Thursday, September 30

Afghanistan War: Houston, we have lift-off. Maybe.

After nine years, it's about time. Here are the headlines from two reports, datelined Friday 1 October, from Pakistan's Dawn newspaper (the country's largest English daily):

CIA chief takes tough line on drone hits

Tough US warning on militant attacks into Afghanistan

I'm going to provide the text to both reports because there's a lot happening at once and all of it very important. The first report is not bylined:
ISLAMABAD: Tension between Pakistan and the US soared on Thursday as visiting CIA chief Leon Panetta remained adamant on intensifying drone strikes in tribal areas, saying the region was being used for planning attacks in Europe and fomenting violence in Afghanistan.

Mr Panetta’s meetings with President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Chief of Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani were described by sources as extremely tense.

US Senator John Kerry also called the prime minister in the evening.

The two-day visit by the chief of the US Central Intelligence Agency comes against the backdrop of an unprecedented increase in drone strikes in Waziristan, repeated aerial incursions into the tribal areas by US-led International Security Assistance Force and revelation of a terror plot being hatched in the region to attack European cities.

Mr Panetta last visited Islamabad soon after an attempt by one Faisal Shahzad to carry out a terrorist attack and was able to persuade his interlocutors to launch an operation in North Waziristan, but at the timing of their choice.

The current spike in drone attacks — almost two dozen in September, one of which reportedly took out leading Al Qaeda operative Sheikh Fateh Al Masri on Sept 25 — is being linked to the plot to attack European cities.

According to sources, Mr Panetta snappily demanded full cooperation in neutralising the Europe terror plot, more intelligence sharing and greater ‘operational space’ within Pakistan to avert future threats.

American journalist Bob Woodward has recently disclosed in his book Obama’s Wars that the CIA was using secret ‘pursuit teams’ of elite Afghan fighters in Pakistan for hunting Taliban leaders.

Analysts believe the demand for more operational space pertains to those secret units, whose presence has been denied by Pakistan.

An outline of the information regarding the European plot was shared with Pakistani leaders, who were told that a terrorist, a German of Pakistani origin identified by his surname Siddiqui, was caught as he tried to leave the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and was now being grilled at the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan.

The plot for Mumbai-style attacks in Europe in late November, involving about three dozen terrorists, is claimed to have been hatched jointly by Al Qaeda, the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group about which Pakistani leaders had been alerted by Admiral Mullen in July that it was fast becoming a global threat.

Mr Panetta hinted that although the US government did not doubt Pakistan’s sincerity and commitment in the war on terror, it feared that they might be having support of some hidden hands.

Sources said the Pakistani leaders were stunned by Mr Panetta’s menacing tone and assured him of intensifying the military offensive against militants in the tribal areas.

The operations had slackened because of the military’s pre-occupation with flood relief activities, providing a breathing space to terrorists holed up in the region.

Prime Minister Gilani was quoted as saying that despite the catastrophic floods and consequent precarious economic situation, Pakistan remained resolutely committed to the war against terror because it considered that success in the war was vital not only for peace, stability and economic development in the country, but also for the world at large.

President Zardari said: “Fight against militancy and terrorism remains the highest priority and the government is determined to pursue its struggle against militancy till its logical end.”

Both asked the CIA chief to provide detailed information about the plot and keep the ISI on board regarding progress in the probe.

The CIA chief agreed to the suggestion and said: “The US cannot confront the terrorists without Pakistan’s support… and the US will try its utmost to provide timely and credible information to Pakistan against any possible terrorist activity on its side of the border to enable its forces to take prompt action against the miscreants.”

There were clear indications in the lead-up to Mr Panetta’s visit that efforts were made to bring Pakistan’s tribal areas -- not just North Waziristan -- into focus and to increase pressure on the Pakistan Army.

First there was a sudden increase in drone attacks in both parts of Waziristan and then there were aerial attacks by helicopter gunships in North Waziristan and Kurram, one of which left three Pakistani soldiers dead on Thursday.

At the same time, a video surfaced showing stoning of a woman in Orakzai by Taliban.

The release of the video is being seen by Pakistani strategists as a western effort to show that the militants were returning to areas earlier reclaimed by the army from the Taliban.

And the latest in the series is the release of a video revealing extrajudicial killings in Swat. The army has dismissed it as fake and an attempt to malign the military, but US officials are reported to have sought an explanation on the matter.

Clearly concerned over the propaganda campaign, Prime Minister Gilani found it fit to tell Mr Panetta, though in the context of Mr Woodward’s revelations, that the US should avoid negative messaging which fostered ‘misperceptions and mistrust’.
Here is the text for the second report on 1 October, which is on the front page of Dawn, and which was filed by Anwar Iqbal from Washington on 30 Sep.
Pakistan received a stern message from the United States on Thursday — stop cross-border attacks into Afghanistan or face the consequences.

The message was delivered forcefully by both US lawmakers and administration officials.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who is in Washington, received the message from Senator John Kerry on Wednesday and from Senator Carl Levin and Congressman Howard Berman on Thursday.

Senator Levin chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, while Mr Berman chairs the House Foreign Relations Committee.

The Pakistani delegation that participated in the talks came back with the feeling that the Americans were becoming “more and more assertive and less apologetic” on this issue.

The Americans argued that the Haqqani network and other insurgents were using their bases in Fata to attack US and Nato forces. They urged the Pakistanis to “make the strategic decisions they have to make to help resolve the Afghan conflict” or the Americans would be forced to use their military might to subdue the militants.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Col Dave Lapan strongly defended US troops blamed for accidentally killing three Pakistani soldiers in a raid along the Afghan border earlier Thursday.

The colonel noted that a statement released by Islamabad showed that Pakistani troops had fired their rifles, “as a warning”, at US helicopters taking part in the raid.

“You fire at a helicopter in a combat zone, they usually take that as hostile and return fire,” the Pentagon official said.

The Pentagon is now investigating whether the raid that left three Pakistani soldiers dead was the result of a breakdown in communication among the two countries.

“That will be part of this process,” Col Lapan said. “To determine how this happened, why it happened, were protocols followed, were they not followed — those types of things.”

The US media quoted Pentagon officials as saying that Pakistan’s move to block the Khyber Pass supply line in the wake of the deaths of its troops would have little impact on US military operations in Afghanistan.

While the busy border crossing at Torkham is now closed, other key transit points remain open “at last report”, according to Col Lapan, who stressed that the US military had alternate means of bringing in fuel, ammunition and food for its soldiers.

But long-term impact of the closure on US supply lines — and whether it is temporary — is unclear, he added. “That remains to be seen.”
Note, too, the expression on Zardari's face in the AFP photo that accompanies the report filed in Islamabad. His famous charming grin is absent.

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