JFP 7/28: Taliban ready for peace if US will give up bases
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July 28, 2011
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1) A former Afghan prime minister who brokered talks in the past says the Taliban leadership is ready to negotiate peace with the US right now if Washington indicates its willingness to provide a timetable for complete withdrawal, Gareth Porter reports for Inter Press Service. They also have no problem with meeting the oft-repeated U.S. demand that the Taliban cut ties completely with Al-Qaeda, Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai told IPS. Ahmadzai told IPS a group of Taliban officials conveyed the organization's position on starting peace negotiations to him in a meeting in Kabul a few days ago. Ahmadzai said Taliban officials made clear they were not insisting on any specific date for final withdrawal. "The timetable is up to the Americans," he said. Previous talks have foundered on US insistence that the Taliban accept a long-term US military presence in the country.
2) No handover of authority from foreign to Afghan forces is likely in Kandahar soon, AFP reports. The murder of the mayor of Kandahar on Wednesday, two weeks after the president's half-brother - the province's key powerbroker - was killed, underscores the ongoing volatility of the region, and some are pessimistic. "The bottom line is, once we're out of here, this whole place is going to be taken over again by the Taliban," said a military defense contractor and ex-army officer, who had done three previous tours.
3) Writing in the Washington Post, Walter Pincus reviews some of the cuts in military spending that conservative Republican Senator Tom Coburn has proposed. Coburn adds his support to those who have proposed cutting military personnel stationed in Europe and Asia by one-third. The estimated savings would be almost $70 billion over 10 years.
4) The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee began examining the lifetime human and financial costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and what additional preparations will be required to care for the 2.3 million veterans who have fought them, McClatchy reports. Paul Rieckhoff of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America told senators the financial cost could hit $1 trillion.
5) Heidi Golding, an analyst with the CBO, testified that the annual cost of caring for veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would nearly triple or more in the next decade, rising to $5.5 billion to $8.4 billion in 2020, from $1.9 billion in 2010, the New York Times reports.
6) Invoking the Arab Spring, the Palestinian president on Wednesday urged his people to take to the streets for massive rallies in support of his government's bid to get the U.N. to recognize an independent Palestinian state, AP reports. Abbas' determination to go to the U.N., along with his call to emulate protests in neighboring Arab countries, indicated that he was preparing for a confrontation with Israel and the U.S., AP says. Last week, imprisoned Palestinian militant leader Marwan Barghouti also called for "millions" of people to take to the streets in nonviolent marches.
7) The assassinated mayor of Kandahar had undertaken what one U.S. official called a "campaign, divorced from reality, to turn Kandahar into Fairfax" by banning illegal sidewalk vendors, bulldozing unregistered shops and evicting squatters, the Washington Post reports. His critics accused him of being a lackey for the Karzai family, helping to steer land and wealth their way at the expense of rival tribes and political opponents. In one case, the mayor intervened to buy land owned by the Ministry of Defense and sell it to the president's relatives so they could develop it into a sprawling gated community of modern homes and fountains.
1) Ex-PM Says Taliban Offer Talks For Pullout Date
Gareth Porter, Inter Press Service, Jul 28
Kabul - The Taliban leadership is ready to negotiate peace with the United States right now if Washington indicates its willingness to provide a timetable for complete withdrawal, according to a former Afghan prime minister who set up a secret meeting between a senior Taliban official and a U.S. general two years ago.
They also have no problem with meeting the oft-repeated U.S. demand that the Taliban cut ties completely with Al-Qaeda.
Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, who was acting prime minister of Afghanistan in 1995-96, told IPS in an interview that a group of Taliban officials conveyed the organisation's position on starting peace negotiations to him in a meeting in Kabul a few days ago.
"They said once the Americans say 'we are ready to withdraw', they will sit with them," said Ahmadzai.
The former prime minister said Taliban officials made it clear that they were not insisting on any specific date for final withdrawal. "The timetable is up to the Americans," he said.
Ahmadzai contradicted a favourite theme of media coverage of the issue of peace negotiations on the war - that Mullah Mohammed Omar, head of the Taliban leadership council, has not been on board with contacts by Taliban officials with the administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the U.S.
He confirmed that Mullah Baradar, then second in command to Mullah Omar, had indeed had high-level contacts with officials in the Karzai government in 2009, as claimed by Karzai aides, before being detained by Pakistani intelligence in early 2010.
And contrary to speculation that Baradar's relationship with Mullah Omar had been terminated either by those contacts or by his detention, Ahmadzai said, "Baradar is still the top man," and "Mullah Omar's position on him hasn't changed."
Ahmadzai, who studied engineering at Colorado State University before joining the U.S.-sponsored mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, maintains close ties with Quetta Shura officials but has also enjoyed personal contacts with the U.S. military. He brokered a meeting between a senior Taliban leader and Brig. Gen. Edward M. Reeder, then commander of the Combined Special Forces Special Operations Army Component Command in Kabul in summer 2009.
The former prime minister's account of that meeting in the interview with IPS further documents the Taliban leadership's interest in entering into peace negotiations with the United States prior to the Barack Obama administration's decision to escalate U.S. military involvement sharply in 2009.
A senior Taliban leader told Reeder at the meeting that the insurgents had no problem with severing their ties to Al-Qaeda, but could not agree to U.S. demands for access to military bases.
Ahmadzai said he negotiated the meeting with the Taliban leadership in the spring of 2009, at the request of Reeder, who had just arrived in Kabul a few weeks earlier. The process took four months, he recalled, because the Taliban leadership had so many questions that had to be addressed.
The main question, of course, was what arrangements would be made for the Taliban representative's safety. In the end, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) command facilitated the Taliban representative's travel into Kabul, Ahmadzai recalled.
The Taliban official who met with Reeder and Ahmadzai in Kabul was a member of the Taliban Quetta Shura (leadership council) who called himself Mullah Min Mohammed for security reasons, according to Ahmadzai.
The Quetta Shura representative complained to Reeder about the failure of the United States to follow up on a previous contact with a senior Taliban representative, according to Ahmadzai's account.
"Mullah Mohammed" recalled to Reeder that the Taliban had met two years earlier in southern Kandahar province with an unnamed U.S. official who had made two demands as the price for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan: an end to the Taliban's relations with Al-Qaeda and U.S. long-term access to three airbases in the country.
"We agreed to one but not to the other," the senior Taliban official was quoted by Ahmadzai as saying.
The Taliban leader explained that it had no trouble with the demand for cutting ties with Al-Qaeda, but that it would not agree to the U.S. retaining any military bases in Afghanistan – "not one metre", according to Ahmadzai's account.
The Quetta Shura representative then reproached the U.S. for having failed to make any response to the Taliban offer to cut the organisation's ties with Al-Qaeda. "You haven't responded to us," he is said to have told Reeder. "You never told us yes or no."
The Taliban complaint suggested that the Quetta Shura leadership had been prepared to move into more substantive talks if the U.S. had indicated its interest in doing so.
Reeder, who has been commander of the U.S. Army Special Forces Command at Fort Bragg since July 2010, did not respond to an e-mail from IPS to the command's Public Affairs Office for comment on Ahmadzai's account of the meeting.
After the announcement of the major increase in troop deployment in Afghanistan, the Obama administration adopted a public posture that suggested the Taliban leadership had no reason to negotiate unless put under severe military pressure.
In light of the contacts between senior Taliban leaders and U.S. officials in 2007 and 2009, the Taliban clearly concluded that the United States would not negotiate with the Taliban except on the basis of accepting U.S. permanent military presence in Afghanistan.
After the 2009 meeting between Reeder and the Taliban leader, a number of reports indicated the Taliban leadership was not interested in negotiations with Washington.
Despite the apparent policy shift against seeking peace talks, the Taliban continued to signal to Washington that it was willing to exclude any presence for Al-Qaeda or other groups that might target the United States from Afghan territory.
Mullah Omar suggested that willingness in an unusual statement on the occasion of the Islamic holiday Eid in September 2009.
Then in early December, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the official title adopted by the Quetta Shura leadership for its political-military organisation – said in a statement posted on its website and circulated to Western news agencies that it was prepared to offer "legal guarantees" against any aggressive actions against other countries from its soil as part of a settlement with the United States.
2) Afghan Army Fights For Respect, Equipment In South
AFP, July 28, 2011, 3:30 pm
But although talk of the transition from foreign to Afghan forces is high, after seven parts of the country were transferred in ceremonies last week, no such handover is likely in Kandahar soon.
The murder of the mayor of Kandahar on Wednesday, two weeks after the president's half-brother -- the province's key powerbroker -- was killed, underscores the ongoing volatility of the region, and some are pessimistic.
"The bottom line is, once we're out of here, this whole place is going to be taken over again by the Taliban," said a military defence contractor and ex-army officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, who had done three previous tours here.
3) Coburn's Deficit-Reduction Proposal Takes Another Whack At Defense
Walter Pincus, Washington Post, July 27
[Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) released a plan last week that he said would achieve $9 trillion in deficit savings over the next decade.]
Sen. Tom Coburn wants the Navy to cut its aircraft carriers from 11 to 10 and reduce Navy Air wings by one as part of his plan to reduce Defense Department spending on buying and operating weapons.
It's not an original idea. The Congressional Budget Office has proposed it and others have talked about it, but the Navy is not happy.
Coburn notes that this single reduction "is not equivalent to an option of permanently decommissioning every single aircraft carrier in the Navy's fleet."
He points out in his 600-page report, "Back in Black," that the Navy already plans to have only 10 aircraft carriers over the next three years. Under current plans, the 50-year-old USS Enterprise, the first nuclear-powered carrier, will be decommissioned next year while the next carrier, the USS Gerald Ford, will not be delivered before 2015.
Is that a problem? Coburn points out that during the Cold War, naval forces were needed to meet the Soviet Union in the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Pacific. But that is not the situation today. He notes that the Libyan operation has worked without a U.S. aircraft carrier, with U.S. planes flying from bases in Italy and Europe. Savings here would amount to $700 million a year.
Coburn wants to reduce the nation's deployed nuclear warheads to the levels specified in the recently ratified New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and reduce the number of warheads in reserve, which is not part of the pact with Russia.
He also wants part of the reductions to be in deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, going down to 300 from today's 450, and even below the treaty-allowable 420. He also wants to reduce the number of strategic nuclear submarines, from today's 14 to 11.
He still wants to maintain 40 strategic bombers, but to delay purchase of any new bomber until the 2020s. The changes, he said, would save up to $8 billion a year.
The Army's Medium Extended Air Defense System, once considered a replacement for the Patriot missile system, is another Coburn target. It's a joint project with Germany and Italy, in which the United States pays half the costs. But the Army no longer thinks it meets its requirement, and neither Germany nor Italy has plans to purchase it when developed.
Some Pentagon officials and MEADS supporters in Congress argue that termination fees would be costly. Coburn's suggestion, which mirrors another CBO option, calls for terminating MEADS and investing $3 billion in upgrading the Patriot system. Those steps would save $13 billion over 10 years, he said.
More projected savings:
Another Simpson-Bowles proposal, picked up by Coburn as supplemented by another CBO option, is to reduce military personnel stationed in Europe and Asia by one-third. It calls for reducing authorized force levels by the same number, therefore not requiring increased U.S. facilities to handle the returnees. The estimated savings would be almost $70 billion over 10 years.
4) Senators Try To Tackle Long-Term Costs Of War
Rob Hotakainen, McClatchy Newspapers, July 27, 2011 06:33:05 PM
Washington - Crystal Nicely said she doesn't mind serving as the chief cook, driver and groomer for her husband, Todd, who lost both arms and legs in March 2010 when he stepped on an explosive device during combat operations against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.
But she'd appreciate a little more help from the federal government. "What is upsetting is the lack of support, compassion and benefits for these individuals," Nicely, 25, told a Senate committee Wednesday. "It needs to be just a little easier."
Nicely told her family's story as the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee began examining the lifetime human and financial costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and what additional preparations will be required to care for the 2.3 million veterans who have fought them.
While the exact long-term cost is uncertain, the head of one veterans group - the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America - told senators that it could hit $1 trillion.
"The costs are clear, and they are tremendous," said Paul Rieckhoff, the group's executive director, who served as an infantry platoon leader with the Army National Guard in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. "But so is the sacrifice these men and women have made for our nation."
Washington state Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, the committee's chairwoman who called the hearing, said a half-million veterans from the two wars already have found their way into the system operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs, an increase of more than 100 percent since 2008.
Todd Nicely, a corporal who was leading a squad of 12 infantry Marines from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina when he was injured, is adjusting to life with prosthetics. One of only three surviving quadruple amputees in the Marine Corps, he pedaled 11 miles on his bicycle in just under an hour Saturday.
But despite his progress, Crystal Nicely told senators that he can do little without someone at his side and that she is considering "the very expensive life that lies ahead for my husband and me."
So far, 1.3 million of the 2.3 million active-duty military personnel and reservists who have been deployed to combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have become eligible for the VA's health care services, said Heidi Golding, principal analyst for military and veterans' compensation with the Congressional Budget Office.
Through the end of March, Golding said, nearly 1,570 service members had required amputations. The most common medical conditions diagnosed were musculoskeletal disorders and mental health problems.
Rieckhoff said Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are facing a readjustment to civilian life that "isn't pretty."
Among the statistics he cited: 13.3 percent are unemployed, more than 4 percentage points higher than the national average; more than 11,000 veterans between the ages of 18 and 30 are homeless; and the military and veteran community is facing a "suicide epidemic," with 468 suicides in 2010 alone, meaning there were more suicides than combat victims.
5) Cost Of Treating Veterans Will Rise Long Past Wars
James Dao, New York Times, July 27, 2011
Washington - Though the withdrawal of American military forces from Iraq and Afghanistan will save the nation billions of dollars a year, another cost of war is projected to continue rising for decades to come: caring for the veterans.
By one measure, the cost of health care and disability compensation for veterans from those conflicts and all previous American wars ranks among the largest for the federal government - less than the military, Social Security and health care programs including Medicare, but nearly the same as paying interest on the national debt, the Treasury Department says.
Ending the current wars will not lower those veterans costs; indeed, they will rise ever more steeply for decades to come as the population of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan expands, ages and becomes more infirm. To date, more than 2.2 million troops have served in those wars.
Studies show that the peak years for government health care and disability compensation costs for veterans from past wars came 30 to 40 years after those wars ended. For Vietnam, that peak has not been reached.
In Washington, the partisan stalemate over cutting federal spending is now raising alarms among veterans groups and some lawmakers that the seemingly inexorable costs of veterans benefits will spur a backlash against those programs.
Though there is currently strong bipartisan support for veterans programs, some budget proposals, including from Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, and Representative Michele Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota, have called for trimming benefits for veterans and military retirees.
"Those proposals have been batted back so far," said David Autry of the Disabled American Veterans. "But we've got more vigorous budget hawks today. If they are willing to bring the nation to the brink of insolvency, who knows what else they might do?"
Even if cuts to veterans programs do not occur, the current mood of budgetary constraint seems likely to force the Department of Veterans Affairs to make do without the large spending increases it has received from Congress in the recent past.
That means efforts by veterans groups to expand existing health care programs, provide additional benefits to Vietnam veterans or institute new research into things like traumatic brain injury or hearing loss will face difficult uphill battles, lawmakers and veterans advocates say.
"No one is thinking about the lifetime costs this country is responsible for," said Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "I'm really worried."
In a hearing before the panel on Wednesday, Heidi Golding, an analyst with the Congressional Budget Office, testified that the annual cost of caring for veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would nearly triple or more in the next decade, rising to $5.5 billion to $8.4 billion in 2020, from $1.9 billion in 2010.
In that hearing, Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, also raised concerns that veterans' disability checks might not be paid if Congress fails to raise the debt limit next week.
With an annual budget of more than $125 billion, the Department of Veterans Affairs runs a nationwide health care system that cares for more than eight million people who have left military service, of which about 700,000 are from the current wars. The agency also administers disability compensation for millions of veterans wounded in service.
Estimating the long-term costs of those programs is a complex, contentious art, and no one inside the government does it beyond 10 years. But independent and government experts agree that for a variety of reasons the costs are just about certain to continue rising, even though large numbers of World War II and Korean War veterans are dying.
The reasons have much to do with improvements in battlefield medicine and equipment. More troops today are surviving injuries - 90 percent, up from 86 percent in Vietnam, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But that also means that more troops are coming home with complex and severe wounds.
Moreover, nearly one in five service members returning from deployment are thought to have symptoms of post-traumatic stress or major depression, according to a study by the RAND Corporation. A similar number are thought to have sustained traumatic brain injury. Though not all seek help, a significant percentage are expected to receive care from the veterans system, in part because of efforts to reduce the stigma of mental health problems in the military.
Further adding to strains on the department, more young veterans have been seeking care from the system than had been anticipated, possibly because they do not have private health insurance. Outreach efforts by the veterans department and veterans groups may have also increased enrollment, experts say.
Linda Bilmes, a Harvard academic who has done extensive research on the impact of the wars, said all those factors together suggested that "the actual cost over 30, 40 or 50 years will be even higher than we projected."
"And with life expectancy getting longer," she said, "the cost will probably peak later than in past wars."
Ms. Bilmes, a senior lecturer in public finance at the Kennedy School of Government, has estimated that the total cost of health care and disability compensation to veterans of the current wars will be nearly $1 trillion over the next 40 years.
Some academics and government officials say her projections are too high. But there is broad agreement on her larger point, that the costs will keep going up for decades to come.
6) Palestinian leader Abbas calls for peaceful 'popular resistance' to support UN statehood bid
Associated Press, July 27
Ramallah, West Bank - Invoking the Arab Spring, the Palestinian president on Wednesday urged his people to take to the streets for massive rallies in support of his government's bid to get the U.N. to recognize an independent Palestinian state.
The call by President Mahmoud Abbas for peaceful, "popular resistance" throughout the West Bank was likely to fuel Israeli concerns that the U.N. vote in September and any large demonstrations could spark a new round of violence.
In a sign of the worries, Israel announced Wednesday that it has begun work on a stronger fence to fortify the frontier between the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights and Syria. That was one of several areas on Israel's borders where Israeli forces caught by surprise used deadly force in recent months to quell pro-Palestinian protests inspired by the revolts upending the Arab world.
"All of us are talking about resistance and it must be every day," Abbas told a group of Palestinian politicians. "We are led by the protests of the Arab Spring, which we all say should be 'peaceful, peaceful,'" he said in an echo of the chant shouted by demonstrators across the Arab world.
Abbas' determination to go to the U.N., along with his call to emulate protests in neighboring Arab countries, indicated that he was preparing for a confrontation with Israel and the U.S.
The vote would be largely symbolic, but the Palestinians believe it would send a powerful message to Israel and boost their position in future negotiations.
Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders have said they have no desire to see violence erupt in September. But Israeli military officials fear that street protests could inadvertently spin out of control and spark new violence.
Last week, an imprisoned Palestinian militant leader Marwan Barghouti also called for "millions" of people to take to the streets in nonviolent marches.
7) For Karzai, Mayor's Killing Is Another Blow
Joshua Partlow and Sayed Salahuddin, Washington Post, July 27
Kabul - Ghulam Haider Hamidi had been warned. Friends and relatives had for months urged the mayor of Kandahar city to leave his treacherous post and return to his quiet life as an accountant in Northern Virginia.
On Wednesday morning, a suicide bomber with explosives hidden in his turban killed Hamidi inside his downtown office, according to Afghan officials. His death raised to new heights the fear among Kandahar officials and served as another in a quick succession of blows this year to President Hamid Karzai's grip on southern Afghanistan.
Insurgents have waged a killing spree in Kandahar, not in large formations to fight U.S. troops but in stealthy acts of assassination. The attacks have unraveled the governing structure and weakened Karzai's hold on a city that was once the Taliban's heartland and remains the nerve center of southern Afghanistan.
A suicide bomber killed Kandahar provincial police chief Mohammad Mojayed in April. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half brother, was fatally shot in his Kandahar home this month. Days later, a former governor of nearby Uruzgan province who had become a top presidential adviser, Jan Mohammad Khan, was killed in his Kabul home.
Although not all the killings have been proven to be the work of the Taliban, the group has profited by asserting responsibility and creating the impression that no one working with the government is safe.
At the time of the blast, Hamidi was leaving his office to meet with tribal elders from a Kandahar neighborhood where two children had been killed accidentally the day before by municipality bulldozers razing houses built on government land.
The local outrage over the bulldozing reflected a controversial aspect of Hamidi's tenure as Kandahar mayor. Amid a lethal struggle for power and access to the spoils of a wartime economy, Hamidi's decisions earned him many enemies. As part of his campaign to boost city tax revenue and reclaim government lands from illegal businesses, he angered those he evicted or whose shops were destroyed.
Hamidi undertook what one U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity called a "campaign, divorced from reality, to turn Kandahar into Fairfax" by banning illegal sidewalk vendors, bulldozing unregistered shops and evicting squatters.
His critics accused him of being a lackey for the Karzai family, helping to steer land and wealth their way at the expense of rival tribes and political opponents. In one case, Hamidi intervened to buy land owned by the Ministry of Defense and sell it to the president's relatives so they could develop it into a sprawling gated community of modern homes and fountains. Hamidi insisted that the deal was a legitimate business transaction in the interests of the city.
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