Germany Sending Small Combat Unit to Afghanistan

The German government said on Wednesday it will send a unit of combat troops to northern Afghanistan as part of a NATO Quick Reaction Force to replace a Norwegian unit of 250 soldiers. But it reiterated its rejection of US and NATO calls to deploy troops to help its allies fight the Taliban in the south.

German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung has praised the performance of German troops in Afghanistan.

The German government on Wednesday rejected accusations from NATO allies that it wasn’t bearing its fair share of the burden in Afghanistan and reiterated its refusal of a US request for German troops to be deployed from the relatively peaceful north to help fight a Taliban insurgency in the south.

German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said Germany was already the third-biggest troop provider in Afghanistan and that redeploying troops away from the north would be a “decisive mistake.”

He did however repeat Germany’s vague pledge to provide its NATO allies with military assistance when required, and announced that Germany will be sending a unit of combat troops to northern Afghanistan to replace the 250-strong Norwegian Quick Reaction Force being withdrawn.

“I want to make clear that we will continue our mission in the north which I think our soldiers are carrying out very successfully,” Jung told a news conference in Berlin. “The regional division of responsibilities is clever and right. Neglecting the north would be a decisive mistake. But I repeat that if friends are in trouble we’ll of course help them.”

Jung had already rejected calls for a redeployment of German forces last week from US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

Troops from the United States, Britain, Canada and the Netherlands are bearing the brunt of a resurgence of Taliban violence in southern Afghanistan. Canada has threatened to pull out unless other allies do more of the hard work.

Germany has around 3,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan. Under its parliamentary mandate, Germany can send up to 3,500 soldiers to the less violent north as part of the roughly 40,000-strong NATO International Security Assistance Force.

The US contributes a third of the ISAF mission, making it the largest participant, on top of the 12,000 to 13,000 American troops operating independently. The US plans to send an extra 3,200 Marines to Afghanistan this spring, including 2,200 combat troops to help the NATO-led force in the south.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice piled on further pressure on Wednesday, saying during a visit to London: “It’s true and we’ve made no secret about it that there are certain allies that are in more dangerous parts of the country and we believe very strongly that there ought to be a sharing of that burden throughout the alliance.”

“That said, I think we ought not to also dismiss the contributions that are being made by all alliance members,” she told reporters.

Canadian lawmaker Rick Casson, the defense policy spokesman for Canada’s ruling Conservative Party, said Germany should become more involved in Afghanistan. In an interview with Tagesspiegel am Sonntag newspaper published last Sunday, he said it was “decisive for the future of the Afghan mission and for the future of NATO that Germany and other countries become more strongly involved.”

But Jung said Germany was already stretched with its missions in Afghanistan and in Kosovo where it was the biggest international troop provider, and that it was committed to continuing its “comprehensive approach” — providing a combination of military security, development and reconstruction — in the north.

He added that Germany was already providing military assistance to NATO troops in the south in the form of Tornado jet reconnaissance flights and air transport.



Could Clinton and Obama Team Up?

With both candidates in what appears to be a dead heat, speculation of a possible dual ticket is heating up. The inconclusive results of Super Tuesday have made the notion even more attractive. Is it realistic or just a pipe dream?

The Democratic Party base can’t decide who it likes better: Obama or Clinton.

New Yorkers are inventive people, with a nose for new trends. Take, for example, the West Village, a bastion of intellectual culture where people were hanging anti-Bush posters in their windows at a time when the rest of the country was still cheerleading its way into a war. For the past few days, a prophetic campaign poster has been hanging on the door of a townhouse on West 12th Street. There are two names on it: “Clinton-Obama.”

Clinton-Obama — a duet instead of the duel that we’ve seen in this election up until now. Clinton-Obama as the Democratic Party’s dream team. The realist and the idealist, the pragmatist and the utopian, hand-in-hand in the White House. A dream, a nightmare, a wish or fantasy? Or could it be the Democrats’ true ticket to an election victory?

The only thing certain right now is that Super Tuesday, the date that was supposed to end with a clear candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, has not provided any conclusions. At least not in regard to who the nominee will be. The only clear thing is that the Democratic Party base can’t decide who it likes better. Forty-nine percent are for Clinton and 49 percent are for Obama. Whites, Latinos and the working class are standing behind Clinton. And African-Americans, young people and the bigger breadwinners are behind Obama.

Two against McCain

Together, they could be unbeatable. They could create a united front not even John McCain would stand a chance of beating — even in a Republican dream ticket together with Mike Huckabee.

Either way, these are historic times. The Democratic Party’s next candidate is either going to be a black man or a woman. And those two factors alone are already a sensation. So why not attempt a ticket that includes both? Or would it be too much for Americans to have representatives of two “minorities” leading the country?

Of course, there’s nothing novel about the idea. It’s been making its rounds in the media — at times the idea is naively ridiculed, at others those who cite it are brimming with hope. Talk-show host David Letterman became the first to raise the Clinton-Obama specter, to an audience of millions, when he had Obama as a guest on his show last April. Obama at the time hadn’t yet risen to his current popstar-like status.

“That would be a powerful ticket,” Letterman said, describing a Clinton-Obama match-up. Obama’s cool reply: “You don’t campaign to become No. 2.” End of discussion.

Of course, that was before Iowa, South Carolina and Super Tuesday. In state-by-state elections, American Democrats have been unable to pick a frontrunner. Instead, they seem to have their eyes set on two. At first, Clinton and Obama bickered terribly with one another, but when they stumbled into palpable resistance from the party base, both put their kid gloves back on again. During Thursday’s debate, Obama pulled Clinton’s chair out for her and even whispered, perhaps conspiratorially, into her ear, prompting both to laugh.

And the Oscar Goes To …

Has the whole thing been a show? After all, it’s in Hollywood where the scenes between the two have become less tense — in the dream factory on the occasion of the CNN debate at the Kodak Theater. On the Oscar stage, where many a brawling couple has whispered away its private disputes. And the Oscar goes to …

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer thinks there’s a chance of a dual ticket. At the most recent Democratic debate, he asked the candidates: “Would you consider an Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama ticket down the road?” That would depend, Obama said, on who would lead the ticket. Clinton didn’t answer at all.

Of course, there could only be one sequence: Clinton-Obama. Clinton, 60, would never allow herself to become Obama’s subordinate. So the only remaining question is whether Obama, with his message of healing, would be willing to subordinate himself to acerbic Hillary, who once supported him as a freshman senator but would later abandon him in an insulting manner after he announced his candidacy.

“If Obama wins almost as many states as she does,” Democratic campaign strategist Tad Devine correctly predicted before Super Tuesday, “there will be tremendous pressure for the two of them to combine their considerable resources and forces.”

It wouldn’t be the first time that political enemies have buried the hatchet in order to attain a common goal — with mixed results. Just look at John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson (1960) or John Kerry and John Edwards (2004).

The celebrity audience in the Kodak Theater clearly loved the idea. Blitzer could barely pose the question before singer Stevie Wonder sprang out of his aisle-side VIP seat.

The notion of combining Clinton’s pragmatism with Obama’s charisma, her success in the cities with his in the rural areas, thrills Democrats — and it makes the Republicans nervous. They suddenly see themselves confronted with a democratic version of the Reagan coalition. “That would be precisely the kind of ticket that would cause their side to sweat,” says a conservative advisor.

“Not a dream ticket,” retorts Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, Al Gore’s former campaign manager. “A fantasy ticket!” But this would fly in the face of all accepted wisdom on how these tickets are filled.

‘A New Chapter in History’

For one thing, vice-presidential candidates are supposed to offer political and demographic balance: liberal-moderate, doer-thinker, old-young. Particularly in the first category, the Clinton-Obama combination would be a bit of a stretch.

And secondly, they should strike a geographic balance. Here one could argue that Clinton represents the Northeast, but in fact she’s from the Midwest and lived for a long time in the South. Obama comes from the Midwest, but as an African-American, he has greater emotional resonance in the south.

Thirdly, the strengths and weaknesses of the two candidates should complement or cancel each other out. Clinton’s one great weakness is her tendency to polarize: She provokes hatred in many. Obama could counteract that. Her other major weakness is her hunger for power, and that’s something that Obama, if we’re to take him at his word, can neither negate nor accept. So, is it all just a dream?

In fact, it seems to be Obama who is teaching many Americans to dream again. Especially the younger generation, for whom the old rules of society and politics have long since ceased to apply: black versus white, right versus left, pragmatist versus visionary. If there’s ever been a time for new thinking — about the chances of certain tickets among other things — it would be now.

“We must write a new chapter in American history,” Obama said on Tuesday in a speech that was full of digs at Clinton. Because for the time being, it’s all about winning the next primary. Even if only in a bid to be co-author of this history book.

NATO Asks Germany to Send Combat Troops to Afghanistan

NATO has formally asked Germany to provide combat troops to replace the Norwegian Quick Reaction Force in northern Afghanistan. With Canada warning it will pull out if there is not more support from its NATO allies, the German military may see its role in the country change significantly.

Germany may have managed to avoid the most dangerous fighting in Afghanistan so far, but with NATO asking it to send in combat troops and Canada threatening to withdraw if more allies don’t come south, that may not be for long.

NATO has officially requested that Germany send combat troops to Afghanistan, a German Defense Ministry spokesman confirmed Tuesday. The request had been expected for some weeks and the German government had already indicated that it is ready to send the combat troops.

NATO is asking for up to 250 German soldiers to take over from the Norwegian Quick Reaction Force, which is stationed in the north of Afghanistan and is due to end its mission at the beginning of the summer. The Norwegian force has been responsible for providing security to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in the north.

The German government is expected to make its final decision at the beginning of February, and already insists that such a deployment is covered by the current mandate for Afghanistan. It says that the deployment would not differ fundamentally from the tasks currently carried out by the 3,500 German soldiers in relatively peaceful northern Afghanistan. However, there have been concerns in Germany that this could mark a significant change in the role of the Bundeswehr, or German military, from the reconstruction and training tasks it has carried out up to now.

German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, paying a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Tuesday, said a final decision had not been made. He held talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak and met with the ISAF commander Dan McNeill, who said that a German mission in the north of the country would be an important contribution.

While in Kabul, Jung criticized comments by Bernhard Gertz, head of the German army federation — a kind of trade union for the armed forces — who warned that the new deployment would be of a completely different quality. “I hope it doesn’t happen, but we have to be prepared to see comrades coming back in wooden boxes after this type of fighting,” Gertz told the newspaper BZ am Sonntag on Sunday. Jung rejected this kind of talk, saying there had always been risks involved in the deployment in Afghanistan, but that it was an important contribution to peace and stability.

Germany has come in for criticism from some of its NATO allies for not sending its troops to the dangerous south of the country where NATO troops are fighting a resurgent Taliban. Canada, in particular, has voiced its frustration that only a few countries are carrying the burden there, particularly Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

On Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that the country will only extend its mission in Afghanistan if another NATO country puts more soldiers in the south. Harper is under pressure to withdraw the troops after the deaths of 78 Canadian soldiers and one diplomat. “NATO’s reputation is on the line here,” he said, adding that the alliance’s efforts were not adequate, “particularly in Kandahar province.”

About Marine CPL Cesar Laurean

 Mexico issues warrant for Laurean a week after sighting

The FBI has released this picture of fugitive Marine Cpl. Cesar Laurean with a tattoo on his left arm

MEXICO CITY, Mexico  — Six days after Marine Cpl. Cesar Laurean was tracked to a town in Mexico, a Mexican court issued an arrest warrant Monday for the alleged killer, the U.S. Embassy said.

The provisional warrant authorizes Mexican police to follow leads and to arrest the 21-year-old Laurean — who’s accused of killing pregnant Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach and burying her in the back yard of his North Carolina home.

Authorities believe Laurean fled to his native Mexico to avoid prosecution in the case and on Monday the United States asked for help in finding him from Interpol, the international police organization.

CNN correspondent Harris Whitbeck tracked Laurean last Tuesday to the Mexican town of Zapopan, where liquor store owner Juan Antonio Ramos Ramirez identified himself as Laurean’s cousin.

Ramos said he had seen Laurean a week earlier and the Marine told him he was traveling “with some buddies for a few days.”

The Interpol-United States National Central Bureau, a component of the U.S. Department of Justice, said Monday it had requested that Interpol publish a “Red Notice” — Interpol’s formal wanted notice — on Laurean.

Once published, data on Laurean will be accessible by Interpol’s 186 member countries, and published in four official languages — English, Spanish, Arabic and French. Interpol had not published the Red Notice on Laurean by Monday night.

Onslow County, North Carolina, District Attorney Dewey Hudson confirmed information from a law enforcement source that Laurean had traveled by bus to Mexico. The source said he boarded a bus for Houston, Texas, on January 11, arriving the following afternoon.

In Houston, the source said, the Marine bought a bus ticket to San Luis Potosi, Mexico, probably arriving January 13 in Guadalajara — not far from Zapopan.

Hudson started the process on Friday that led to Monday’s provisional arrest warrant in Mexico.

Laurean was indicted in North Carolina last week on charges of murder, ATM card theft, attempted card theft, fraud and robbery with a dangerous weapon.

The indictments allege that Laurean forcibly stole money from Lauterbach’s bank account, killed her on December 14 and then used her card on December 24 in Onslow County.

Lauterbach was reported missing on December 19, and the charred remains of her body were found in Laurean’s back yard on January 11. Police found the remains after Laurean’s wife produced a note her husband had written. In the note, Laurean said Lauterbach slit her own throat during an argument.

An autopsy, however, indicated she died from a blow to the head.

Mexico does not allow capital punishment and has a long-standing record of refusing to extradite to the United States suspected murderers who face possible death penalties after conviction.

Hudson has said he has “no other option” but to take the death penalty off the table if Laurean is found in Mexico.

Earthquake rattles East Timor

A strong earthquake struck off the coast of East Timor on Wednesday, prompting authorities to briefly issue a tsunami alert — but no large waves hit the tiny nation’s coast.

The 6.2 magnitude tremor struck 160 miles northeast of the capital, Dili, in Indonesia’s Banda Sea at a depth of 6 miles, the U.S. Geological Survey said. Residents in the capital did not feel any shaking and there were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.

Indonesia’s Meteorological and Geophysics agency issued a tsunami alert, saying the quake had been powerful enough to generate giant waves. The warning was later retracted.

East Timor, a former Portuguese colony that became Asia’s youngest country after breaking from Indonesia in 1999, sits along a series of faultlines and volcanos known as the Pacific Ring of Fire.

In December 2004, a massive earthquake struck off Indonesia’s Sumatra and triggered a tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people in a dozen countries, including 160,000 people in Indonesia’s westernmost province of Aceh

US envoy: ‘Ethnic cleansing’ in Kenya

A U.S. envoy said Wednesday that the violence in Kenya’s Rift Valley was “clear ethnic cleansing,” aimed at chasing out President Mwai Kibaki’s Kikuyu people amid the turmoil over the recent disputed presidential election.

Jendayi Frazer, the leading U.S. diplomat for Africa, also said the United States is reviewing all its aid to Kenya, expected to amount to more than $540 million this year.

Frazer, speaking to reporters on the sidelines of an African Union summit, said she did not consider the eruption of ethnic clashes that has characterized the violence in Kenya a genocide.

The violence she saw during a visit earlier this month to the country’s western region, where the fighting has pitted Kalenjin people against Kikuyu, “was clear ethnic cleansing,” Frazer said.

“The aim originally was not to kill, it was to cleanse, it was to push them out of the region,” she said. “It is clear ethnic cleansing in the Rift Valley.”

Since the Dec. 27 election more than 800 people have been killed.

Kikuyus were the major victims of the first explosion of violence after the announcement that Kibaki had won, which the international community and election monitors agree was rigged. Hundreds of Kikuyus have been killed, and members of the group account for more than half of the 255,000 chased from their homes, most in the Rift Valley.

The valley is the traditional home of the Kalenjin and Masai. British colonizers seized large tracts of land to cultivate fertile farms there. When much of that land was redistributed after independence in 1963, President Jomo Kenyatta flooded it with his Kikuyu people, instead of returning it to the Kalenjin and Masai.

Kikuyus, who are Kenya’s largest ethnic group, are also resented for their domination of politics and the economy.

Frazer said neither Kibaki nor opposition leader Raila Odinga, who says he won the election, have done enough to halt the violence. In fact, she said, speeches made by both had proved counterproductive.

“I think both sides have spent quite a lot of time, and unhelpful time, in the public,” she said.

Frazer said the United States was reviewing all its aid to Kenya, even though most goes to the people not to the government. She acknowledged that most U.S. funds in Kenya are used to fight AIDS and malaria and go to non-governmental organizations.

“It will be a counterproductive of us to stop the HIV aid support when the population is in crisis,” she said.

Nevertheless, “we are in a process where we are looking at all of our aid to Kenya,” Frazer said, reiterating that the U.S. is “putting on the table all of our activities in Kenya to review.”

The United States previously had said it would not threaten deep aid cuts.

The European Union and other countries, including Canada, have already warned that they will cut aid if the rival sides do not make progress in resolving the crisis.

Australia added to the pressure Wednesday, with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith saying his country would restrict diplomatic activities with the Kenyan government and continue to review its aid program, which amounted to $6.4 million in 2006-07.

“In this current situation, it cannot be business-as-usual between Kenya’s leaders and the international community,” Smith said.

Kibaki’s government has said it will not be blackmailed over foreign aid and can survive without it. Foreign aid accounts for only 6 percent of the country’s budget.

The Face of Pakistan’s New Taliban

Suicide Bomb Taliban Pakistan

Already blamed by Pakistan and the CIA for killing Benazir Bhutto, Baitullah Mehsud is just getting started. The articulate, baby-faced commander of the Tehrik-i-Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal wilds along the Afghan border is waging an increasingly coordinated insurgency threatening further destabilization on the eve of parliamentary elections. His forces have embarrassed the Pakistani military in recent weeks by attacking its forts, inflicting heavy losses and seizing weapons before retreating into the mountains of South Waziristan, Mehsud’s home turf.

In what appears to be a coordinated effort, the attacks on the forts in South Waziristan came at the same time as the electrical grid and another fort in neighboring North Waziristan came under attack. The upsurge of attacks in an area that has been relatively calm of late rings alarm bells for terrorism analyst Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute For Peace Studies. “We are seeing this now, simultaneous attacks from different regions. This is a strong indication that different groups are working together. They are coordinating attacks, sharing the same objective.”

The thirtysomething Mehsud cut his teeth fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and later sharpened his political aspirations while serving the Afghan Taliban’s Mullah Omar, to whom he refers as his “Ameerul Momineen,” or Commander of the Faithful. But some local analysts see Mehsud as potentially an even more formidable jihadist than his mentor.

Mehsud is an affable jokester who wears a camouflage vest over his traditional tunic and trousers, according to Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, Pakistan bureau chief for al-Jazeera. Zaidan interviewed Mehsud just days after he was chosen by several diverse militant groups in December to lead the new Tehrik-i-Taliban movement. The interview, which will air Friday, is a first for the commander who seems to take his PR cues from the notoriously camera-shy Mullah Omar. Mehsud was surprisingly plump, says Zaidan, but his soft, stout figure and easy camaraderie belie a powerful charisma and laser-like focus. Zaidan attributes some of Baitullah’s savvy to better education and more exposure to al-Qaeda: “These militant leaders now, they are living in the eye of the storm. They learn more in one minute than the Taliban did in a year.”

By comparison, says Zaidan, “I interviewed Mullah Omar once, in 1995. He was just starting out, like [Baitullah] is. But Baitullah is much stronger, much better. His way of talking, how he acts — he is a much more powerful leader.”

The Pakistani government appears to agree. It has accused Mehsud of orchestrating the attack that killed former Prime Minister Bhutto in December, and CIA Director Michael Hayden has indicated that he supports this conclusion. Authorities are currently interviewing Aitzaz Shah, a 15-year-old militant who confessed last week that he had been part of a backup plan, one of several local suicide cells scattered across the country that was ordered to attack when the right opportunity presented itself.

A recent Gallup poll shows that more than half of Pakistanis remain unconvinced; some even suspect government involvement in the assassination. Mehsud, through his spokesman, has denied involvement, but Zaidan believes Mehsud would certainly have had a motive to kill Benazir. “If I put myself in his shoes, of course I’m not going to take credit. Why give a clear answer to the intelligence services? Make them work. From Mehsud’s interest point, it suits him to kill her. Musharraf is no longer of use to the West; he is too unpopular. But Benazir could deliver. She had popular support. These people think once you eliminate Bhutto, you have given a big blow to the government.”

To Rana, the confession of the boy bomber meshes well with the modus operandi of Mehsud’s loose coalition. “Mehsud is not only organizing in the tribal areas,” says Rana. “He is trying to unify all of the insurgent movements, even from Karachi and Baluchistan. These groups will have mutual understanding on one issue, and they will work together to achieve their common goals.”

Their primary agenda is ousting Western forces from Afghanistan, and they have made clear their intention to attack all local allies of the U.S. and NATO. That makes the Pakistani government a prime target, and U.S. and Nato commanders in Afghanistan have noted that al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in the border areas appear to have shifted their focus away from Afghanistan to striking targets in Pakistan.

The Tehrik-i-Taliban is due to meet again in the coming days, says Rana. An umbrella movement in its infancy, it will need time to iron out internal differences and optimize its operational capacity. But already, Rana has seen evidence of enhanced capabilities and the sharing of training and resources. And, following the classic guerrilla warfare playbook, the movement is combining military assaults on army posts with political work among the local civilian population. “Once they are united, with support bases in Karachi, Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province, they will form small Taliban committees,” says Rana. “They will not be violent or militant. They will preach to the people, they will say this is good, and this is against Islam. They will praise those who go to mosque and shame the others. They will tell the people they are just there to bring Sharia. Once they are accepted, then will come their militias.”

That vision sounds frighteningly similar to the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. Of course, Mehsud was with Mullah Omar when the Taliban first started. Clearly he took notes.

—With reporting by Rahimullah Yusufzai/Peshawar