Monday, September 5, 2011

U.S. must stay in Afghanistan or risk more attacks: envoy

KABUL (Reuters) - The United States must keep fighting the Taliban or risk more attacks like those of September 11, 2001, because the insurgent group is a ruthless enemy that has not cut ties to al Qaeda, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul said.
Ryan Crocker, a career diplomat who was ambassador in Iraq, also warned the United States would have to spend billions more in the coming years to bolster Afghanistan's government and security forces as its own troops prepare to return home.
"What we have to do is I think demonstrate the strategic patience that is necessary to win a long war," he told Reuters, in an interview ahead of the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
"It is going to require more resources, its going to require time. I hope we can bring all those to bear, because as hard, painful, as expensive as this has been in blood and treasure, it has cost a lot less than 9/11 did."
Crocker flew into New York early on the morning of September 11, 2001, and saw the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapse as he drove into Manhattan after landing.
He has carried his boarding pass from that flight around the world with him, to a decade of senior positions at the heart of the conflicts that followed in the wake of the attacks.
"My life to a significant degree was never the same after 9/11 ... what drives me is what happened that day, and what I saw. And not that I need a reminder, but this is just a small memento of why we are in this fight and why we need to stay in it."
He described building a stable Afghanistan as "the ultimate guarantee that there will not be another 9/11."
After nearly a decade of fighting in Afghanistan the Taliban have greater reach than any time since they were ousted from power, and civilian casualties -- the majority caused by insurgents -- are at the highest since 2001.
"These are tough, determined guys, and we have got to stay in the fight, because if we decide we are done, without completing the mission along the lines I laid out earlier, well the Taliban is going to be back," Crocker said.
Polling showed Afghans do not want the Taliban back, however, and broadly support their own security forces. Western mistakes, especially careless spending, had been corrected, he added.
"I think we all made mistakes, the international community, in the way we put resources into this country. Often without due consultation with Afghan partners, without Afghan buy-in, without appropriate oversight," he said.
"I think we are on the right path now. Yes these are mistakes, but boy the people who are doing the finger pointing ought to come out here and try and get it right in the smoke and dust of a hot war."
Over 1,600 U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan, and the war has cost nearly $450 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service. It also stirred up vocal domestic opposition.
Foreign forces have now started handing over control of some areas to the Afghan police and army, and the NATO-led coalition expects to have all combat troops home by the end of 2014.
Crocker hopes this plan will bolster support for the next few years of fighting and institution-building.
"Americans, they are war-weary, it has been a decade, but they also see a plan for future transition. So I think we will be able to maintain the necessary commitments as we move forward to 2014," he said.
The United States is also expected to have some presence in the country beyond that date, with Kabul and Washington currently in trying to hammer out a "strategic partnership" agreement to define the U.S. role longer-term.
Stopping the Taliban fighting their way back to power -- whether with U.S. troops on the ground or through support for Afghan forces -- is critical to U.S. security, Crocker added.
"With the Taliban will come al Qaeda, and we will have the same situation that we had pre-9/11, and that to me is an utterly unacceptable outcome," he said in his Kabul residence, in the heart of the heavily guarded embassy.
"That is a risk of our national security that I think no sane person would willingly take."
Despite preliminary contacts with insurgent groups, Crocker also said he did not expect a negotiated settlement in the short-term, because without stronger military pressure insurgents would not accept changes in Afghanistan, including improvements in women's rights.
"The Taliban needs to be further weakened to the point where they will come to the table prepared to accept the conditions we have set jointly with the Afghans," he said.
"That's not the Taliban I think we are engaged with today."
Crocker dismissed critics who argue that limited progress in Afghanistan is due in part to the shift in focus to Iraq.
"If for example in 2002, 2003 or 2004 we had substantially increased the number of our forces without an active Taliban threat, which didn't come until later, I think there is every chance the Afghans would have seen us as occupiers," he said.
"We could have had a backlash of proportions that would have given us even a worse situation today."
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Ed Lane)

Pakistan detains top al-Qaida suspect

ISLAMABAD (AP) — A battered al-Qaida suffered another significant blow when Pakistani agents working with the CIA arrested a senior leader believed to have been tasked by Osama bin Laden with targeting American economic interests around the globe, Pakistan announced Monday.
Younis al-Mauritani's arrest — made public six days before the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — also point to improved cooperation between two uneasy anti-terror allies after the rancor surrounding bin Laden's killing.
Al-Qaida has seen its senior ranks thinned since bin Laden was killed May 2 in a raid by U.S. Navy SEALs in Pakistan without the knowledge of local authorities. Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, the terror network's No. 2, was killed in a CIA missile strike last month.
Pakistan's unusual public announcement of close cooperation with the U.S. spy agency appeared aimed at reversing the widespread perception that ties between the CIA and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency had been badly damaged by bin Laden's death. The Pakistanis accused the Americans of violating their sovereignty with the raid, while Washington was angry the terror leader had been found in a house in a military garrison town.
The Pakistani military said the arrest of al-Mauritani and two other Qaida operatives took place near the Afghan border in the southwestern city of Quetta, long known as a base for militants. It did not say when. The arrests were carried out in the past two weeks, according to a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
The capture of an al-Qaida operative inside Pakistan has become rare in recent years: most targets of CIA operations in the country have been killed by drone aircraft in a relentless series of operations that started to increase in 2008. His capture is likely to create chaos within al-Qaida: even if he does not reveal compromising information, that possibility is almost certain to force the network to alter plans, move operatives and make a variety of other sudden changes, damaging its ability to carry out attacks.
"This operation was planned and conducted with technical assistance of United State Intelligence Agencies with whom Inter-Services Intelligence has a strong, historic intelligence relationship. Both Pakistan and United States Intelligence agencies continue to work closely together to enhance security of their respective nations," the military said in a written statement.
Al-Qaida's center of operations is believed to be in the lawless tribal areas of northwest Pakistan, many hours from Quetta, a large city that is home to both the Taliban's ruling council and a significant Pakistani military presence.
The statement said al-Mauritani was mainly responsible for al-Qaida's international operations and was tasked by bin Laden with hitting targets of economic importance in America, Europe and Australia. It said he was planning attacks on gas and oil pipelines, power generating dams and oil tankers that would be hit by explosive-laden speed boats in international waters.
It named the other two detainees as Abdul-Ghaffar al-Shami and Messara al-Shami. In its statement, the Pakistani army also described them as senior operatives.
"This action has dealt yet another blow to al-Qaida and is an example of the longstanding partnership between the United States and Pakistan in fighting terrorism," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said. "We applaud the actions of Pakistan's intelligence and security services that led to the capture of a senior al-Qaida operative who was involved in planning attacks against the interests of the United States and many other countries."
The U.S. has said it doesn't know of any specific al-Qaida plot to attack the U.S. ahead of Sept. 11.
The U.S. provided "critical lead information and technical assistance in working with Pakistan" against al-Mauritani, another American official said on condition of anonymity, in order to discuss intelligence. Al-Mauritani is considered "a seasoned, senior operative" trusted by the group's top leaders, who the U.S. believes "played an absolutely central role in planning and coordinating al Qaeda's operations in Europe," with plots that targeted both European and American interests, the official said.
Since the 2001, attacks, Pakistan's spy agency has cooperated with the CIA to arrest scores of al-Qaida suspects, most of whom were handed over to the United States.
"This reflects how Pakistan and the United States working together can deal an effective blow to the terrorists," said Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani. He said the intelligence cooperation had been restored almost to levels prior to a series of U.S.-Pakistan diplomatic clashes.
Many top al-Qaida commanders are still believed to live in Pakistan, and getting Islamabad's cooperation in cracking down on the network has been a top American goal since 2001. But there have been persistent suspicions that the country was protecting militants. The fact that bin Laden was killed in an army town close to the capital, Islamabad, led to fresh doubts over Pakistan's commitment.
Michael Vickers, the Pentagon's under secretary of defense for intelligence, told The New York Times in a recent interview there were perhaps four important al-Qaida leaders left in Pakistan, and 10 to 20 leaders over all in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Goldman reported from Kabul. AP Intelligence Writer Kimberly Dozier contributed from Washington.

Libya rebels hold off on attacking Gadhafi bastion

TARHOUNA, Libya (AP) — Thousands of rebel fighters closed in around one of Libya's last pro-Gadhafi strongholds Monday, but held back on a final assault in hopes of avoiding a bloody battle for the town of Bani Walid.The standoff came as rebel leaders in Tripoli said Libya's transition to democratic rule would begin with a "declaration of liberation" that was unlikely to come before Gadhafi's forces last strongholds were defeated and the fugitive former dictator had been captured.
The declaration would mark the start of an eight-month deadline for Libya's transitional council to arrange the vote for a national assembly, and eventually to a constitution and general elections.
"When the clock starts ticking on those eight months remains to be seen," rebel spokesman Jalal el-Gallal said, adding it wasn't yet clear how liberation would be defined.
Special U.N. envoy Ian Martin, meanwhile, said the United Nations was helping the rebel leadership prepare for its elections, stressing the country faces immense political hurdles after nearly 42 years of dictatorial rule.
"The U.N. is certainly ready to move very fast to bring in the electoral expertise that can assist the authorities," he said at a news conference in Tripoli with Ahmed Darrad, the interior minister.
The rebels most immediate concern is Bani Walid, a desert town some 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, where they say a small but heavily armed force of pro-Gadhafi fighters — at least some of them high-ranking members of his ousted regime — have taken up defensive positions.
The loyalists are spreading fear in the town to keep other residents from surrendering, the rebels say, telling people the rebels will rape their wives and daughters.
The regime loyalists "know if they hand themselves in, they will be punished. They are trying hard to mess things up, to drag other people with them into a battle," said rebel Col. Abdullah Hussein Salem.
Most of the country has welcomed the uprising that swept Gadhafi from power, though rebel forces — backed by NATO airstrikes — have yet to capture loyalist bastions like Bani Walid, Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte and the isolated southern town of Sabha.
Gadhafi has been on the run since losing control of his capital last month, though the rebels say at least two of his sons had been in Bani Walid in recent days. Moussa Ibrahim, Gadhafi's spokesman and one of his key aides, was still believed to be in the town, rebel officials said.
Talks broke down over the weekend after Ibrahim insisted the rebels put down their weapons before entering the town.
The rebels have extended to Saturday a deadline for the surrender of Sirte and other loyalist areas, though some rebel officials have said they could attack Bani Walid sooner because it has so many prominent loyalists.
For the most part, though, the rebels are urging patience, saying they want to avoid a bitter inter-tribal fight that could create lasting divisions.
"We won't go inside Bani Walid unless the Warfala tribe invites us," said rebel commander Ismail al-Gitani, referring to the town's main tribe. "The Warfala have to lead us into Bani Walid. Hopefully no one will be shot. We don't want to use our weapons. But if the Gadhafi loyalists shoot at us, of course we will return fire."
The Warfala are believed to be about 1-million strong, one-sixth of Libya's population.
Rebel commanders have said they were willing to hold more talks about the town's surrender, though apparently no negotiations were held Monday. Rebel negotiator Abdullah Kanshil added that the rebels were talking to individual families in the town about their urgent needs for water and food.
A field hospital with ten doctors also has been set up about 40 miles (60 kilometers) from Bani Walid.
"Our families in Bani Walid asked us to start this hospital just in case fighting breaks out," said Abdel Baset el-Beib, a doctor.
Associated Press writer Karin Laub in Tripoli contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects 2nd paragraph to say al-Gallal said the liberation was unlikely to come before Gadhafi captured not likly. AP Video.)