Sunday, May 10, 2009

US War News Update: Afghan Leader Says Massacres Strain Ties With Occupationists; Four NATO Troops Killed; Pakistan Attacks Its People

May 9, 2009

Afghan Leader Says Civilian Deaths Strain Ties With U.S.

New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan on Friday disputed criticism by the Obama administration that his government was not doing all it could to fight corruption. He said instead that any gulf between the countries had more to do with the civilian toll of American airstrikes in Afghanistan.

In a wide-ranging round table with reporters at the Willard Hotel here, Mr. Karzai called news reports of a widening chasm with Washington overblown, although he acknowledged that his relationship with President Obama had yet to warm to the levels that he shared with President George W. Bush.

“With President Bush, we began this journey together,” Mr. Karzai said, adding that the two had “seven years of a relationship.”

By contrast, Mr. Karzai said that his relationship with Mr. Obama “had emerged” fresh in the light of the tension that existed about civilian casualties. That affected the relationship, he said, although he added that he now believed that things were starting to get better.

In one sign of the increasing alarm within the Obama administration about instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is likely to send a second high-ranking general to Afghanistan to assist the top commander, Gen. David D. McKiernan, a senior Pentagon official said.

Under the new arrangement, Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, who had a previous tour in Afghanistan as commander of the 82nd Airborne, is likely to take on responsibility for the day-to-day management of the war in Afghanistan, leaving General McKiernan to concentrate on overall strategy.

With American troop levels increasing sharply this year, to more than 60,000, the two-general arrangement would replicate one used by the United States in Iraq.

Mr. Karzai has been in Washington all week for meetings with the Obama administration and Congressional leaders. He had a three-way meeting with Mr. Obama and Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president, which he described as fruitful. The three discussed ways to battle insurgents in Afghanistan and in western Pakistan.

Only in February, Mr. Obama described the Afghan government as “very detached from what’s going on in the surrounding community.”

On Friday, Mr. Karzai dismissed criticism that his government was not battling corruption and had failed to crack down on the poppy trade that was helping to finance the Taliban insurgency. Western officials have accused Mr. Karzai’s half-brother of smuggling drugs in Kandahar, a charge Afghan officials have denied.

Mr. Karzai said he had gone so far as to fire a government minister — during a cabinet meeting — upon hearing corruption allegations against the minister. Halfway through the discussion with reporters, he summoned his finance minister to his side to attest to the government’s campaign.

Repeatedly during the hourlong session with reporters, Mr. Karzai returned to the issue of civilian casualties, saying most if not all of the civilians’ deaths after clashes in western Afghanistan this week had been caused by American bombs.

Officials of the United States military and the Afghan government are still investigating those airstrikes in Farah Province, but appeared divided Friday over the number of people killed.

A provincial Afghan official, Haji Abdul Basir Khairkhwa, said a task force he was leading had found that 147 people had been killed. But the United States military spokesman in Afghanistan, Col. Greg Julian, said that “even 100 is a gross exaggeration.”

A Pentagon spokesman, Bryan Whitman, would not comment further on Friday. “About the only thing I can say is that the U.S. is conducting a joint investigation with Afghan officials to determine the facts,” Mr. Whitman said.

Mr. Karzai said that civilian casualties continued to undermine Afghan support for the American war effort in his country.

“We have, as you’ve heard many times before from Afghanistan, complained bitterly on civilian casualties,” he said, “on the ways these operations are conducted — air raids, home searches, sudden bursting into people’s homes and blowing up of their doors and all of that.”

Four NATO Soldiers Killed

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Four NATO soldiers and 21 civilians have died in a string of attacks by insurgents in southern Afghanistan.

Two NATO soldiers were killed in a suicide attack in Helmand Province on Thursday, the alliance announced. The civilian toll from the attack rose to 21, said Daud Ahmadi, a spokesman for Helmand’s governor. The same day, a NATO soldier was killed by a roadside bomb and another died of a gunshot wound, the alliance said.

Elisabeth Bumiller contributed reporting from Washington, and Carlotta Gall from Kabul, Afghanistan.

May 10, 2009

From Air and Ground, Pakistan Strikes Back at Taliban

New York Times

The Pakistani military pressed its multipronged assault on three Taliban-held districts northwest of the capital, Islamabad, on Saturday, claiming significant gains but also blaming militants for endangering noncombatants by firing indiscriminately and basing themselves in civilian homes.

As terrified people continued to flee the fighting, the outskirts of the conflict areas are facing a critical need for more shelter and supplies. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has registered more than 120,000 residents displaced from the three contested districts — Swat, Buner and Dir — and surrounding areas, and warns that several hundred thousand more are likely to leave as well. For the moment, most people are able to find their own shelter, renting space or moving in with extended families in urban areas, the agency said, but such options are rapidly diminishing.

Military statements issued Saturday reported 15 militants killed in helicopter attacks in the Swat Valley district capital, Mingora, and as many as 40 militants killed in other parts of the district, news agencies said. Those claims — and the military’s overall count of more than 140 slain insurgents — are impossible to verify independently, given that aid agencies and journalists are barred from the conflict areas.

A provincial official, Iftikhar Hussain, accused the Taliban of causing civilian deaths. “The militants are using the civilian population as a human shield, and they have dug trenches in civilian areas,” Mr. Hussain told reporters at a news conference in Peshawar.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani held an emergency cabinet meeting on Saturday, calling afterward at a news conference for popular support for the military operations. The army “can only be successful if there is support of the masses,” The Associated Press quoted him as saying.

Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country mired in political and economic crisis, has been deeply divided over its response to the militants, who are still seen in some sectors of the government and military as a secondary threat compared with India and who have actually received some covert support from factions within the intelligence services in the past.

Though the current government has sought to assure the West that it is taking the militants’ advances seriously, the issue has become a great source of tension with the United States, in particular.

After the Sept. 11 attacks and the American-led invasion of Afghanistan to oust Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the United States relied on Pakistan as its most important regional ally and has given Pakistan’s military more than $1 billion a year since 2001. But the Taliban managed to regroup in the porous border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan and is now spearheading wars in both countries.

Pakistan intensified its military campaign to reclaim Swat and neighboring districts last week only under intense pressure from Washington, and after enduring months of a regional power struggle with the Taliban.

The Pakistani Army has estimated that a force of about 4,000 militants took advantage of a peace agreement in northwestern Pakistan in February to seize control of much of Swat.

Similar agreements in two areas to the south, the semiautonomous tribal areas of North and South Waziristan, made those regions a ministate for Qaeda and Taliban militants, drawing missile strikes by remotely piloted American drone aircraft. The drone strikes might have helped push the Taliban, and some Qaeda elements, out of the tribal belt and into Swat, making the valley and its neighboring districts more important to the Taliban.

On Saturday, Pakistani officials said a new missile strike in South Waziristan killed nine people, including six foreign militants, The A.P. reported.

May 9, 2009

Bomb Blast Kills 5 in Turkey

Filed at 3:11 p.m. ET

DIYARBAKIR (Reuters) - Five people were killed, including two members of a state-sponsored rural militia, in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey Saturday after a roadside bomb exploded, security sources said.

The incident took place near the city of Sirnak. Three of the dead were civilians, the sources said.

Village guard militias were established in 1985 to help security forces in the southeast combat separatist rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a guerrilla force seeking an independent Kurdish homeland in the region.

The military and the government say the village guards, who receive training by the army and use state-issued weapons, play a key role in protecting villages against PKK attacks.

But the village militia system has come under fierce criticism from human rights groups and critics after members were implicated in a wedding massacre Monday in which 44 people were killed. That violence was blamed on a family feud. (Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Robert Woodward)

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