Head of Afghan peace council says Taliban is ready to talk

October 15, 2010

By Joshua Partlow and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Foreign Service

KABUL - The head of Afghanistan’s new peace council said Thursday that he believes that some members of the Taliban are ready to negotiate, while still describing contacts as in their early stages.

“We are taking our first steps,” Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan president, said in a news conference in Kabul.

“I believe there are people among the Taliban that have a message that they want to talk,” he said. “They are ready.”

Rabbani’s comments echoed those of other Afghan and U.S. officials in Kabul who have said that members of the Taliban, including senior leaders or those purporting to represent them, have met with the Afghan government to discuss potential negotiations, despite the insurgent group’s public denials of such meetings.

Some officials in Kabul have described the contacts, which stretch back years but appear to have intensified recently, as remaining scattered and sporadic. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told journalists in Brussels on Thursday that it was too early to tell whether the Afghan reconciliation process would work.

“We’re not yet ready to make any judgments about whether or not any of this will bear fruit on the reconciliation front,” said Clinton, who was attending a NATO meeting of foreign and defense ministers.

The substance of contacts with the Taliban so far remains largely shrouded in secrecy, even to members of the new peace council, which is eventually supposed to make policy on how to move forward. Recently, U.S. officials have appeared more enthusiastic about high-level talks with insurgents, to the point of facilitating the movement of Taliban leaders to Kabul for discussions, a senior NATO official said this week.

Skepticism persists among Afghan officials that Pakistan, which many view as exerting significant control over the Taliban leadership, will help further peace negotiations.

“I think any high-level [insurgents] will not be able to come here unless they have the full agreement of their supporters,” Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak said in an interview this week.

In Brussels, Clinton appealed to NATO countries to send more personnel to train Afghan forces.

“If we want to be credible when we announce at the Lisbon summit [in November] that a transition process in Afghanistan will begin next year, we need to show that we have eliminated the shortfall in the NATO training mission resources, so that Afghan national security forces can take the lead in providing for Afghanistan’s own security,” she said.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told journalists that he is “optimistic” about getting enough trainers. “I have received quite a number of positive and encouraging announcements” from countries offering additional personnel, he said, without providing specifics.

partlowj@washpost.com sheridanm@washpost.com

Sheridan reported from Brussels.


On McChrystal, little bark — or bite — from Obama

June 24, 2010

By Dana Milbank

Gen. Stanley McChrystal flew to Washington on Tuesday afternoon to explain, among other things, why a top adviser used the phrase “Bite Me” in reference to the vice president. But White House officials didn’t wait for the general’s plane to land before sinking their teeth into him.

President Obama‘s hand-selected commander in Afghanistan had, along with his aides, made shockingly insubordinate comments to Rolling Stone magazine: calling the national security adviser a “clown,” describing Obama as intimidated and disengaged, disparaging allies and top U.S. diplomats, and converting Vice President Biden’s surname to Bite Me. Obama ordered McChrystal to appear in the Situation Room on Wednesday, but in the briefing room on Tuesday, press secretary Robert Gibbs was already feasting.

First bite: “General McChrystal,” Gibbs said, “has made an enormous mistake.”

Second bite: “I think the magnitude and graveness of the mistake here are profound.”

Third bite: “The purpose for calling him here is to see what in the world he was thinking.”

Gibbs kept on chewing out the commander. “I think anybody that reads that article understands . . . what an enormous mistake this was,” he said. Parents of soldiers “need to know that the structure where they’re sending their children is one that is capable and mature enough in prosecuting a war.”

ABC News’s Jake Tapper stopped him. “Did I hear you correctly? So you’re questioning whether General McChrystal is capable and mature enough for this job he has?”

“You had my quote right,” Gibbs said.

Only two words were missing from this disembowelment of the commander: You’re fired. Gibbs hinted that Obama would deliver that message to McChrystal in person on Wednesday. If he doesn’t, it’s hard to see how he can maintain his credibility as a leader.

Even before the quotes in the Rolling Stone article (the accuracy of which McChrystal hasn’t challenged), the commander in chief had surprised foes and worried friends by how far he allowed himself to be pushed. That accounts for an Washington Post-ABC News poll earlier this month finding that 57 percent of respondents viewed Obama as a strong leader and 43 percent did not; 14 months ago, it was 77 percent to 22 percent.

On the Hill, Democrats have ignored White House pleas for party unity, and intraparty disputes are preventing action on the budget, war spending, job creation, immigration reform and energy legislation. In the media, stalwart allies such as MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow panned Obama’s speech on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Obama’s own secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, told the world about his unannounced plan to file suit over Arizona’s new immigration law.

Republicans, in turn, have reached new levels of presidential disrespect. After Obama pushed BP to set aside money for those hurt by the oil spill, the opposition apologized — to BP.Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, took the extraordinary step of attacking Obama at a political rally over comments he says (and the White House denies) the president made in a private meeting.

Through it all, Obama has given precious little pushback, taking the disrespect like a President Dangerfield. When the public saw no anger from him over the oil spill, Gibbs assured Americans that he had, in fact, seen the president clench his jaw. Obama then insisted that he was looking for “whose ass to kick” on the Gulf Coast — but no bottoms were bruised.

Now Gen. Bite Me may have gone too far even for President Dangerfield to tolerate. The insults from McChrystal and his men — packaged with vulgarities, a middle finger and drunken singing in a Paris bar — challenge not just Obama but the sacred concept of civilian control of the military. That’s probably why figures such as Republicans Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) gave Obama a free pass on Tuesday to fire the general.

The president, nibbling around the edges, said nothing about McChrystal until remarking in the evening that the general had shown “poor judgment.” Gibbs, in the briefing room, was similarly slow to bare his teeth when asked for Obama’s reaction. “Well, suffice to say, our combatant commander does not usually participate in these meetings from Washington,” he said of Wednesday’s session in the Situation Room.

But it didn’t suffice to say that, and reporters tried to provoke Gibbs, sniffling and sipping tea from a paper cup, to unload on McChrystal: “How can the president keep someone in his job who offers that level of insubordination? . . . Does the president at all feel betrayed?”

The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Weisman, pointing out that McChrystal had already been in trouble (for disagreeing publicly with Biden), asked: “How many times can this man be taken to the woodshed?”

Gibbs followed the familiar route of expressing the president’s anger. “I gave him the article last night, and he was angry,” he announced.

“How so?” asked CBS’s Chip Reid.

“Angry. You would know it if you saw it,” Gibbs said.

Reporters pressed: “Did he pound the table? Did he curse? Can you elaborate?”

“No,” Gibbs said. “I’m not going to elaborate.”

Good answer. It’s time for Obama and his aides to stop talking about his anger, and start acting on it.


Xe Services aiming for Afghan police training deal

January 11, 2010

By RICHARD LARDNER, Associated Press Writer Richard Lardner, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON – Blackwater Worldwide ‘s legal woes haven’t dimmed the company’s prospects in Afghanistan , where it’s a contender for an important role in the U.S. strategy for stabilizing the country.

Now called Xe Services, the company is in the running for a Pentagon contract potentially worth $1 billion to train Afghanistan’s troubled national police force. Xe has been shifting to training, aviation and logistics work after its security guards were accused of killing unarmed Iraqi civilians more than two years ago.

Yet even with a new name and focus, the expanded role would seem an unlikely one for Xe because Democrats have held such a negative opinion of the company following the Iraqi deaths.

During the White House campaign, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton , now President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, backed legislation to ban Blackwater and other private security contractors from Iraq .

Xe eventually lost its license to operate as guardian of U.S. diplomats in Iraq. Clinton’s State Department decided not to rehire the company when the contract expired in 2009. Delays in getting a new company in place led to a temporary extension of that contract.

A federal judge on New Year’s Eve dismissed criminal charges against five of the Blackwater guards, citing repeated missteps by federal prosecutors . The Iraqi government has promised to pursue the case, a new strain on relations between the U.S. and Iraq.

Xe on Wednesday reached a settlement in a series of civil lawsuits in which dozens of Iraqis accused the company of cultivating a reckless culture that allowed innocent civilians to be killed. On Thursday, however, two former Blackwater contractors were arrested on murder charges in the shootings of two Afghans after a traffic accident last year.

Despite the scrutiny, the U.S. relies heavily on Xe (pronounced “zee”) for support in Afghanistan; the workload may grow significantly.

Xe spokesman Mark Corallo declined comment on whether the Moyock, N.C.-based company is bidding for the Afghan police training contract. But a U.S. official knowledgeable of the deliberations said Xe is competing. The official requested anonymity to discuss sensitive information about the federal contracting process.

Xe provides security services in Afghanistan, though on a smaller scale than it did in Iraq. As of November, Xe had more than 200 security personnel on the ground in Afghanistan, according to documents highlighting Xe’s operations.

Two Xe guards were killed Dec. 30 during a suicide bombing attack at a CIA base in southeastern Afghanistan, again raising questions about services the company provides for the CIA.

Late last year, CIA Director Leon Panetta terminated the use of Xe personnel in loading and other logistics for airborne drones used to hunt militants in Pakistan .

Xe is also a prolific provider of aviation services in Afghanistan, where travel on land is complicated by the rugged terrain and roadside bombs. In airplanes and helicopters, Presidential Airways , a Xe subsidiary, has carried thousands of passengers and millions of pounds of cargo and mail under contracts with U.S. Transportation Command with a potential value of nearly $870 million, according to the command.

In 2009 alone, Xe projected total revenues at $669 million, the documents state, and three-quarters of the total stems from federal contracts to support U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

he Afghan national police training contract is expected to be awarded soon; Xe is among five companies eligible to compete.

Obama is ramping up efforts to expand and improve the Afghan army and national police into a force able to handle the security burden so U.S. troops can begin withdrawing in July 2011. The private sector’s help is needed because the U.S. doesn’t have a deep enough pool of trainers and mentors with law enforcement experience .

Under an existing defense contract, Xe already trains the Afghan border police – an arm of the national police – and drug interdiction units in volatile southern Afghanistan, according to the documents.

The Defense Department’s plan is to fold the border police training into the broader contract.

Charles Tiefer, a professor of government contracting at the University of Baltimore Law School, says Xe’s foothold in Afghanistan could give it an edge over other competitors.

“Blackwater ‘s current contract for the border police means it already has assets – experience, a proven record and existing capacity and personnel in Afghanistan – for a contract to train the Afghan national police,” said Tiefer, a member of the independent Commission on Wartime Contracting.

The top military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal , wants to build the Afghan national police to a force of 160,000 by 2013 – up from the roughly 94,000 now.

The Afghan army is in better shape than the national police, an organization riddled with corruption and generally unable to control crime or combat the Taliban .

Since 2003, DynCorp International of Falls Church, Va., has held a large State Department contract for training Afghanistan’s national police. The most recent installment of the training contract was awarded in August 2008 and it generates about $20 million in revenue a month for DynCorp , according to company spokesman Douglas Ebner.

But a decision by McChrystal to give U.S. military officials control over all police training contracts is ending DynCorp’s run and creating a major opportunity for Xe and the other companies.

DynCorp has filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office, alleging that the approach is “procedurally and legally flawed,” according to company vice president Donald Ryder.


What Obama’s Getting Wrong in Pakistan

May 13, 2009

MARC HERMAN

Is the White House right to support the Pakistani army’s fight against militias on the Afghan border? Or should President Obama encourage fewer helicopter gunships, and more cops and lawyers?

With machine-gun-toting militias pushing out from a base in Swat, where a peace deal collapsed this week, it’s easy to say the government had to call in the troops. The local analysts aren’t so sure. Pakistan isn’t Afghanistan. “You have to think in terms of a state that isn’t quite at the level of Afghanistan yet,” said Samina Ahmed, who covers South Asia for the International Crisis Group, from Islamabad. “We’re talking about a place that does have a police, that does have a court system, that does have state control, that does have people who believe in democratic norms functioning.” Ahmed argued that civil society institutions were being overlooked in favor of military options.

“Remember that, this is not a local population that gives credence to the militants.” Last year, Swat’s 650,000 residents voted overwhelmingly for secular leadership. Then President Asif Ali Zardari struck a peace deal with a confederation of extremist groups, converting the local court system to a theocratic system, over the wishes of the local population. The peace deal collapsed earlier this week after Swat Taliban troops pushed into neighboring regions.

“Yes absolutely you do need military force, but in the sense of law enforcement,” she said. “This is not a military built for counter-insurgency. They are using helicopter gunships…The military, as they always do, blundered in.” The Pakistani military, though large, is armed to fight a long-running conflict with India. “That’s not the way you do counter-insurgency, with indescriminate violence.”

In the English-speaking press, at least, the government counter-attack has wide approval. And the Obama administration, in the form of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, indicated a view of Pakistan that runs, firstly, through its war-fighting institutions.

Obama’s National Security Advisor, General James Jones, made some vague references to other than military options, in a White House press conference yesterday, in a description of Obama’s meeting with Zardari:

“With President Zardari, the President started out by declaring that he wanted to be of help to the people of Pakistan not just in a military way, but to help Pakistan with a new beginning; to again help the government institutionalize democracy and make progress, recognizing that these are difficult times, and the threat of extremists to Pakistan requires a concerted action.”

But that’s not what’s happening on the ground today. The past four days have seen air attacks from advanced fighter planes, artillery assaults, and helicopters firing onto an estimated 600 Taliban fighters in at least one region, internally displacing half a million civilians now on the move toward Peshawar and elsewhere, fleeing the fighting, according to a Red Cross report cited this morning in London’s Guardian.

Pakistan’s northern groups are largely Pashtun ethnically, and their agenda appears to be mostly local – seeking theocracy in the northwestern territories they populate. Violent extremist groups in the country’s south have Punjabi roots, and are more closely allied to groups with international agendas, said Ahmed.

But the conversation is getting broader, not more narrowly focused. This week’s meetings between Zardari, Obama, and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai comes after months, years of debate over “AfPak” solutions – Afghanistan/Pakistan, in State Department speak – and Jones, the Obama National Security Advisor, spoke repeatedly of treating the issue as a “regional” problem.

Which it is, Ahmed, in Islamabad, 70 miles front the front, grants. But she says that viewing Pakistan’s awful week as a military situation obscures that Pakistan is undergoing a democratization process, very different from Afghanistan’s, which can’t yet guarantee even basic government services, much less political solutions (like parties).

What it does have is an institution boasting a longtime role as the US’s preferred diplomatic conduit in the region: Pakistan’s military.

“What you have, unfortunately, just as you have a security crisis, you also have a democratic transition, and it hasn’t reached the military yet,” argued Ahmed. “After 9-11, the [Pakistani] military gained control of counter-terrorism and is not going to give up that, and all of the resources that come with that so easily.” Pakistan is fighting the Taliban, but at the same time, also fighting the ghost of Musharraf – a general who took power in a coup before being ousted by calls for elections last year. “These ghosts don’t lie easily, and we do have a problem on our hands. Unfortunately international actors put all the eggs in the military’s basket,” she said.


Pakistan Avoids Pitfall, but Path Ahead Is Unclear

March 18, 2009

Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press

Men danced outside the home of Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry in Islamabad on Monday after the government agreed to restore him as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

By JANE PERLEZ

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – It was a signal moment in Pakistan’s political development: A huge demonstration forced the restoration of a dismissed chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, a symbol of democracy and the rule of law. The army did not stage a coup, but insisted that the government accept a compromise.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, top center in dark jacket, the reinstated Pakistani chief justice, celebrated Monday in Islamabad.

Aamir Qureshi/Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

Pakistanis wept Monday for the victims of a suicide bomb attack in Rawalpindi that killed at least 9 people and wounded 18, a grim reminder that the country’s problems are far from solved.

The deal between President Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the main opposition party, does not herald a solution to the instability of this nuclear-armed nation. Nor does it ensure the Obama administration’s primary objective of tamping down the powerful Islamic insurgency that threatens both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

How the two Pakistani politicians will resolve their rivalry is but one of many uncertainties. Another is whether the domestic political struggle will allow them – or the military – to focus on their country’s deteriorating security situation.

President Zardari has been severely weakened by his efforts to squelch a national protest and faces defections from the usually cohesive Pakistan Peoples Party. His opponent, Mr. Sharif, emerged as a leader in waiting, but with no clear path to power.

The way ahead is likely to be messy for everyone, including the United States, and could turn out to be a major distraction from efforts to counter the insurgency, which is spreading closer to the main population areas.

But there was hope, American and Pakistani officials pointed out. For a country that has more experience with military rule than with democratic government in its 61 years, there was the possibility that the outpouring of civil society on the streets of Lahore over the weekend presaged a strengthened two-party democratic system, and the beginnings of an independent judiciary.

Mr. Sharif, often held in suspicion in Washington because of his leaning toward Islamic conservatives, was more cooperative than had been thought, some United States officials suggested.

In Washington, there was an awareness that Mr. Sharif’s reputation from the Bush administration of being too close to the Islamists might be overdrawn, and that his relationships with some of the Islamic parties and with Saudi Arabia could be useful, said a foreign policy expert familiar with the thinking of the Obama administration on Pakistan.

Mr. Sharif has told people that he got along well with the Obama administration’s special envoy, Richard C. Holbrooke, during their meeting at Mr. Sharif’s farm last month.

He speaks admiringly of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he met with former President Bill Clinton while in exile in Saudi Arabia.

Pakistani analysts, too, said Mr. Sharif could prove to be a useful partner as Washington tried to talk to what it considered reconcilable elements in the Taliban.

“Who from Pakistan can talk to a faction of the Taliban? It’s Nawaz,” said a senior Pakistani politician who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of alienating Mr. Sharif.

But Mr. Sharif has to play a delicate game because if he is seen as doing Washington’s bidding, he will be discredited among much of his constituency, the politician said.

And Mr. Sharif could also turn out to be unwilling to back some of the tough steps that Washington wants.

One encouraging sign for Washington was the role played in the crisis by the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who let Mr. Zardari know that he could not rely on soldiers to confront the protesters who were threatening to descend on Islamabad to demand the return of Chief Justice Chaudhry.

“The military acted to avert, to correct and to clear the way for full democracy with the center of gravity where it should be – in Parliament and the people,” said Jehangir Karamat, a retired general and former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, in an article for Spearheadresearch.org, his Web site.

General Karamat called the new military approach the Kayani Model, after General Kayani, whom General Karamat is close to. During the crisis, the army chief had been “invisible but around, fully informed and acting through well-timed and effective influence in the right quarter,” General Karamat wrote.

Another positive sign was the nature of the support Mr. Sharif garnered after he drove out of his house in a suburb of Lahore on Sunday through barbed-wire barriers, in defiance of a detention order.

As his bulletproof four-wheel-drive vehicle entered the main thoroughfare of Lahore, it was showered with pink rose petals from the crowd, made up of lawyers, party workers and couples who came with their children to join what turned out to be a celebration of Mr. Sharif’s nerve.

One man in the crowd, Shakeel Ahmad, a laborer, clutched the hand of his 4-year-old son, Muhammad Ahsan. “I am happy if the judiciary is restored,” Mr. Ahmad said.

The support of such a broad range of people is considered a first for Mr. Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, which has generally ceded street power to the Pakistan Peoples Party, and it underscored Mr. Sharif’s political instincts, said Farrukh Saleem, a columnist for The News, a daily newspaper.

“He understood the pulse of the country,” Mr. Saleem said.

Those political instincts could serve the Obama administration well if Mr. Sharif continues to work with lawyers and civil society.

One of the senior advisers to President Obama on Pakistan, Bruce O. Riedel, now the chairman of the administration’s policy review on Pakistan and Afghanistan, has repeatedly said that representative government and civil society need to be reinforced in Pakistan for its people to resist the siren call of the jihadists.

On Monday, a suicide bomber attacked a busy bus terminal in Rawalpindi, outside the Pakistani capital, killing at least 9 people and wounding 18, Pakistani officials said.

In an interview last week, Mr. Sharif, referring to the terrorist threat, said “no single party has the ability to deal with this situation single-handedly.”

“The whole nation has to get together; it has to be a united front,” he said.

Speaking for the government, the new minister for information, Qamar Zaman Kaira, said Monday that it was time for the nation to forget the crisis of the past weeks and to look forward.

Under the deal announced Monday, Mr. Kaira said, the Pakistan Peoples Party would embark on discussions with Mr. Sharif’s party on a range of political reforms proposed under the Charter of Democracy, a document signed by Mr. Sharif in 2006 with Benazir Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, who was assassinated in 2007.

Mr. Zardari is the widower of Ms. Bhutto.

A major element of the charter involves getting the major parties to end attempts to undermine each other’s governments.

From Washington’s point of view, such a lofty result would be helpful as it tried to convince Pakistan that the insurgency, not internal politics, was the most important challenge.


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