Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Wife: Man imprisoned in Cuba concerned before trip

WASHINGTON (AP) — An American imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009 after bringing communications equipment onto the island wanted reassurance that what he was doing was legal but was told by his company not to ask Cuban officials, the man's wife said Monday.
"If anything happens you'll be out two days. Don't worry," Judy Gross said her husband Alan was told by a co-worker when he expressed concern about the trip.
Saturday will mark two years since Alan Gross, 62, was arrested in Cuba. Since then, the former Maryland resident has been sentenced to spend 15 years in a Cuban prison, and his case has become a sticking point in talks between the two countries, which do not have diplomatic relations. Judy Gross said that in the past year she twice thought her husband might be able to return to the United States. Both times she was disappointed.
"The Cubans will say one thing one day and change their minds the next," said Gross, who had to sell the couple's home and now lives in Washington.
Gross has rarely talked about her husband's situation, giving interviews only infrequently and waiting for her husband's case to work its way through the Cuban legal process. She hired a prominent Washington litigator who advised her against saying much because of the sensitivity of the case and also because it was working through the Cuban courts. But she acknowledged Monday that staying silent "didn't work."
Gross said in an interview that her husband asked the company he was working for to contact the Cuban government to clear his work setting up internet for the island's small Jewish community. But the company, Maryland-based Development Alternatives Inc., refused to contact Cuban officials and refused to let him contact anyone either, she said. He was told separately not to worry about the project by a co-worker, she said.
A spokesman for DAI, Steven O'Connor, said in a statement that Gross "designed, proposed, and implemented this work" for the company, which had a government contract for a democracy-building project on the Communist island. Gross was a subcontractor for the company, which had a contract financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The company wants to correct some of the misconceptions surrounding his work, O'Connor wrote, but "now is not the time."
Judy Gross said her husband believes he was duped by the company, a characterization O'Connor disputed. Gross called himself a "trusting fool" in Cuban court testimony released by his lawyer and said, "I was duped. I was used."
In March, the father of two was sentenced in Cuba to 15 years in prison for crimes against the state. His final appeal to Cuba's Supreme Court was denied in August, and expectations in some quarters that he might be released once the appeals process was over never materialized.
Subsequent efforts by American officials to win his release have failed.
In September, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson visited Cuba and told reporters he had been invited to negotiate Gross' release. But Richardson's efforts imploded after he called Gross a hostage in one interview. Cuban officials accused him of trying to blackmail them, and he returned empty handed.
Gross said she "had a lot of hopes dashed" when Richardson was unsuccessful and that he had been very confident before going down.
"I don't fault anyone or anybody on that because I don't really know what happened," she said.
U.S. officials also reportedly tried to negotiate Gross' release by offering to let a convicted Cuban spy return home, but Cuba rebuffed the offer.
Gross said both she and her husband are now less hopeful about his release anytime soon. And she said she is worried that if President Barack Obama isn't re-elected, a Republican president may be less willing to work with Cuba to secure his release. She urged Obama to make a statement about the case, which arose just as the Obama administration was making tentative movements to ease decades of U.S. tensions with Cuba.
For now, Alan Gross is generally allowed to call his wife once a week, on Fridays. Judy Gross said she last spoke to him days ago and he sounded "more hopeless and more depressed" than before. He has lost more than 100 pounds while in Havana's maximum-security Villa Marista prison but is now gaining weight, she said, adding arthritis now makes it difficult for him to walk.
She was allowed to visit him in Cuba earlier this month, her third visit since his arrest. She said she brought chocolate chip cookies, pictures of his family, and issues of his favorite magazine, The Economist.
On Monday, Judy Gross joined about a dozen others in a demonstration calling for her husband's release in front of the Cuban Interests Section in northwest Washington, the presence Cuba maintains instead of an embassy. The weekly vigils began in September. Demonstrators promised to be there until Alan Gross returns.
Jessica Gresko can be reached at http://twitter.com/jessicagresko
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40,000 troops to leave Afghanistan by end of 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Drawdown plans announced by the U.S. and more than a dozen other nations will shrink the foreign military footprint in Afghanistan by 40,000 troops at the close of next year, leaving Afghan forces increasingly on the frontlines of the decade-long war.
The United States is pulling out the most — 33,000 by the end of 2012. That's one-third of 101,000 American troops who were in Afghanistan in June, the peak of U.S. military presence in the war, according to figures provided by the Pentagon.
Others in the 49-nation coalition have announced withdrawal plans too, while insisting they are not rushing to leave. Many nations have vowed to keep troops in Afghanistan to continue training the Afghan police and army in the years to come. And many have pledged to keep sending aid to the impoverished country after the international combat mission ends in 2014.
Still, the exit is making Afghans nervous.
They fear their nation could plunge into civil war once the foreign forces go home. Their confidence in the Afghan security forces has risen, but they don't share the U.S.-led coalition's stated belief that the Afghan soldiers and police will be ready to secure the entire nation in three years. Others worry the Afghan economy will collapse if foreigners leave and donors get stingy with aid.
Foreign forces began leaving Afghanistan this year.
About 14,000 foreign troops will withdraw by the end of December, according to an Associated Press review of more than a dozen nations' drawdown plans. The United States is pulling out 10,000 service members this year; Canada withdrew 2,850 combat forces this summer; France and Britain will each send about 400 home; Poland is recalling 200; and Denmark and Slovenia are pulling out about 120 combined.
Troop cutbacks will be deeper next year, when an estimated 26,000 more will leave. That figure includes 23,000 Americans, 950 Germans, 600 more French, 500 additional Britons, 400 Poles, 290 Belgians, 156 Spaniards, 100 Swedes and 50 Finns.
Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, told the AP that the number of Marines in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan will drop "markedly" in 2012, and the role of those who stay will shift from countering the insurgency to training and advising Afghan security forces.
Amos declined to discuss the number of Marines expected to leave in 2012.
There are now about 19,400 Marines in Helmand, and that is scheduled to fall to about 18,500 by the end of this year.
"Am I OK with that? The answer is 'yes,'" Amos said. "We can't stay in Afghanistan forever."
"Will it work? I don't know. But I know we'll do our part."
Additional troop cuts or accelerated withdrawals are possible.
Many other countries, including Hungary and Italy, are finalizing their withdrawal schedules. Presidential elections in Europe and the European debt crisis also could speed up the pullout. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said this week that Australia's training mission could be completed before the 2014 target date.
Back in June, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that when the Obama administration begins pulling troops from Afghanistan, the U.S. will resist a rush to the exists, "and we expect the same from our allies." Gates said it was critically important that a plan for winding down NATO's combat role by the end of 2014 did not squander gains made against the Taliban that were won at great cost in lives and money.
"The more U.S. forces draw down, the more it gives the green light for our international partners to also head for the exits," said Jeffrey Dressler, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. "There is a cyclical effect here that is hard to temper once it gets going."
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings Jr. said the cutbacks that have been announced will not affect the coalition's ability to fight the insurgency.
"We are getting more Afghans into the field and we are transferring more responsibility to them in many areas," Cummings said, adding that many leaders of the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Haqqani militant networks have been captured or killed.
Afghan security forces started taking the lead in seven areas in July. They soon will assume responsibility for many more regions as part of a gradual process that will put Afghans in charge of security across the nation by the end of 2014.
Some countries are lobbying to start transition as soon as possible in areas where they have their troops deployed — so they can go home, said a senior NATO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss transition. The official insisted that those desires were not driving decisions on where Afghan troops are taking the lead.
The official said that because they want to leave, a number of troop-contributing nations faced with declining public support at home have started working harder to get their areas ready to hand off to Afghan forces.
"The big question (after 2014) is if the Afghan security forces can take on an externally based insurgency with support from the Pakistani security establishment and all that entails," Dressler said. "I think they will have a real challenge on their hands if the U.S. and NATO countries do not address Pakistani sponsorship of these groups."
Lekic reported from Brussels. AP National Security Writer Robert Burns in Helmand contributed to this report.