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from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Pakistan’s military operation in Waziristan

In a world used to watching war played out on television, and more recently to following protests in Iran via Twitter and YouTube, the Pakistan Army's impending military offensive in South Waziristan on the Afghan border is probably not getting the attention it deserves -- not least but because the operation is shrouded in secrecy.

Yet the offensive has the potential to be a turning point in the battle against the Taliban which began with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Many Taliban and their al Qaeda allies fled Afghanistan to Pakistan's tribal areas after the U.S. invasion -- the CIA said this month it believed Osama bin Laden was still hiding in Pakistan. The offensive in South Waziristan, designed to target Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, would if successful deprive the Taliban and al Qaeda of what has been until now one of their safest boltholes.

Before the army launches a full-scale offensive, the United States appears to be stepping up missile strikes by unmanned aircraft to weaken the Pakistani Taliban --  an attack on Tuesday by a U.S. drone killed about 70 militants.  The attack, on a funeral for one of six militants killed in a similar strike earlier in the day, would appear to indicate increasing coordination between the United States and Pakistan, although Pakistan publicly condemns the drone operations. When the army does go in, it is likely to face intense fighting against Mehsud and his thousands of well-armed followers, who have had years to prepare defences.

The killing on Tuesday of Mehsud rival Qari Zainuddin has also encouraged speculation that the military is working hard on time-honoured tactics of divide and rule, by trying to find tribal leaders who will turn against Mehsud (the blog Changing up Pakistan has produced an excellent round-up of media reports on Zainuddin's death). 

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Pakistan, from Swat to Baluchistan via Waziristan

The Pakistan Army is engaged in what appears to be a very nasty little war in the Swat valley against heavily armed Taliban militants.  With journalists having left Swat, there have been no independent reports of what is going on there, though the scale of the operation can be partly measured by the huge numbers of refugees - nearly 1.7 million - who fled to escape the military offensive.

Dawn newspaper carried an interview with a wounded soldier saying the Taliban had buried mines and planted IEDs every 50 metres.  ‘They positioned snipers in holes made out of the walls of houses. They used civilians as human shields. They used to attack from houses and roofs," it quoted him as saying. ‘They are well equipped, they have mortars. They have rockets, sniper rifles and every type of sophisticated weapons."

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

How much time does Pakistan have?

Ahmed Rashid's article on Pakistan in the New York Review of Books makes for an alarming read.  Excerpts do not do justice to it,  as you have to read the whole thing to understand why he thinks Pakistan really is on the brink, but here are a few:

"American officials are in a concealed state of panic, as I observed during a recent visit to Washington at the time when 17,000 additional troops were being dispatched to Afghanistan. The Obama administration unveiled its new Afghan strategy on March 27, only to discover that Pakistan is the much larger security challenge, while US options there are far more limited."

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

After Indian election, relationship with Pakistan back in focus

After a diplomatic pause enforced by India's lengthy election campaign, the country will soon have a new government after the ruling Congress party won an unexpectedly decisive victory.  But analysts doubt the change of government will bring a significant change of heart in India towards Pakistan.

Despite Pakistan's offensive against the Taliban in the Swat valley, they say India has yet to be convinced the Pakistan Army is ready to crack down more widely on Islamist militants, fearing instead that it will selectively go after some groups, while leaving others like the Afghan Taliban and Kashmir-oriented groups alone.  While Pakistan wants to resume talks broken off by New Delhi after last November's attack on Mumbai, India has said it wants Islamabad to take more action first against those behind the assault, which it blamed on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba.

When is a coalition not a coalition?

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How can you tell when U.S. forces in Afghanistan are operating alone?

When they call it “the coalition”.

That’s not a joke. It’s just how things work in Afghanistan, where two separate forces with two separate command structures — one completely American, the other about half American — operate side by side under the command of the same U.S. general.

 ”When we say ‘coalition’, basically that means it’s just us,” a helpful U.S. military spokeswoman explained last month to a reporter who had just arrived in country after being away for a couple of  years. “Otherwise, it’s the ‘alliance’.”

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Afghanistan’s civilians caught in the middle

Reuters correspondent Emma Graham-Harrison has written a moving and disturbing story about an 8-year-old girl badly burned by white phosphorous after being caught in the middle of a firefight in Afghanistan.  Like everything else that happens in Afghanistan, the question of who fired the shell that exploded in her house is in dispute. Her family said the shell was fired by western troops; NATO said it was "very unlikely" the weapon was theirs; and a U.S. spokeswoman suggested the Taliban may have been responsible.

But beyond the dispute, what comes across powerfully in Emma's account is the story of the girl. 

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Two views on Obama’s handling of Karzai

With President Hamid Karzai now looking all but unassailable in Afghanistan's August election, two articles out this week - one from Washington and the other from India - offer mirror-image analyses of President Barack Obama's handling of the Afghan leader. They should really be read as companion pieces since both offer insights into the workings of the Obama administration and the complexities of Afghan politics.  Reading both together also highlights how different the world looks depending on your perspective, whether writing from America or Asia.According to this article in the Washington Post by Rajiv Chandrasekaran (highlighted by Joshua Foust at Registan.net) the Obama administration had decided to keep Karzai at arm's length. It says Obama's advisers faulted former President George W. Bush for forging too personal a relationship with Karzai through bi-weekly video conferences and as a result creating such cosiness that it became hard for his administration to put pressure on the Afghan government."It was a conversation. It was a dialogue. It was a lot of 'How are you doing? How is your son?'" it quotes a senior U.S. government official who attended some of the sessions as saying. "Karzai sometimes placed his infant son on his lap during the conversations.""Obama's advisers have crafted a two-pronged strategy that amounts to a fundamental break from the avuncular way President George W. Bush dealt with the Afghan leader," the report said.  "Obama intends to maintain an arm's-length relationship with Karzai in the hope that it will lead him to address issues of concern to the United States, according to senior U.S. government officials. The administration will also seek to bypass Karzai by working more closely with other members of his cabinet and by funnelling more money to local governors."Retired Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, has a rather different reading on the wisdom of the Obama administration's approach. In this article in the Asia Times Online, headlined What Obama could learn from Karzai, (highlighted by Marie-France Calle on her French-language blog), he says the Americans allowed themselves to be outmanoeuvred by the Afghan President by keeping him at arms-length."In retrospect, United States President Barack Obama did a great favour to Afghan President Hamid Karzai by excluding him from his charmed circle of movers and shakers who would wield clout with the new administration in Washington," he writes. "Obama was uncharacteristically rude to Karzai by not even conversing with him by telephone for weeks after he was sworn in, even though Afghanistan was the number one policy priority of his presidency."But Karzai, he says, had the last laugh, as the opprobrium heaped upon him by the west raised his standing in Afghan eyes. Karzai had been able to manoeuvre himself into a strong position through weeks of Afghan-style backroom negotiations, capped by a decision by a popular candidate to pull out of the election race."The Afghan experience with democracy offers a good lesson for Obama: it is best to keep a discreet distance and leave the Afghans to broker power-sharing on their own terms, according to their own ethos and tradition," he writes. "However, Obama has a long way to go in imbibing the lessons of democracy in the Hindu Kush ..."(Reuters photos: President Karzai, and Karzai with President Obama and Vice President Biden. Photos by Yuri Gripas and Jonathan Ernst)

Post-Iraq, would-be militants eye Pakistan

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By William Maclean

The flow of foreign militants to Pakistan worries Western governments, which fear the south Asian country has replaced Iraq as the place to go for aspiring Islamists planning attacks on the West.

The camps will probably be smaller and the skills on offer less photogenic to al Qaeda’s online video audience, but that is no deterrent to Arabs, Central Asians and Europeans making their way to the turbulent northwestern tribal areas.

Hollywood props, deployed by the U.S. Army

There was no one there but us and the fake chickens.

I visited the U.S. Army’s training center at Fort Polk in Louisiana this month with some fellow foreign correspondents to see soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division training for a mission in Afghanistan. For 21 days, the soldiers are meant to live and operate as if they had already deployed to the war zone. (You can see the story here.)

The center goes to great lengths to recreate the experience that troops will face in Iraq and Afghanistan. That means fireworks to simulate bomb explosions, fake blood to make casualties look realistic, and Afghan or Iraqi role-players to act as civilians, security force members and interpreters.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Defending women’s rights in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Barely had President Barack Obama outlined a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan meant to narrow the focus to eliminating the threat from al Qaeda and its Islamist allies, before the U.S.-led campaign ran into what was always going to be one of its biggest problems in limiting its goals. What does it do about the rights of women in the region?

The treatment of women has dominated the headlines this week after Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a new law for the minority Shi'ite population which both the United States and the United Nations said could undermine women's rights. Karzai has promised a review of the law, while also complaining it was misinterpreted by Western journalists. 

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