News & Current Affairs

February 20, 2010

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.


September 25, 2008

Pakistan fires on Nato aircraft

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 6:10 pm

Pakistan fires on Nato aircraft

Pakistani soldier in Bajur

US action across the Pakistan border has raised tensions

Pakistan says its troops fired warning shots at two Nato helicopters as they crossed the border from Afghanistan.

It is the first time the Pakistan army has admitted opening fire near US or Nato forces, as tension grows over cross border military action.

Nato said its aircraft were not in Pakistani airspace when shots were fired over Khost province.

The Pentagon said they were US helicopters and that Pakistan would have to explain what had happened.

Chief Pakistani military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said that the helicopters had “crossed into our territory in Ghulam Khan area”.

“They passed over our checkpost so our troops fired warning shots,” he said.

He added that the matter was being taken up with the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Kabul.

‘Flares’ fired

However, Pakistan’s new president, Asif Ali Zardari, appeared to contradict his military spokesman, insisting that his troops had only fired “flares” to warn the helicopters they were near the Pakistan border.

The BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan, in Islamabad, says that the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is very unclear.

Map locator

There is an imaginary border called the Durand line which each side marks differently.

Our correspondent says that, in reality, the border is marked by a 3-4km (1-2 mile) stretch of no man’s land.

Pakistan says that this is its territory and Afghanistan makes similar claims.

In a statement, Isaf said its helicopters had received small-arms fire from a Pakistan military checkpoint along the border near Tanai district, Khost, on 25 September “while conducting routine operations in Afghanistan”.

“At no time did Isaf helicopters cross into Pakistani airspace,” it added.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said: “The flight path of the helicopters at no point took them over Pakistan.”

He said US and Nato officials were speaking to their Pakistani counterparts to determine what had happened and to ensure there was no recurrence.

“The Pakistanis have to provide us with a better understanding of why this took place,” he said.

Local tribesmen in the area told the BBC that two helicopters were trying to cross into Pakistani territory near Ghulam Khan, in North Waziristan, when Pakistani troops at posts near the border fired at them.

There are currently two Western military operations in Afghanistan – a US-led coalition and the Nato-led Isaf mission.

It appears the helicopters involved in Thursday’s incident were US OH-58 reconnaissance aircraft operating under the Nato flag.

The BBC’s Martin Patience, in Kabul, says it is believed to be the first time Nato helicopters have been fired on in this fashion.

3 Sept: First reported ground assault by US troops in Pakistan – Islamabad responds furiously
15 Sept: Pakistani troops reportedly fire in air to stop US troops crossing in S Waziristan
17 Sept: Top US military chief Adm Mike Mullen visits Pakistan to calm tensions
16 Sept: Pakistan says it was not told of fresh US missile strike
22 Sept: Pakistani troops in fresh firing to deter US incursion into N Waziristan, officials say
25 Sept: Pakistani troops fire warning shots at Nato helicopters on border with Khost

Correspondents say there is growing anger in Pakistan at US forces in Afghanistan allegedly violating Pakistani sovereignty.

The remote Afghan-Pakistani frontier is rife with militant groups.

BBC defence correspondent Rob Watson says the US doubts Pakistan’s capability – and even willingness in some quarters – to tackle Islamic extremists.

There has been growing tension between the two countries since 3 September when the US conducted its first ground assault in Pakistani territory on what it said was a militant target in South Waziristan.

Pakistan reacted angrily to the action, saying 20 innocent villagers had been killed by US troops.

Local officials have said that on two occasions since then Pakistani troops or tribesmen have opened fire to stop US forces crossing the border. The claims were not officially confirmed.

On Wednesday, a drone believed to be operated by the CIA crashed inside Pakistan.

The US and Nato have called on Pakistan to do more to curb militants operating in the border area.


September 24, 2008

Which direction for Turkey now?

Filed under: Latest, Politics News, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:24 pm

Which direction for Turkey now?

Guards at Ataturk's Mausoleum in Ankara

The US had feared Turkey was facing too much towards the East

Not so long ago the question of “who lost Turkey?” seemed to dominate US think tank discussions and conferences.

Turkey’s refusal to allow US troops to use its territory to open a second front against Saddam Hussein provoked the worst crisis in relations between Ankara and Washington that many commentators could remember.

Worse, the arrival into power of the Justice and Development Party (the AKP) with its Islamist roots, which then embarked upon a new foreign policy of outreach towards the Middle East, seemed to confirm the fears of many in Washington.

Turkey, they felt, was inexorably being drawn back into the Middle East and Asia and away from its long-standing anchorage in Nato and the West.

With the US presidential election fast approaching, and with the multiplicity of problems in the Middle East set to be at the top of the next administration’s agenda, I came to Turkey to try to answer the question – was this staunch Cold War ally being lost to the West?

Surely things were more complicated? Was Turkey’s new orientation being misunderstood by some in Washington? And what did Turkey itself want from the next US administration?

‘Meaningful contribution’

My first port of call was a pavilion in the grounds of the last sultan’s palace on the edge of the Bosphorus. It is now the Turkish prime minister’s Istanbul office.

There I met Ambassador Ahmet Davutoglu, a quietly spoken academic who is widely acknowledged as the architect of the Turkish government’s new foreign policy.

Ambassador Ahmet Davutoglu (February 2008)
Turkey’s diplomatic power is an asset for our western orientation
Ambassador Ahmet Davutoglu

His 2001 book, entitled Strategic Depth, sought to chart a new course for Turkey in the aftermath of the Cold War.

“There was a need to reinterpret the geographical and historical context of Turkey,” he told me.

“The aim was to reintegrate the country into its surrounding region.”

Nonetheless, he was at pains to point out that these new relationships were compatible with Turkey’s long-standing Atlanticist and European tilt.

“If you have more influence in your own hinterland, you will be a more meaningful contributor to the EU or to Nato,” he told me.

“Turkey’s diplomatic power,” he said, “is an asset for our western orientation.”

There is no doubting the extent to which Turkey has played upon its extraordinary geographical position to develop new diplomatic and trading links.

Today it is as friendly with Syria as it is with Israel. It has close ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia. It has good relations with both Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah.

It has developed a strong relationship with Russia and it maintains its strong links with the US and western Europe.

Iraq concern


Mr Davutoglu is now the Turkish prime minister’s chief foreign policy adviser.

Turkey, he told me, was looking to play an ever-greater role in the Middle East, and despite all of the ups and downs between Ankara and Washington, ties between them were firm.

A Turkish youth holds a PKK flag (file image)

The US views the Turkish separatist PKK as a security threat

“The Turkish-American relationship is not an ordinary relationship,” he told me.

“It is well-established, it is well-institutionalised, and very sophisticated. Whoever comes to power in Washington, that institutionalised framework will set the basic parameters for the new president.”

It is certainly true that the Bush administration’s decision to view the Kurdish separatist organisation, the PKK, as a threat to US security interests as well as those of Turkey has gone some way to restoring trust between the two governments.

Iraq though, and especially the circumstances of any US troop withdrawal by a new US president, is a major concern for the Turkish authorities.

Veteran commentator Professor Iltar Turan told me that Turkey fears Iraq might simply break up if there is a too hasty US withdrawal; it might degenerate into full-scale civil war.

“Iraq needs to be integrated better,” he told me, “before a full US withdrawal can be entertained.”

We expect and hope that the new US administration will be more supportive of Turkey, but we will have to see
Suat Kiniklioglu

There is also a strong sense here that Turkey’s diplomatic initiatives have not been fully understood or welcomed in Washington.

The Bush administration has been at best indifferent to Turkey’s major initiative in the region – its efforts to broker a peace deal between Israel and Syria.

Four rounds of indirect talks have been held in Istanbul, mediated by Mr Davutoglu himself.

He refused to touch on any detail, such were the sensitivities, but, he assured me, the progress had been remarkable.

Security matters

In Ankara, I went to see one of the AKP’s most prominent foreign policy experts, Suat Kiniklioglu, an MP and spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Committee.

On Syria, he said that the US administration “had been very distant”.

But he believed that the US was belatedly coming around, though he acknowledged that Turkey’s ties with Iran were something that the Bush administration would not favour.

“We expect and hope that the new US administration will be more supportive of Turkey. But you know,” he mused, “we will have to see – there are two very different candidates and there could be two very different Americas, depending upon who will win in November.”


So who do the Turks want to see as the next US president?

Not surprisingly, opinions differ.

I think a McCain presidency – especially with Ms Palin as vice-president, would be nothing short of catastrophic
Soli Ozel
Writer and academic

Prof Turan told me that Senator Barack Obama’s inexperience in foreign policy worries many Turks, along with some of the things he has said on issues that matter greatly to Turkey.

“Many of us,” Prof Turan told me, “think that the election of Senator John McCain who is familiar with security matters – and the US-Turkish relationship is to a large extent based on security concerns – is better.”

The leading writer and academic Soli Ozel took a different view. He told me that he favours Mr Obama.

“I think a McCain presidency – especially with Ms Palin as vice-president – would be nothing short of catastrophic,” he said.

“A white man of 72 years of age who is a Republican – I don’t think that is what the world looks to in order to mend relations with America around the globe, so I think that whatever is going to be good for the world, ought to be necessarily good for Turkey.”

Official spokesmen obviously do not want to be drawn into the political fray.

But Mr Davutoglu told me that Turkey wanted greater US attention to the crisis around its borders.

“The Turkish foreign agenda is like the United Nation’s agenda”, he argues.

“What do you have on UN agenda today? The Palestinian question, the Iraqi question, the Iranian question, the Caucasian question, the Kosovo question – they are all on Turkish foreign policy agenda too,” he said.

“Without Turkish involvement,” he went on, “it is going to be difficult to solve any of these crises. So Turkish strength, in terms of hard power, of soft power, in terms of economic relations, is an asset for any American administration.”

‘Derivative policies’


To get the perspective of someone with a foot in both countries, I went to see Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

He heads their Turkish research programme and is currently in Istanbul teaching for three months.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana (R) welcomes Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan at the EU headquarters in Brussels (15/09/2008)

Turkey can look elsewhere if it is rejected by the EU

“Turkey policy in Washington,” he says, “has always been a derivative of other policies – of Iraq policy, of Afghanistan policy and maybe now even of Georgia policy.

“Turkey is important as a secondary partner, not as a primary partner, with which the US envisions its big foreign policy debate.”

Whoever takes over in Washington, he says, needs to take a view of Turkey from 30,000 feet up; to realise that it is important when the US plans policies, not only when it is implementing them.

“This,” he argues, “would probably give the Turks the sense of importance they are trying to find in the region, and it would be one way for the next US president to counter Turkey’s ongoing rapprochement with Russia and Iran.”

In my week shuttling between Istanbul and Ankara, it seemed clear that Turkey was proud and confident of its considerable diplomatic achievements .

It wants these to be seen as an asset by the West too.

Turkey’s new regional aspirations are not to be seen as being in conflict with its anchorage in the western camp.

But if the West rejects Turkey – and by this Turkish commentators generally mean the European Union – then Turkey does have other cards to play.

No wonder then that the EU’s ambivalence towards Turkey creates so much unease in Washington.


September 19, 2008

Rice criticises ‘isolated’ Russia

Rice criticises ‘isolated’ Russia

Russia is becoming increasingly authoritarian at home and aggressive abroad, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said.

In a strongly-worded speech, Ms Rice said Moscow was on a “one-way path to isolation and irrelevance”.

Diplomatic relations between the US and Russia have been strained by the recent conflict in Georgia.

Earlier, Russia’s president said the two nations should not risk established ties over “trivial matters.”

Dmitry Medvedev said it would be “politically short-sighted” if Washington and Moscow were to endanger their political and economic ties.

However, Ms Rice suggested in her speech that following the conflict in Georgia, Russia’s bid to join the World Trade Organization had been put in doubt.

Russia’s leaders violated Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and launched a full-scale invasion
Condoleezza Rice

The US has already shelved a civilian nuclear deal with Russia, but despite tensions the two countries are maintaining diplomatic links.

Ms Rice held a telephone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov just hours before delivering her speech, and Russia is also due to join an international meeting on Iran’s nuclear program on Friday.

Our correspondent says Moscow is also telling the US that its co-operation is needed over issues like Iran and North Korea, with many in Washington feeling the Russians have a point.

Several hours after Ms Rice spoke, it emerged that a Russian submarine test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

An official from Russia’s defence ministry is quoted as saying that the test – carried out in Russia’s far-eastern Kamchatka peninsula – went according to plan.

‘Deeply disconcerting’

Speaking at an event organized by the German Marshall Fund in Washington, Ms Rice acknowledged that Georgia had fired the first shots in the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Russian troops in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali

Ms Rice said Russia had tried to dismember Georgia

“The Georgian government launched a major military operation into Tskhinvali [the capital of South Ossetia] and other areas of that separatist region,” she said.

“Regrettably, several Russian peacekeepers were killed in the fighting,” she added.

But Ms Rice said that Russia had escalated the conflict.

“Russia’s leaders violated Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and launched a full-scale invasion across an internationally recognized border,” she said, adding that Russia had also violated the terms of a ceasefire negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Ms Rice said it had been “deeply disconcerting” that Russia had tried to “dismember” Georgia by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and argued that Russia’s actions were part of what she described as a “worsening pattern of behavior”.

“I refer… to Russia’s intimidation of its sovereign neighbours, its use of oil and gas as a political weapon… its threat to target peaceful neighbours with nuclear weapons… and its persecution – or worse – of Russian journalists and dissidents,” she added.

Pledging help to rebuild Georgia, Ms Rice said the US and Europe would not let Russia benefit from aggression.

‘Taking the bait’

Ms Rice admitted that Georgia could have responded better to the events last month in South Ossetia.

We will not allow Russia to wield a veto over the future of our Euro-Atlantic community
Condoleezza Rice

“We warned our Georgian friends that Russia was baiting them, and that taking this bait would only play into Moscow’s hands,” she said.

However Ms Rice, an expert on the Soviet Union, also said that Russia could not blame its behavior on the enlargement of Nato.

“Since the end of the Cold War, we and our allies have worked to transform Nato… into a means for nurturing the growth of a Europe whole, free and at peace.”

The promise of Nato membership had been a positive incentive for states to build democratic institutions and reform their economies, she added.

And she insisted that Russia would not be allowed to dictate who joined the Nato alliance.

“We will not allow Russia to wield a veto over the future of our Euro-Atlantic community – neither what states we offer membership, nor the choice of those states to accept it,” she said

“We have made this particularly clear to our friends in Ukraine.”

The secretary of state was also critical of the domestic situation inside Russia.

“What has become clear is that the legitimate goal of rebuilding Russia has taken a dark turn – with the rollback of personal freedoms, the arbitrary enforcement of the law [and] the pervasive corruption at various levels of Russian society,” she said.

Russia’s leaders were risking the future progress of the Russian people, she said, declaring that Russia’s leaders “are putting Russia on a one-way path to self-imposed isolation and international irrelevance”.


September 15, 2008

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev must agree policy decisions

Getting to the bottom of the shadowy depths of Kremlin decision-making is tricky. Machiavellian power struggles, dark paranoia of security chiefs and long fingers of corruption can turn seemingly rational and transparent explanations inside out.

But even public signals are instructive, and in the wake of the Georgia crisis, Russia’s leadership is taking stock and has several messages for the West.

The first key question about Russia is – who is really in charge?

The standard answer is President Medvedev as Commander in Chief. He, and only he, ordered Russian troops across the border to hit back when Georgia attacked on South Ossetia.

But presidential power is now the tip of an iceberg. What murky currents swirl beneath the surface is less clear.

Dmitry Medvedev says he was caught unawares and admits his relative inexperience.

“I was on holiday on the Volga when the defence minister called,” he said at a conference of the so-called ‘Valdai Club’ of foreign academics and journalists who specialize in Russia.

“I’ll never forget that night, knowing the consequences there would be when I gave the order to return fire… especially when I’d only been president for 95 days,” he said.

But what about Russia’s ex-president, now his prime minister, who was also at the conference?

“However much authority I have, whoever I may be talking to, none of the troops or tanks would have moved an inch until President Medvedev’s order,” was Vladimir Putin’s attempt to deny his own importance when we asked about his role, thereby indicating that his clout and involvement were considerable.

Bridget Kendall
1998 to present: BBC diplomatic correspondent
1994-98: Washington correspondent
1989-94: Moscow correspondent

What is more, at the outset of the crisis, when Mr Putin was in Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games, he was already thinking about Russia moving swiftly to recognize the two enclaves at the heart of the crisis.

He had taken the time, he told us, to inform the Chinese leadership that Russia would understand if Beijing chose not to react.

Double act

It begs the question – who is really driving policy, the president or the prime minister?

The choreography and timing of our audiences with both were instructive.

A pair of three-hour meetings, two elegant luncheon settings, two declarative statements for Russian TV cameras at the start, and even two carefully informal blue suits with matching ties.

All to signal, perhaps, that their status is equal – a dual leadership exercising power in tandem.

I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice
Russian President, Dmitri Medvedev

Indeed one senior government official made a point of emphasizing the duality, constantly referring to them in the same breath.

Policy decisions had to be cleared with both, he said. And what was wrong with that? A double act surely strengthened, not muddled governance, requiring a green light from two instead of one.

We met Mr Putin first. Almost the entire discussion was devoted to foreign policy.

He was burning to give his point of view. He seemed supremely confident, engaged and in charge. His anger at the way he felt Russia had been treated in recent years blazed through, as though it was his own personal animosity which is now firing and fuelling current policy.

It was hard to remember he was no longer president.

Economic policy, supposedly at the heart of his new job as prime minister, came up sporadically and he admitted he is still mastering his new brief.

When he did comment directly on Dmitry Medvedev, the impression he left was curious.

Mr Putin seemed to want to play up the differences between them, as though suggesting a “good cop, bad cop” routine.

He described himself as “conservative” and with an uncharacteristic flash of self-deprecation admitted his penchant for blunt speaking was sometimes a liability.

Whereas he described Dmitry Medvedev as bright, young and highly educated, with modern and – he stressed this twice – liberal views.

“He’s a good lad,” said Mr Putin a touch condescendingly, as though recommending his young protege to a would-be employer for a new job.

The aim, it seemed, was to send a signal to the West that Dmitry Medvedev is indeed more flexible and reformist than Putin himself – and was forced to act tough because the crisis left him no option.

Moral high ground

So the US and its allies should understand they had made a big mistake by allowing this conflict to happen – and they would make an even bigger mistake unless they made the compromises Russia now wants.

When we met Dmitry Medvedev he underscored the point.

“I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice,” he said.

“I very much don’t want the Caucasus crisis to destroy Russian co-operation with Europe and the United States,” he elaborated, and suggested he felt frustrated at his new role of “President of War”.

He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans
Vladimir Putin on George W Bush

“A whole month has been lost on this war… I’d rather have been doing other things,” he said. “Yesterday when I met the defence and finance ministers, instead of talking about car and tractor production, we had to discuss where to deploy the Russian army. Priorities have had to change.”

So what, then, at this juncture does Russia want from the West?

The first message is that the Russian government is in no mood to compromise.

It insists it occupies the moral high ground in this crisis and sees no reason to give way.

This was tantamount to Russia’s 9/11, President Dmitry Medvedev declared to us, a defining moment in national policy and in relations with the outside world.

That conviction was echoed from top to bottom in our discussions with government officials, mainstream academics and journalists, all of them insisting Russia had no choice but to respond militarily and take South Ossetia and Abkhazia under its wing.

Any suspicion that Russia cunningly laid a trap that Georgia rashly walked into was dismissed as an outrageous lie.

The idea that by deploying troops deep inside Georgia and unilaterally recognising the two disputed enclaves’ independence Russia had gone too far was rejected out of hand.

The suggestion that by invading Georgian territory, and asserting its right to redraw the map, Russia made itself look like a bully, was also thrown out.

Instead President Saakashvili was blamed for triggering the conflict.

The United States had nudged him into it and rashly armed and trained his men while Europeans had looked the other way.

Any Western criticism to the contrary was hypocritical, given interventions in Kosovo and Iraq, and yet another example of anti-Russian hysteria and unfair stereotyping, based on prejudices left over from the Cold War.

Red line

Curiously both Mr Putin and President Medvedev were carefully respectful when it came to President Bush.

“He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans,” said Mr Putin, at the same time complaining that he had twice tried to get the US president to intervene.

Instead it was Vice-President Cheney and the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with their Soviet expertise, who were targeted as villains, suspected of fueling anti-Russian sentiment in the US administration and egging Georgia on.

“We need to get rid of stereotypes. The US president has too many Sovietologists in his entourage,” observed Dmitry Medvedev caustically.

A Russian tank crosses a main route in Georgia

Russia is keen to avoid accusations of annexing Georgian territory

The second message that came through clearly was that Russia’s “red line” – any move to extend Nato to Russia’s borders by seeking to incorporate Georgia or Ukraine – still stands.

What Russia really wants is a new discussion on European security arrangements to replace Nato with something else entirely.

But short of that, attempts by the United States or Nato to rearm Georgia or to extend formal invitations to either Georgia or Ukraine to join the alliance seem likely to prompt a furious Russian response.

“Russia has zones that are part of its interests. For the West to deny it is pointless and even dangerous,” said President Medvedev.

“It’s unjust, it’s humiliating, and we’ve had enough. It’s something we are no longer prepared to endure,” he said. “You have a very clear choice here. Let there be no doubt about it.”

What exactly Russia would do to try to prevent this further Nato enlargement was left unclear.

“We’ll do all we can to make sure it doesn’t happen,” said Mr Putin carefully, talking about Ukraine.

Although on Georgia he noted Russian tanks had been within 15 kilometres of Tbilisi and could have taken the capital in four hours.

Economic concerns

So the hints of a threat, but not exactly – and that is interesting. Because the third message that came through was that Russia would like to think a major East-West confrontation can still be avoided.

There may well be powerful forces in Russia’s military and security elite, ultra nationalists who would like to see their country retreat from global integration and rely once more on internal resources – economic and military – as in Soviet days, to reclaim influence geographically and show the outside world Russia’s might can no longer be ignored.

Roubles being sorted at the Goznak mint in Moscow

Russia’s stock market value has fallen by 50% since May this year

But diplomatic and economic isolation does not seem to be what the Kremlin leadership currently wants to embrace.

The haste with which both Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev shrugged off the notion that Russia might have to pay a price for this crisis was telling.

They denied that the loss of nearly 50% of Russia’s stock market value from its all time high in May had much to do with the Georgia crisis.

A far more likely cause, they argued – with some justification, given what is happening on Wall Street – was the impact of global financial instability.

In comparison to many other countries, they insisted, Russia’s economy was in good shape – signs of capital flight were temporary. Foreign investors would be back. Russia’s energy resources were needed by everyone and it had weathered economic storms before.

The fact only Nicaragua had joined Russia in recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia was also dismissed as unimportant, even if the glaring lack of overt diplomatic support for Russia’s actions appears to be a sensitive point.

When the leader of South Ossetia told us he intended to follow up independence by amalgamating his tiny republic with North Ossetia and becoming part of the Russian Federation, he was hurriedly slapped down. Within hours he had issued a retraction.

Outright annexation by Russia of what is, after all, legally speaking Georgian territory is an accusation Moscow seems anxious to avoid.

Yes, Russia wants to claim that the ball is now firmly in the court of the US and its allies – that it is up to them, not Russia, to decide how this geopolitical crisis plays out.

But behind all the moral outrage, I felt there was also a nervousness, a worry that if Russia’s bluff is called and further tensions with the West ensue, it might force a stand-off from which neither side could back down.

“There is a chill in the air and a loss of trust,” said Dmitry Medvedev, “but I don’t think this is a corner turn that will lead to a long confrontation. This is not what we want. And it’s not what you want either.”


September 12, 2008

Palin makes US TV interview debut

Palin makes US TV interview debut

The US Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, has rejected criticism that she is not experienced enough, in her first US TV interview.

In the interview, conducted exclusively by ABC News, Mrs Palin insisted she was “ready” to serve as vice-president.

On foreign affairs, the Alaska governor said she backed NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia.

Mrs Palin was also quizzed on previous comments about describing the war in Iraq as being a “task from God”.

She said she was quoting the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Let us pray that we are on God’s side’.

Asked whether her support for Georgian membership of Nato meant that the US would have to go to war if Russia again invaded Georgia, Palin said that was a possibility.

“Perhaps so. I mean, that is the agreement when you are a NATO ally, if another country is attacked, you’re going to be expected to be called upon and help.”

But she insisted that the US and Russia “cannot repeat the Cold War”.

What is your reaction to Sarah Palin’s interview with ABC? Send us your comments

September 9, 2008

US to review Afghan attack case

US to review Afghan attack case

US forces in Afghanistan are to review an inquiry into an air raid last month after new video evidence emerged indicating scores of civilian deaths.

The US had earlier said that no more than seven civilians died in the attack on the western province of Herat.

However, the Afghan government and the UN said up to 90 people were killed, including many women and children.

The US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) says such attacks are eroding support for the government and foreign forces.

HRW says civilians deaths from international air strikes nearly tripled between 2006 and 2007.

Disturbing footage

The US general in charge of NATO-led troops (Isaf) in Afghanistan said at the weekend that he was requesting the US military’s Central Command to review the investigation into last month’s air raid.

Gen McKiernan said Isaf realized there was “a large discrepancy between the number of civilian casualties reported by US and Afghan National Army soldiers, and local people”.

The US and Nato need to dramatically improve their co-ordination with each other and with the government of Afghanistan
Rachel Reid
Human Rights Watch

The US military subsequently said it would “appoint a senior US military officer to review the investigation into the combined Afghan National Army (ANA) and US forces operation”.

A US military statement said: “This review will consider new information that has become available since the completion of the initial investigation.”

Disturbing video footage – apparently of the aftermath of the raid – has been seen by top military figures and diplomats in Kabul.

The shaky footage – possibly shot with a mobile phone – shows some 40 dead bodies lined up under sheets and blankets inside a mosque.

The majority of the dead are children – babies and toddlers, some burned so badly they are barely recognizable.

The covers are removed for the camera one by one: a little girl of perhaps four with brown curly hair; a boy with his eyes still eerily open; another girl with huge injuries on the side of her head.

Graves being prepared Azizabad for people killed in last month's attack by US forces

Villagers say up to 90 civilians died in last month’s attack by US forces

Another boy has his hand up as if to protect his face which was crushed under the rubble.

Clearly heard on the tape is the crying of relatives and the survivors of the bombing raid.

US forces had originally said seven civilians were killed in a “successful” US raid targeting a Taleban commander in Azizabad village in Herat’s Shindand district.

However, the UN, the Afghan government and an Afghan human rights group said the number of civilian deaths was far higher.

Their estimates of the number of civilians killed varied between 76 and 90, with the UN eventually concluding that children accounted for 60 of the dead.

The dispute over the figures had escalated into a fierce behind-the-scenes battle behind the UN and the Pentagon.

Warning over deaths

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Monday that decreased reliance on ground forces and greater use of air power was leading to “mistakes” that had “dramatically decreased” support for the Afghan government and international troops.

“Civilian deaths from air strikes act as a recruiting tool for the Taleban and risk fatally undermining the international effort to provide basic security to the people of Afghanistan,” Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW, said in a statement.

Hamid Karzai visiting Azizabad

Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited Azizabad after the air strike

The group found that in 2007 at least 321 Afghan civilians had been killed in international air strikes – a rise from at least 116 in 2006.

This figure was much lower than the number of civilians killed in militant attacks, the group said. Nearly 950 people were killed by insurgents in 2008, compared with 700 in 2006.

HRW said most of the air strike casualties occurred in unplanned raids, when air power was called to give support to troops on the ground.

“The US and Nato need to dramatically improve their co-ordination with each other and with the government of Afghanistan,” HRW’s Rachel Reid told the BBC.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly warned the US and Nato that civilian deaths undermine his government and damage the reputation of foreign forces in the country.

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