Friday, January 01, 2010

Pakistan Warns Against Hasty Afghan Pullout

Pakistan warned the US-led coalition on Thursday against a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, expressing renewed concern about growing instability on its militant-infested border. Nuclear-armed Pakistan is Washington's ally on the frontline of the war against Al-Qaeda and under mounting US pressure to crack down on Islamist militants who use its soil to launch attacks in neighbouring Afghanistan. "The decision to leave Afghanistan should be taken when it is able to look after itself effectively," Pakistan's foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Basit told a press briefing. Pakistan enters 2010 after a year of rising casualties and worsening Taliban attacks in its cities and northwest, which have killed 2,800 people in 29 months, according to an tally. Washington is urging Pakistan to crack down on militant strongholds along its border, but US President Barack Obama unnerved many officials by vowing to begin drawing down US forces in Afghanistan in July 2011. "Coalition forces should not leave Afghanistan in haste," Basit said. Islamabad is concerned that President Barack Obama's plans to send 30,000 more US troops into Afghanistan might see militants flee into Pakistan's troubled northwest and southern border regions. "There are some concerns and we are in discussions with the US over these concerns," Basit said. Pakistan saw a flood of Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants enter its lawless borderlands after a US-led invasion ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001 and security has drastically deteriorated in the last eight years. Afghan and US officials suspect Pakistan's powerful military is sponsoring the Afghan Taliban, preparing for the day US troops leave so Islamabad can exercise influence over a Taliban government to offset regional superpower India. Pakistani commandos raided a private hospital before dawn Thursday in a Taliban stronghold near the Afghan border, killing four foreign militants and a woman, officials said.Troops laid siege to the private clinic in Wana, the main town of South Waziristan, at 2:00 am (2100 GMT) sparking gun battles until around 7:00 am (0200 GMT), local administration and intelligence officials said. A security official said the raid followed a tip-off that wounded militants were brought to the hospital from Sherwangi, a Taliban-dominated area where Pakistan has been pressing a major offensive. "Commandos and security forces raided the hospital. Militants fired on the troops and in the gunfight, which lasted more than four hours, four militants and a woman were killed, while 22 others were arrested," said the official. "One soldier was also injured. The three dead militants appear to be Arabs and one of Sudanese origin," the official added. South Waziristan is part of Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal belt on the Afghan border that Washington has branded the most dangerous region in the world and a chief sanctuary for Al-Qaeda while it plots attacks on the West. Last October, Pakistan launched its most ambitious offensive to date in its tribal belt, fighting on three fronts against Tehreek-e-Taliban in its South Waziristan stronghold, where the military says it has killed 663 militants. Militants on Thursday blew up two boys' schools in Bajaur, in the northern tip of the tribal belt, administration official Muhammad Jameel Khan told reporters. Elsewhere, gunmen ambushed two vehicles carrying fuel for NATO forces in Afghanistan, killing a driver and his helper in the Qalat district of the southwestern province of Baluchistan, which borders Afghanistan and Iran. "A driver and his helper were killed, and another driver and helper were wounded when unknown gunmen opened fire at them in overnight attacks," local police official Abdul Hameed told reporters. Hundreds of people have died since Baluch insurgents rose up in 2004 demanding autonomy and a greater share of the profits from natural resources. NATO and US-led forces in landlocked Afghanistan are hugely dependent on Pakistan for supplies, with about 80 percent passing through Pakistan.