News & Current Affairs

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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September 9, 2008

Economic battle is joined in US race

Economic battle is joined in US race

Jobseekers at a jobs fair in California. File photo

Unemployment is rising in the US as the credit crunch hits home

With just two months to go before the US presidential election, the state of the economy is far and away the biggest concern for most US voters.

The credit crunch has inflicted severe damage on Wall Street, left millions at risk of losing their homes, and millions more in negative equity.

Unemployment has risen above 6% while high petrol prices and rising inflation have squeezed household budgets to the limit.

Things are unlikely to get any better soon. Most economic forecasts suggest that the economy will slow sharply in the rest of 2008. The first official figures will be published in late October – on the very eve of the election.

TOP ISSUES
Economy: 39%
Iraq: 14%
Gas prices: 4%
Source: Washington Post/ABC News telephone poll, 19-22 August 2008, sample size 1108, margin of error +/- 3%

This is the background for a battle over economic policy that has so far been dominated by two issues – energy prices and taxes.Senator McCain made headlines by calling for a temporary suspension of federal gasoline taxes over the summer. He favors a major expansion of nuclear power and further drilling for oil on the US continental shelf. His running mate Sarah Palin, meanwhile, is a strong advocate of further development of Alaskan oil and gas reserves.

Mr Obama has called Mr McCain’s proposals “the same old gimmicks” though he has recently softened his outright opposition to drilling.

His energy plan calls for a big effort to shift the US towards cleaner energy, a windfall tax on oil companies, and a $50bn government investment plan to promote “energy independence”.

Tax cuts

To boost the economy, Senator Obama and many Democrats in Congress would like another stimulus package, worth around $50bn – following on from the $168bn package already put into effect – and more aid to help people at risk of foreclosure to stay in their homes.

But the growing size of the government’s budget deficit, which is expected to more than double to $400bn next year, limits the scope for further action of this kind.

It’s the size of that deficit that has put taxes at the heart of the economic debate between the two candidates.

Mr Obama wants to repeal the “tax cuts for the rich” of the Bush administration, and use the money to give further tax breaks to the “middle class” (all taxpayers earning less than $250,000), including special tax relief for college education.

He also has ambitious plans to use the tax system to boost jobs, provide subsidies for healthcare, and help redistribute income to the working poor.

PORK- BARREL POLITICS
Commerce: $9bn
Defence: $9bn
Military construction: $6.6bn
Energy: $4.6bn
Transportation: $3.2bn
Foreign aid and exports: $14bn
Congressional earmarks in FY 2005. Source: Congressional Research Service

Senator McCain, however, reversing his earlier position, wants to keep the Bush tax cuts, which he argues will help small businessmen and lead to more job creation, while balancing the federal budget by eliminating wasteful spending.He has attacked “earmarks”, the system of “pork-barrel” politics where individual Congressmen and Senators get extra spending projects for their districts by attaching riders to important bills.

The most infamous of these pork-barrel projects was the $400m “bridge to nowhere” – which would have linked the 7,000 people in Ketchikan , Alaska, with their airport on Gravina island, replacing a three-minute ferry ride – promoted by the now-disgraced Alaska Republican Senator Ted Stevens.

It was Sarah Palin’s role as governor of Alaska in ultimately blocking this project which first brought her to the attention of Senator McCain.

But earmarks make up only $50bn of the $2,000bn Federal budget, according to the Congressional Research Service, and two-thirds of them relate to military spending or foreign aid, which Mr McCain has pledged to preserve.

Balancing acts

The ability of both candidates to project bold economic policy initiatives has been limited by disagreement within their own camps.

Manhattan street scene - file image

Wall Street wants a fiscal conservative – but small businessmen want tax cuts

Mr Obama’s economic instincts appear to lie with the moderate wing of the Democratic party, to judge from his appointment of Jason Furman, a close associate of former US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin as his economic advisor.These “Rubin” Democrats persuaded the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, that balancing the budget was more important for long-term economic growth than new spending programs.

Senator Obama has emphasized “nudge” economics, where the government tries to encourage individuals to take out private pensions and healthcare, rather than big new government programs.

But he faces pressure from the Democratic base, which is expecting him to tackle the lack of healthcare coverage for one in six Americans, and from the unions, which want him to do more to protect American jobs from “unfair” foreign competition.

Expanding health coverage to all children, as he has proposed, could cost at least $100bn a year.

And his support for renegotiating trade talks to include clauses recognising workers’ rights has worried businessmen.

Senator McCain, meanwhile, also has to appease two conflicting constituencies.

Many traditional Republicans share Mr McCain’s original beliefs in small government, low taxes and a balanced budget – as, mostly, does Wall Street, the US financial centre.

However, the Republican Party in power increased spending, especially on defence, while cutting taxes, leading to growing deficits.

Mr McCain backs higher defense spending, and in recent months he has increasingly leaned to the “supply-siders”, Republicans who believe that tax cuts are more important than balancing budgets – a view many small businessmen on Main Street, struggling in the economic downturn, would endorse.

Empathy

Both parties are also divided on how far the government should go in bailing out homeowners and banks who are the victims of the credit crunch.

Many Main Street Republicans are outraged by the idea that people who undertook irresponsible home loans, when they knew they could not afford them, should be bailed out – a view Mr McCain sometimes reflects.

And many left-leaning Democrats believe that the big banks and their shareholders who irresponsibly promoted sub-prime lending should be allowed to fail, rather than being bailed out by the US Treasury – as happened with Wall Street investment bank Bear Stearns and now the government-sponsored giant mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The policy solutions so far put forward to ease the credit crunch have been agreed on a bipartisan basis between Congress and the Bush administration.

WHO DO YOU TRUST MORE TO HANDLE THE ECONOMY?
Barack Obama: 50%
John McCain: 39%
Neither/None: 9%
Source: Washington Post/ABC News telephone poll, 19-22 August 2008, sample size 1108, margin of error +/- 3%

But voters have consistently expressed more confidence in the Democrats’ ability to handle the economy than the Republicans’ – so it’s a puzzle why this has not translated into a decisive poll lead for Senator Obama.

This may be because the battle is really over perception – which candidate has more empathy for the economic plight of ordinary Americans.

The choice of Sarah Palin as Mr McCain’s vice-presidential candidate was partly an attempt to put an “ordinary hockey mom” at the heart of his campaign.

Senator Obama, for his part, devoted much of his speech at the Democratic convention to the difficulties faced by hard-working Americans – perhaps hoping to banish the memory of his comments in March about “bitter” small-townspeople.

“It’s not because John McCain doesn’t care – it’s because John McCain doesn’t get it,” he said.

If Americans are persuaded that one candidate both understands their problems and can fix them, that could be the key to an election victory.

So far there is still everything to play for.

August 21, 2008

Uncovering truth about Georgia conflict

Uncovering truth about Georgia conflict

Courtesy BBC NEWS

By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News

As accusations of indiscriminate violence, murder and genocide are hurled between Russia and Georgia over the South Ossetia conflict, human rights investigators are painstakingly trying to establish the facts on the ground.

A Georgian woman stands near a damaged apartment block in Gori, Georgia

Residential buildings were hit during the conflict

Researchers suggest both sides may have violated the codes of war – using violence that was either disproportionate or indiscriminate, or both – claims that the International Criminal Court is currently investigating.

Russian prosecutors have announced they are opening criminal cases into the deaths of 133 civilians who they say were killed by Georgian forces.

Initially, however, Russia suggested more than 1,500 people had died in the conflict.

Last week, Georgia filed a lawsuit against Russia at the International Court of Justice, based at The Hague, alleging the country had attempted to ethnically cleanse Georgians from the breakaway regions.

Uncovering the facts – even of very recent history – becomes a battle in itself when people are displaced and desperate.

“Gathering comprehensive data about the dead from civilians is a time-consuming task,” Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, told BBC News.

“We have to cross-check data and check that people are not misidentified or miscounted.”

Shifting status

Neighbors who take up arms during a conflict, for example, shift status, becoming combatants rather than civilians, which can confuse calculations of civilian death tolls.

Russian tanks in South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.

Russian forces have been accused of using cluster bombs

“We have to make sure there is no double-counting – if a body is moved, we have to be careful not to count it twice – maybe it is counted once in the village itself and then it could be counted again in the city morgue,” Ms Denber said.

“To get really accurate figures you would really have to go to every single village.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – which has just gained access to South Ossetia – says it hopes to uncover the truth by remaining neutral and only revealing what its told – by survivors, eyewitnesses and relatives – to relevant authorities.

“The work of the ICRC is totally confidential,” spokeswoman Jessica Barry explained from the Georgian capital, Tblisi.

“We do take allegations of arrests, of people missing or reported dead. We can also offer our services to the authorities for the transfer of mortal remains.

“All the work we do is gathering confidential information which we share with the authorities with the aim of finding out the location of loved ones for the civilian population.”

War of words

The ferocity of the conflict on the ground was echoed in the way both Russian and Georgian officials conducted a media war, making ever graver accusations against each other, competing for television airtime and giving spiralling civilian death tolls.

A woman walks past propaganda poster depicting Russian aggression

The war has been played out both in the media and on the ground

All of which muddies the waters when trying to establish if human rights and international laws have been violated.

“There has been a lot of controversy about the Russian figures,” says HRW’s Rachel Denber.

“When that figure came out – of 1,500 dead – it wasn’t very helpful, it didn’t provide any sourcing or methodology, there were no details about how the figure was calculated. We certainly can’t confirm it.”

“The problem here is that when Russia puts out a figure like that it does two things – it distracts attention from where there are violations and from the real scale of what is happening.”

The organization puts the civilian death toll in the dozens, rather than the hundreds.

Responsibility to protect

As well as multiple rocket launchers mounted on four-wheel drives, known as Grads, campaigners say cluster munitions – which can contain hundreds of smaller bomblets – were used during the conflict. Both these weapons are intrinsically indiscriminate, they say.

Disproportionate attacks are prohibited […] if there is likely to be civilian damage excessive in relation to the expected military gain, you don’t fire
Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch

“If you have a military objective then the Grad rocket is not a targeted weapon, civilians are going to get hit and that is exactly what happened, and happened on a significant scale. The proximity was such that it was indiscriminate,” Ms Denber said.

She cited a reported case in which Russian forces dropped bombs on a convoy of passenger cars fleeing Georgia’s Gori district, and another in which Georgian soldiers pursued armed South Ossetian militias using tanks, driving and firing through a residential neighborhood.

“The rule is that disproportionate attacks are prohibited. In other words, if you have your eye on a military target, and there is likely to be civilian damage excessive in relation to the expected military gain, you don’t fire,” Ms Denber said.

Although the fighting has now stopped, violations continue, she says, with Russian forces failing to protect civilians in areas of Georgia and South Ossetia that they control – a key part of the international law governing behavior during war.

“We have numerous stories of Ossetian forces roving around ethnic Georgian villages – running around, looting homes, torching them,” she said.

“We are looking into other accounts of violence, of people being robbed at gunpoint. These are areas that Russian forces have control over – it is their responsibility to protect them.”

August 9, 2008

Russian forces battle Georgians

Russian forces battle Georgians

Video still from Russia's Channel One shows a Georgian tank burning in Tskhinvali (08/08/2008)

Russian forces are locked in fierce clashes with Georgia     inside its breakaway South Ossetia region, reports say, amid fears of all-out war.

Moscow sent armoured units across the border after Georgia moved against Russian-backed separatists.

Russia says 12 of its soldiers are dead, and separatists estimate that 1,400 civilians have died.

Georgia accuses Russia of waging war, and says it has suffered heavy losses in bombing raids, which Russia denies.

Russian tanks have reportedly reached the northern suburbs of the regional capital, Tskhinvali, and there were conflicting claims about who was in control of the city.

“Now our peacekeepers are waging a fierce battle with regular forces from the Georgian army in the southern region of Tskhinvali,” a Russian military official was quoted as saying by Moscow-based news agency, Interfax.

After days of exchanging heavy fire with the separatists, Georgian forces moved on Thursday night to regain control of the region, which has had de facto independence since a war against Georgia that ended in 1992.

 Georgia and its breakaway regions
I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars. It’s impossible to count them now
Lyudmila Ostayeva
Tskhinvali resident

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said Russia was at war with his country.

He told the BBC: “Our troops are attacked by thousands of troops coming in from Russia.”

Mr Saakashvili said Georgia had shot down several Russian planes and accused Moscow of bombing Georgian air bases and towns, resulting in the death of 30 military personnel and civilians.

Late on Friday, the Georgian national security council said Mr Saakashvili was poised to declare a state of emergency.

Despite denials from Moscow, the Russian air force has been carrying out air raids in South Ossetia and Georgia itself, says the BBC’s Richard Galpin, in Gori, eastern Georgia.

‘Ethnic cleansing’

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said he had to act to defend South Ossetia’s civilians, most of whom have been given Russian citizenship.

He also voiced anger over the reported fatalities of Russian servicemen in the breakaway province.

“We will not allow their deaths to go unpunished,” he said. “Those responsible will receive a deserved punishment.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow had received reports that villages in South Ossetia were being ethnically cleansed.

The BBC’s Matthew Collin in Tbilisi says battles continue around Tskhinvali with the sound of explosions, rocket fire and military planes flying overhead.

The regional capital, where inhabitants are said to be sheltering in basements without electricity or phone lines, is reported to be devastated.

SOUTH OSSETIA TIMELINE
1991-92 S Ossetia fights war to break away from newly independent Georgia; Russia enforces truce
2004 Mikhail Saakashvili elected Georgian president, promising to recover lost territories
2006 S Ossetians vote for independence in unofficial referendum
April 2008 Russia steps up ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia
July 2008 Russia admits flying jets over S Ossetia; Russia and Georgia accuse each other of military build-up
7 August 2008 After escalating Georgian-Ossetian clashes, sides agree to ceasefire
8 August 2008 Heavy fighting erupts overnight, Georgian forces close on Tskhinvali

Fleeing resident Lyudmila Ostayeva, 50, told AP news agency: “I saw bodies lying on the streets, around ruined buildings, in cars. It’s impossible to count them now. There is hardly a single building left undamaged.”

International Red Cross spokeswoman Anna Nelson said it had received reports that hospitals in Tskhinvali were “overflowing” with casualties.

In other developments:

  • The UN Security Council fails to agree a statement on the crisis, despite holding a second session of talks on Friday evening
  • US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on Russia to pull its troops out of Georgia and respect its territorial integrity
  • Georgia’s president said his country was withdrawing half its contingent of 2,000 troops from Iraq to help deal with the crisis
  • Russia said it would cut all air links with Georgia from midnight on Friday
  • The European security organisation, the OSCE, warned that the fighting in South Ossetia could escalate into a full-scale war
  • The US and the EU were reported to be sending a joint delegation to the region to seek a ceasefire and Nato said it was seriously concerned

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