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Mar 12, 2010

U.S. lawmakers press Pakistan on Lashkar-e-Taiba

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers urged the Obama administration on Thursday to focus more attention on Lashkar-e-Taiba militants and push Islamabad harder to rein in the Pakistan-based group blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

“This group of savages needs to be crushed,” said Gary Ackerman, chairman of the House of Representatives subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.

Mar 10, 2010

Drug abuse is problem among Afghan police recruits

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Drug abuse is a big problem in Afghanistan’s police force, with four of every 10 recruits testing positive for illicit substances in some areas, said a report by the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress.

The Government Accountability Office said the illicit drug trade posed a major challenge to the U.S.-led counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan, which produces 90 percent of the world’s opium.

Mar 9, 2010

Lawmakers’ tiff reveals complex U.S.-Pakistan ties

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A weekend tiff involving lawmakers from Pakistan’s tribal areas and airport security personnel in the United States underscores how tough it is to reverse years of U.S.-Pakistani mistrust.

The six lawmakers were en route from Washington to New Orleans on Saturday when two were tagged for further screening at the capital’s airport — scrutiny they found insulting. They scrapped their two-week U.S. trip, which was sponsored by the State Department, and went home midway through.

Mar 6, 2010

U.S. inspection finds problems at Kabul embassy

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. government report cast doubt on the future success of the civilian side of the new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, with diplomats stretched to the limit and morale challenged at the embassy in Kabul.

The State Department inspector general’s office, in a report completed last month and posted on the department’s website, listed 89 formal recommendations for the embassy as well as 42 “informal ones,” from greater oversight of government spending to a more realistic workload for staff.

Mar 5, 2010

U.S. hones message machine in Afghanistan, Pakistan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In an area where conspiracy theories are a growth industry, the Obama administration is trying to overhaul its message machine in Afghanistan and Pakistan while using new tools to fight extremism.

The Taliban, al Qaeda and others have for years sought to dominate the air waves and Internet by getting anti-American propaganda out quickly while the U.S. government’s public relations efforts lagged behind as messages were cleared back in Washington.

Mar 2, 2010

U.S. critical of latest Afghan government moves

WASHINGTON, March 2 (Reuters) – The United States chastised Afghanistan’s government on Tuesday for planned curbs on media freedom and for blocking foreign observers from a U.N.-backed electoral group, but stopped far short of threatening to withhold aid.

U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke said he and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would raise their concerns with the Afghan government after restrictions were proposed this week on news coverage of Taliban strikes.

"It is pretty obvious that we support a free press. We don’t like restrictions on the press," Holbrooke told reporters when asked about new media guidelines to be announced by Afghanistan’s government soon.

In another irritant to Washington, President Hamid Karzai recently issued a decree that foreign observers would be removed from the five-member Electoral Complaints Commission, a watchdog group responsible for reviewing voter fraud.

That body previously had three foreign members appointed by the United Nations and last year it nullified a third of Karzai’s votes in the presidential election as fraudulent.

The electoral watchdog decree discouraged Western donors who said previously they would not fund Sept. 18 parliamentary elections unless there were electoral reforms.

Holbrooke dismissed the idea Washington might withhold aid as punishment for Karzai’s latest actions.

"I am not going to speculate on hypotheticals," he said.

The Obama administration has been careful not to snipe publicly at Karzai, wanting to show U.S. backing for the new government, particularly as U.S. and NATO forces began a military offensive last month to defeat the Taliban.

STEPPING CAREFULLY

But U.S. officials have privately pressed the Afghan leader to follow through on promises to tackle corruption and govern more effectively and transparently, saying good governance and delivering services to the local population were crucial to the success of the new counterinsurgency plan.

Holbrooke said the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, had raised "legitimate concerns" over the electoral issue with Karzai.

"The integrity of the elections in the eyes of the Afghan people and the international community is very important," said Holbrooke.

"It is a legitimate concern of the international community that with all the troops that are there and with all the international assistance, that there be a process which is transparent, free and fair," he added.

But he said Washington had its eye on the big picture, which was to help Afghanistan defeat the Taliban and its allies.

"We are not going to take our eye off that goal, but to get there, we want to encourage policies that give the broadest possible support to the government from the Afghan people."

NATO forces along with Afghan troops are in their third week of an offensive to regain control of the southern town of Marjah, the first test of President Barack Obama’s new strategy in Afghanistan. (Editing by Peter Cooney)




Feb 27, 2010

U.S. lawmakers get details of Pakistan aid plan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Obama administration sent lawmakers this week a plan for $1.45 billion in aid for Pakistan this year, funding water, energy and other projects as well as a media campaign to counter extremist views.

The 2010 spending plan, obtained by Reuters, was sent to lawmakers late on Thursday as part of the U.S. administration’s obligation to consult Congress over the civilian aid package.

Feb 26, 2010

U.S. to launch operation in Kandahar city

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan will launch a new military operation later this year to get full control of Kandahar, the former “capital city” of the Taliban, a senior U.S. official said on Friday.

The top U.S. general in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, had already flagged his intention to target Kandahar following an offensive, now in its third week, to retake control of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in neighboring Helmand province.

Feb 26, 2010

US to launch operation in Kandahar city -official

WASHINGTON, Feb 26 (Reuters) – U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan will launch a new military operation later this year to get full control of Kandahar, the former "capital city" of the Taliban, a senior U.S. official said on Friday.

The top U.S. general in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, had already flagged his intention to target Kandahar following an offensive, now in its third week, to retake control of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in neighboring Helmand province.

"If our overall goal for 2010 in Afghanistan is to reverse the momentum (of the Taliban) … then we think we’ve got to get to Kandahar this year," said the senior Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Militants have over the past year made startling gains in the area around Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement. Reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Omar ruled Afghanistan from there before U.S.-led forces invaded in 2001.

McChrystal described the city in his assessment of the war last August as the "key geographic objective" of the Quetta Shura Taliban, the main faction led by Mullah Omar.

The U.S. official was offering an assessment of the offensive in Marjah, which the administration views as key preparation for the potentially bigger battle of Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city.

TEST CASE FOR BIG PRIZE

Marjah is one of the biggest operations in the more than eight-year-old Afghan war. It is also an early test of President Barack Obama’s plan to add 30,000 more troops to win control of Taliban strongholds and eventually transfer them to Afghan authority.

"The way to look at Marjah is that it is the tactical prelude to larger more comprehensive operations later this year in Kandahar city," the administration official said.

"Bringing comprehensive population security to Kandahar city is really the centerpiece of operations this year and therefore Marjah is the prelude," he said.

The British commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan said last week that NATO forces would sweep toward Kandahar over the next six months.

On Thursday, Afghan authorities raised the Afghan flag over Marjah to signify the handover of control to the government from NATO troops led by U.S. Marines.

The official said military commanders on the ground believed it would take several weeks yet to clear the remaining pockets of resistance in and around Marjah.

"We are somewhere between clear and hold and that is pretty much on track. What is going to be more challenging than the clearing process will be the building process," he said.

He acknowledged U.S. and Afghan security forces would not initially have the trust of Marjah’s residents.

"It is not so much a matter of a physical contest about who controls the weapons, it’s a question of who controls the confidence of the people. That will only come after we are able to deliver," he said.

Washington hopes its latest offensive will decisively turn the momentum in a war that commanders say has been going the way of the Taliban.

Under Obama’s new strategy, NATO and Afghan security forces are to secure population centers across Afghanistan so that the government can move in. (Additional reporting by Caren Bohan and Adam Entous)




Feb 25, 2010

U.S. grapples with Afghan reconciliation

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Obama administration is gingerly approaching reconciliation moves in Afghanistan, hoping to see some momentum from its latest military offensive before pushing hard for peace talks with Taliban leaders.

While backing Afghan-led efforts to integrate lower-level fighters, there is little appetite to reconcile senior leaders until NATO forces show progress in the nearly two-week-old offensive in Marjah, a Taliban stronghold in Helmand province.

    • 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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