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May 10, 2010

Karzai, Obama seek to mend caustic ties in visit

WASHINGTON, May 10 (Reuters) – Afghan President Hamid
Karzai arrived in Washington on Monday, seeking to show a
united front with the United States during a pivotal time in
the nine-year war.

Karzai will get the red-carpet treatment during his
four-day visit, including a Rose Garden news conference with
President Barack Obama on Wednesday when the two are expected
to exchange smiles and warm handshakes.

May 6, 2010

Taliban’s Kandahar killings hurt governance – U.S.

WASHINGTON, May 6 (Reuters) – The Taliban has launched an assassination campaign against Afghan officials in Kandahar, undermining Washington’s goal of building up local governance, a senior U.S. official said on Thursday.

The State Department’s top official in southern Afghanistan, Frank Ruggiero, told lawmakers it was increasingly hard for civilians — including U.S. aid workers — to operate in Kandahar because of targeted killings by the Taliban.

"The Taliban has unleashed a serious assassination campaign inside of Kandahar City," said Ruggiero, referring to Afghanistan’s second-biggest city and the next focus of U.S. military operations.

"These are literally two-motorcycle, two-men teams that go around the city to attempt their objectives of assassinating Afghan government officials," he added.

The latest string of attacks comes weeks ahead of a major military offensive in southern Kandahar province, the spiritual homeland of the Taliban. Getting full control of the area is seen as key to turning around the eight-year war.

An important element of the Obama administration’s counterinsurgency strategy is to build up local government so it can deliver key services to the population and ultimately weaken support for the Taliban.

"These assassination squads, these bombings of government departments — they really are going after what they understand is key to our strategy … to build the government up so that they can provide basic services," he said.

DANGEROUS JOB

In recent weeks the deputy mayor of Kandahar was gunned down, as were other officials, including a representative for the culture ministry and other officials, Ruggiero told Reuters after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

He said the security plan for Kandahar needed to include protection and secure facilities to house government staff, with a particular focus on those deemed essential.

Getting the civilian side of the Afghan strategy has been one of the toughest challenges in the military push in the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, seen as a test case before the Kandahar offensive in the coming weeks.

Ruggiero said it was difficult to get the right people in government jobs when they were needed, a problem that could be exacerbated by the Taliban’s latest targeted killings.

Asked by lawmakers what kept him up at night, U.S. Brigadier-General John Nicholson, head of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordination Cell at the Pentagon, said it was building up government competence as well as the problem of corruption.

"It is not the enemy that concerns me as much as the ability of the government to connect with people and the capability of the government to enhance its legitimacy," said Nicholson.

Lawmakers pressed Nicholson and others on the problem of the Taliban seeping back into Marjah following the offensive.

"I question how well we can clear areas when Taliban fighters melt into the local populace and hold them in a sustainable manner when regular police forces are perceived to be corrupt or unreliable," said Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold.

A survey released on Thursday by policy think tank the International Council on Security and Development found that 68 percent of those interviewed in Marjah believed the Taliban would return and complained of NATO actions.

Asked about the report, Nicholson and Ruggiero said the interviews had been conducted early on in the Marjah operation.

"It is a work in progress but treading in the right direction," Nicholson said. (Editing by Eric Walsh)




May 5, 2010

U.S., Karzai seek common view on Taliban talks

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – “Does talking to the Taliban or other extremist groups lead to peace?” is the topic on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul’s Facebook discussion page this week.

The embassy does not give its view — toeing the line that talks must be Afghan-led and not dictated by Washington — but it is an issue President Hamid Karzai is expected to hammer out in meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama next week.

Apr 30, 2010

U.S. needs more oversight of Afghan funds: auditors

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Obama administration needs better controls to prevent waste and fraud as it asks Congress for an additional $20 billion to speed up rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan, auditors said on Friday.

The budget request, which covers the 2011 fiscal year and 2010 supplemental funding, is a 38 percent increase over the nearly $51.5 billion that Congress has already allocated for Afghanistan’s reconstruction since 2002.

Apr 29, 2010

IMF says to meet mid-May to approve Pakistan funds

WASHINGTON, April 29 (Reuters) – The International Monetary Fund’s board will meet in mid-May to approve the next tranche of Pakistan’s $11.3 billion loan but Islamabad must do more to tackle rising inflation and overcome power shortages that stifle the economy, the IMF said on Thursday.

Pakistani finance officials were in Washington last weekend ironing out problems before the IMF board meeting, which has been postponed several times partly due to delays by Pakistan in implementing a Value Added Tax and raising power tariffs.

"We reached understandings on things enough for us to be able to go to the board in mid-May," said Adnan Mazarei, the Washington-based IMF mission chief for Pakistan.

"We recommend to move forward," he said, referring to the fifth installment of the loan, which amounts to about $1.15 billion.

Pakistan turned to the IMF for an emergency package of $7.6 billion in November 2008 to avert a balance of payments crisis and shore up reserves. The loan was increased to $11.3 billion in July last year. Pakistan’s budget has also been strained by the cost of battling Taliban insurgents.

Mazarei said Pakistan remained "vulnerable" and he was concerned over the electricity crisis as well as a recent hike in inflation from about 9 percent at the end of last year to 12.9 percent at the end of last month.

"What is keeping me up is the electricity sector problems, the pick-up in inflation and its impact on the poor and the daily difficulties in budget management," he said.

"There are calls every day on new spending from the budget, the revenue performance is not very good and the Pakistani authorities need to make better efforts to make sure budget execution is smooth and that the budget financing is in place," he added.

Mazarei said the government had made promises on the VAT issue, indicating it would take steps to iron out differences between the provinces and to ensure the new tax would be rolled out by July 1, a deadline analysts are skeptical about.

(Editing by David Alexander)




Apr 23, 2010

IMF board likely to meet mid-May on Pakistan

WASHINGTON, April 23 (Reuters) – The International Monetary
Fund’s board will likely meet in mid-May to consider the next
tranche of Pakistan’s $11.3 billion loan, a source close to
talks between IMF officials and Islamabad said on Friday.

Pakistani finance officials are in Washington this week for
spring meetings of the IMF and are also talking to the World
Bank and the Asian Development Bank over steps being taken to
raise electricity tariffs and other taxes that are unpopular
with the public and politically risky for the government.

Apr 22, 2010
via Tales from the Trail

New poll shows boost for Afghan war strategy

Photo

A new national poll by Quinnipiac University shows that the Obama administration’s new strategy in Afghanistan is gaining some favor among voters.

Conducted April 14-19, the poll of American voters found that 49 percent of the respondents approved of the way President Barack Obama is handling the situation in Afghanistan versus 39 percent who disagreed.

Apr 22, 2010
via Tales from the Trail

New poll shows boost for Afghan war strategy

A new national poll by Quinnipiac University shows that the Obama administration’s new strategy in Afghanistan is gaining some favor among voters.

Conducted April 14-19, the poll of American voters found that 49 percent of the respondents approved of the way President Barack Obama is handling the situation in Afghanistan versus 39 percent who disagreed.

Apr 22, 2010

Building up Afghan capacity seen as key challenge

QUANTICO, Virginia (Reuters) – When U.S. forces went in to clear the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in February, the hope was that local Afghan government could step in fast, but that has proved tough and underscores a countrywide challenge.

At a conference at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia, U.S. and Afghan officials listed dozens of obstacles in building up “Afghan capacity” and boosting credibility of a government seen by many as inefficient and corrupt.

Apr 16, 2010
via Tales from the Trail

U.S. officials seek to shelve Karzai tensions

Photo

Tensions, what tensions?

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew arrived back from Afghanistan and Pakistan on Friday, touting the performance of several ministers in Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government.

His visit came at a particularly tense time in U.S.-Afghan relations after Karzai made some corrosive statements in recent weeks against his donors, blaming the West for much of the corruption in his country and drawing critical comments from the White House.

    • About Sue

      "Sue Pleming covers foreign policy, with a focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan. She joined Reuters in London in 1990 and was based in Brussels before moving to Washington, where her most recent post was covering the State Department. She started her journalism career in southern Africa and has also done reporting stints in Somalia, Rwanda and Burundi."
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