News & Current Affairs

September 12, 2008

Deadly strike in Pakistan hotspot

Deadly strike in Pakistan hotspot

Map

At least 10 people have been killed in north-west Pakistan in a suspected missile strike, officials say.

The missile struck a home before dawn near Miranshah, the main town in the North Waziristan region on the Afghan border, intelligence officials said.

Some reports, quoting local officials and eyewitnesses, said the missile was fired by a US drone.

The attack comes amid growing concern in Pakistan over unilateral military action by the US.

American and international troops are fighting Taleban and al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan.

Cross-border

“The pre-dawn strike destroyed the house,” news agency AFP quoted an unnamed official as saying.

Another 10 people were wounded, he said.

The missile landed in a house in the Tol Khel area on the outskirts of Miranshah, the agency reported.

It would be the fifth cross-border attack since the beginning of this month allegedly carried out by US forces, who have not officially confirmed their involvement.

On Monday, at least 14 people were killed and 15 injured in a suspected US missile strike in North Waziristan, witnesses and officials said.

The attacks follow persistent US accusations that Pakistan is not doing enough to eliminate Taleban and al-Qaeda sanctuaries in the border region.

The upsurge in strikes has alarmed Pakistani military and government officials, who say it seriously undermines their counter-insurgency operations.

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Pakistan’s counter-insurgency quandary

Pakistan’s counter-insurgency quandary

The residents of Sheikh Yasin camp are not celebrating the inauguration of Pakistan’s new president.

Taheer, a farmer now resident in the Sheikh Yasin camp
The army’s killing people because America gives it money to fight terrorists, so it has to show it’s doing something
Taher, a farmer now resident in Sheikh Yasin camp

They jostle each other as they wait for hand-outs of bread and queuing for soup, ladled out from huge vats under a canvas tarpaulin crusty with flies.

More than 2,000 people have fled to the camp to escape an army bombing campaign against the local Taleban in the Bajaur tribal area near the Afghan border. More civilians were killed than militants, they say.

For many Pakistanis, this is what the “war on terror” has brought: displacement and death. There is resentment and anger.

Double game

Despite, or perhaps because of, the high price that Pakistan has paid since 9/11, there’s no consensus in the country about how to confront Islamist militancy.

Now with a new president and a relatively new government, once again questions are being raised about the country’s counter-insurgency policy.

Pakistan’s former military leader Pervez Musharraf swung between military offensives and peace talks with militants.

Neither worked, and the general, although a key American ally, was accused of playing a double game by maintaining links with the Taleban.

It’s not clear if it will be any different under the new civilian President, Asif Zardari, who took the oath of office this week. During his party’s short six months in government, it has also tried both war and peace.

But at his inaugural press conference, Mr Zardari seemed to signal a new line. He shared the podium with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president who has accused Pakistan of harboring and supporting the Taleban.

They pledged co-operation against the militants, something for which Washington has long been pressing.

‘America’s man’

“I think so far Mr Zardari has been more forthright and more articulate [than Musharraf] in his belief that the war on terror has to be fought with greater intensity and sincerity,” says Tariq Fathimi, a former ambassador to the United States.

“He has also been very categorical in stating that the war on terror is something that’s in the interest of Pakistan, and that must be something that pleases the Bush administration.”

resident of Sheikh Yasin camp

For Sheikh Yasin residents, the ‘war on terror’ has brought only misery

But for many in Pakistan, his performance has only strengthened impressions that he’s America’s man, and that’s a problem.

Most Pakistanis are opposed to their government’s participation in what they call America’s war. And a recent surge in US air strikes against suspected militant targets in Pakistan’s border region has not helped the new government.

“It is making things rather impossible for us,” says Rehman Malik, head of the Interior Ministry, “because when the people hear of an alien attack, nobody likes it, we’re talking about the sovereignty of our country.

“So we are fighting our war… and now we are asking the international community to help us.”

It’s not just the people – Pakistan’s army is also angry, and it’s still the country’s most powerful institution. Any new policy or approach by Asif Zardari would need its backing to be successful.

Analysts say the army is unsure about Mr Zardari but willing to work with him, especially if he can deliver clear parliamentary support for military action.

Pakistani soldiers in NWFP

The army is eager to get the government’s support

That source of popular legitimacy was sorely lacking under the previous administration. But the US air strikes complicate the relationship with the government.

“Within the army there is strong thinking that we are being let down by the government if it doesn’t respond,” says retired General Talat Masood.

“Because then, what would the people of Pakistan think about the army, which is just allowing national sovereignty to be violated in such a gross manner?”

There’s no doubt Pakistan is facing a huge problem of Islamic militancy. But many are convinced it can’t tackle this if it’s seen to be acting at America’s behest.

“Probably the only way to reverse it is to initiate a parliamentary debate,” says Zaffar Abbas, the Islamabad editor of Dawn Newspaper, “to have a home-grown policy to deal with militancy and religious extremism, which is somewhat de-linked from the American demand to have an international campaign against terrorism.

“Unless they are able to do it, it will be nearly impossible to deal with this menace of terrorism.”

Asif Zardari may have signalled that he’s willing to work closely with America. But as a democratically elected leader, he also says he’ll be directed by parliament.

How he handles that is crucial. His challenge is to truly make this Pakistan’s war.

Bush ‘approved’ Pakistan attacks

Bush ‘approved’ Pakistan attacks

Masked militants close to Pakistan's border with Afghanistan (file image)

The US says militants are hiding out in north-west Pakistan

President George W Bush has authorised US military raids against militants inside Pakistan without prior approval from Islamabad.

An unnamed senior Pentagon official told the classified order had been made within the past two months.

On Wednesday, the US’s top military commander said strategy in Afghanistan was shifting to include raids across the border into Pakistan.

Pakistan has said it will not allow foreign forces onto its territory.

The Pakistani ambassador to the US has disputed the claim, first reported in the New York Times.

“In our bilateral discussions, no such idea has been mooted and will certainly not be accepted by Pakistan,” Husain Haqqani told Reuters.

“Pakistan would not accept foreign troops. This is not the best way to pursue the war against terror,” he said.

Meanwhile, security officials in Pakistan say they have killed up to 100 mostly foreign militants on the Afghan border. There has been no independent confirmation.

Growing frustration

The US say that Pakistan’s north-west tribal areas are being used as “safe havens” by militants preparing attacks on Afghanistan.

But Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, said there was “no question of any agreement or understanding with the coalition forces whereby they are allowed to conduct operations on our side of the border”.

map Fata

He said the sovereignty and integrity of Pakistan would be defended at all cost.

A senior Pentagon official told that Mr Bush gave his approval this summer for cross-border raids into Pakistan.

The order includes the use of conventional ground troops crossing the border into Pakistan to pursue militants there.

An unnamed former intelligence official told the New York Times that the Pakistani government is not told about intended targets because of concerns that its intelligence services are infiltrated by al-Qaeda supporters.

It is a sign of growing US frustration with Islamabad’s lack of assertive action against the militants.

There is also an increasing concern about the threat such militants pose to Nato troops in neighbouring Afghanistan, and potentially to the US, says our correspondent.

The US has been carrying out regular military air strikes on Pakistan from Afghanistan, but ten days ago US troops carried out a ground assault for the first time.

Pakistan said the raid in South Waziristan was a violation of its sovereignty and summoned the US ambassador to hear a “very strong protest”.

Islamabad fears that attacks by US troops could encourage support for the Taleban militants among tribal groups in the border area.

The latest revelation appears to be part of a slow change in US strategy towards Pakistan and will only add to the tensions between the two countries, our correspondent adds.

‘Common insurgency’

Officially, the US has stressed the need for co-operation with Islamabad.

Adm Mike Mullen testifying at the US House of Representatives

US ‘must target Pakistan havens’

On Thursday, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, told Congress that the US must continue to work closely with Pakistan.

“In my view, these two nations are inextricably linked in a common insurgency that crosses the border between them,” he said.

“We can hunt down and kill extremists as they cross over the border from Pakistan… but until we work more closely with the Pakistani government to eliminate the safe havens from which they operate, the enemy will only keep coming.”

The US move to focus efforts on the Afghan-Pakistan border was welcomed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

“Change of strategy is essential,” said Mr Karzai said at a news conference in Kabul on Thursday.

“It means that we go to those areas which are the training bases and havens – we jointly go there and remove and destroy them.”

September 4, 2008

Pakistan fury over ‘US assault’

Pakistan fury over ‘US assault’

Pakistani soldier in South Waziristan

Tension in Pakistan’s north-west has increased in recent months

Pakistan has summoned the US ambassador to protest at an alleged cross-border raid which officials say killed at least 15 villagers in the north-west.

A number of civilians were reported killed in the raid, which Pakistan says was a violation of its sovereignty.

Correspondents say the raid appears to have been the first ever ground assault by foreign forces based in Afghanistan.

US-led and Nato forces said they had no reports of any such incursion. Border tensions have risen in recent weeks.

US aircraft have carried out air strikes in the region, but a ground assault would be unprecedented.

It is not clear who the target of any attack might have been.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said Pakistan would not allow any foreign power to carry out attacks on its territory.

He was speaking hours after his motorcade was hit by sniper fire near the capital, Islamabad. Senior government officials say he was not in the car at the time.

‘Act of aggression’

Pakistani military and political officials say ground troops brought in by US-led coalition helicopters launched the attack in the South Waziristan tribal area near the Afghan border early on Wednesday morning.

Map

Locals say soldiers attacked with gunfire and bombs. Women and children were among those reported killed.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Sadiq said a “very strong protest” had been delivered to the ambassador, Anne Paterson.

“The ambassador said that she would convey it to her government,” he said.

The army called the attack an act of aggression which undermined the fight against militancy.

North West Frontier Province (NWFP) Governor Owais Ahmed Ghani, who is in administrative charge of the tribal areas, called the attack “cowardly”.

“At least 20 innocent citizens of Pakistan, including women and children, were martyred,” he said in a statement.

There is mounting US pressure on Pakistan – a key ally in the “war on terror” – to crack down on militants, who use the border region to launch raids into Afghanistan.

The Afghan government and Nato say the border region is a haven for al-Qaeda and the Taleban. Pakistan says it is doing all it can to curb militancy.

On Monday, Pakistan’s military suspended its operations against Taleban militants in the neighboring Bajaur tribal area.

The government said this suspension of fighting was to respect the fasting month of Ramadan.

Taleban spokesman Maulvi Omar welcomed the announcement, but he said militants would not lay down their arms.

August 22, 2008

Zardari nominated to be president

Zardari nominated to be president

Pakistan People’s Party leaders Asif Ali Zardari (L) Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (C) and ex-PM Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad on Tuesday 19 August 2008

The coalition must decide who will be Pakistan’s new president

Pakistan’s biggest party, the PPP, has nominated its leader, Asif Zardari, to be the country’s president.

Pervez Musharraf resigned from the post on Monday in the face of the threat of impeachment by his political enemies.

Mr Zardari’s main coalition partner, Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N, is not in favor of Mr Zardari getting the job.

The two men are also deadlocked over how many of the judges sacked by Mr  Musharraf during emergency rule last November should be reinstated.

Twenty-four hours

PPP spokeswoman Sherry Rehman told reporters in Islamabad that senior PPP members had come to a unanimous decision to nominate Mr Zardari.

“Mr Zardari thanked the Pakistan People’s Party of which he is the co-chairman and said he will announce his decision within the next 24 hours,” she said.

The PPP and the PML-N have been discussing ways to reduce the power of the presidency. But if Mr Zardari gets the job, it is not clear if such reforms will go ahead.

He took over as PPP leader after his wife, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December.

The president is chosen by the two chambers of the national parliament and the country’s four provincial elections. The election will be held on 6 September.

Mr Sharif prefers what he calls a consensus president.

Wednesday deadline

Earlier on Friday Mr Sharif agreed to let parliament hold a debate next week on how to reinstate the judges sacked by Mr Musharraf.

He had threatened to pull out of the coalition government unless it was agreed on Friday that all the sacked judges be restored.

The PPP fears that if former Supreme Court judges, including ex-Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, are reinstated, they could overturn a controversial amnesty that Mr Musharraf granted Mr Zardari Ms Bhutto last year that paved the way for them to return to the country.

That would open up Mr Zardari to prosecution on long-standing corruption charges.

Mr Sharif pulled back from his threat to withdraw his PML-N party from the governing coalition after talks with other coalition parties in Islamabad.

But Mr Sharif is still hoping the resolution will result in Mr Chaudhry and the other judges getting their jobs back.

“Wednesday should be the day for reinstatement of judges,” he told journalists.

Squabbling

The coalition was elected in February but analysts say it has failed to find solutions to Pakistan’s economic crisis and to the militants in its north-western tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.

Pakistani security officials examine the site of the suicide bombing in Wah

The politicians’ squabbling is hindering any possible plan for tackling militant violence.

The Pakistani Taleban claimed responsibility for Thursday’s suicide bombings on an ordnance factory in the town of Wah, near the capital Islamabad. It was the deadliest attack on a military site in Pakistan’s history.

The militant group promised more attacks in Pakistan’s major urban conurbations unless the army withdrew from the tribal areas.

On Tuesday, 32 people were killed in a suicide attack on a hospital in the northern town of Dera Ismail Khan.

On Friday the Taleban said at least 16 of their fighters were killed in clashes with security forces in the north-western district of Hangu.

In the Bajaur tribal region near the Afghan border, reports said at least one person was killed and eight others were injured when army helicopters fired at a convoy. Locals said the vehicles were carrying civilians who were fleeing the fighting in the area.

Mr Musharraf, a key ally of President George Bush’s “war on terror”, stepped down this week after nine years in power to avoid being impeached.

He sacked about 60 Supreme Court judges during a state of emergency in November to prevent them from overturning his re-election as president.

Analysts say that although the PPP and PML-N worked together to hound Mr Musharraf from office, there is a history of intense rivalry and mistrust between the two main parties.

The parties differ over the future of Mr Musharraf, who has been replaced by a caretaker president, the speaker of the Senate.

Mr Zardari’s party has said it believes Mr Musharraf may have immunity from prosecution.

But Mr Sharif’s party argues he should stand trial for, among other things, abrogating the constitution.

August 19, 2008

Musharraf foes set to hold talks

Musharraf foes set to hold talks

Coalition leaders Asif Ali Zardari (left) and Nawaz Sharif shake hands on 18 August at news of President Musharraf's resignation

The ruling parties must now fill the gap left by Pervez Musharraf

Leaders of Pakistan’s ruling coalition are to meet in Islamabad to discuss who will succeed their long-time opponent, former President Pervez Musharraf.

Mr Musharraf stepped down on Monday after nine years in power to avoid a move by the government to impeach him.

The coalition, led by the parties of the late Benazir Bhutto and ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, held a first, inconclusive round of talks on Monday.

Mr Musharraf was replaced automatically by caretaker President Muhammad Sumroo.

Mr Sumroo, speaker of the Senate and a political ally of Mr Musharraf, will lead the country until a new election is held by parliament.

It is unclear whether Mr Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, will face prosecution now that he is out of power.

Mutual distrust

On Monday, Mr Sharif, who leads the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), met Asif Ali Zardari, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of Benazir Bhutto, and other coalition figures.

President Musharraf live on TV, 18th August

Mr Musharraf denied being an enemy of democracy

Sources say their talks focused on the nomination of the next president and the restoration of judges deposed by Mr Musharraf.

The PPP and PML-N distrust each other and have already said different things about Mr Musharraf’s future.

Mr Zardari’s party said it believed he might have immunity from prosecution.

But Mr Sharif’s party argues he should stand trial for, among other things, abrogating the constitution.

The parties are also likely to differ on whether to reinstate the judges and are thought to have differences of emphasis on how to tackle a violent Islamist insurgency on the Afghan border, our correspondent says.

There is relief in Pakistan that Mr Musharraf is gone but mounting impatience with the political parties that won February’s elections.

‘Going, Going, Gone!’

Pakistan’s newspapers on Tuesday celebrated the exit of former president.

Musharraf should be blamed for his own fall
Stan Rodrigues, Newark, US

The headline of The Daily Times was “Going, Going, Gone!”, next to a photo of Mr Musharraf, while The News led with “Mush Quits With His Tail Between His Legs”.

The country’s media also speculated about what he might do next, reporting that he wants to stay in Pakistan, but may soon travel abroad, with Saudi Arabia, the US, the UK and Turkey mentioned as possible destinations.

Mr Musharraf left his official residence in Islamabad for the last time after announcing his resignation in a televised address.

He inspected a last military guard of honour before leaving the palace in a black limousine.

Mehr, Lahore, Pakistan

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I would rather have been ruled by a democratic dictator than despotic democrats

After nine years in power, Pervez Musharraf had finally run out of options, the BBC’s Chris Morris reports from Islamabad.

Well known in the West for his support for the US after the 11 September 2001 attacks, he had grown increasingly unpopular at home.

With the government on the verge of impeaching him, the former soldier’s instinct was to fight on, our correspondent says, but in his lengthy address he said he was stepping down for the good of the nation.

It is a landmark moment in Pakistan, our correspondent adds: the former military ruler forced from office by civilian politicians and the army standing by and allowing it to happen.

Mrs Bhutto’s son and heir, Bilawal, said he hoped the country could move forward after Mr Musharraf’s departure.

“I see that the biggest hurdle in the way of democracy has been removed,” he said.

Mrs Bhutto was assassinated in Rawalpindi in December last year.

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