Jan 27, 2009

World - U.S. shifting focus to Afghanistan

Ewen MacAskill and Saeed Shah

Obama sanctioned the two missile attacks inside Pakistan

Expect more American casualties in Afghanistan: Biden

Killing of innocent Afghans strengthening terrorists: Karzai

Washington/Islamabad: The Obama administration warned the U.S. public on Sunday to brace itself for an increase in American casualties as it prepares to step up the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan.

Against a background of widespread protests in Pakistan and Afghanistan over U.S. operations since Mr. Obama became President, Vice-President Joe Biden said on Sunday that U.S. forces would be engaged in many more operations as it took the fight to its enemies in the region.

The Obama administration is to double the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 60,000 and when asked in a television interview if the U.S. public should expect more American casualties, Mr. Biden said: “I hate to say it, but yes, I think there will be. There will be an uptick.”

Greater U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is a political risk for Mr. Obama, with the danger that mounting American casualties could make the war as unpopular as Iraq. Mr. Obama, in his first military action as President, sanctioned two missile attacks inside Pakistan on Friday, killing 22 people, reportedly women and children among them. The attacks drew criticism from Pakistani officials.

Pakistani President Asif Zardari told U.S. Ambassador to Islamabad Anne Patterson that the strikes “do not help the war on terror.” According to reports, he warned that “these attacks can affect Pakistan’s cooperation in the war on terror.”

A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mohammad Sadiq, said: “With the advent of the new U.S. administration, it is Pakistan’s sincere hope that the United States will review its policy and adopt a more holistic and integrated approach towards dealing with the issue of terrorism and extremism. We maintain that these [missile] attacks are counter-productive and should be discontinued.”

Mr. Biden, in an interview with CBS news, defended the strikes, saying Mr. Obama had repeatedly said on the campaign trail he would not hesitate to strike against any high-level Al-Qaeda targets. He suggested cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistani counter-terrorist agencies would increase, with more U.S. training for their Pakistani counterparts.

Over the last year, there have been at least 30 U.S. missile attacks on Pakistan’s wild tribal area, which is used as a haven for insurgents fighting international troops in neighbouring Afghanistan.

On Sunday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned a separate U.S. operation within Afghanistan that he said killed 16 Afghan civilians, prompting hundreds of villagers to demonstrate against the American military.

The U.S. said the raid, on Saturday in Laghman province, killed 15 armed militants, including a woman with an RPG. But Afghan officials said they killed civilians, including two women and three children. In Laghman’s capital, hundreds of protesters demanded an end to overnight raids.

Mr. Karzai warned the killing of innocent Afghans during U.S. military operations “is strengthening the terrorists.” He also announced that his government had sent Washington a draft agreement that sought to give Afghanistan more oversight over U.S. military operations. The document has also been sent to NATO headquarters.

The death toll on both the Pakistan borders and within Afghanistan has caused widespread public anger, with resentment directed at the U.S., as well as the Afghanistan and Pakistan governments.

“It undermines the position of the government, its ability to negotiate [a peace deal] with the militants when the Taliban can say: ‘You’re not even master in your own house,’” said Ayaz Amir, a newspaper columnist and an Opposition member of Pakistan’s Parliament. “It undercuts the credibility of a government, whose credibility is already low.”

Some of the strikes in Pakistan have killed senior Al-Qaeda militants but they tend to live with local families in the tribal area, making civilian casualties inevitable — which are then used by the Taliban as a recruitment tool.

Rustam Shah Mohmand, an analyst who was formerly Pakistan’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, said that Pakistan had leverage it could use, by stopping supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan to pass through its territory or threatening to withdraw the Pakistani forces deployed along the Afghan border. “If anything, the policy [of missile strikes] is going to be more focused, more aggressive, under Obama. There is going to be a ‘surge’ in Afghanistan,” said Mr. Mohmand. “The Americans can’t wage this war without Pakistan’s assistance.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009

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