Friday, July 10, 2009

Climbing toll raises British doubts on Afghanistan

Climbing toll raises British doubts on Afghanistan.

ALASTAIR GRANT and DAVID STRINGER, Associated Press Writer Alastair Grant And David Stringer, Associated Press Writer Fri Jul 10, 5:51 pm ET

WOOTTON BASSETT, England – Thousands of mourners bowed their heads in tribute Friday to the passing coffins of British soldiers killed in a new offensive in Afghanistan, where the climbing toll has created doubts in Britain about the human cost of the war.

News of 15 battlefield deaths in 10 days has many Britons rethinking the country's commitment to a conflict that seems no closer to a successful conclusion than when troops first arrived seven years ago.

A Ministry of Defense spokeswoman said a total of eight deaths were announced Friday, making it one of the darkest days of the war. She spoke on condition of anonymity in line with department policy.

"The casualties should fix peoples' minds on the fact that we've let the soldiers down," said Adam Holloway, an opposition Conservative Party lawmaker who sits on Parliament's defense committee. "The death toll means we should do it properly or we shouldn't do it at all."

Holloway, a frequent visitor to Afghanistan, said Britain has never had the troop strength needed to hold ground there and has failed to provide the promised security or reconstruction, leading many Afghans to believe the Taliban militants will outlast Western forces.

"We're in a mess," he said.

He cautioned that there is still no widespread public revolt against the government's war policy. He said his constituents do not seem extremely worried about the troubled Afghan campaign, despite the increasing casualties.

But some communities are grieving. Schoolchildren, businessmen and army veterans stood side by side in Wootton Bassett, a small market town about 85 miles (135 km) west of London, as the bodies of five soldiers killed between Saturday and Tuesday were driven through the crowds after being flown to a nearby air base.

Wootton Bassett's mayor, Steve Bucknell, said it was becoming increasingly hard to accept the rising number of British casualties.

"We keep on asking ourselves how many more? Each time we pray it's the last one, knowing it probably isn't going to be," Bucknell said.

It has become traditional for the residents to line the streets when hearses carrying soldiers' coffins pass through the town on the sad trip from a military airport to a cemetery.

The casualty count mounted Friday night when officials said five soldiers were killed in two separate explosions while on patrol. Earlier in the evening, the Ministry of Defense announced that a soldier from the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment had been killed in an explosion. Two other deaths were announced earlier in the day.

The names of the dead soldiers are likely to be released in the next 24 hours.

The deaths have come in volatile southern Helmand province in the past nine days amid a new offensive to uproot Taliban fighters. Seven years after British forces first deployed to Afghanistan — and after the loss of 185 troops — ex-military chiefs are criticizing tactics and equipment while members of the public wonder about the benefit of taking part in the conflict.

Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth and Prime Minister Gordon Brown claim that Britain's role in Afghanistan is crucial to root out extremist terrorists who could potentially attack the United Kingdom, and to prevent a tide of Afghan heroin from reaching British streets.

Brown said Friday that the war is vital to Britain's security.

"There is a chain of terror that runs from the mountains and towns of Afghanistan to the streets of Britain," he told reporters at the G-8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy. "Having talked to President Obama and the rest of the world leaders, there is a recognition that this is a task the world has got to accept together and this is a task we have got to fulfill."

Michael Clarke, head of London-based military think tank the Royal United Services Institute, said public concern is mounting and urged politicians to be more honest about Britain's initial reasons for joining the 2001 invasion.

"What they won't really say is that it's about the credibility of the NATO alliance, and our military relationship with the United States," Clarke said.

Some critics say that Britain should either withdraw from the mission, or that troops must be provided with better equipment, including more helicopters. Britain, the United States and Canada have long complained that they have engaged in heavy fighting in Afghanistan while some European nations have shied away from combat roles.

Tony Philippson, whose son James was killed in Afghanistan in 2006, said the public remained skeptical about whether foreign troops will ever be able to suppress the Taliban and bring peace to the country.

"I've always felt it was a risky business and I think it's still on a knife edge about whether they can succeed," Philippson told the BBC.

Gen. Charles Guthrie, the head of Britain's military between 1997 and 2001, said he believes British soldiers have died as a direct result of a shortage of helicopters for troops in Afghanistan. British troops are suffering heavy casualties from roadside bombs, and a lack of helicopters mean soldiers must make more journey across Helmand by road.

"If there had been more, it is very likely fewer soldiers would have been killed by roadside bombs," Guthrie — a longtime advocate of higher defense spending — was quoted as telling the Daily Mail newspaper.

Britain's defense ministry declined to disclose how many helicopters Britain has in Afghanistan on security grounds, but said additional aircraft are being sent to support the mission.

The ministry said that the two latest casualties died in separate incidents Thursday. The bloodshed has intensified as Afghans prepare

for elections planned for next month.

"For the present, Allah has lightened your (task), for He knoweth that there is a weak spot in you: But (even so), if there are a hundred of you, patient and persevering, they will vanquish two hundred, and if a thousand, they will vanquish two thousand, with the leave of Allah. for Allah is with those who patiently persevere."(Al-Quran,8:86)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Taliban cash in on Pakistan’s untapped gem wealth.

From Dawn News:

Sunday, 05 Jul, 2009
PESHAWAR: In the narrow lanes of a market in Pakistan's northwest capital Peshawar, dealers squat on carpets and spread out a rainbow of precious gems on the floor for potential buyers.

Chunks of bright blue lapis lazuli, and rough rocks studded with flashes of light and colour clutter window displays, but no one is buying in a city hit by a wave of deadly bombings blamed on Taliban militia.

A treasure trove of precious stones is locked in the rocks of Pakistan's rugged northwest. Violence, legal tussles and state mismanagement have deterred investors but allowed the Taliban to cash in on the bounty, dealers say.

‘God has given us enormous wealth in terms of emeralds from Swat, rubies, pink topaz, beautiful tourmaline,’ said Ilyas Ali Shah, a gemologist with the government-run Pakistan Gems and Jewellery Development Company.

Shah said that if Pakistan properly mines these deposits the impoverished country could reverse its hefty foreign debt: ‘But we need peace.’

In February this year, militants waging a bloody insurgency to expand control opened three shuttered emerald mines in the northwest Swat valley around the main town Mingora and invited villagers to blast away.

The military says it has reclaimed all Swat mines from the Taliban during a fierce offensive, but for at least three months proceeds from emerald sales lined the militants' coffers and helped bankroll their insurgency.

‘They would collect the emeralds and there would be an open tender every Sunday,’ said Azhar ul Islam, a 44-year-old gem trader from Swat. ‘The profits were divided up — two-thirds for the miner and one-third for the Taliban.’

Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan are believed to hold up to 30-40 per cent of the world's emerald deposits, Shah says, with the precious stone fetching up to 2,000 dollars per carat depending on quality.

Azhar told AFP the Taliban earned about four million rupees a week from Mingora's main mine — shuttered since 1995 because of a legal battle — money he said was spent on ‘buying explosives, making weapons.’

‘I was frightened what would happen if the government re-established control, so I didn't buy those emeralds from the mines, but most of my friends bought these emeralds from the Taliban,’ he said.

At the Namak Mandi market in Peshawar, another dealer from Swat who did not want to be named estimated that the militants made between five and six million rupees a week from the stones.

No one in the market would admit buying Swat emeralds from the Taliban, but one dealer said he procures green garnet from a Taliban-owned mine over the border in Afghanistan, where the militants are also waging an insurgency.

‘We don't like the Taliban, we don't buy it because we want to help them, but we want the stones,’ 30-year-old Ali Akbar told AFP.

He says his business has been crushed by spiralling insecurity in Pakistan since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States thrust the country into the heart of the ‘war on terror’.

‘For five months I had no customers,’ he said.

Shah says Pakistan's gem-industry profits have plunged up to 50 per cent in one year because of the instability, with foreign investors staying away.

Most of the country's gems, including emeralds, garnet, pink topaz, spinel and tourmaline are located underground in North West Frontier Province (NWFP), the heartland of the Taliban insurgency.

Experts say the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) — a mountainous area largely outside government control along the Afghan border and stronghold of Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud — hides deposits of rare quartz and precious stones.

‘I think we have explored three per cent of the whole of NWFP. We have large areas of Fata that are not under control, so we have a lot of precious material untapped which needs to be explored and exploited,’ Shah said.

Pervez Elahi Malik, former chairman of the main gem exporters' association, blames the local NWFP government for not sorting out legal tussles and getting potentially lucrative mines up and running under state control years ago.

At the moment, local villagers and tribesmen blast away at the rocks and transport their haul to Namak Mandi — a damaging mining process that experts say can destroy 80 per cent of the stones.

‘We are lacking in technical knowledge, we are lacking stability in the country,’ said Shah. ‘Our mining is not technically sound and safe — we are destroying our wealth.’ — AFP

And He provides for him from (sources) he never could imagine. And if any one puts his trust in Allah, sufficient is ((Allah)) for him. For Allah will surely accomplish his purpose: verily, for all things has Allah appointed a due proportion. (Al-Quran 65:3)