News & Current Affairs

February 20, 2010

Dubai killing awakes ghosts of assassinations past

Dubai killing awakes ghosts of assassinations past

CCTV footage of alleged assassination team
Mossad has form. Assassination has been one of its specialities since the time that Israel was killing Nazis in the 1950s

Jeremy Bowen assesses the fall-out in the Middle East from the alleged assassination of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh by Mossad agents in a luxury Dubai hotel.

“Shame you are not filming on a Friday,” said a local resident.

Jimmy, the BBC cameraman, was trying to get some decent pictures of the Dubai skyline, but there was a haze that was not helping.

“Why Friday?” we asked.

“Well, there is less building on a Friday,” he said, “so the air is not so dusty.”

Even with Dubai’s well-advertised economic problems there is still a lot of construction going on, by the standards of most places.

This is my first proper trip to Dubai since the late 90s and it is unrecognisable.

Back in the 1960s, according to my uncle who was here with the British army, the runway lights at Dubai airport were barrels of burning tar.

Burj Khalifa
The long war, the century or so of conflict between Arabs and Jews, cannot be defeated by property developers

When I was here first, on my way to Afghanistan in the late 80s, a fairly compact city was surrounded by a sweep of open desert, which just is not there any more.

They must have poured tens of millions of tonnes of concrete to build this sprawling city state.

As I write, I can see a burnt orange sun setting behind the Burj Khalifa, the new skyscraper that is the world’s highest building. It is extraordinarily tall.

Acres of gardens and golf courses in Dubai are green and lush, in a place with almost no rain, thanks to hugely expensive desalination plants.

The climate is wonderful right now, but in the summer it is appallingly hot and humid.

Never mind, everywhere is air-conditioned, especially the indoor ski slope, where they make real indoor snow and have a black run for experts.

‘Unobtainable dream’

Love it or hate it, they have tamed nature to build an incredible city.

Perhaps they never thought they could tame the Middle East too, though minds that could conceive the Burj Khalifa are not short of ambition.

But if not tame it, they were hoping to insulate this place from its dark, violent ways.

The assassination of the Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh proves that was one unobtainable dream.

Mahmoud al-Mabhouh

It is assumed Mossad is behind Mr Mabhouh’s death

The long war, the century or so of conflict between Arabs and Jews, cannot be defeated by property developers.

Its capacity to generate and export violence is unparalleled in today’s world.

Was Mr Mabhouh killed by Mossad, the Israeli secret service?

I do not know. But there is circumstantial evidence that he was.

Bloody hands

And he was an enemy of Israel, according to the press there, involved with arms shipments into Gaza.

In the kind of phrase Israelis use, he had Jewish blood on his hands.

Hamas gave him a hero’s funeral.

Mossad has form. Assassination has been one of its specialities since the time that Israel was killing Nazis in the 1950s.

If Israel was behind the assassination, then its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might well be troubled by the ghosts of assassinations past.

In 1997, during his first stint as prime minister, he authorised a Mossad hit on an up-and-coming man in Hamas, a Palestinian called Khaled Meshaal.

Two Mossad agents approached Mr Meshaal as he was walking down a street in Amman, the Jordanian capital.

Map of United Arab Emirates

They sprayed poison into his ear, but they bungled their escape and were found to be carrying false Canadian passports.

King Hussein, who hadn’t long since signed a peace treaty with Israel, was outraged. For him, it wasn’t just a breach of trust.

Rumours started that he was somehow complicit in the attack. With Mr Meshaal close to death, King Hussein demanded that Israel gave his doctors the formula for the poison and the antidote.

To get their two captured agents back, the Israelis was forced to release dozens of Jordanian and Palestinian prisoners.

They included the spiritual leader of Hamas sheikh Ahmed Yassin. He was a thorn in Israel’s side until he too was assassinated in an air strike in Gaza in 2003

Khaled Meshaal survived and is now the most senior political figure in Hamas, living behind heavy security in Damascus.

Netanyahu’s ‘fiasco’

So it was not a good time for Mr Netanyahu.

King Hussein refused to see him when he went to Amman to apologise and the then head of Mossad was forced to resign.

Israelis viewed the affair as a costly fiasco. It was one of the factors that contributed to a comprehensive defeat of Mr Netanyahu in an election two years later.

Benjamin Netanyahu [File pic]

Benjamin Netanyahu lost an election after a Mossad killing

There is one very significant difference between then and now.

In Amman in 1997 the would-be assassins were apprehended, along with their false Canadian papers.

This time round the alleged assassins’ faces have been published, along with their assumed names.

If they are Israeli agents, or freelance killers, then their identities have been blown.

But they are not in custody and that makes it much harder to prove that Israel did it.

If Israel had nothing to do with the killing, or with the theft of the identities of six British-Israelis for the alleged assassins’ passports, then Mr Netanyahu, now in his second term, has nothing to worry about.

But if Mossad is responsible, and that is the assumption in Israel as well as here in Dubai, then he has some sweating to do in the next few weeks.

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Dutch cabinet collapses in dispute over Afghanistan

Dutch cabinet collapses in dispute over Afghanistan

A Dutch soldier in Afghanistan

Dutch forces have been in Uruzgan since 2006

The Dutch government has collapsed over disagreements within the governing coalition on extending troop deployments in Afghanistan.

After marathon talks, Christian Democratic Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende announced that the Labour Party was quitting the government.

He offered his government’s resignation to Queen Beatrix in a telephone call.

The premier had been considering a Nato request for Dutch forces to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2010.

But Labour, the second-largest coalition party, has opposed the move.

Just under 2,000 Dutch service personnel have been serving in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan since 2006, with 21 killed.

Their deployment has already been extended once.

Where there is no trust, it is difficult to work together
Jan Peter Balkenende

The troops should have returned home in 2008, but they stayed on because no other Nato nation offered replacements.

The commitment is now due to end in August 2010.

The Dutch parliament voted in October 2009 that it must definitely stop by then, although the government has yet to endorse that vote.

Mr Balkenende’s centre-right Christian Democrats wanted to agree to Nato’s request to extend the Dutch presence in Afghanistan.

But this was bitterly opposed by the Dutch Labour Party.

The finance minister and leader of the Labour Party, Wouter Bos, demanded an immediate ruling from Mr Balkenende.

When they failed to reach a compromise, Labour said it was pulling out of the coalition.

Nato priority

Mr Balkenende said he would offer the cabinet’s resignation to the Dutch Queen Beatrix later on Saturday following the collapse of the government.

It was announced after a 16-hour cabinet meeting which ran into the early hours of Saturday morning.

The prime minister said there was no common ground between the parties.

“Where there is no trust, it is difficult to work together. There is no good path to allow this cabinet to go further,” he said.

The launch in 2001 of Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) for Afghanistan was the organisation’s first and largest ground operation outside Europe.

Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said six months ago when he began his job that his priority was the war in Afghanistan.

As of October 2009, Isaf had more than 71,000 personnel from 42 different countries including the US, Canada, European countries, Australia, Jordan and New Zealand.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende

Mr Balkenende had been considering the Nato request

The US provides the bulk of foreign forces in Afghanistan, and President Barack Obama has announced an extra 30,000 American troops for Afghanistan.

The Pentagon has said the next 18 months could prove crucial for the international mission in Afghanistan, after more than eight years of efforts to stabilise the country.

Afghanistan remains a deadly place for foreign forces.

Suicide attacks on Afghan civilians and roadside bomb strikes on international troops are common, with the Taliban strongly resurgent in many areas of the country.

July 19, 2009

Afghan helicopter crash kills 16

Afghan helicopter crash kills 16

Russian-built Mi-8. File photo

Russian media say the aircraft was an Mi-8 similar to this

A civilian helicopter has crashed in southern Afghanistan, killing at least 16 civilians and injuring five, Nato officials have confirmed.

The helicopter crashed at Kandahar airfield apparently as it was trying to take off, though Nato has ruled out the involvement of insurgents.

Reports from Moscow say the helicopter was a Russian-built Mi-8.

The crash is the second in a week. Six passengers died when a helicopter came down in Helmand province on Tuesday.

‘Not shot down’

Russia’s Interfax agency quoted a spokesman for Russia’s Federal Air Transportation Agency (Fata) as saying the aircraft was a Russian-built Mi-8 transport helicopter.

Map

Fata said it was owned by the Russian air company Vertical-T.

The nationalities of the dead are not yet known.

A statement from Nato’s International Security Assistance Force said: “A civilian contracted helicopter crashed during take-off from Kandahar airfield.

“Emergency personnel are on the scene. There was no indication of the cause of the accident but insurgent action has been ruled out.”

Kandahar airfield is Nato’s largest air base in southern Afghanistan but the BBC’s Martin Patience in Kabul says a lot of civilian aircraft fly in and out so there is no surprise this was a civilian crash.

A Nato spokeswoman, Lt Cmdr Sam Truelove, told the AFP news agency it had been confirmed that all the dead were civilians and no military personnel were involved.

RECENT HELICOPTER CRASHES
14 Jul 2008: Six Ukrainian civilians and Afghan girl die in crash in Helmand. Suspected enemy fire
6 Jul 2008: One UK and two Canadian soldiers die in crash in Zabul province. Enemy fire not suspected
15 Jan 2008: Afghan general and 12 other soldiers die in crash in Herat province. Bad weather blamed
30 May 2007: Seven killed as Nato Chinook crashes in Helmand. Cause unclear

The condition of the injured was not known, she said.

Vertical-T was founded in 1992 and started to work abroad in 1998 in Italy. It has worked in countries including Germany, East Timor, Cyprus, Yemen and Greece, according to the company’s website.

The company’s helicopters are currently carrying out operations in the interests of the UN in Afghanistan and a number of other countries including Congo, Sudan and Pakistan.

The dead in Tuesday’s crash in Helmand were all civilians.

That helicopter crashed near the Sangin military base, with local people saying it had been shot down by insurgents.

Six Ukrainian crew members of the Mi-26 helicopter died, along with an Afghan girl on the ground.

US soldier shown in Taliban video

US soldier shown in Taliban video

The Taliban have released a 28-minute video showing a US soldier captured in Afghanistan last month.

In the video, the soldier, in grey clothes and with shaved head, says being a prisoner is “unnerving”.

He says the US public has the power to bring troops home to be “back where we belong and not over here, wasting our time and our lives”.

The US military identified him as the missing soldier and named him as Pte Bowe Bergdahl, 23, from Ketchum, Idaho.

The spokesman condemned the Taliban for issuing “propaganda” footage.

‘Against international law’

Pte Bergdahl, who went missing on 30 June in Paktika province, eastern Afghanistan, says in the video the date is 14 July and that he was captured as he lagged behind while on a patrol.

Please bring us home. It is America and American people who have that power
Quote from video

It is not possible to verify the time and date the video was made.

Pte Bergdahl, interviewed in English, says he has “a very, very good family” in America.

“I miss them and I’m afraid that I might never see them again, and that I’ll never be able to tell them that I love them again, and I’ll never be able to hug them,” he says.

When asked about his condition he replies: “Well I’m scared, scared I won’t be able to go home. It is very unnerving to be a prisoner.”

A voice off camera asks if he has a message for his “people”.

“To my fellow Americans who have loved ones over here, who know what it’s like to miss them, you have the power to make our government bring them home,” he says.

Map

“Please, please bring us home so that we can be back where we belong and not over here, wasting our time and our lives and our precious life that we could be using back in our own country.

“Please bring us home. It is America and American people who have that power.”

US military spokesman in Kabul, Capt Jon Stock, condemned the use of the video.

He told Reuters news agency: “The use of the soldier for propaganda purposes we view as against international law.

“We are continuing to do whatever possible to recover the soldier safe and unharmed.”

Leaflets have been distributed and a reward offered for his safe return.

The US military said the soldier disappeared after walking off base with three Afghan colleagues.

He is believed to be the first soldier seized in either Iraq or Afghanistan for at least two years.

July 12, 2009

US president sets Afghan target

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:07 am

US president sets Afghan target

A US Marine helicopter delivers supplies in Helmand province, 11 July

Thousands of new US troops are boosting the effort in Afghanistan

The increasingly deadly conflict in Afghanistan is a “serious fight” but one essential for the future stability of the country, the US president says.

Insisting that US and allied troops have pushed back the Taliban, Barack Obama said the immediate target was to steer Afghanistan through elections.

The country is due to hold a presidential vote in August.

Mr Obama spoke to Sky News as concern grew in the UK at the rising British death toll in Afghanistan.

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown was also forced on Saturday to justify British involvement in Afghanistan.

Mr Brown said the UK’s military deployment there was aimed at preventing terrorism in the UK.

Fifteen British troops have died in the past 10 days, pushing the country’s number of deaths in Afghanistan past the number killed in action in Iraq.

‘Extraordinary role’

Speaking during a day-long visit to Africa, Mr Obama also told Sky News that the battle in Afghanistan was a vital element in the battle against terrorism.

He said the continued involvement of British troops in the conflict was necessary, right and was a vital contribution to UK national security.

US President Barack Obama in Ghana, 11 July

Barack Obama has boosted troop levels and is hoping for tangible results

“This is not an American mission,” Mr Obama said.

“The mission in Afghanistan is one that the Europeans have as much if not more of a stake in than we do.

“The likelihood of a terrorist attack in London is at least as high, if not higher, than it is in the United States.”

He praised the efforts of all troops currently fighting the Taleban in gruelling summer heat, singling out British forces for praise when asked if their role was still important.

“Great Britain has played an extraordinary role in this coalition, understanding that we can not allow either Afghanistan or Pakistan to be a safe haven for al-Qaeda, those who with impunity blow up train stations in London or buildings in New York.

“We knew that this summer was going to be tough fighting. They [the Taliban] have, I think, been pushed back but we still have a long way to go. We’ve got to get through elections.”

‘Core mission’

Since taking office in Washington in January of this year, Mr Obama has announced a troop “surge” in Afghanistan.

British soldiers carry the coffin of a comrade, 10 July

British troops have endured a deadly week in Afghanistan

The US has said it is sending up to 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan this year to take on a resurgent Taleban. They will join 33,000 US and 32,000 other Nato troops already in the country.

He also replaced the incumbent US commander in the country, ousting Gen David McKiernan less than a year into his command.

The new US chief in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, has a stellar reputation from his days commanding special forces operations in Iraq.

He has been tasked with the mission of outsmarting the Taliban, who continue to win support among ordinary Afghans often caught in the crossfire of the bitter fighting.

High numbers of Afghan civilian casualties have become an issue of major concern to the US. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has regularly called on the international forces to reduce the numbers of Afghans killed in its operations.

Speaking to Sky News, Mr Obama said although forces were currently engaged in heavy fighting, new strategies for building bridges with Afghan society would be considered once the country had held its presidential election.

A young girl in Afghanistan, 10 July

Afghan civilians often bear the brunt of the conflict with the Taliban

Afghanistan needed its own army, its own police and the ability to control its own security, Mr Obama said – a strategy currently being implemented in Iraq, where security is being handed over to Iraqi forces.

“All of us are going to have to do an evaluation after the Afghan election to see what more we can do,” the president said.

“It may not be on the military side, it might be on the development side providing Afghan farmers alternatives to poppy crops, making sure that we are effectively training a judiciary system and a rule of law in Afghanistan that people trust.”

“We’ve got a core mission that we have to accomplish.”

July 2, 2009

US opens ‘major Afghan offensive’

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 8:36 am

US opens ‘major Afghan offensive’

The US army says it has launched a major offensive against the Taliban in south Afghanistan’s Helmand province.

The US military says about 4,000 Marines as well as 650 Afghan troops are involved, supported by Nato planes.

Brigadier General Larry Nicholson said the operation was different from previous ones because of the “massive size of the force” and its speed.

The offensive is the Marines’ first major operation since their recent deployment to Afghanistan.

It is also the first such operation under President Barack Obama’s presidency.

The operation – codenamed Khanjar or Strike of the Sword – began when units moved into the Helmand river valley in the early hours of Thursday.

Afghan map

Helicopters and heavy transport vehicles carried out the advance, with Nato planes providing air cover.

UK-led forces in Helmand launched their own operation to combat the Taliban insurgency last week, in what the Ministry of Defence described as one of the largest air operations in modern times.

Thousands of British forces under Nato command have been fighting the Taliban in Helmand since 2006, but there has been criticism that they have been overstretched and under-resourced.

Security aim

Southern Afghanistan is considered a Taliban stronghold.

The security forces will build bases to provide security for the local people so that they can carry out every activity with this favourable background, and take their lives forward in peace
Gulab Mangal
Helmand Governor

“Where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces,” said Brig Gen Nicholson in a statement.

At a briefing at the US military’s Camp Leatherneck last week, he told personnel and embedded reporters: “One of the most critical things is to tell people why we’re there, and we are going to have a limited opportunity to gain their trust.”

The operation would have an initial highly aggressive stage lasting 36 hours, AFP news agency reported.

It aims to improve security ahead of presidential elections on 20 August, allowing voter registration where before there was none, Gen Nicholson said.

US soldiers in Afghanistan, 27 June, 2009

US troops are working to flush out Taliban from Helmand province

A US military spokesman, Captain William Pelletier, told the news there had been “no enemy contact” in the first hours of the operation, but one marine was slightly injured when an improvised explosive device detonated in the village of Nawa.

Nawa and nearby Garmsir – south of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah – are key targets in the operation, as the area is considered a refuge for militants and no US or Nato troops have previously operated there in large numbers.

Capt Pelletier said the US military was prepared for casualties, but stressed that “it is absolutely essential that no civilians be harmed”.

Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal predicted the operation would be “very effective”.

“The security forces will build bases to provide security for the local people so that they can carry out every activity with this favourable background, and take their lives forward in peace.”

Troop numbers

I am convinced that the addition of those [US] troops is going to improve the security situation
General Jim Dutton
Commander of UK forces

As of June 2009, Nato’s International Security Assistance Force had 61,130 personnel from 42 countries including the US, Canada, European countries, Australia, Jordan and New Zealand.

The US is the largest contributor, providing 28,850 soldiers.

It also has troops under Operation Enduring Freedom – mostly in the east of Afghanistan on the border with Pakistan – that are not under Isaf’s command.

In December 2008 they numbered 17,100.

President Obama has pledged to send an additional 21,000 extra soldiers to Afghanistan, many of them redeployed from operations in Iraq, to help with training Afghan security forces and to tackle the insurgency.

Last week the commander of UK troops in Afghanistan, General Jim Dutton, denied that the battle against the Taliban was “a losing campaign”.

Gen Dutton welcomed the planned increase in US troop numbers.

“I am convinced that the addition of those [US] troops is going to improve the security situation,” he said.

June 20, 2009

US admits Afghan airstrike errors

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 8:04 am

US admits Afghan airstrike errors

A child in hospital after Farah strikes,09/05

A row has been rumbling since the strikes in early May

Failure by US forces to follow their own rules was the “likely” cause of civilian deaths in Afghan airstrikes last month, a US military report says.

US officials investigated seven strikes on Taliban targets in Farah province on 4 May, and concluded that three had not complied with military guidelines.

The report accepts that at least 26 civilians died, but acknowledges that the real figure could be much higher.

The Afghan government has said 140 civilians were killed in the strikes.

Washington and Kabul have been at loggerheads for weeks over the number of civilians killed in the incident.

ANALYSIS
James Coomarasamy
James Coomarasamy

The report’s conclusions are couched in caveats, but by releasing it late on a Friday afternoon the Pentagon has underlined its embarrassment at what may be the worst case of civilian deaths since coalition forces entered the country in 2001.

As well as acknowledging that there was a failure to follow strict military guidelines, the report recommends unspecified steps to be taken to refine that guidance and urges a greater engagement in the public relations battle.
It states that the coalition should be “first with the truth”.

Yet the report also calls into question whether the true number of civilian deaths, in this incident, will ever be known.

It sticks with the US military’s initial estimate of 26, but describes a report by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, which speaks of at least 86 civilian casualties, as “balanced” and “thorough”.

The US report defends the Farah operation, saying the use of force “was an appropriate means to destroy that enemy threat”.

“However, the inability to discern the presence of civilians and avoid and/or minimise accompanying collateral damage resulted in the unintended consequence of civilian casualties,” the report says.

It says the final three strikes of the engagement, which took place after dark, did not adhere to “specific guidance” in the controlling directive.

“Not applying all of that guidance likely resulted in civilian casualties,” the report says.

It concedes that the precise number of civilians killed in the attack may never be known because many victims were buried before the investigation started.

The document makes a number of recommendations to reduce the likelihood of civilian deaths.

It says lines of communication must be improved, new guidelines should be introduced and personnel need to be retrained.

Gen Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, is currently reviewing US rules in relation to airstrikes.

He said last month that US forces should use them only if the lives of Nato personnel or American troops were clearly at risk.

Both Nato and US have have insisted that avoiding civilian casualties is their priority in all battles.

February 13, 2009

Five children shot in Afghanistan

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:01 am

Five children shot in Afghanistan

Map of Afghanistan

Australia is investigating an incident involving its troops in southern Afghanistan in which five children are reported to have been killed.

An official statement said Australian special forces clearing houses in Uruzgan province in a hunt for militants, and came under attack.

They fired back at Taleban insurgents, and five children were among the dead.

Australia’s military has about 1,100 soldiers in Afghanistan, based mainly in Uruzgan province.

The incident took place on Thursday.

No Australian soldiers were injured, but a suspected militant was killed.

Two other adults and two more children were wounded.

The Australian defence department said in a statement it was “obviously concerned about any loss of life.

“It is for this reason that Australian forces operate under strict rules of engagement that aim to avoid and minimise civilian casualties.”

December 1, 2008

Pakistanis wary of Mumbai claims

Pakistanis wary of Mumbai claims

Pakistans rally in support of the army, following allegations from India over the Mumbai attacks

Some Pakistanis have rallied against claims of links to the Mumbai attackers

Indian media reports detailing Pakistani links to the audacious Mumbai attacks have been met with deep scepticism in Pakistan.

“Why do they always blame us?” said an airline worker in the port city of Karachi, from where some of the gunmen are alleged to have set off for Indian shores.

“Any time something happens in India, they say Pakistan is behind it, but they don’t come up with any proof.”

A boutique owner agreed. “Everybody’s out to get us,” he said as his customers expressed fear that Indian agents would retaliate by striking Karachi.

Such blanket dismissals fail to acknowledge Pakistan’s history of using Islamist militant groups to fight proxy wars against India in the disputed region of Kashmir.

One of these, Lashkar-i-Taiba, was blamed for the attack on India’s parliament in 2001 that brought the two countries to the brink of war.

However, it denied that, as well as any involvement in the Mumbai atrocities ,which lasted three days and left over 170 people dead and hundreds injured.

Indian ‘denial’

Whatever the case, Pakistanis say Indian accusations have become reflex actions that don’t take changing realities into account.

“It is interesting that Indian security agencies failed to detect such a massive operation during its planning stage, but wasted little time in fixing the blame on some Pakistani group,” wrote defence analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi in the local Daily Times newspaper.

“If they knew who was responsible, why could they not pre-empt it? India needs to face the reality of home-grown radicalism, and realize the futility of blaming Pakistan for its troubles.”

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi

Foreign Minister Qureshi had hoped for a “warming” with India

Mr Rizvi expressed a widely held conviction here that India is in denial about its problems with indigenous Islamist groups that have surfaced in recent years – rooted, it’s believed, in state discrimination and communal violence against Muslims.

And, say Pakistanis, India has got it wrong before.

The fire-bombing of the Samjhauta Express train between New Delhi and Lahore in February 2007 was first blamed on Pakistan, but later linked to Hindu extremists supported by an Indian army colonel.

‘Brisk escalation’

At the official level, both the government and the military have also warned India against jumping to hasty conclusions, but otherwise their responses have differed.

Political leaders have gone out of their way to condemn the attacks and offer “unconditional support” in the investigation, promising to take action if any Pakistani link is established.

A conflict with India is the last thing they want after succeeding the military-led government of retired General Pervez Musharraf last year.

“I’m concerned because I could see forward movement, India warming up to Pakistan, constructive engagement,” said Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi at the weekend.

“Let us not fool ourselves, the situation is serious when people in India are calling this their 9/11,” adding that he hoped the “hiccup” in relations would be overcome soon.

Pakistan’s powerful security establishment, however, is more cynical.

Mumbai residents grieve near Nariman House, the scene of one of the battles with gunmen

As India grieves, Pakistan has offered “unconditional support”

Despite a peace process which began in 2004 it sees India as stalling on Kashmir, and it is convinced Delhi’s allegations are aimed at trying to discredit Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI).

“The Indians are taking the escalation level up at a very brisk pace,” a senior security official said on Saturday.

He too pledged co-operation but said if India began to mobilise troops, Pakistan would respond in kind, even if that meant pulling soldiers away from fighting Taleban and al-Qaeda militants on its border with Afghanistan.

The different attitudes towards India were publicly exposed when political leaders were forced to retract a promise to send the intelligence chief to Delhi.

While President Asif Zardari described this as a “miscommunication,” others blamed the government for failing to consult the military before making the unprecedented announcement.

Already the army’s been taken aback by overtures to India made by Mr Zardari.

Most recently the president offered no first-use of nuclear weapons, ignoring decades of established policy.

The apparently off-the-cuff remark in an interview with Indian media astonished Pakistanis as much as Indians.

It remains to be seen whether this rift will grow under mounting pressure from India and the US, which fears that souring relations between the two rivals will hinder its attempts to encourage regional co-operation against Islamist militancy in Afghanistan.

November 1, 2008

Crucial battle on Pakistan’s frontline

A tank fires at militant movement detected at the edge of the town of Loi Sam in Bajaur

A tank fires at militant movement detected at the edge of the town of Loi Sam

Entering the combat zone, we drive past mile after mile of flattened buildings, crops and trees, razed to prevent ambushes.

Even still, soldiers are on high alert, watchful for possible attacks.

They race down the road at top speed, firing occasional rounds from the guns mounted on the backs of their vehicles. Cobra attack helicopters circle overhead.

This is the tribal area of Bajaur near the Afghan border, or rather a small part of it.

The Pakistan army has wrested control of a 38km (24-mile) region from the Taleban, and it has given us rare access to the frontline.

We arrive in the town of Loi Sam, now in ruins. Militants here were targeted by the air force and artillery, followed by a ground offensive that lasted five days.

Civilians fled long ago – hundreds of thousands have been displaced by the fighting.

Key crossroads

A tank guards one of the approaches to the town, firing whenever there is movement in the distance.

Already a bulldozer has begun clearing away the blasted shells of buildings.

“You have to either occupy or remove the structures,” says one soldier, “otherwise the militants will return to them once we’ve left.”

For the army, this is a crucial victory: Loi Sam lies at a key crossroads between Afghanistan and Pakistan. From here local and Afghan insurgents could launch attacks in both countries.

“The militant activities from this tribal agency were radiating in different directions, towards Afghanistan, the rest of the border region and [Pakistan’s] settled areas,” says army spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas.

“Now we have this area under control, it will affect militant activities elsewhere, and we’ll capitalise on that.”

“The worst is over,” agrees Maj Gen Tariq Khan, who is in charge of the offensive. “I think we have turned the corner.”

Guerrilla warfare

The battle has been slow and deliberate. It took six weeks for the army to secure the road from the headquarters of the local security forces, the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC), to Loi Sam, a distance of 13km.

Troops fought compound to compound in a terrain ideal for guerrilla warfare.

“There are road bends, there are depressions, there are houses located inside the depressions, trenches prepared, caves, tunnels, everything prepared,” says Col Javed Baloch, commander of one of the posts along the road, “so it was difficult to find them, to spot them, and then take the area.”

The Taleban has made extensive use of bunkers and tunnels which connected different compounds.

One commanding officer, Maj Kamal, took me 5m underground for a tour of the network.

He says his men blocked 20 or 30 passageways, including one that stretched 100m to a stream.

Many in Bajaur trace the roots of the uprising to a suspected US missile strike on an Islamic seminary, or madrassa, in November 2006, which killed around 80 people.

That radicalized local Islamists, they say, who were reinforced by militants from other Pakistani tribal areas. There was also an influx of fighters from Afghanistan.

A soldier keeps watch
Until and unless Afghanistan is made stable, you can do a million development activities in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and there will be no result
Shafir Ullah
Government representative in Bajaur

The battle for Bajaur was triggered when the FC tried to re-establish a check post in Loi Sam in early August. Fierce resistance led to the siege of the FC base before the army was called in.

Like other army officers, Maj Gen Tariq Khan criticises unilateral US air strikes on suspected insurgent targets as deeply counter productive.

But, he says, during the Bajaur operation there has been improved intelligence sharing and co-ordination with coalition forces, which has reduced cross-border militant infiltration from Afghanistan. “We’ve seen practical on-ground adjustments in relevance to our operations,” he says.

“I’ve got a very positive response and I feel we’ve set up some system in which we’re in some kind of regular touch, and I think that’s the way to go.”

Hearts and minds

Now that the fighting has subsided, attention is turning to reconstruction and development: acknowledgement that winning hearts and minds in the impoverished tribal region along the border is essential to fighting the insurgency.

Map

But that won’t be enough, says Shafir Ullah, the government representative in Bajaur who deals with tribal elders.

“The reasons [for the insurgency] are poverty, backwardness and others, but the real problem is linked with Afghanistan,” he says.

“Until and unless Afghanistan is made stable, you can do a million development activities in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and there will be no result.”

The Taleban have been pushed back – the army claims it has killed 1,500 – but they haven’t been defeated.

Two soldiers were killed by rocket fire in Loi Sam shortly after we left the town, bringing the army’s death toll to 75. Nearly 100 civilians have also died, says Shafir Ullah.

One hillside post is so exposed to Taleban fire that the soldiers have dug in for protection.

Forty men can fit in the massive bunker at any one time, a few are saying their prayers and reciting the Koran in a makeshift underground mosque when we visit.

This is not a popular war in Pakistan: some have criticized the military for killing fellow Muslims.

Others accuse it of fighting “America’s War”. But the army insists it is fighting to defend Pakistan, not just responding to US pressure for action against the Taleban.

Even as dusk falls artillery guns continue to pound militant positions. The war in Afghanistan has spilled over into Pakistan.

This is the other, rarely seen, side of the battle against the Taleban.

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