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Editorials | Article | Middle | Oped

EDITORIALS

Saving Tamil refugees
Major humanitarian effort is a dire need
W
HILE the back of the battle-scarred LTTE has been effectively broken by the Sri Lankan army and the defeat of the Tamil Tigers is imminent, there is cause for worry over the plight of the swelling ranks of refugees who have successfully come out of the “no war zone”, braving strong-arm LTTE attempts to hold them back.

Maya-speak
Harsh language vitiates the atmosphere
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati is endowed with a capability of liberally using harsh language against her political opponents. But she must be more circumspect while pouring venom on high constitutional authorities like the Election Commissioners.

RBI cuts rates
Still, cheaper loans are hard to get
T
HE RBI has, once again, given a clear message to the banks not to keep their money with them and instead lend it to customers. The latest repo (lending) and reverse repo (borrowing) rate cuts carry this message. It has cut the repo rate for the sixth time in seven months.



EARLIER STORIES

Eye in the sky
April
22, 2009
Threat to Kashmir voters
April
21, 2009
Aid for Pakistan
April
20, 2009
Voting for democracy
April
19, 2009
Democracy alive and well
April
18, 2009

Polls now, tie-ups later
April
17, 2009

A state within a state
April
16, 2009
Not by violence
April
15, 2009
Heed the EC
April
14, 2009
Criminal cases on the rise
April
13, 2009


ARTICLE

Tide of Talibanisation
Time is running out for Pakistan
by Sushant Sareen
T
HE rapidly spreading jihadi gangrene seems to have finally reached Pakistan’s heart — Punjab. But, despite some very high-profile terror attacks in the province during the last few weeks — the assault on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, the attack on the police training school in Manavan, the bombing of a Shia Imambargah in Chakwal and the ever-present threat of a terrorist strike in Islamabad — the seriousness of the malady afflicting Pakistan doesn’t seem to have registered on the denizens of the country.

MIDDLE

The great intruder
by Vivek Atray
I
N a world that has been invaded by modern gadgets, the mobile phone may not be the most complicated one on view, but it is surely the most intrusive. Handy for sure, even life-saving at times, and excellent at never letting one feel alone, the cell phone is truly a symbol of our “connected” times. Gone are the days when we used to search for a friend at a railway station, or used to wonder when a loved one would return home.

OPED

Tax misery and India
Forbes index does not reveal the real picture
by Janak Raj Gupta
American business magazine Forbes has reported that in the 2009 world list India tops the tax misery index (The Tribune, April 6), thereby creating an erroneous impression that our tax structure is perhaps regressive, pro-rich and unfriendly, inflicting unbearable miseries on the citizens.

Cloned babies expected
by Steve Connor
A
controversial fertility doctor claims to have cloned 14 human embryos and transferred 11 of them into the wombs of four women who had been prepared to give birth to cloned babies.

Obama to host Afghan, Pak Presidents
by Karen DeYoung
T
HE presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan will travel to Washington early next month for meetings with President Obama as the administration struggles against daunting hurdles to implement its new strategy for the region.





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Saving Tamil refugees
Major humanitarian effort is a dire need

WHILE the back of the battle-scarred LTTE has been effectively broken by the Sri Lankan army and the defeat of the Tamil Tigers is imminent, there is cause for worry over the plight of the swelling ranks of refugees who have successfully come out of the “no war zone”, braving strong-arm LTTE attempts to hold them back. Official figures show that by Wednesday morning as many as 80,000 people had crossed over to the government-controlled safe zone, taking the total since January to a whopping 1,50,200 civilians. In large part, it is the treatment that the Rajapakse government metes out to these hapless people who are in acute penury that will determine the success or failure of the Sri Lankan government’s professed resolve to absorb the Tamil masses into the country’s mainstream and to prevent the country from slipping into Tamil militancy again.

The Rajapakse administration will indeed be on test in coming weeks on the sincerity of its claims and actions. As the UN Secretary-General indicated on Tuesday, it is time the UN staff was allowed into the conflict zone to facilitate relief operations and the evacuation of civilians. The government has so far resisted that but if the refugees are to be saved from mass deaths due to starvation, disease and the vagaries of weather, the UN High Commission for Refugees and the Red Cross will have to take up the effort in a big way.

India must also step up humanitarian aid considerably to ward off a catastrophe. Even in the context of the emotional bond between Tamils of Sri Lanka and India, a major Indian humanitarian effort would help erase the deep sense of hurt that prevails in a section of Indian Tamils over the Indian government’s “inadequate” response to the situation. That this feeling has been consciously nurtured by some political leaders for electoral gains in undeniable. At the same time, India must push hard for greater devolution of power to the Tamils in Tamil-majority districts as the ultimate solution after the current end-game has been played out.

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Maya-speak
Harsh language vitiates the atmosphere

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati is endowed with a capability of liberally using harsh language against her political opponents. But she must be more circumspect while pouring venom on high constitutional authorities like the Election Commissioners. On Tuesday, she went too far and accused the Election Commission members of working as agents of the Congress. She did not stop even at that, and accused Election Commissioner SY Quraishi of having “interests in UP” and charged him with being close to a Congress leader. Such wild allegations are unbecoming of the position that she holds. She is flying off the handle merely because the Election Commission transferred Jaunpur’s ASP, Circle Officer and in-charge of the Line Bazar police station despite the state government having given a clean chit to the Jaunpur district administration for the death of Indian Justice Party candidate Bahadur Sonkar.

It is well known that Ms Mayawati does not like to be questioned about what she says and does, but what she needs to realise is that nobody is above the law and the Election Commission is very much within its powers to ensure that no election violence takes place. Her attaching motives to it does not seem to be warranted. This is not the first time she is doing this, but that does not decrease the gravity of the controversial allegations in any way. She should cooperate with the Election Commission instead of attacking it.

Since she gets away with such uttering against the Election Commission, she has no qualms about accusing her opponents of conspiring to kill her. Once again, she has said that “I would not rule out opposition parties trying to forge communal or terrorist violence or even killing me during the campaign”. Such charges are understandable if made by an irresponsible small-time “neta”. But the Chief Minister of a state, who has prime ministerial ambitious, is supposed to weigh her words.

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RBI cuts rates
Still, cheaper loans are hard to get

THE RBI has, once again, given a clear message to the banks not to keep their money with them and instead lend it to customers. The latest repo (lending) and reverse repo (borrowing) rate cuts carry this message. It has cut the repo rate for the sixth time in seven months. Still, auto or home loans have not become cheaper as newspaper headlines tend to suggest, at least to the extent desired by the RBI and the government. Both the RBI Governor and the Prime Minister have urged the banks off and on to cut interest rates so that consumer demand and the economy get a boost. However, banks have lowered interest rates on loans for consumers and industries to a very limited extent.

There are three main reasons why banks are not cutting interest rates. One, the economic slowdown has increased chances of repayment defaults. Bank managers at the branch level avoid taking risk as they fear bad loans could jeopardise their promotion chances and subject them to vigilance enquiries. Two, the government itself is on a borrowing spree to fund its stimulus packages. Whatever additional liquidity is released in the system by the RBI rate cuts is absorbed by the government. Besides, banks feel safe in lending to the government. Three, to slash interest rates, banks will have to first cut their deposit rates. Banks are slow in cutting deposit rates.

As banks opt to play safe, the economic scenario gets bleaker. The RBI has pegged the GDP growth rate for 2009-10 at 6 per cent, which is the weakest in seven years. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is lately more upbeat about the economy as he expects it to grow at 6.5 to 7 per cent, deflation or recession notwithstanding. Much will depend on how effectively the next government at the Centre handles the economy and, more importantly, itself.

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Thought for the Day

Impropriety is the soul of wit.

— W. Somerset Maugham

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Tide of Talibanisation
Time is running out for Pakistan
by Sushant Sareen

THE rapidly spreading jihadi gangrene seems to have finally reached Pakistan’s heart — Punjab. But, despite some very high-profile terror attacks in the province during the last few weeks — the assault on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, the attack on the police training school in Manavan, the bombing of a Shia Imambargah in Chakwal and the ever-present threat of a terrorist strike in Islamabad — the seriousness of the malady afflicting Pakistan doesn’t seem to have registered on the denizens of the country. The people, the political establishment and the permanent establishment remain in denial on the real source of threat to the existence of the Pakistani state. What is worse, even when the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks accept responsibility for their actions, doubts are cast over the authenticity of these claims. It is almost as if the Pakistani people don’t want to accept that the Islamic warriors that they have nurtured, supported and sponsored for so many years have now turned on them.

A Nazi mindset that treats non-Muslims as Untermensch and refuses to believe that Muslims can also engage in the worst forms of barbarity against fellow Muslims has left most Pakistanis desperate to find an American, Israeli or Indian hand behind all the terror attacks. After all, how can a “patriotic Pakistani” like Baitullah Mehsud – a certificate handed to the man by none other than the current chief of the ISI, Lt-Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha – kill other equally patriotic Pakistanis?

Part of the problem is, of course, the warped definition of patriotism in Pakistan. Mass murderers, religious fanatics and self-acknowledged terrorists like Baitullah Mehsud, Mullah Fazlullah, Sufi Muhammad, Gul Bahadur, Mullah Nazir, Masood Azhar, Hafiz Saeed and Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi are all “patriotic” Pakistanis simply because they spout venom against India and Hindus (also America, Israel and every other non-Muslim country and community), and are ever ready to massacre non-Muslims. That many of these people might also be responsible for bombing Pakistani security forces, beheading kidnapped Shia military personnel (the Sunnis are generally spared beheadings), burning down girls schools, lashing, raping and murdering female students and workers is par for the course for most Pakistanis so long as these people are unequivocally anti-India and ready to ally with the Pakistan Army in confronting India. Such is the anti-India neurosis that an individual who justifies the actions of these terrorists on grounds of unaddressed grievances, revenge, national liberation struggle, lack of development and gainful employment, social injustice and what have you, will demand instant retribution on the same terrorists if it is insinuated that they acted on the behest of the “hated” Indians or Americans.

Part of the problem is also that even if the Pakistani authorities correctly identify the culprits, there is very little they can do to punish them. The Pakistani state has ceased to exist in large swathes of territory of the country. For instance, the Pakistan Army has already ceded control of North and South Waziristan to Baitullah-led Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the newly formed Shura Ittehad-ul-Mujahideen (SIM). The Swat valley and the rest of Malakand division have for all practical purposes emerged as an independent emirate. The army has declared victory in Bajaur and stopped military operations (it wasn’t politically sell-able for them to capitulate before the Taliban yet again without first declaring victory). The Taliban writ runs in most districts of the NWFP, and their influence is now extending to the Pashtun areas of Balochistan.

The relentless advance of the Taliban has certainly been aided by the fact that the Pakistan Army seems to have neither the heart nor the stomach for fighting them and has all but thrown in the towel in the trans-Indus areas. Of course, a show of sorts is still being put up to convince the world that Pakistan is seriously combating the militant Islamists. But this is at best a rear-guard containment action rather than any serious effort to destroy their bases and sanctuaries. At worst, it is a cover for the sinister moves of the ISI, which is now actively engaged in supporting the Taliban’s war effort.

This double-game is partly a tacit admission of the ideological and military dominance of the Taliban. But more importantly, it is an outcome of the hubris of the Pakistan Army. The top brass of the Army suffers from the delusion that it can contain the militant Islamist contagion as and when it decides to do so. Until such time, the Pakistan Army would like to use these elements for fulfilling its grand strategic objectives —- dominance of Afghanistan, defeat of the US and destruction of India.

This very flawed and self-destructive strategic outlook has led to a situation in which the war front has steadily advanced and expanded from the frontier regions to the heartland – Punjab, which a senior Pakistani police official describes as “Pakistan’s controlling authority”. In other words, not only are Pakistan’s extremities but also its head and heart being attacked by the Islamic insurgents. Shockingly, despite being in the midst of a war, Pakistanis are still debating whether this is a war they should be fighting at all. They have worked themselves into a psychosis where, if a referendum is held today, an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis will vote in favour of making peace with the militant Islamists (Taliban) regardless of the terms of such a peace deal, much less its devastating consequences on their relations with the US and the rest of the world.

Pakistan’s biggest problem is no longer that the state is fast losing the ability and capacity to reverse the tide of Talibanisation. The problem really is that the national security machinery is still focussed on the imagined threat from India instead of the clear and present threat from within. Not surprisingly then, the Pakistan Army is not willing to redeploy its troops from the eastern border with India, which is quiet and stable, to the western border with Afghanistan which is highly disturbed and is destabilising the entire region. It is almost as if the Pakistani security establishment is more worried about protecting is backyard – Afghanistan – from the growing Indian influence even if this is at the cost of its house burning down!

The alarming rise in the power of the Islamists is now being felt in the areas that were believed to be insulated from their baleful influence. Aiding and assisting the Pashtun Taliban are the Punjabi Taliban, most of who hail from South Punjab but have a network spread across the length and breadth of the province. They have already demonstrated their ability to strike whenever, wherever and at whatever they choose to target. With the army already having backed off from confronting the Islamists, it is now the turn of the police and the paramilitary forces to come into the crosshair of the Taliban guns. And it won’t take long for the Taliban to subdue a demoralised, outgunned and under-motivated police force. After that it will be the turn of the politicians, businessmen, media professionals and civil society activists.

Clearly, the Taliban monster is on a roll in Pakistan. As of now, even on the horizon there is nothing to challenge it ideologically and theologically, or obstruct it militarily from imposing its domination over the Pakistani state and society. But time is running out so fast that unless a forceful counter-Taliban movement gets underway within the next few days and weeks, it might be too late to save Pakistan from being consumed by a monster they created to consume their neighbours.

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The great intruder
by Vivek Atray

IN a world that has been invaded by modern gadgets, the mobile phone may not be the most complicated one on view, but it is surely the most intrusive. Handy for sure, even life-saving at times, and excellent at never letting one feel alone, the cell phone is truly a symbol of our “connected” times. Gone are the days when we used to search for a friend at a railway station, or used to wonder when a loved one would return home.

This feeling of being available 24/7 is unsettling, however, for many of us. Those moments of “doing nothing” are gone, for one tends to text-message a friend instead of staring into the sky, as one used to. This disease of being compelled to fiddle with one’s hand-set has certainly put paid to those peaceful times.

There are those who are very adept at using the little devil, and pride themselves in being able to utilise every feature it has to offer. A friend of mine falls into this category. Every time one meets him, he has a new piece, and does not fail to enlighten me about the exciting new capabilities that it has to offer. It enables its proud owner to email, organise, calculate, remind, play music, play games, and take pictures, store files, and record videos. I have no doubt that he takes it to bed and to his bath. His wife is obviously unhappy at such unwarranted competition.

Some others are more wary of these meddlers. They switch them off whenever they can (if they know how to). So potent is the little intruder that it can start making all kinds of noises at the most unlikely of times. At conferences where silence is of the essence, one invariably hears “Jhalak Dikhla Ja” in full earshot of all concerned, leading to many a glare and a wince, depending on whether one happens to be the offended or the offender.

What took the cake, however, was the total cacophony on a recent train journey. There were two worthies who were intent on outdoing each other in the loudness with which they spoke into their hand-phones. One was on about his wife, and was complaining to his friend endlessly about her lack of attention to his welfare.

The other was the fiery sort, and was intent upon scaring the wits out of his subordinates. His use of profanities became so profound that one or two courageous types actually requested him to lower his voice. That was the last straw for our loud-mouthed friend who was already on a short fuse. He turned his attention to the interfering parties in no uncertain terms. It took the entire set of passengers in the coach 30 minutes to subdue him!

My wife is the only person I have come across who is unruffled by any disturbance resulting from any mobile. She keeps her own set either switched off, or in silent mode, and never responds to calls from anyone! She claims that her phone is only for her to call whomsoever she wishes to. Such bliss!

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Tax misery and India
Forbes index does not reveal the real picture
by Janak Raj Gupta

American business magazine Forbes has reported that in the 2009 world list India tops the tax misery index (The Tribune, April 6), thereby creating an erroneous impression that our tax structure is perhaps regressive, pro-rich and unfriendly, inflicting unbearable miseries on the citizens.

According to Forbes, “The tax misery index annually sums up the top rates faced by a successful enterprise not enjoying special tax favours.”

The misery index obviously does not consider many subsidies, tax benefits and tax holidays being enjoyed by many corporate houses, including those in special economic zones.

The index also does not take into account many other taxes such as customs duties, excise duty, service tax and property tax.

Besides, there is no mention of public expenditure to know what citizens of more “miserable” countries are getting for their tax contribution in the form of improved and subsidised housing, healthcare, education, employment guarantees, social security, poverty alleviation programmes, etc.

As reported, India’s total score in the tax misery index is 113.4 points, where corporate tax (42 points) and personal income tax (34 points) are the main contributors. VAT/sales tax contributes 12.4 points while 24 points come from employer/employee social security charges and one point is contributed by wealth tax.

However, the picture revealed by Forbes is lopsided. Of the total combined current receipts of the Central and state governments taxes and non-tax sources constitute 83.7 and 16.3 per cent, respectively.

Since the inception of economic reforms in 1991 India has been pursuing a more rational and equitable tax structure. The dependence on indirect taxes, which hit the poor more than the rich because of uniform rates irrespective of the income levels, is on the wane. Through successive budgets the direct-indirect tax ratio has improved from 20:80 in the nineties to nearly 50:50 in 2008-2009.

Obviously, India has been pursuing a progressive tax policy as the burden of direct taxes is positively related with the level of income. Simultaneously, India is also trying to adopt a more rational and simplified tax rate structure.

In case of income tax the number of slabs has been reduced just to three and the maximum net rate is 30 per cent. Similarly, the peak rate of customs duty has been reduced from 300 per cent to just 25 per cent.

In case of union excise duty not only the number of slabs has been reduced, even the peak duties have been consistently cut. Then, in view of the ever-growing service sector, which now occupies 54-55 per cent share in GNP, the service tax was introduced in the 1994-1995 budget.

Considering the cascading and other ill- effects of sales tax, it was converted into uniform VAT with effect from April 1, 2005. Now even this dual structure of tax on goods and services is being transformed into a single tax by levying GST (goods and service tax) from April 1, 2010. And this task is being handled by the Empowered Committee of State Finance Ministers, the 13th Finance Commission and the Commission on Centre-State Relations.

One important implication of the Forbes tax misery index, however, is the fact that in view of the changed global environment our corporate tax system requires urgent reforms, though in the post-reform period the peak rate has been slashed from 50 per cent to 40 per cent.

But then everyone knows how difficult is to collect taxes from the corporate and business houses, who have evolved their own tax havens. Forbes may be right that in order to “attract capital and talent” we should lower the corporate tax rates. But there is the need to check loopholes and adopt stringent measures in case of tax evasion.

Coming back to the Forbes tax misery index, “From 2008 to 2009 India saw its rise by 24 points as a result of hikes in social security charges”. Forbes admits that “this move is a part of a trend in Asia toward increasing social security coverage to a level comparable to that in Europe”.

What is the harm if India widens its social security cover? As per a study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), nearly 370 million people in India do not have “formal social security”, which translates into nine out of 10 employees in the country working without such benefits.

In fact, social welfare schemes like NREGA, debt write-off, etc. can claim the credit for partly insulating the Indian economy from world-wide recession.

Then one significant observation of Forbes that “India still maintains a relatively low rank of 23rd least friendly tax climate in this year’s Tax Misery Index” has gone unnoticed. This, in fact, is our improvement from 35th rank in the 2008 list.

We can conclude that Forbes tax misery index does not reveal the true picture about tax and investment environment of a country. It has nothing to do with subsidies and tax havens providing secrecy to bank accounts, thereby promoting black money.

It ignores progressivity or regressivity of a tax system. Then benefits from public expenditure to citizens are also not taken into consideration. In fact, the Forbes tax misery tax conceals more than it reveals.

The writer is a former Professor and UGC Emeritus Fellow, Department of Economics, Punjabi University, Patiala.

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Cloned babies expected
by Steve Connor

A controversial fertility doctor claims to have cloned 14 human embryos and transferred 11 of them into the wombs of four women who had been prepared to give birth to cloned babies.

The cloning was recorded by an independent documentary film-maker who has testified to The Independent that the cloning had taken place and that the women were genuinely hoping to become pregnant with the first cloned embryos specifically created for the purposes of human reproduction.

Panayiotis Zavos has broken the ultimate taboo of transferring cloned embryos into the human womb, a procedure that is a criminal offence in Britain and illegal in many other countries. He carried out the work at a secret lab-oratory, probably located in the Middle East where there is no cloning ban. Dr Zavos, a naturalised American, also has fertility clinics in Kentucky and Cyprus, where he was born. His patients – three married couples and a single woman – came from Britain, the United States and an unspecified country in the Middle East.

None of the embryo transfers led to a viable pregnancy but Dr Zavos said that this was just the "first chapter" in his ongoing and serious attempts at producing a baby cloned from the skin cells of its "parent".

"There is absolutely no doubt about it, and I may not be the one that does it, but the cloned child is coming. There is absolutely no way that it will not happen," Dr Zavos said in an interview on Tuesday with The Independent.

"If we intensify our efforts we can have a cloned baby within a year or two, but I don't know whether we can intensify our efforts to that extent. We're not really under pressure to deliver a cloned baby to this world. What we are under pressure to do is to deliver a cloned baby that is a healthy one," he said.

His claims are certain to be denounced by mainstream fertility scientists who in 2004 tried to gag Dr Zavos by imploring the British media not to give him the oxygen of publicity without him providing evidence to back up his statements.

Despite a lower profile over the past five years, scores of couples have now approached Dr Zavos hoping that he will help them to overcome their infertility by using the same cloning technique that was used to create Dolly the sheep in 1996.

"I get enquiries every day. To date we have had over 100 enquiries and every enquiry is serious. The criteria is that they have to consider human reproductive cloning as the only option available to them after they have exhausted everything else," Dr Zavos said.

"We are not interested in cloning the Michael Jordans and the Michael Jacksons of this world. The rich and the famous don't participate in this."

It took 277 attempts to create Dolly but since then the cloning procedure in animals has been refined and it has now become more efficient, although most experts in the field believe that it is still too dangerous to be allowed as a form of human fertility treatment. Dr Zavos dismissed these fears saying that many of the problems related to animal cloning – such as congenital defects and oversized offspring - have been minimised.

Dr Zavos also revealed that he has produced cloned embryos of three dead people, including a 10-year-old child called Cady, who died in a car crash. He did so after being asked by grieving relatives if he could create biological clones of their loved ones.

Dr Zavos fused cells taken from these corpses not with human eggs but with eggs taken from cows that had their own genetic material removed. He did this to create a human-animal hybrid "model" that would allow him to study the cloning procedure.

Dr Zavos emphasised that it was never his intention to transfer any of these hybrid embryos into the wombs of women, despite Cady's mother saying she would sanction this if there was any hope of her child's clone being born.

The little girl who could 'live' again

Little Cady died aged 10 in a car crash in the US. Her blood cells were frozen and sent to Dr Zavos, who fused them with cow eggs to create cloned human-animal hybrid embryos.

These hybrid embryos were developed in the test tube and used to study the cloning process, but were not transferred into a human womb, despite Cady's mother saying she would sanction this if there was a chance the clone of her little girl could be born. Dr Zavos said he would never transfer hybrid animal clones into the human womb.

However, cells from Cady's "embryo" could in the future be extracted from the frozen hybrid embryo and fused with an empty human egg with its nucleus removed. This double cloning process could produce a human embryo that Dr Zavos said could be transferred into the womb to produce Cady's clone.

— By arrangement with The Independent

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Obama to host Afghan, Pak Presidents
by Karen DeYoung

THE presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan will travel to Washington early next month for meetings with President Obama as the administration struggles against daunting hurdles to implement its new strategy for the region.

The visits, on May 6 and 7, will elevate to summit level a trilateral exchange begun by the administration with senior aides from each government in late February. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai will meet separately with Obama, and the three will also sit down together, officials said Tuesday.

The administration considers cooperation between the two often-estranged governments crucial to the success of its Afghanistan-Pakistan policy. The Pakistani side of their shared border harbors a growing network of extremist groups, including al-Qaida and the Taliban, providing sanctuary for fighters combating U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and launching terrorist attacks inside Pakistan itself.

Obama has emphasized that the two countries should be considered in a single strategic framework. But administration officials have made clear that their deepest and most immediate concern is Pakistan, where the stability of the civilian government and its ability to withstand the extremist onslaught is increasingly in doubt.

Worries were heightened last week when Zardari approved an agreement authorizing sharia, or Islamic law, in the Swat Valley – just 100 miles west of the capital, Islamabad – after the Pakistani military failed to rout Taliban fighters there.

With no U.S. military forces on the ground in Pakistan, the administration has fashioned a policy based on diplomatic backing for the civilian government, close mentoring and support of the Pakistani military, aerial-drone-launched missile attacks on terrorism targets, and vastly increased economic assistance focused on the western Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

At a Pakistan donors conference in Tokyo on Friday, the administration pledged $1 billion in economic aid in anticipation that Congress will approve a $7.5 billion, five-year package of assistance along with $3 billion in military equipment and training. A bill authorizing the aid has already been introduced in the House, although with conditions that both the administration and the Pakistanis find too restrictive.

In what administration officials considered a bright spot at the conference, Iran also pledged $350 million. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told the gathering that his country was worried about the deteriorating situation in the region, echoing the Obama administration's charge that its predecessor failed to develop a coherent strategy for the Afghan war. "We would not have been witnessing the current situation in Pakistan if appropriate policies had been pursued in Afghanistan over the last seven years," Mottaki said.

The administration is facing the beginning of the spring fighting season against Taliban forces in Afghanistan, as well as presidential elections there in August. Obama has already authorized the deployment of 21,000 additional U.S. troops and hundreds of new diplomatic and other civilian officials.

In an effort to centralize control over uncoordinated U.S. development, counter-narcotics and governance efforts in Afghanistan, the administration also plans to appoint an overseer of all U.S. civilian assistance programs there. The choice for the post, Earl Anthony Wayne, is currently the U.S. ambassador to Argentina and previously served as assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this week also ordered her department to review all U.S. Agency for International Development contracts in Afghanistan before they can be signed. Last week, the department opened an investigation of its largest Afghanistan contractor, Falls Church, Va.-based DynCorp International, following allegations of drug abuse among its employees.

— By arrangement with LA Times-Washington Post

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