NY Times: Insurgents Set Aside Rivalries in Pak-Afghan Border

WASHINGTON — Rival militant organizations on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border have increasingly been teaming up in deadly raids, in what military and intelligence officials say is the insurgents’ latest attempt to regain the initiative after months of withering attacks from American and allied forces.

New intelligence assessments from the region assert that insurgent factions now are setting aside their historic rivalries to behave like “a syndicate,” joining forces in ways not seen before. After one recent attack on a remote base in eastern Afghanistan, a check of the dead insurgents found evidence that the fighters were from three different factions, military officials said.

In the past, these insurgent groups have been seen as sharing ideology and inspiration, but less often plans for specific missions. Now the intelligence assessments offer evidence of a worrisome new trend in which extremist commanders and their insurgent organizations are coordinating attacks and even combining their foot soldiers into patchwork patrols sent to carry out specific raids.

The change reveals the resilience and flexibility of the militant groups. But at the same time, officials say, the unusual and expanding alliances suggest that the factions are feeling new military pressure. American and NATO officials say these decisions by insurgent leaders are the result of operations by American, Afghan and allied forces on one side of the border, and by the Pakistani military — and American drone strikes — on the other.

American commanders recently have been seeking even more latitude to operate freely along the porous border, including inside Pakistan, and have consistently warned that whatever gains they have made in the past few months are fragile. One official said it was “a wake-up call” to find evidence, after the attack on the forward operating base, that the fighters were partisans from three factions with long histories of feuding: the Quetta Shura Taliban of Mullah Muhammad Omar; the network commanded by the Haqqani family; and fighters loyal to the Hekmatyar clan.

These extremist groups have begun granting one another safe passage through their areas of control in Afghanistan and Pakistan, sharing new recruits and coordinating their propaganda responses to American and allied actions on the ground, officials said. American military officials sought to cast these recent developments as a reaction to changes in the American and allied strategies in the past year, including aggressive military offensives against the insurgents coupled with attempts to provide visible and reliable protection to the local Afghan population.

“They have been forced to cooperate due to the effect our collective efforts have had on them,” said Lt. Col. Patrick R. Seiber, a spokesman for American and coalition forces in eastern Afghanistan.

Colonel Seiber said insurgent commanders recognized that as the number of American forces increased this year in Afghanistan, “they would need to surge as well.” Veteran militant leaders, many with a long history of open warfare against one another, have “put aside differences when they see a common threat,” Colonel Seiber said.

Over the past 90 days, signs of this new and advanced syndication among insurgent groups have been especially evident in two provinces of eastern Afghanistan, Kunar and Paktika. Pentagon and military officials said they had no specific count of these combined attacks, but said the syndicated nature of cooperative action went beyond just the raids.

Increased cooperation among insurgent factions also is being reported inside Pakistan, where many of the extremist organizations are based or where their leaders have found a haven. American and NATO officials said they had seen evidence of loose cooperation among other insurgent groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba and Tehrik-i-Taliban.

Lashkar is a Punjabi group and is considered one of the most serious long-term threats inside Pakistan. The Punjabi groups, many of which were created by Pakistani intelligence to fight against India’s interests in Kashmir, now appear to be teaming up with Pashtun groups like the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban to fight their creators, the Pakistani intelligence and security services.

Pentagon and military officials who routinely engage with their Pakistani counterparts said officials in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, agreed with the new American and NATO assessments. “This is actually a syndicate of related and associated militant groups and networks,” said one American officer, summarizing the emerging view of Pakistani officials. “Trying to parse them, as if they have firewalls in between them, is really kind of silly. They cooperate with each other. They franchise work with each other.”

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Sovereign of the Week: Jafar Panahi (Iranian Film-maker now in jail)

The acclaimed Iranian film-maker Jafar Panahi has been sentenced to six years in prison, his lawyer says. Farideh Gheirat said Mr Panahi had been convicted of working against the Iranian system, the semi-official Isna news agency reported.

She said her client had also been banned from making films, writing scripts and travelling abroad. Another Iranian film-maker, Mohammad Rasulov, also received a six-year sentence on similar charges. “Mr Panahi has been sentenced to six years in jail on a charge of (participating) in a gathering and carrying out propaganda against the system,” said Ms Gheirat.

He has also been banned from making films, writing any kind of scripts, travelling abroad and talking to local and foreign media for 20 years.” She described the sentence as “heavy” and said her client would be appealing.

According to a statement released in Italy in November, Mr Panahi had gone on trial in Iran accused of making a film without permission and inciting opposition protests after the disputed 2009 presidential election that led to months of political turmoil. In his statement to the court, Mr Panahi said he was a victim of injustice and called one of the charges against him “a joke”, Reuters news agency reported.

Hunger strike

Mr Rasulov was making a film with Mr Panahi before his arrest. His lawyer, Iman Mirzadeh, said he planned to appeal. Mr Panahi spent more than two months in custody after being arrested in March, before being released on bail after going on hunger strike in protest against his detention.

The Iranian authorities maintained that his arrest was not political.

Mr Panahi has been a vocal critic of Iran’s strict Islamic law and government system, while his films are known for their social commentary. He is a winner of many international awards, most recently for his film Offside, which won the 2006 Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear award.

He was due to be acting as a member of the jury at this year’s Cannes Film Festival in France. He was also prevented from attending the latest Venice film festival in September.

BBC: Ivory Coast Calls For General Strike

Political parties loyal to Ivory Coast presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara have called a general strike across the country from Monday to force the incumbent president to cede power. Our correspondent John James says the strike is not being widely observed so far in Abidjan, the biggest city.

Laurent Gbagbo has refused to step aside following November’s disputed election which he insists was rigged. Mr Ouattara has been recognised internationally as the victor.  Regional West African grouping Ecowas has warned it may use “legitimate force” to remove Mr Gbagbo. He accused the US and France of leading a plot against him.

Although the situation has felt less tense since the lifting of an overnight curfew, there’s concern that things will worsen in the coming month. A delegation of heads of state from Ecowas – from Benin, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde – is planning to travel to the country on Tuesday to convince Mr Gbagbo to step aside.

Mr Gbagbo’s Interior Minister Emile Guirieoulou told a news conference that his government would: “welcome the three heads of states as brothers and friends, and listen to the message they have to convey”. Our correspondent says that after calls from the US and French presidents, this personal visit will represent the final notice for Mr Gbagbo, whose hold on power is diminishing by the day. He adds that any intervening force would almost certainly come from Nigeria.

In an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro, Mr Gbagbo said that if military intervention occurred it would be a dangerous precedent. “All threats must be taken seriously. But, in Africa, it would be the first time African countries would be ready to go to war because an election went badly.”

He repeated his assertion that he was the victim of an international plot against him, led by former colonial power, France, along with the US.  “If there is an internal conflict, a civil war, there will be risks because we will not allow our rights, our constitution, to be trampled on. People have to remember that. We are not afraid. We are not the aggressors.”

Threat of conflict

Earlier, his spokesperson warned that foreign intervention could ignite a civil war, sparking conflict between the country’s many foreign migrant workers which could spill across Ivory Coast’s borders. “All these countries have citizens in Ivory Coast, and they know if they attack Ivory Coast from the exterior it would become an interior civil war,” Ahoua Don Mello said.

“Is Burkina Faso ready to welcome three million Burkinabe migrants back in their country of origin?” he asked. Millions of West African immigrants from poorer neighbouring states work in Ivory Coast’s relatively prosperous cocoa-led economy. Some 14,000 people have already fled to neighbouring Liberia following November’s disputed election results, and the UN says it is prepared for a total of 30,000 refugees in the region. The UN has said at least 173 people have died in violence already.

Most of those fleeing are supporters of Mr Ouattara, who, along with his cabinet, is based at a hotel in Abidjan under the protection of UN troops. Mr Gbagbo has demanded that UN and French troops leave the country and a close ally has even warned that they could be treated as rebels if they did not obey the instruction. The UN, which has 10,000 peacekeepers in the country, rejected the call.

The election was meant to unite the country after a civil war in 2002 split the world’s largest cocoa producer in two, with the predominantly Muslim North supporting Mr Ouattara and the mainly Christian south backing Mr Gbagbo.

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BBC: Israeli Offical says New Gaza War ‘only a matter of time’

A senior Israeli army officer has told the BBC that as long as Hamas remains in control of the Gaza Strip, another war is “only a question of time”. He said the Palestinian Islamist group had re-armed so much since the Israeli offensive two years ago that it was now in a stronger position militarily.

There has been an increase in rocket fire coming from Gaza in the past week. Earlier, Israeli defence officials said tanks fitted with a new missile defence system would be deployed near Gaza. The announcement came after Palestinian militants for the first time used a Kornet tank-piercing missile.

On 6 December the Russian-made laser-guided missile – which carries 10kg (22lb) of high explosive – penetrated the tank’s armour, but did not injure its crew. The UN has condemned the firing of “indiscriminate” rocket and mortar attacks by militants in Gaza in recent weeks.

Talk of war

Israeli Chief-of-Staff Lt-Gen Gabi Ashkenazi said the Kornet missile was “among the most dangerous that we have seen on this front and was not used even during the Lebanon war”. “The situation in the south is very fragile and explosive,” he warned.

Speaking to the BBC’s Jon Donnison on Wednesday, another senior Israeli army officer from the Gaza division said: “As long as Hamas remains in power, it is only a question of time before there is another conflict.”

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat also warned that tensions were escalating in the region, and that any Israeli attack on Gaza would only lead to further bloodshed. “Military solutions such as these won’t achieve anything and will only complicate the situation,” Mr Erekat said.

Missile-defence tanks

The Israeli-developed active protection system (APS) – known as Trophy – is designed to destroy missiles like the Kornet. The system, which has so far been fitted to a battalion of Merkava Mk4 tanks, uses radars and sensors to identify threats, then releases special explosives to neutralise them. No Palestinian militant groups has claimed the attack.

Hamas is not thought to have been behind the increased rocket fire from Gaza this week, to which Israel retaliated with air strikes. However, Israel has said it will increase attacks on Hamas facilities even if the movement is not directly responsible. The Islamist group has controlled Gaza since June 2007, after winning elections in 2006 and then forcing its secular rivals Fatah, the party of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, out of the territory.

The UN has said at least 62 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli action in Gaza so far this year. Over the same period, one Thai farm worker has been killed by rockets fired from the coastal territory into Israel.

Two years ago, a 22-day clash between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in Gaza left an estimated 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.

Nicholas Kristof- The Big (Military) Taboo

We face wrenching budget cutting in the years ahead, but there’s one huge area of government spending that Democrats and Republicans alike have so far treated as sacrosanct. It’s the military/security world, and it’s time to bust that taboo. A few facts:

      • The United States spends nearly as much on military power as every other country in the world combined, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. It says that we spend more than six times as much as the country with the next highest budget, China.

     • The United States maintains troops at more than 560 bases and other sites abroad, many of them a legacy of a world war that ended 65 years ago. Do we fear that if we pull our bases from Germany, Russia might invade?

     • The intelligence community is so vast that more people have “top secret” clearance than live in Washington, D.C.

     • The U.S. will spend more on the war in Afghanistan this year, adjusting for inflation, than we spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War combined.

This is the one area where elections scarcely matter. President Obama, a Democrat who symbolized new directions, requested about 6 percent more for the military this year than at the peak of the Bush administration. “Republicans think banging the war drums wins them votes, and Democrats think if they don’t chime in, they’ll lose votes,” said Andrew Bacevich, an ex-military officer who now is a historian at Boston University. He is author of a thoughtful recent book, “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.”

The costs of excessive reliance on military force are not just financial, of course, as Professor Bacevich knows well. His son, Andrew Jr., an Army first lieutenant, was killed in Iraq in 2007. Let me be clear: I’m a believer in a robust military, which is essential for backing up diplomacy. But the implication is that we need a balanced tool chest of diplomatic and military tools alike. Instead, we have a billionaire military and a pauper diplomacy. The U.S. military now has more people in its marching bands than the State Department has in its foreign service — and that’s preposterous.

What’s more, if you’re carrying an armload of hammers, every problem looks like a nail. The truth is that military power often isn’t very effective at solving modern problems, like a nuclear North Korea or an Iran that is on the nuclear path. Indeed, in an age of nationalism, our military force is often counterproductive.

After the first gulf war, the United States retained bases in Saudi Arabia on the assumption that they would enhance American security. Instead, they appear to have provoked fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden into attacking the U.S. In other words, hugely expensive bases undermined American security (and we later closed them anyway). Wouldn’t our money have been better spent helping American kids get a college education?

Paradoxically, it’s often people with experience in the military who lead the way in warning against overinvestment in arms. It was President Dwight Eisenhower who gave the strongest warning: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” And in the Obama administration, it is Defense Secretary Robert Gates who has argued that military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer, harsher scrutiny; it is Secretary Gates who has argued most eloquently for more investment in diplomacy and development aid.

American troops in Afghanistan are among the strongest advocates of investing more in schools there because they see firsthand that education fights extremism far more effectively than bombs. And here’s the trade-off: For the cost of one American soldier in Afghanistan for one year, you could build about 20 schools.

There are a few signs of hope in the air. The Simpson-Bowles deficit commission proposes cutting money for armaments, along with other spending. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled a signature project, the quadrennial diplomacy and development review, which calls for more emphasis on aid and diplomacy in foreign policy.

“Leading through civilian power saves lives and money,” Mrs. Clinton noted, and she’s exactly right. The review is a great document, but we’ll see if it can be implemented — especially because House Republicans are proposing cuts in the State Department budget.

They should remind themselves that in the 21st century, our government can protect its citizens in many ways: financing research against disease, providing early childhood programs that reduce crime later, boosting support for community colleges, investing in diplomacy that prevents costly wars. As we cut budgets, let’s remember that these steps would, on balance, do far more for the security of Americans than a military base in Germany.

Published in NY Times at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/26/opinion/26kristof.html?_r=1&ref=homepage&src=me&pagewanted=print

BBC: Ancient Humans Interbred with Us

Scientists say an entirely separate type of human identified from bones in Siberia co-existed and interbred with our own species. The ancient humans have been dubbed Denisovans after the caves in Siberia where their remains were found. There is also evidence that this group was widespread in Eurasia.

A study in Nature journal shows that Denisovans co-existed with Neanderthals and interbred with our species – perhaps around 50,000 years ago. An international group of researchers sequenced a complete genome from one of the ancient hominins (human-like creatures), based on nuclear DNA extracted from a finger bone.

Sensational’ find

According to the researchers, this provides confirmation there were at least four distinct types of human in existence when anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) first left their African homeland.  Along with modern humans, scientists knew about the Neanderthals and a dwarf human species found on the Indonesian island of Flores nicknamed The Hobbit. To this list, experts must now add the Denisovans.

The implications of the finding have been described by Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London as “nothing short of sensational”. Scientists were able to analyse DNA from a tooth and from a finger bone excavated in the Denisova cave in southern Siberia. The individuals belonged to a genetically distinct group of humans that were distantly related to Neanderthals but even more distantly related to us.

The finding adds weight to the theory that a different kind of human could have existed in Eurasia at the same time as our species.

Researchers have had enigmatic fossil evidence to support this view but now they have some firm evidence from the genetic study carried out by Professor Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany. “A species of early human living in Europe evolved,” according to Professor Paabo. “There was a western form that was the Neanderthal and an eastern form, the Denisovans.”

The study shows that Denisovans interbred with the ancestors of the present day people of the Melanesian region north and north-east of Australia. Melanesian DNA comprises between 4% and 6% Denisovan DNA. David Reich from the Harvard Medical School, who worked with Svante Paabo on the study, says that the fact that Denisovan genes ended up so far south suggests they were widespread across Eurasia: “These populations must have been spread across thousands and thousands of miles,” he told BBC News.

Professor Stringer believes it is because there may have been only a fleeting encounter as modern humans migrated through South-East Asia and then on to Melanesia. The remains were excavated at a cave site in southern Siberia.  “It could be just 50 Denisovans interbreeding with a thousand modern humans. That would be enough to produce this 5% of those archaic genes being transferred,” he said. “So the impact is there but the number of interbreeding events might have been quite small and quite rare.”

No one knows when or how these humans disappeared but, according to Professor Paabo, it is very likely something to do with modern people because all the “archaic” humans, like Denisovans and Neanderthals disappeared sometime after Homo sapiens sapiens appeared on the scene. “It is fascinating to see direct evidence that these archaic species did exist (alongside us) and it’s only for the last few tens of thousands of years that is unique in our history that we are alone on this planet and we have no close relatives with us anymore,” he said.

The study follows a paper published earlier this year by Professor Paabo and colleagues that showed there was interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals as they emerged from Africa 60,000 years ago.

BBC: UK Trained Bangladesh ‘death squad’

British officials in Bangladesh have confirmed Wikileaks reports that the UK is training a police force in the country accused of being a death squad. Rapid Action Battalion members have been taught “interviewing techniques” and “rules of engagement” by the UK authorities, said the leaked cables.

One message says the US would not offer tactical training to the RAB because of its alleged human rights violations. UK officials told the BBC the focus of the training was on human rights. Set up in 2004, the 9,000-strong RAB is accused of more than 550 killings.

The whistle-blowing website Wikileaks has obtained a cache of about 250,000 US diplomatic cables, which it has released to several newspapers, including the Guardian. In a cable dating from May 2009 published by the Guardian, the US ambassador to Dhaka, James Moriarty, writes: “The US and UK representatives reviewed our ongoing training to make the RAB a more transparent, accountable and human-rights compliant paramilitary force. “The British have been training RAB for 18 months in areas such as investigative interviewing techniques and rules of engagement.

In another cable, Mr Moriarty notes it would be illegal for the US to offer anything other than human rights training to the RAB because of the force’s alleged crimes. Several hundred criminal suspects have died in RAB custody since 2005, and there are strong grounds to doubt the unit’s claims these deaths occurred as a result of “encounters” or “cross-fire”.

No RAB personnel have been prosecuted for any of these fatalities, which creates the impression it operates with impunity. On the other hand, it is fair to point out that killings by RAB have been declining since 2008, though have not stopped completely. The force carries out a range of law and order activities, most of which do not result in any deaths.

But widespread claims that it operated an “arrest-interrogate-kill” policy towards alleged criminals and banned left-wing militants, could support the “death squad” tag. The RAB cannot be compared, however, to the death squads operated by military regimes in Latin America in the 1970s, as the force is not known to have been used to kill political opponents.

He also notes that despite its record, the RAB had become Bangladesh’s “most respected police unit”. However, Human Rights Watch says the force is a government death squad. In a report last year, it said the paramilitary unit had an “operating culture” of extrajudicial killings, which its members perpetrated with impunity.

British High Commission officials in Dhaka told the BBC that the UK training programme for the RAB had begun in early 2008 and was due to finish in March 2011. “The focus is on human rights. It concentrated on providing the RAB with the skill-set to conduct law enforcement duties in an ethical manner,” said an official, who did not want to be named.

“The areas covered basically include basic human rights training, interview skills, investigation skills, basic scene of crime skills, inclusion on a range of legal and human rights focused events.” The official declined to comment on whether this training was part of any counter-terrorism effort in Bangladesh.

The Guardian reports that the UK’s National Policing Improvement Agency provided training to the RAB on crime scene management and investigation, via officers from West Mercia Police and Humberside Police.