Archive for March 27th, 2009

Image: NY Times

Image: NY Times/Reuters

President Obama unveiled his new Afghanistan strategy to reporters today, after a “careful policy review” led by Brookings Institution‘s Bruce Reidel. In his speech, Obama asserted the situation “is increasingly perilous,” and sought to answer the questions, “What is our purpose in Afghanistan?” and “Why do our men and women fight and still die there?” The President emphasized that Al Qaeda and its allies are in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the organization is still planning attacks on the United States from its safe haven in Pakistan. Ultimately, the President stated that his administration’s purpose is to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat AQ” in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and prevent its return to either country in the future.

At the same time, Obama promised neither to write a “blank check” nor to “blindly stay the course” if his risky new strategy does not achieve its ambitious goals. Instead, he affirmed that we cannot succeed with “bullets and bombs alone,” adding, “We stand for something different.” The President therefore called upon Congress to pass the bipartisan Kerry-Lugar bill, which would authorize $1.5 billion aid to Pakistan every year for the next five years, as well as a bill that would create “opportunity zones” for exports. According to CNN’s Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, this conditional aid would offer an incentive to the Pakistani government and military to crack down further on the militants. For Afghanistan, Obama announced the U.S. “will send 4,000 more troops to train Afghan security forces on top of the 17,000 extra combat troops that he already ordered to Afghanistan shortly after taking office.” The NY Times reported, “For now, Mr. Obama has decided not to send additional combat forces, they said, although military commanders at one point had requested a total of 30,000 more American troops. Even so, the strategy he endorsed on Friday effectively gives Mr. Obama full ownership of the war just as its violence is spilling back and forth across the border with Pakistan.”

Obama’s speech was based in rhetoric, and therefore wasn’t particularly groundbreaking, [actual benchmarks for both Afghanistan and Pakistan are slated to be released soon]. However, the newly elected U.S. president did consistently frame Al Qaeda and its allies’ goals as contrary to those of the Pakistani and Afghan people. Not only that, but he likened the needs and desires of Americans to those of Pakistanis, noting they all wanted an end to terror, access to basic services, and an opportunity to live their dreams within the the rule of law. “The single greatest threat to that future,” he added, “comes from Al Qaeda.” President Obama further asserted,

Nearly 3,000 of our people were killed on September 11, 2001, for doing nothing more than going about their daily lives. Al Qaeda and its allies have since killed thousands of people in many countries. Most of the blood on their hands is the blood of Muslims, who al Qaeda has killed and maimed in far greater number than any other people. That is the future that al Qaeda is offering to the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan — a future without hope or opportunity; a future without justice or peace.

The U.S. President also pledged to help Pakistan with its economic crisis and support its institutions. He also promised to help lessen tensions between India and Pakistan by engaging in “constructive diplomacy” with both nations. A trilateral dialogue among Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States, led by Sec. of State Hillary Clinton and Sec. of Defense Robert Gates will also be held regularly, and the United States will work to enhance intelligence sharing and military training along the Pak-Afghan border.

All in all, I liked President Obama’s speech. However, I am still cautious and skeptical. I appreciated how he addressed the Pakistani people [he obviously knows that the war against militancy can only be won if the Pakistani people support it], and asserted support for our economic crisis, as well as the importance of improving relations with India. His rhetoric demonstrated an understanding that Pakistan’s problems cannot be solved through military means alone. However, because the goal of disrupting, dismantling, and defeating Al Qaeda is so broad, I am anxious to learn what methods will be used to achieve that strategy. Will that involve more U.S. drone strikes with collateral damage, attacks that threaten to create more sympathizers for Taliban and AQ militants? Or will the Pakistani military and police be trained to take further ownership of the fight [to the U.S. liking]? The U.S. government has to begin redefining their approach to Pakistan. However, if these attacks continue, it may damage their ability to successfully undertake this new strategy.

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AFP Image, Body being carried from the blast scene

AFP Image, Body being carried from the blast scene

Breaking news today: Media outlets are reporting that 48 people were killed when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a mosque near the town of Jamrud in the Khyber agency in northwest Pakistan. Tariq Hayat, the top administration official in Khyber, told the AFP, “Forty-eight bodies have been pulled out of the debris and many others may still be trapped under the rubble…More than 70 people were wounded. There may be many more dead…The bomber was present inside the mosque and blew himself up when Friday prayers began.”

BBC News’ Barbara Plett reported that the mosque is near a tribal police checkpoint, “and was crowded with about 250 worshipers, including many police.” The news agency added, “Pakistan’s security officials have recently concentrated forces in the Khyber region, and especially the Jamrud area, to fight militants attacking convoys carrying supplies for the NATO forces in Afghanistan.”

The blast followed a string of attacks that have recently occurred in the country. On Monday, a police officer was killed in a suicide bombing at the gate of a police station in Islamabad, and yesterday, a suicide blast killed 11 people at a restaurant in the tribal region. CNN reported, “That attack was most likely part of the ongoing fighting between militants loyal to Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud and members of the Turkistan tribe.”

For a suicide bombing to occur at all is horrific, but to strike a mosque while people are praying is truly atrocious. GEO Television cited residents of the Jamrud area, who said “militants had earlier threatened to blow up the police post next to the mosque,” although there had been no immediate claim of responsibility after today’s attack. Hayat told GEO, “It’s surprising, those who claim that they are doing jihad and then carry out suicide attacks inside mosques during Friday prayers…They are infidels. They are enemies of Pakistan. They are enemies of Islam.” Al Jazeera’s correspondent Zeina Khodr, however, pointed to something different when she noted, “But the political agents are saying that, and I quote, ‘no Muslim could carry out such a crime  suggesting that foreign hands were responsible'”

CHUP will post more details on this story as they come in.

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