Jul 29, 2010

The Washington Post: Local strongman is U.S. troops' most reliable friend in Kandahar province

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 29, 2010; A01
NOW RUZI, AFGHANISTAN -- Haji Ghani is an illiterate, hashish-growing former warlord who directs a semiofficial police force and is known to show his anger through beatings. In this Taliban nest west of Kandahar, he is also U.S. forces' main partner.
Never mind that the district governor says Ghani, 44, works against him, or that U.S. soldiers describe him as Godfather-like and his police as vaguely crooked. In an area rife with insurgents who stalk soldiers' every move, Ghani's militia has carved out a four-square-mile bubble of tranquillity. Farmers can safely collect U.S.-funded seeds, and children will soon attend a new American-backed school.
"What's his is ours. What's ours is his," Lt. John Paszterko, 29, said of Ghani, a onetime anti-Soviet commander who now rules his tribal forefathers' lands. "He's a good friend to have."
As coalition forces struggle to weaken the Taliban, they insist that the key to doing so lies in bolstering Afghan institutions. Yet with government rule confined to certain densely populated areas, U.S. officials rely on strongmen who can maintain order in the most treacherous locales, even if their commitment to formal governance is dubious.
That inconsistency is causing unease in Washington, where Congress is scrutinizing payments of U.S. tax dollars to warlords who protected NATO convoys, and in Kabul, where critics fear that a U.S.-backed plan for village defense groups could spawn rogue militias or undermine government authority.
"In that scenario, the Afghan government doesn't gain any strength or legitimacy," one U.S. official working in Kandahar province said of alliances with strongmen who operate independently of the state. But, the official said, "we're on such a short timetable that people are looking and going, 'Oh, well. That area's stable -- full stop.' "
Common mission
The dynamic is present across this long-embattled nation, where former warlords are a dime a dozen and power is typically won with guns or money. Against that backdrop, Ghani is a minor player. With an AK-47 slung over his bony shoulder, he lords over 3,000 acres of his ancestors' farmland.
But Ghani's area, which includes three villages along the fertile Arghandab River, has suddenly become the focus of U.S. forces' latest push to defeat the Taliban. It lies along a critical entry point into Kandahar city used by the Taliban as a supply route, and government leadership here has long been feeble.
So Ghani and his force of about 40 "soldiers" -- he has about 50 more in reserve -- are vital partners, according to U.S. troops, who said the force might eventually be incorporated into the new village defense plan.
American soldiers and the district governor say that only some of Ghani's men have law enforcement training but that the local police chief, an ally of Ghani, equips them all with uniforms and weapons anyway. On a recent day at Ghani's leafy compound, a few uniformed fighters cleaned tables and served lunch to guests.
They are the closest thing in this area to an Afghan security force. The Afghan army soldiers set to share the U.S. outpost near Now Ruzi had not been deployed by early July. So when the Taliban ambushed Pazsterko's soldiers in late June, Ghani's police helped fight them off. After a roadside bomb detonated near the village, Ghani called in elders and menacingly told them to make sure it did not happen again.
Ghani is "one of the few people who does feel that responsibility" to fight the Taliban, said Capt. Paul N. DeLeon, 29, commander of Combat Outpost Durkin.
That is partly because his lifestyle would be fairly incompatible with Taliban rule. On Ghani's land is a vast field of hashish, which he insists he does not smoke. He offers guests whiskey, though his preferred drink is Red Bull imported from Thailand. He shows off scars from 30 years battling the Soviets and the Taliban under the command of Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf, a former Northern Alliance leader whose fighters have been accused of committing atrocities in the 1990s.
He parades a white horse that he says belonged to Taliban founder Mohammad Omar until 2001, when he fled U.S. forces. One of Omar's laborers passed it to a cleric, who gave it to Ghani as a spoil of war.
"I am the only one who can keep this horse. Only people who have a weapon can keep this horse," Ghani said of the animal, whose mane and tail, like Ghani's hair, are streaked with henna. "If the Taliban sees this horse with anyone else, they will shoot him."
'It's not Switzerland'
Ghani says his wealth comes from his land, which he leases to farmers, and from the "security services" he provides to a Japanese company operating the large gravel quarry on his property. Gravel blankets the U.S. outpost nearby -- a gift from Ghani.
His partnership has been rewarded. U.S. soldiers make sure his fighters have ammunition. Flowing through Ghani's carefully tended garden is a gurgling canal, a project recently completed by the U.S. Agency for International Development that beautified a public park on his land. Outside, construction on the schoolhouse -- which U.S. troops refer to as "Haji Ghani's school" -- is almost done.
Yet DeLeon said the builders regularly complain that Ghani beats them when he is dissatisfied with their work. Farther west on Highway 1, Afghan army Capt. Safi Ahmad, 36, said truckers complain that Ghani's police demand illegal tolls and "torture" those who cannot pay. "By working with him, we're essentially enabling him," DeLeon said.
But DeLeon and NATO officials said they hold out hope that Ghani and others like him will serve as links between the population and the government, even though true government authority would probably work against the strongmen's interests.
"This is southern Afghanistan. It's not Switzerland," said Richard Berthon, the Kandahar-based director of stability for international forces in Afghanistan. "This place is always going to be a combination of the new constitutional and traditional tribal structures and mechanisms. And when things work they tend to be a bit of an amalgam of those two playing off each other."
So far, that does not appear to be happening. Ghani says the district governor, Karim Jan, is too "inexperienced" to be taken seriously as a leader. Jan, for his part, said Ghani spreads rumors denigrating leaders of rival tribes.
Even so, in this Taliban-riddled area, the unorthodox power dynamics are better than the alternative. Soldiers at an outpost visible across the river are ambushed almost daily, and their local power broker is ambivalent about helping.
Over slices of watermelon on a recent afternoon, Ghani pleaded with DeLeon to allow his militia to clear Taliban fighters from the area west of his land to Combat Post Ashoque, which he insisted he could do in one day.
DeLeon assured him U.S. soldiers wanted that, too, but said first they must make sure there were enough Afghan soldiers or police to set up checkpoints in the cleared area.
"I'd like to take it slow, so they feel pressure from all sides," DeLeon said. "Then we'll take them out all at once."
Ghani reluctantly agreed, but then he pressed again. He had just one condition.
"I will clear this area, I guarantee," Ghani said with a smirk. "But during the operation, just don't ask me, 'Why did you arrest somebody? Why did you kill somebody?' "

Bloomberg: U.S. Says Settling South China Sea Disputes 'Leading Diplomatic Priority'

July 23, 2010

By Daniel Ten Kate and Nicole Gaouette, Bloomberg News

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said resolving territorial disputes in waters off China’s coast is “a leading diplomatic priority” as the U.S. strengthens Asian defense ties in the face of a Chinese naval buildup.

Ending disagreements in the South China Sea “is pivotal to regional stability,” Clinton told the 27-member Asean Regional Forum in Hanoi today, according to a transcript provided by the State Department. She is set to meet later today with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.

Clinton yesterday discussed military cooperation with Vietnam and Defense Secretary Robert Gates restored ties with special forces in Indonesia. The two countries border the South China Sea, which contains sea corridors vital to world trade, and where U.S. officials say China has become more assertive.

China considers the entire South China Sea as its own, dismissing rival claims, and is building a blue-water fleet to project power beyond its own borders. China told some international oil and gas companies to halt exploration in offshore areas that Vietnam considers part of its territory, a U.S. official told Congress last year.

“The United States supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion,” Clinton said. “We oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant.”

President Barack Obama invited leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to Washington in the autumn for a second summit with the bloc, Clinton said. Asean includes Myanmar, which Clinton criticized for locking up political prisoners and possibly violating United Nations resolutions concerning North Korea.

China formally disputed the claims of Vietnam and Malaysia to part of the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands when it submitted a map to the United Nations last year asserting ownership over most of the sea. Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan also lay claim to all or part of the island chain, which may contain oil and gas reserves.

Asean foreign ministers are negotiating an agreement with China on a code of conduct in the sea to build on a 2002 accord that called for disputes to be resolved peacefully. Ministers hope the deal can be concluded by year’s end and be improved at a later date, Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said yesterday.

Open shipping lanes in the sea are “really the lifeline of our commerce, of our transport for all of us,” Surin told reporters in Hanoi. China, Japan and South Korea “recognize that 85 to 90 percent of their energy source comes either from or through Southeast Asia,” he said.

Estimates of oil and gas reserves vary, with some Chinese studies suggesting the waters contain more oil than Iran and more natural gas than Saudi Arabia, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Exxon Mobil Corp. and BP Plc are among companies that have halted projects in the sea because of China’s objections, according to U.S. government agencies.

The U.S. plans to “facilitate initiatives and confidence-building measures” to bridge the gap between parties in the sea, which stretches from Singapore to the Strait of Taiwan, Clinton said, without elaborating. China cut off military ties with the U.S. in January over arms sales to Taiwan.

Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said two days ago that the inability to speak directly with Chinese military leaders was a cause for concern.

China’s long-term military ambition is “not open, it’s not transparent,” he told U.S. troops in South Korea. “Where are they headed and why?”

China doesn’t see U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province, as “normal,” General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, said in Singapore last month.

“The development of China’s national defense capabilities is not aimed at challenging, threatening or invading any other country but at, first and foremost, maintaining its own security,” he said.

Chinese officials told U.S. counterparts in March they consider the sea a “core interest” on par with Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, Kyodo News reported on July 3, citing unidentified officials.

China has criticized joint naval drills between the U.S. and South Korea aimed at deterring North Korea, which the two countries blame for sinking a South Korean warship in March in an attack that killed 46 people.