and parliamentarians, or among the mainstream of American politicians back home. But that inclusion of Iran came a few sentences before he compared the suggestion of negotiating with "terrorists and radicals" to the "appeasement" of Nazi Germany before World War II. And that's what set off a new political battle in the U.S., where the most likely Democratic nominee in this year's political race has said he would be open to talks with Tehran.

Within hours, the campaign of Barack Obama was emailing journalists to remind them he had no intention of dealing with terrorists and accusing Mr. Bush of launching "a false political attack" during Israel's 60th Anniversary celebrations. Talking to New York Times columnist David Brooks, Mr. Obama said he rejects "this notion that any hint of strategies involving diplomacy are somehow soft or indicate surrender or means that you are not going to crack down on terrorism." A White House spokeswoman denied Mr. Bush was referring directly to Mr. Obama, though the Times notes the Bush administration trotted out the appeasement theme ahead of the 2006 midterm elections as well. The presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, who recently suggested Mr. Obama received an endorsement from Hamas, declined to say whether his opponent was an appeaser. But Mr. McCain say he thinks Mr. Obama "needs to explain why he wants to sit down and talk with a man who is the head of a government that is a state sponsor of terrorism," in reference to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Times reports.

Two years ago, Mr. McCain was less categorical about who he would and wouldn't talk to. James Rubin, a Clinton administration State Department spokesman and now a supporter of Hillary Clinton's campaign, writes in the Washington Post about his television interview with Mr. McCain just after Hamas won the Palestinian elections. Asked if American diplomats should work with the then-Hamas-led administration, Mr. McCain replied: "They're the government; sooner or later we are going to have to deal with them, one way or another." The Bush administration, too, hasn't been monolithically uncompromising. Earlier this week, as the Post reported, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. needed to more forcefully engage Iran and might have missed opportunities for a useful dialogue in the past. "We need to figure out a way to develop some leverage . . . and then sit down and talk with them," Mr. Gates said. "If there is going to be a discussion, then they need something, too."

Messrs. McCain and Bush also offered optimistic views of how the Middle East will evolve, implicitly assuming the policies they share for the region are pursued by the next administration. Mr. McCain predicts that by the end of his first administration, most U.S. servicemen and women will be able to leave Iraq, where the war has been won, a functioning democracy prevails, the government can secure its own borders and the local version of al Qaeda has been defeated. Mr. Bush envisions a Middle East 60 years in the future when "from Cairo to Riyadh to Baghdad and Beirut, people will live in free and independent societies," when "Iran and Syria will be peaceful nations," and when "al Qaeda and Hezbollah and Hamas will be defeated."

He also predicted the "Palestinian people will have the homeland they have long dreamed of and deserved." But aside from his repeated mention of Hamas, and despite his emphasis this year on working toward Mideast peace, that was the president's only reference to the Palestinians. Mr. Bush didn't mention his nominal ally, President Mahmoud Abbas, or use his chance to address Israel's assembled leadership to push them toward the compromise required for any peace agreement.

* * *
Lightning, Safety and Airplane Inspections Last year, American Airlines took away the substantial authority its mechanics had to begin thorough inspections if they spotted any sign that aircraft had been damaged by lightning, instead restricting the mechanics to minimum checks unless pilots officially reported lightning strikes. Now, the Federal Aviation Administration is investigating why the airline gave that order, The Wall Street Journal reports, citing internal company and agency documents. "The airline's decision reflects the wide latitude the AMR Corp. unit and other large air carriers typically have in adjusting safety standards without prior approvals from federal regulators," the Journal says. "In this instance, American made the procedural changes and revised its maintenance manual in an effort to prevent planes from being pulled out of service, causing flight delays or cancellations that can be especially disruptive during the summer thunderstorm season."

And the FAA's concerns, it adds, highlight "the continuing struggle by airlines to balance safety considerations with their own need to reduce the time and cost of maintenance, pilot training and other big-ticket operating expenses at a time of soaring fuel prices and a flurry of airline bankruptcies."

* * *
Clouding Protection of Air Quality at Parks The Bush administration is close to "implementing new air-quality rules that will make it easier to build power plants near national parks and wilderness areas," the Washington Post reports, citing rank-and-file agency scientists and park managers who oppose the plan. The new regulations, it says, "rewrite a provision of the Clean Air Act that applies to 'Class 1 areas,' federal lands that currently have the highest level of protection under the law." And its opponents say the changes -- the latest move by the administration to weaken protection for air quality at national parks -- "will worsen visibility at many of the nation's most prized tourist destinations, including Virginia's Shenandoah, Colorado's Mesa Verde and North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt national parks."

* * *
Guilty Verdict for Hollywood Shamus The jury conviction for the out-of-control private investigator is in, meaning the made-for-television movie about the case can't be far behind. Or possibly not in this case, since the PI found guilty on 76 of the 77 charges against him was Anthony Pellicano, investigator and wiretapper of the stars and their lawyers. Mr. Pellicano's conviction by a federal jury included "one count each of racketeering and racketeering conspiracy, as well as wire fraud, identity theft and conspiracy to intercept telephone calls or use wiretaps," as well as a charge of manufacturing or possessing a wiretapping device, as Variety reports. The return of not guilty came for one count of unauthorized computer access. The jury also found co-defendants Mark Arneson, a former Los Angeles Police sergeant, and ex-phone company employee Rayford Earl Turner guilty on racketeering and racketeering conspiracy charges for the work they did for Mr. Pellicano.

The celebrities, entertainment-industry executives and powerful industry lawyers who hired Mr. Pellicano included studio chief Brad Grey and CAA talent agency co-founder Michael Ovitz, actors Sylvester Stallone and Garry Shandling, and uber-attorney Bert Fields, the Los Angeles Times notes. And initially, it looked like they could be implicated in the case as well. But, the paper adds, that didn't happen.

* * *
Also of Note
Los Angeles Times: The California Supreme Court struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage in a broadly worded decision that would invalidate virtually any law that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation. The 4-3 ruling declared that the state Constitution protects a fundamental "right to marry" that extends equally to same-sex couples, tossing a highly emotional issue into the election year while opening the way for tens of thousands of gay people to wed in California, starting as early as mid-June.

Associated Press: A strong aftershock sparked landslides near the epicenter of this week's powerful earthquake in China, burying vehicles and again cutting off ravaged areas of the country. Elsewhere, rescuers were still finding survivors buried in rubble for 96 hours, while public anger grew over the hundreds of children crushed to death in schools that collapsed in the magnitude 7.9 temblor.

Washington Post: A psychologist who helps lead the post-traumatic stress disorder program at a medical facility for veterans in Texas told staff members to refrain from diagnosing PTSD because so many veterans were seeking government disability payments for the condition, and that VA staff members "really don't . . . have time to do the extensive testing that should be done to determine PTSD."

New York Times: A special investigator for the United Nations accused foreign intelligence agencies of conducting nighttime raids and killing civilians in Afghanistan with impunity. The investigator wouldn't specify the nationalities of the intelligence agencies, but the descriptions he gave of units operating out of two American bases in southern and eastern Afghanistan suggested that he was accusing the CIA or American unconventional-warfare units of operating without accountability to the Afghan government or the foreign military command in the country. Separately, Pakistani officials are making it increasingly clear that they have no interest in stopping cross-border attacks by militants into Afghanistan, prompting a new level of frustration from Americans who see the infiltration as a crucial strategic priority in the war in Afghanistan. The U.S. this week fired its fourth Predator missile strike since January, the most visible symbol of the American push for a freer hand to pursue militants from al Qaeda and the Taliban who use Pakistan's tribal areas as a base to attack Afghanistan and plot terrorist attacks abroad.

Wall Street Journal: U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt confirmed that the U.S. will bar Chinese companies that don't meet product-quality certification standards from the U.S. market. Mr. Leavitt said regulators can't possibly inspect the $2 trillion of goods the U.S. will likely import this year as supply chains become more global, so instead, companies and countries need voluntarily to police themselves or get punished by market forces.

Government Executive: The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence in September will begin implementing a common pay-for-performance system across the 16 intelligence agencies, including the CIA, so that starting in 2010, the nation's spies and analysts will have a "merit-based system that rewards high performers, said Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence.

The Hill: Key senators say they're close to a deal on legislation that would rescue homeowners facing foreclosure. The potential deal between Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd and Sen. Richard Shelby, the committee's ranking Republican, would also tighten the reins on mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Le Monde: French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed a "right of reception" for primary schools that would guarantee children are sheltered there even on days when their teachers are on strike, at the end of a day when educators joined postal workers and other public employees in a walk-out to protest Mr. Sarkozy's government austerity plans.

Financial Times: Blackstone, which made big profits last year by flipping commercial properties at the height of the market, is considering buying back into some of those assets at distressed prices as part of an effort to cash in on the credit crisis. Blackstone's emphasis on buying distressed assets highlights efforts by private equity firms to reinvent themselves now that they are losing access to the loans they need to finance large leveraged buy-outs.

Ad Age: CBS has acquired CNet Networks, owner of sites such as News.com, TV.com and MP3.com, for $1.8 billion, a 45% premium over CNet's Wednesday closing price, in a deal that unites one content company trying to figure out how it can make its broadcast TV business model relevant in the digital space and another that's a Web pioneer facing a swath of new online competition from companies small and independent as well as big and established.

Women's Wear Daily: The evidence just keeps building that consumers have shut their wallets when it comes to buying apparel, with a trio of major department stores -- J.C. Penney Co., Kohl's and Nordstrom -- all showing signs of wear and tear in reporting their first-quarter financial results.

BBC: Between a quarter and a third of the world's wildlife has been lost since 1970, according to data compiled by the Zoological Society of London, which said humans are wiping out about 1% of all other species every year, and one of the "great extinction episodes" in the Earth's history is under way. It blamed pollution, farming and urban expansion, over-fishing and hunting.

Variety: "Prince Caspian," the Disney sequel to the 2005 hit "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" opens at 3,929 U.S. cinemas today with no films opening wide against it, giving it a one-week shot at dominating the box office before "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" hits the theaters on the eve of the Memorial Day holiday frame. "Crystal Skull" makes its world-wide premiere at Cannes on Sunday.

* * *
Quote of the Day "It's an exchange of stories," said Rabbi David James Lazar, leader of a synagogue in Tel Aviv and one of more than a dozen rabbis who attended this week's opening of a scholarly center dedicated to interfaith dialogue -- in the Persian Gulf sheikdom of Qatar. While disputes abounded, Mr. Lazar tells the Associated Press that the benefits for him were huge, especially the chance to make personal connections with Arabs and Muslims "who otherwise I would have no contact with." For some of the participants, "it's their first chance ever to hear, not only an Israeli but to hear a Jewish rabbi speak," he says. "And so one of my responses is trying to tell them the story of the Jewish people, which often they have not heard. The Holocaust. I hear their story as well."
Write to Joseph Schuman at joseph.schuman@wsj.com 
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Dry weather may hit Afghan grain crops-FAO
MILAN, May 16 (Reuters) - Dry and hot weather in central Afghanistan may hit grain crops and worsen tight food supplies in the impoverished country, the United Nations' food agency FAO said on Friday.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation said it feared Afghanistan would not have enough water for pasture or the May-August rain-fed grain crop and the later irrigated wheat crop after a shortage of rain during the winter.

"The threat of a poor harvest comes in the midst of an already very tight food security situation," the Rome-based FAO said in a statement.

The aftermath of war, two severe droughts in 2001/02 and 2006 and an ongoing insurgency have increased food supply problems and poverty in Afghanistan.

Half the population live below the poverty line and about 2.55 million people receive food aid, the agency said.

Afghanistan's central areas which normally receive 400-800 mm of rainfall annually have developed a rainfall deficit of 200 mm from October 2007 to March 2008. Rapid and early snow melt has complicated the situation further, the FAO said.

A poor harvest would reduce available food supplies in the country and increase the need for imported wheat and food aid. Afghanistan needs to import more than 0.5 million tonnes of wheat to meet basic food needs, it said.
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Afghanistan's president wants $50bn but must show what he'd do with it
Bronwen Maddox: World Briefing  From The Times (UK) May 16, 2008
This week Afghanistan's President has asked the world for $50 billion. It has not yet given its answer, beyond a sharp, sceptical yelp that the country could actually absorb funds on that scale.

But the subtext to Hamid Karzai's demand should really be: if you want me re-elected as President in next year's elections, then the price is $50 billion. For want of better alternatives, the West's choice is indeed going to be Karzai.

While other governments might accept that he needs some flashy achievements to brandish at home, they have no need to agree to this total and should demand that he gives a much better account of how he plans to spend any cash. Karzai, an embattled figure whose willingness to work with other governments has been patchy in the past year, has two justified complaints. First, donors have not delivered their pledges in full. Since 2001 countries have pledged $25 billion in help but delivered only $15 billion, according to a report by the Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief, an alliance of 94 international aid agencies. Of the aid which did arrive, 40 per cent, or $6 billion, benefited donor countries through corporate profits and consultant salaries.

It is also impossible to argue with Karzai's point that the aid is desperately needed, both to lift one of the world's poorest countries a little farther from deep poverty, and to make any progress in defeating militants and eradicating opium poppies. More than a third of Afghans live below the poverty line; some estimates say 42 per cent. Healthcare has been one of the main targets of aid in the six years since the fall of the Taleban, but Afghanistan still has the world's second-highest maternal mortality rate, equal to Niger's, and better only than Sierra Leone's.

An energetic “hearts and minds” campaign to build the roads and water plants that people in the south particularly want is now at the centre of the British and American drive to bring the region under control. Military officers have been saying for two years that even though they can meet any military objective, real progress depends on politics, and that is going to need more local support. Hence the new focus (in theory) on building things, although measureable progress has been slight.

But Karzai still has to explain what he wants to do with the money. Here, he falls short, although the document that his officials will present to the donors' conference in Paris on June 12 is an incoherent 500 pages long: an exercise both myopic and grandiose that gives nation-building an even worse name than it has already. At least $14 billion is to be spent on improving security. Unfortunately, this is all too plausible. As Iraq has shown, security can absorb almost limitless amounts of cash. Getting real development projects started would take far more security than now, to protect the people working on them, and to protect the construction from attack once it is complete.

But what does Karzai mean by security? International forces have reached their limit. More Afghan ones? Karzai intends to keep expanding the Afghan Army and police, but surely this should be stated as a goal in itself.

And the rest of the budget? The key target is reviving the decrepit agricultural sector, Ishaq Nadiri, senior economic adviser to Karzai, said on Tuesday. Again, this is a plan on which the Afghan Government and outside advisers entirely agree. Persuading farmers that they can make a livelihood from farming, in a country that used to be renowned for its fruit, is one of the few good plans for trying to undermine the opium business. This is a rare case of a problem that is made easier by the rise in food prices.

But here, Karzai's demands ring hollow. It is not credible that Afghanistan's farming can absorb these sums so quickly. More likely, pouring cash into areas under the control of opium barons will give them another stream of income.

Karzai deserves support for what is a blunt political threat: he needs help, in the form of visible trophies, to get re-elected, and for all his huge faults as the West's partner, he is the best choice going. That doesn't mean he deserves $50 billion.
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Pakistan Defies U.S. on Halting Afghanistan Raids
By JANE PERLEZ, The New York Times May 16, 2008
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Pakistani officials are making it increasingly clear that they have no interest in stopping cross-border attacks by militants into Afghanistan, prompting a new level of frustration from Americans who see the infiltration as a crucial strategic priority in the war in Afghanistan.

On Wednesday night, the United States fired its fourth Predator missile strike since January, the most visible symbol of the American push for a freer hand to pursue militants from Al Qaeda and the Taliban who use Pakistan’s tribal areas as a base to attack Afghanistan and plot terrorist attacks abroad. In Afghanistan, cross-border attacks have doubled over the same month last year and present an increasingly lethal challenge to American and NATO efforts to wind down the war and deny the Taliban and Al Qaeda a sanctuary.

In an unusual step during a visit to Pakistan in March, Adm. Eric T. Olson, the commander of United States Special Operations Command, held a round-table discussion with a group of civilian Pakistani leaders to sound them out on the possibility of cross-border raids by American forces. He was told in no uncertain terms that from the Pakistani point of view it was a bad idea, said one of the participants.
Instead, Pakistani officials are trying to restore calm to their country, which was rattled by a record number of suicide attacks last year. Within days, they are expected to strike a peace accord with Pakistan’s own militants that makes no mention of stopping the infiltrations. In fact, Pakistani counterinsurgency operations have stopped during the new government’s negotiations with the militants.

“Pakistan will take care of its own problems, you take care of Afghanistan on your side,” said Owari Ghani, the governor of North-West Frontier Province, who is also President Pervez Musharraf’s representative in charge of the neighboring tribal areas.

Mr. Ghani, a key architect of the pending peace accord, believes along with many other Pakistani leaders that the United States is floundering in the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan, he said, should not be saddled with America’s mistakes, especially if a solution involved breaching Pakistan’s sovereignty, a delicate matter in a nation where sentiment against the Bush administration runs high.

“Pakistan is a sovereign state,” he said. “NATO is in Afghanistan; it’s time they did some soldiering.”

The pending accord, Pakistani officials said, is aimed at stopping suicide attacks in Pakistan, which became a focus of the militants’ wrath last year as the Pakistani government pursued a more assertive policy against them at the urging of the United States.

American officials in Washington said the Predator strike on Wednesday killed a handful of Qaeda militants, including one they described as a “significant leader.” The strike indicated that the C.I.A. retained some freedom to operate in the tribal areas. But as the gap between Pakistani and American policies widens, United States officials are pushing harder for still more latitude.

During his visit to North-West Frontier Province, Admiral Olson was taken to the military headquarters of the 14th Division of the Pakistani Army in Dera Ismail Khan, an area just outside the tribal region, where he was struck by the extent of the anti-Taliban sentiment, Pakistani officials said.

Still, in the talks, which were organized by the United States Consulate here in late March, the civilian leaders said they advised the Americans against fighting in Pakistani territory populated by Pashtuns. Pakistan’s government has long been wary of nationalist and separatist strains among the Pashtuns, whose population straddles the Pakistani-Afghan border.

“I said it would be extremely dangerous,” Khalid Aziz, a former chief secretary of North-West Frontier Province, said he told Admiral Olson. “It would increase the number of militants, it would be a war of liberation for the Pashtuns. They would say: ‘We are being slaughtered. Our enemy is the United States.’ ”

Officials from the Special Operations Command or those at the embassy here would not agree to interviews about the meetings.

Last week John D. Negroponte, the deputy secretary of state, used perhaps the strongest language yet against Pakistan, saying that the United States found it “unacceptable” that extremists used the tribal areas to plan attacks against Afghanistan, the rest of the world and Pakistan itself.

“We will not be satisfied until the violent extremism emanating from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas is brought under control,” Mr. Negroponte told the National Endowment for Democracy.

Earlier this month, Afrasiab Khattak and Asfandyar Wali Khan, the leaders of the Awami National Party, which leads the government in the North-West Frontier Province, met with Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, and Mr. Negroponte in Washington.

In their meetings, Mr. Khattak said, it was hard to deter the Americans from the notion of launching their own operations into Pakistan. The topic came up “again and again,” he said.

The Americans specifically mentioned their concern that Qaeda operatives in the tribal areas were preparing an attack on the United States, he said.

“We told them physical intervention into the tribal areas by the United States would be a blunder,” Mr. Khattak said. “It would create an atmosphere in which the terrorists would rally” popular support.

NATO and the United States say cross-border attacks aimed at Afghan and NATO troops have risen from 20 a month in March 2007 to 53 last month. The United States is particularly concerned about the attacks because they appear to be aimed at Canadian and Dutch troops, whose governments are under pressure to withdraw from the NATO war effort. A new contingent of United States marines has arrived in southern Afghanistan, increasing the concern about attacks.

The pending peace accord with the militants shows where Pakistan and American interests diverge. The accord, between the Pakistani authorities and the strongest Pakistani militant leader, Baitullah Mehsud, makes no mention of banning cross-border raids into Afghanistan.

The agreement with Mr. Mehsud, who is accused by the Pakistani government of having masterminded the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, has also alarmed Washington because it fails to call for the rapid expulsion of foreign fighters from Arab countries, Uzbekistan and Chechnya, which make up the backbone of Al Qaeda and its allies in the region.

Mr. Ghani, the governor, said the accord covering the tribal agency of South Waziristan served Pakistan’s interests because it gave space to restore the relative stability of pre-9/11, and to amicably break down the rule of the militants. But where Pakistan wants time, the United States wants action.

Mr. Ghani suggested that the NATO troops use “daisy cutter bombs when they go over to Afghanistan.”

Although Mr. Aziz and Mr. Khattak criticized sending American forces into the tribal areas, both men also blamed the Pakistani Army, which was first sent to the tribal areas at American insistence in 2002.
Most of the 100,000 soldiers are from the Punjab, the largest and most sophisticated province of Pakistan. They feel like foreigners in the impoverished tribal areas, and are treated as such. Their training in conventional warfare has been a liability against the more limber militants. Under such conditions, Mr. Aziz said, the army had been reduced to a mass of “demoralized, quivering flesh.” They had taken a “bad beating,” and were just waiting to leave.

At the same time, he said, the militants had killed more than 200 tribal leaders, the men who provided the glue to keep the society together, over the last several years. A respected tribal leader known for his antimilitant views, Ahmad Khan Kukikhel, was killed Wednesday after gunmen on the road in the Khyber agency stopped his car. His friends said they were convinced the Taliban had attacked him.

Thus, the militants which until recently had been holed up in the two tribal agencies North Waziristan and South Waziristan are now arrayed across the tribal areas, and had spread into some pockets outside. “The agreement basically means appeasement,” Mr. Aziz said. “It’s a serious problem,” he said.

The militant leader, Mr. Mehsud, who heads an alliance of groups known as Tehrik-e-Taliban, knew that the army would leave him alone to build up his strength, Mr. Aziz said.

A key to isolating the militants, Mr. Khattak said, is to allow Pakistan’s major political parties to operate in the tribal areas. Under the complicated archaic rules of governing over the tribal areas, The parties are forbidden in the region, making it difficult to provide a viable alternative to the standoff between the government and the militants, he said. To ease that difficulty, his party, the Awami National Party, favors combining the North-West Frontier Province and the tribal areas into one entity, he said.

In a sign of how favorably the militants look upon the accord, a spokesman for Mr. Mehsud in Damadola, the town where on Wednesday the Predator drone killed 18 people, said Thursday that the deal should go ahead despite the attack. Government officials said that militants gathered in a house were among the dead. It was not clear whether well-known foreign militants were among those killed.

The town, about 100 miles from Peshawar, is the same place where a similar strike in 2006 was aimed at Ayman al-Zawahri, the deputy to Osama bin Laden.
 
Ismail Kahn contributed reporting from Peshawar, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.
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