Sunday, November 27, 2011

NATO Scrambles to Contain Pakistan Fallout

BRU.S.SELS - NATO moved Nov. 27 to contain the damage from the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers, seeking to soothe Islamabad's rage against the U.S. and its military allies in Afghanistan over the airstrike.
Pakistani protesters burn U.S. and NATO flags during a protest in Multan on Nov. 27. (S.S Mirza / AFP)
Alliance Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stopped short of issuing a full apology to Pakistan premier Yousuf Raza Gilani for the "tragic, unintended" killings, which he deemed "regrettable".
Against a backdrop of longstanding pressure on Pakistan to step up the fight against "terrorists" hiding out in the border region with Afghanistan, Rasmussen's statement followed a flurry of overnight diplomacy.
He had initially left the issue Nov. 26 in the hands of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) fighting the U.S.-led war and which includes non-NATO allies, letting the commander on the ground deal with the immediate fallout.
But as Pakistan's anger mounted in the hours following the strike early Nov. 26 and Islamabad ordered a full-scale review of its frosty alliance with Washington and the military bloc, NATO headquarters decided to react.
An official said allies had sought to ascertain "exactly what was meant" by Pakistan's public position and to prevent lasting damage from the suspension of supply lines for Afghanistan and an order for U.S. troops to leave a secretive air base in Pakistan.
Pakistan represents a vital life-line for 130,000 foreign troops, mostly American, fighting in landlocked Afghanistan, and Rasmussen joined U.S. efforts in a scramble to salvage cooperation.
"I have written to the Prime Minister of Pakistan to make it clear that the deaths of Pakistani personnel are as unacceptable and deplorable as the deaths of Afghan and international personnel," Rasmussen said in a statement, deeming the strike "a tragic unintended incident."
Pakistan says two border posts were fired upon "unprovoked" in the early hours of Nov. 26 in Pakistan's tribal Mohmand district, and on Nov. 27 conveyed its "rage" to the United States.
An ISAF investigation into the incident is likely to ask whether Afghan and American troops on the Afghan side of the border were fired upon first - whether by insurgents or Pakistani military.
"I fully support the ISAF investigation which is currently underway," Rasmussen said of the International Security Assistance Force fighting the war and which includes non-NATO allies.
"We will determine what happened, and draw the right lessons," Rasmussen added.
The U.S.-led NATO force in Afghanistan has admitted it is "highly likely" that the force's aircraft caused the deaths before dawn on Saturday.
As the first funerals took place Nov. 27 for the dead Pakistani soldiers, NATO was trying to reopen the Pakistani-Afghan border after Islamabad on Nov. 26 held up convoys at two key crossings.
It is not the first time Pakistan shut the main land route in, after a 10-day closure in September 2010 following the deaths of three troops then.
The border was reopened after the United States formally apologized.
Pakistan, battling its own Taliban insurgency in the northwest, is dependent on billions of dollars in U.S. aid.
Relations between Pakistan and the United States have been in crisis since American troops killed Osama bin Laden in May this year near the capital without prior warning and after a CIA contractor killed two Pakistanis in Lahore in January.

Half of Afghanistan Switching to Local Control

KABUL - More than half of Afghanistan will soon be under the control of local forces after President Hamid Karzai announced Nov. 27 that the second wave of a process which should see all NATO combat forces leave by 2014.
Karzai's office said that six provinces, seven cities and dozens of districts - including three in Helmand, among Afghanistan's most dangerous areas - will pass from foreign to local control.
The exact date for the transition process to start has not been decided but the long-awaited announcement is another step towards the withdrawal of most of the 140,000 mainly U.S. foreign troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
The second tranche of places which will transition is significantly larger than the first, which included seven areas and has been heralded as a success by officials.
It notably includes Nawa, Nad Ali and Marjah in Helmand, once seen as hotbeds of the insurgency but which NATO-led international forces now claim to have brought under control.
After a decade-long war which continues to rage across Afghanistan, particularly in the south and southeast, places which have already transitioned to Afghan control have faced continuing violence along with other parts.
"With today's decision by the president, over half the country's population would now be covered by the transition process," said a statement from Karzai's office which listed the places to be handed over.
The provinces being transferred in their entirety to local control in the second phase are Balkh, Daikundi, Kabul, Takhar, Samangan and Nimroz.
The cities being handed over are Jalalabad, Ghazni city, Maydan Shahr, Faizabad, Chaghcharan, Shibirghan and Qalay-I-Naw.
Jalalabad is one of Afghanistan's main cities, close to the border with Pakistan.
The statement listed over 40 districts around the country which would also transition in provinces including Badakhshan, Wardak and Nangarhar.
Karzai endorsed the locations proposed by a commission set up to oversee the transition, the statement said.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed the move, saying it showed the transition process was "firmly on track."
"It is driven by the determination of the Afghan people and sustained by the courage of the Afghan National Security Forces and of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force)," he said in a statement.
"We will keep our commitment to training and supporting the Afghan security forces throughout the transition process, and beyond."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed the handover of Nad Ali, which is in Britain's area of operation in Helmand.
"This announcement marks continued progress in the process of phased transition from an international to an Afghan security lead," he said.
"Circumstances remain challenging but steady and positive progress is being made."
Britain has the second-largest troop presence in the country at around 9,500.
Foreign forces are in Afghanistan helping the Western-backed government fight a bloody, Taliban-led insurgency which flared up following a U.S.-led invasion shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
But amid a rising death toll, troubled domestic economies and the unpopularity of the Afghan war in many Western countries, troop withdrawals are now getting under way.
President Barack Obama has vowed to bring home 33,000 U.S. forces by September next year.
While Western officials in Kabul praise the transition process so far, they acknowledge that challenges remain including Afghan government corruption, a weak state and lack of a properly functioning justice system.

Germany Backs Taliban Talks in Afghanistan

BERLIN - Germany's foreign and defense ministers called for the Taliban to be included in Afghanistan peace talks, ahead of a major international conference for the war-ravaged country next month.
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Defence Minister Thomas de Maiziere told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper on Nov. 27 that negotiations with the Islamist militant group was the only realistic option for lasting peace.
"Reconciliation does not happen among friends but rather between erstwhile opponents," Westerwelle was quoted as saying. "That is what we need to work on instead of speculation about who might not be ready to reconcile."
Germany has the third largest contingent of foreign troops in Afghanistan but had long rejected proposals to include the Taliban in peace negotiations.
Westerwelle, who will host ministers from more than 100 countries in the western city of Bonn on Dec. 5 to discuss the future of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of NATO troops in 2014, said there was no guarantee of success.
"But all agree that it must be tried," he said. The West "cannot simply say, 'You are evil, we won't negotiate with you,'" added de Maiziere.
"We cannot exclude everyone from the inner-Afghan reconciliation process who once had a sword in his hand," he said. Only when "a sufficient number of important groups" take part will the peace process have a chance of working.
Westerwelle said the war in Afghanistan could not be won militarily.
"After 10 years it is obvious that in Afghanistan, there can only be apolitical solution, not a military one," he said.
Taliban fighters frequently attack convoys supplying NATO troops in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, as part of a 10-year insurgency against the Western-backed Kabul government since U.S. troops toppled their regime in 2001.
This month, Afghan elders backed talks with Taliban who renounce violence, despite the assassination in September of peace envoy Burhanuddin Rabbani which officials blame on insurgents.
De Maiziere said Berlin would keep troops in Afghanistan after the NATO pullout at the end of 2014, to focus on the training of local forces.

Iran to Target NATO Shield in Turkey if Threatened

TEHRAN - Iran will target NATO's missile shield in neighboring Turkey if it is threatened by military action, the commander of the aerospace division of the Revolutionary Guards said Nov. 26.
"We are prepared to first target the NATO defense missile shield in Turkey if we are threatened. And then we'll move on to other targets," Amir-Ali Hajizadeh was quoted as saying by the Mehr news agency.
Although Iranian officials have said several times they could retaliate with ballistic missiles against Israel if attacked, Hajizadeh's remark was the first time the Revolutionary Guards spoke of targeting Turkey.
Speculation has intensified in Israel that it was preparing air strikes on Iran to hit nuclear facilities following a Nov. 8 report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog strongly suggesting Tehran was researching atomic weapons.
Hajizadeh, whose unit is in charge of Revolutionary Guards' missile systems, told a crowd of Basij militia members in the western city of Khorramabad that Iran's stance now was to "threaten in the face of threats," in line with a decree this month by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Turkey last year agreed to host an early warning radar system in its southeast as part of NATO's shield which the United States says is aimed at thwarting missile threats from the Middle East, particularly Iran.
Hajizadeh said Nov. 21 that the Revolutionary Guards' "greatest wish" was for Israel to attack Iran, so they could retaliate and relegate the Jewish state to "the dustbin of history."

Pakistan Condemns 'Unprovoked' Border Attack

ISLAMABAD - Pakistan accused NATO and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) of a deliberate and unprovoked attack on two of its border posts along the Afghan-Pakistan border on the night of Nov. 25/26, killing 24 Pakistani soldiers, and wounding 13.
Trucks carrying supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan are parked Nov. 26 at the Pakistan's Torkham border crossing after Pakistani authorities suspended NATO supplies. (STR / AFP via Getty Images)
A statement from the Army's Inter Services Press Release, said the attack on the two army-manned posts in Mohmand Agency had been "unprovoked" and that the chief of army staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, "strongly condemned NATO/ISAF's blatant and unacceptable act".
The release also stated Kayani had "directed that all necessary steps be under taken for an effective response to this irresponsible act," and that a "strong protest" had been lodged with NATO/ISAF which demanded "strong and urgent action" be taken against those responsible for the "aggression."
Pakistan sealed its Afghan border to NATO, shutting down a lifeline for the estimated 130,000 U.S.-led foreign troops fighting the Taliban, and called on the United States to leave a secretive air base reportedly used by CIA drones.
The Associated Press of Pakistan said a strong protest had been lodged with U.S ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter. Protests were also lodged in Washington and NATO headquarters in Brussels.
The Pakistani foreign office issued a statement saying the attacks were "totally unacceptable, constituted a grave infringement of Pakistan's sovereignty, were violative of international law and a serious transgression of the oft conveyed red lines and could have serious repercussions on Pakistan-U.S./NATO/ISAF cooperation."
No further details of the attack or explanation were forthcoming from the Pakistan Army or the Air Force when asked just how the attack was able to take place in the aftermath of the U.S. Navy Seals raid into Pakistan in May when the military was supposed to be more alert to threats emanating from the western border, or why ISAF/NATO attacked posts they knew to be manned by the Pakistan Army, or why the Pakistan Air Force was not able to intervene.
South Asia analysts and former Australian defense attaché to Islamabad Brian Cloughley said the consequences of the raid would be probably severe.
"This is quite outrageous and I have no doubt it signifies the end of the last lingering shreds of trust that the Pakistan army had for the U.S.," Cloughely said.
He added: "The locations of Pakistani posts have been notified to ISAF. There is no excuse whatever for this incident, especially after the meeting between Kayani and [ISAF commander Gen. John R] Allen."
Cloughley visited Mohmand Agency in early November and was hosted by the Pakistan Army's 77 Brigade that is based there. The brigade had just concluded Operation Brekhna, a three-phase operation to clear the area of some one thousand Taliban militants that took place between January and September 2011.
The operation faced substantial threats from IEDs (which accounted for 47 of the brigade's 74 killed), uncovered nine bomb factories, and an elaborate tunnel system (one part of which contained a 40-bed hospital).
Cloughley also said the Pakistani officers complained that no ISAF or Afghan forces were based between the border and the Kunar River in Afghanistan, and that this area had militant bases (which remained unharmed) from where raids were carried out into Pakistan.
A raid emanating from this area of Afghanistan in August killed 16 Frontier Scouts in the Pakistani region of Chitral.
Information from Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.

War Games Spotlight China-Pakistan Hype

JHELUM, Pakistan - Paratroopers hurtling head first out of planes, attack helicopters strafing a terror training centre and shacks blown to bits were this week's latest embodiment of China-Pakistan friendship.
A Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldier and a Pakistani commando from Special Service Group (SSG) shake hands Nov. 24 as they take part in a Pakistan-China anti-terrorism drill. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP via Getty Images)
The war games conducted by 540 Chinese and Pakistani soldiers running around scrubland - the fourth joint exercises since 2006 - were ostensibly a chance for China to benefit from Pakistan's counter-terrorism experience.
There was disappointment that fighter jets were unable to carry out a bombing raid, with visibility apparently poor, but the exercises were declared a success in terms of deepening friendship and improving military cooperation.
But behind the pomp rolled out for the Chinese, complete with slap-up marquee lunch and bags of presents, the relationship is as transactional as any other, as China competes with Pakistan's arch-rival India for Asian dominance.
And it is far from easy to decipher.
"They operate silently so as not to make any statements in public apart from cliches. So one doesn't know what's happening," said retired Pakistani Gen. Talat Masood.
China is Pakistan's main arms supplier, while Beijing has built two nuclear power plants in Pakistan and is contracted to construct two more reactors.
But the alliance has been knocked by Chinese accusations that the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which wants an independent homeland for Xinjiang's Muslim Uighurs, is training "terrorists" in Pakistani camps.
Those accusations mirror long-standing concerns from the United States that Taliban and al-Qaida bases are funneling recruits to fight in Afghanistan and hatch terror plots against the West.
During the exercises outside Jhelum, 50 miles southeast of Islamabad, generals watched troops attack, clear and destroy a mocked-up training camp, while smoking and sipping cups of tea under a giant tent to keep off winter rays.
Chinese deputy chief of staff Hou Shusen and Pakistan's army chief Ashfaq Kayani sat together in the front row, guests of honor incapable of talking to each other without the help of an interpreter.
"We have done our utmost to eliminate this threat of ETIM and other extremists for China because we consider honestly that China's security is very dear to Pakistan," Kayani told a news conference after the war games.
He said that Pakistan had provided intelligence during the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai Expo, and reiterated demands for closer military cooperation and larger imports of military hardware from China.
Beijing was instrumental in getting the United Nations and United States to blacklist ETIM as a terrorist organisation in 2002, but experts have questioned how much of a threat such a small group of people really poses.
Pakistani analysts believe members number no more than hundreds and are fairly dispersed in the remote mountains on the Pakistan-China border.
Despite that issue, if the language used to describe Pakistan's febrile relationship with the United States is that of an unhappy couple wishing but unable to divorce, then the hyperbole used to describe China is that of an ecstatic lover.
"Higher than mountains" and "sweeter than honey" were phrases used by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani when Chinese Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu came to town in September, at a time when relations with the U.S. were at their most difficult in years.
The top U.S. military officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, had just accused Pakistan of colluding with Afghan militants in besieging the U.S. embassy in Kabul as ties plummeted further after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
But independent China analyst Michael Dillon says that without any real ideological links, China's relationship with Pakistan is primarily strategic, designed to offset its rivalry with India.
"There is a feeling that cooperation with Pakistan on counter-terrorism might be in China's interests," he told AFP.
"They've got economic domination over Southeast Asia. But South Asia is another matter. The big rival is India. If they can get close diplomatically to Pakistan then it can balance the power of India in the subcontinent," he said.
Neither can China present an alternative to the U.S. alliance.
But Kayani described China as "very important" to regional stability, perhaps best seen against a backdrop of Pakistan's own rivalry with India.
"It's not a zero-sum game. You further strengthen your relations with China, then you increase your importance. You use this as a leverage to improve your relationship with the U.S.," said Masood.

New Cluster Munitions Treaty Rejected

A U.S.-led effort to regulate the use of cluster bombs failed to get sufficient support from countries that have signed the Oslo Convention, an international treaty that bans the weapons.
Abu Ali Ahmad, left, shows a friend a crate full of detonated cluster bombs in a field in southern Lebanon in 2006. An effort to regulate the use of cluster bombs failed to get enough support from countries that have signed the Oslo Convention. (File photo / Agence France-Presse)
The protocol was rejected Nov. 25 after several weeks of negotiations between member states of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva.
If it had passed, the legally binding protocol would have banned cluster bombs manufactured before 1980 and required safeguards and regulations for those manufactured after that date. China and Russia, who, along with the United States, are major producers of the weapons, supported the effort.
Meanwhile, several of the 111 signatories of the Oslo Convention believed this regulatory approach undermined or at least diluted the outright ban. Human Rights Watch, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other groups opposed the treaty and praised its defeat.
It is unclear when the major users will be brought to the table again, a senior U.S. official said.
Until the last hour of negotiations, amendments were being offered to address the Oslo countries' concerns, but in the end they were insufficient, the U.S. official said.
Part of the U.S. argument for the protocol was that if enacted, it would prohibit more cluster munitions for the United States than the Oslo Convention has prohibited for all of its member states combined.

MBDA To Build Facility To Disarm Cluster Bombs

PARIS - MBDA is set to invest about 15 million euros ($16 million) to set up a plant in central France to disarm cluster weapons as part of a new business pursuit, the European missile maker said Nov. 25.
"MBDA undertakes to establish within two years, and within national territory, a facility to process classified munitions in accordance with the very strict regulations that apply to defense safety; namely operational reliability and respect for the environment," the company said in a statement.
Creation of the munitions processing plant at its Bourges Subdray site follows a Nov. 3 contract from the NATO Maintenance and Supply Agency for the destruction of 36,000 complex munitions, the statement said.
MBDA expects to create 20 new jobs at the facility.
"The demilitarization of complex weapons has become a new strategic activity for MBDA," said MBDA Executive Chairman Antoine Bouvier.
"Customers not only require guaranteed availability and sustained support for their equipment, but also that we ensure the safe end-of-life disposal of their complex weapons, as well," he said.
Under the contract, MBDA is in charge of disposing of more than 1,000 missiles; 22,000 M26 rockets (formerly used in multiple launch rocket systems), each containing 644 submunitions; and 13,000 155mm grenade shells, each containing 63 submunitions, totaling more than 15 million submunitions.
The work is due to be complete by 2017.
MBDA worked with Esplodenti Sabino and Aid of Italy, and NAMMO of Norway to bid for the NATO contract.
The contract follows the Oslo Convention, which outlawed cluster munitions and called on signatory states to dispose of their weapons by 2018.