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Friday, 8 May 2009

From Today's Papers - 08 May 09

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Pakistan Hits Taliban Amid Swat Valley Exodus

Pakistani jets strafed militant positions in the troubled Swat district Thursday as civilians struggled to flee the escalating conflict, officials and locals said.

The fresh fighting came as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned that the humanitarian crisis was intensifying in the north-west region.

Jet aircraft targeted Taliban fighters in the Khwazakhela area, about 25 km north of the district's main town, Mingora, a security official said on the condition of anonymity.

The bombing raids were followed by rocket attacks by military helicopter gunships, which hit the rebels in the Korai, Jablus Siraj and Malam Jabba areas, the official said.

"Ground troops are also advancing toward these militant strongholds but facing resistance from insurgents holding positions on the hills," the official added.

No casualty figures were given, but according to the official, "the toll ran high".

Authorities lifted a curfew in Mingora at 7 a.m. (0100 GMT) for five hours and later extended it to 6 p.m. (1200 GMT). However, there were no announcements of evacuations.

Crowds of people, nevertheless, left their homes to try to exit the town for safer areas but confronted a shortage of transport as heavily armed Taliban militants blocked roads and patrolled the streets.

"People are fearful that they will be caught in the crossfire as the military seems to be preparing to step up its push in the town," an administration official said.

"The insurgents have warned the population against fleeing Mingora... amid looming threats of full-scale war," the official added.

The Red Cross said Thursday that the humanitarian crisis was intensifying in the region, where an estimated half-million people were displaced.

"We can no longer reach the areas most affected by the fighting on account of the volatile situation," said Benno Kocher, the head of the Red Cross operations in the North-West Frontier Province, where Swat is located.

The Red Cross called upon the parties in the conflict to comply with international humanitarian law and take all "feasible precautions to minimize civilian casualties".

Fighting has flared up in the Malakand division, which includes Swat, in recent days after the virtual collapse of a three-month-old peace deal between the Taliban fighters and the regional government.

Islamist militants attacked a base of pro-government militia in Swat's neighbouring district of Lower Dir Wednesday, triggering a gunfight that killed at least three militiamen.

Scores of rebels raided the base of the tribal police in the Chakdara area and took more than a dozen militiamen hostage, a local police official said.

Security forces launched a rescue effort, and three militiamen were killed in the ensuing gunbattle with the attackers, the private Geo News television channel reported.

It was not clear whether the insurgents suffered any casualties.

The militants also blew up the checkpoint before retreating with the hostages.

In another clash in the Maidan area of Lower Dir, a son of the pro-Taliban cleric Sufi Mohammad, who brokered the February peace accord that led to the introduction of Islamic sharia law in Malakand in mid-April, was killed, Geo said.

Under the agreement, Taliban militants said they would disarm after the imposition of sharia law, but they did not honour their promises and expanded their territory to nearby districts.

Their forays prompted the government to launch air and ground operations against the Taliban, who have their bastion in the Swat Valley, a former tourist destination.

The Pakistani military claimed troops have killed more than 300 militants since April 26 when the anti-Taliban offensives began from Lower Dir.

The fresh clashes came as US President Barack Obama discussed the surge in the Taliban insurgency with his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts in Washington and stressed a coordinated effort was needed.

Zardari Wants Peace Talks with India,
But Can he Control Pakistan?

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has proposed a fresh peace dialogue with India as several US lawmakers questioned his ability to control Pakistan, with one of them comparing the country to a man whose pants are on fire but who does not realize the danger.

The US says it will continue to press Pakistan to shift its focus from India to the fight against the Taliban and would shape aid to Islamabad to ensure it's not used to further an arms build-up against India.

Zardari is in Washington to meet US President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai at a trilateral summit Wednesday and Thursday.

Zardari says he proposes to start a fresh peace dialogue with India after the Indian elections are over later this month.

"Democracies have never gone to war. No Pakistani democratic government has gone to war with India. We've always wanted peace. We still want peace with India," Zardari told CNN in an interview Tuesday.

"I'm waiting for the (Indian general) elections to be over so that all of this rhetoric is over and I can start a fresh dialogue with the Indian government," he said.

Zardari was responding to a question whether what President Barack Obama called Islamabad's "obsession with India as the mortal threat to Pakistan" was indeed "misguided".

On US fears that that some of Pakistan's nuclear weapons were at risk of being acquired by the Taliban, Zardari claimed that his country's nuclear weapons are safe.

"They are in safe hands," he said.

Several US lawmakers have questioned Zardari's ability to control Pakistan with one of them comparing the country to a man whose pants are on fire but who does not realize the danger.

When one's pants are on fire one has to do two things to survive, said Democrat Gary Ackerman as a House panel Tuesday questioned Richard Holbrooke, US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, on America's strategy for the troubled ally.

"First you have to realize your pants are on fire. Then you have to do something about it," he said. "Let me be blunt. Pakistan's pants are on fire... but they seem convinced that if left alone or attacked piecemeal, the Islamist flame will simply burn itself out. That hope is, at best, folly."

Even now with Taliban insurgents a mere hour's drive from the capital, Ackerman said he suspected that among the senior officers of the Pakistani military that "bedrock belief is still that Pakistan's real enemy is India remains untouched by events".

Holbrooke urged Ackerman and others to speak with Zardari about their concerns while he is in Washington suggesting that the US has overreacted to the situation in Pakistan "when statements of concern became predictions".

The US should try "to dispel a self-fulfilling sense of pants-on-fire syndrome. It is not a failed state. It is a state under extreme stress," said Holbrooke.

"We need to put the most heavy possible pressure on our friends in Pakistan to join us in the fight against the Taliban and its allies," Holbrooke told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Tuesday noting that Pakistan's survival as a moderate, democratic state is critical to US national security.

"We cannot succeed in Afghanistan without Pakistan's support and involvement," he said.

He sought to reassure lawmakers that the Pakistani government is not on the verge of collapse, but does require greater US backing.

"There is a real and present danger to Pakistan's survival but it comes from inside and not outside the country," Holbrooke said.

Democrat Howard Berman, chair of the panel and author of the proposed legislation linking $1.5 billion in annual aid to Pakistan for next five years to ceasing support to any group that has conducted attacks "against the territory of India or the people of India" - among other things - said there was no "rigid or inflexible conditionality" in it.

"We are simply asking the Pakistanis to keep the commitments they have already made to fight the terrorists who threaten our national security and theirs, and that they make some progress doing so, with progress defined very broadly," he said.

A number of representatives also questioned the effectiveness of aid to Pakistan.

Democrat Gerald Connolly wondered why Zardari did not have enough resources to fight the insurgents when US has already given $12 billion over the last seven years for Pakistan to improve its military.

Holbrooke acknowledged: "Pakistan used a large portion of its resources to build up a military force aimed against India. Pakistan still has more troops on its border with India than on its border with Afghanistan."

In the context of the terror attacks in Mumbai, 9/11, and the assassination of former Pakistan premier Benazir Bhutto, Holbrooke said: "We are talking today about an issue that is of direct importance to our national security."

Asked by Republican Ilena Ros-Lehtinen about Pakistan's commitment to rooting out militant groups in view of its strategic concern with India, he said: "Pakistan's not a failed state... But it is a state under enormous social, political and economic pressures. And India is always a factor."

On Indian leaders and their perception of Pakistan, Holbrooke said since India has been in election campaign: "They have been listening, they've been very interested but they have not taken any clear positions at this point."

China flexes naval muscle in Indian Ocean
by Premvir Das

The Chinese Navy celebrated its 60th Anniversary by hosting an International Fleet Review at Qingdao. More than 40 warships participated in this ceremony, including those from India and other foreign navies, at which the Chinese displayed the best of their naval power, the submarines and an amphibious assault ship attracting the most attention.

Chiefs of navies from many countries, including India, were present at this event. All told, it was a grand affair, as most such naval pageants are. Yet, more need not be read into this spectacle than is warranted.

Two decades ago, the Royal Malaysian Navy held a similar review at Penang with about the same participation of foreign warships and dignitaries.

India, itself, held an international review in 2001 at which 21 ships of foreign navies were present along with about 40 of its own. So, there is nothing earth-shattering in what happened at Qingdao.

Yet, there is something afoot in the maritime environment which needs recognition. Some years ago, the Chief of Logistics of the Chinese Navy had observed that the Indian Ocean was not India’s Ocean.

This is actually quite true, just as the East and South China Seas are not Chinese waters and the Sea of Japan does not ‘belong’ to Japan. But there is a definite and logical geographic linkage.

This does not mean that there is any sense of ownership; only that there is an inherent interest in what goes on in these waters. This concern is both at the strategic level and more proximate.

India has widespread economic interests, largely related to the sea, which extend from the Gulf countries on one end to those of South East Asia on the other and extending southwards towards the island nations of Mauritius and Seychelles.

As the major regional maritime power, it has a responsibility both in maritime security and in maritime governance, including the safe movement of sea-borne commerce.

It is for this reason that it is involved in cooperation with maritime forces of friendly countries both in the east and the west. The presence of its warships off Somalia is not India specific, just as it is not off Seychelles; these deployments are to safeguard its own interests and those of other littoral countries.

There are ships of several other countries engaged in this task as well, both from within the region and external to it. The latest to join this cooperative effort are warships of the Chinese Navy.

Until some years ago, the Chinese Navy, despite operating nuclear-powered submarines, some fitted with nuclear warhead missiles, was essentially a coastal force. Thereafter, as China grew economically and as a major power, this small ‘defensive perimeter’ was extended to what was termed ‘the first island chain’ which required credible operating capability in the waters up to and including Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines.

The next step was to enhance this coverage to the ‘second island chain’, an expanse of water going up to Guam in the Pacific.

In its modernisation, the Chinese have placed special emphasis on the enhancement of naval power through platforms capable of operating at long distances away from home, consistent with its growing stature.

The foray in the Gulf of Aden is to be seen in this context. As a cooperative measure, it is a step to be welcomed. If there is more to this deployment, then it is a matter of concern.

The deployment of ships to enable a continuing presence is not easy. Logistics can be ensured to some extent with ships replenishing from suitable vessels or even ‘friendly’ ports but that itself cannot be enough. The breakdown of machinery and equipment off and on are inevitable and repairs to warships often require dedicated support.

A constant and credible presence is possible only if base facilities are available, preferably, dedicated bases, such as the USA has at Diego Garcia. These are not available to China as of now.

Three port development projects are presently in motion in this region with Chinese assistance, in Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. There are fears that some of these might be made available for basing Chinese naval forces.

This is easier said than done; political and diplomatic pressures on these countries from those who have leverage will make it very difficult.

However, as a possibility, it cannot be ruled out. So, the prospect of the Chinese Navy becoming an Indian Ocean player is a real one. For India, this is not a comfortable thought. For ships of the two navies to exchange port visits and otherwise interact at high level is positive as also cooperative engagement at sea, but a permanent naval presence has a different dimension. With the induction of aircraft carriers in a few years, as seems likely, the situation will become more ominous.

India needs to take note of developments of strategic interest in its area. The Indian Navy’s modernisation plans must recognise the capabilities that are being created and respond to them. The force level of ships and submarines has been languishing, the former just holding and the latter, falling. Acquisitions must be hastened, both from abroad and by building at home.

And, just as the Chinese are busy focussing on technology, so must the Indian forces. Considerable time has been lost in developing maritime power of the type that is needed even as others have rapidly changed profile; further delay can act to our serious detriment.

The writer is a retired Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command.

No more lip service now: US tells Pakistan

Lalit K Jha in Washington D.C | PTI | May 07, 2009 | 02:49 IST

Concerned over increasing influence of Taliban in Pakistan, the United States on Wednesday told top leadership in Islamabad that the "era of lip service was over" and it was now time to work plans and be very specific.

Talking to media persons after her meetings with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that she told each of them that the three countries would basically have work plans and they all need to be very specific.

"A lot of lip service was paid in the past that did not translate into better lives, more safety, more security, economic development for the people of Pakistan," she said in response to a question.

"We want to know what we have agreed to, what they have agreed to, how we're going to proceed toward meeting those goals and objectives, and timetables that will be utilised to keep all of us focused on the job ahead," she said.

Terming the meetings as "breakthrough," Clinton said both countries have made commitments, but she said the details of which are still being worked out and would be announced at the end of the two-day trilateral meetings on Thursday.

However, the Secretary of State did refer to some of the commitments made by the US. She said the US would establish a training program, the Borlaug Fellows training program; architect of the green revolution in India.

The Obama administration, Clinton said, is also looking to deepen the work on the cross-border issues, joint parliamentary exchanges and military training, border coordination centers.

"We want broader-based law enforcement reform, a vigorous anti-corruption agenda that removes the impunity that too often has existed in the past," she said.

Given the complexity of the situation in the Af-Pak region, Clinton acknowledged that just two trilateral meeting is not going to solve all the problems.

During the meetings, she said the two presidents spoke very movingly about terrorism in the region. "I think that they are committed to this conflict being resolved and their being able to produce more peace and security," she said.

Clinton also said the three countries are also working towards creating an atmosphere and a reality of candour and openness between them. "I think that is way overdue," she said.

Clinton says she is impressed by Pak's action against Taliban

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who till a week ago was very critical of the inaction on the part of Pakistan against Taliban, on Wednesday said that she is "quite impressed" with the recent Pakistani military action against militants.

"I'm quite impressed by the actions that the Pakistani government is now taking. I think that action was called for, and action has been forthcoming," Clinton told reporters after her meetings with the visiting Afghan and Pakistan Presidents.

Responding to a question on the failure of the Swat deal, to which she was herself opposed to, Clinton said she would not do a second-on guess the approach that was taken by the government of Pakistan, vis-a-vis the Taliban in Swat valley.

"Whatever the motive behind it might have been, the reality on the ground soon proved otherwise, that one had to confront the increasing influence and geographic spread of the Taliban," she said.

Clinton said there are not many Taliban fighters, but they are so intimidating and they are so ruthless that a very few can control a large swath of territory, which is something everybody learned in watching this unfold.

Working of defence accounts office to be reviewed
Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, May 7
Controller General of Defence Accounts (CGDA), Bulbul Ghosh, today arrived at Chandigarh on a two-day official visit to review the functioning of the office of Principal Controller of the Defence Accounts (Western Command).

The focus area of her visit is the execution of e-payments and the status of construction works being undertaken by the Defence Accounts Department.

Principal Controller of Defence Accounts (Western Command), Nita Kapoor, apprised Ghosh about the status of various ongoing as well as proposed construction works being undertaken to improve the working environment and facilities in residential accommodation.

The CGDA was also apprised about the functional status of the single-window clearance system, which had been launched recently for the purpose of facilitating smooth and quick processing of claims relating to release of pay and allowances as well as other payments relating to supply and services.

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