Report: Classified US document says Taliban ready to take power in Afghanistan, backed by Pakistan

Written By Ivan Kolev on Wednesday, February 1, 2012 | 6:05 PM

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

LONDON – A highly-classified U.S. report that said the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, is ready to take control in Afghanistan was not an analysis of the military campaign's progress, a NATO spokesman said Wednesday.

The document, leaked to The London Times, "may provide some level of representative sampling of Taliban opinions and ideals but clearly should not be used as any interpretation of campaign progress," Lieutenant Colonel Jimmie Cummings told AFP.

The "State of the Taliban" report, compiled by U.S. forces operating out of Afghanistan's Bagram Air Field, suggested that the 10-year Western-led intervention in the country will not stop the Taliban from returning to power.

"Though the Taliban suffered severely in 2011, its strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact," the report said. "Many Afghans are already bracing themselves for an eventual return of the Taliban."

However, Cummings added, "It's important that this context be understood and extremely important not to draw conclusions based on the Taliban comments."

The report, sent to NATO leaders last month, was based on information gained from more than 20,000 interrogations of several thousand Taliban and Al Qaeda detainees at the Bagram base.

It also details the strong links between the Taliban and Pakistan -- especially its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency, according to newspaper report.

"The government of Pakistan remains intimately involved with the Taliban. ISI is thoroughly aware of Taliban activities and the whereabouts of all senior Taliban personnel. Senior Taliban leaders meet regularly with ISI personnel, who advise on strategy and relay any pertinent concerns of the government of Pakistan," the report read.

"ISI officers tout the need for continued jihad [holy war] and expulsion of foreign invaders from Afghanistan," the document continued.

The report added, however, that the information gained from Taliban prisoners provided little evidence that Pakistan is directly funding or providing weapons to the Taliban.

Pakistan's government reacted angrily to the report Wednesday. "This is frivolous, to put it mildly. We are committed to non-interference in Afghanistan and expect all other states to strictly adhere to this principle," foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Basit said.

Pakistan's foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar was due to hold talks with Afghan president Hamid Karzai in Kabul on Wednesday, which had been billed as an effort to get notoriously frosty relations back on track.

"We are also committed to an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation process," Basit said. "Pakistan has suffered enormously because of the long conflict in Afghanistan. A stable and peaceful Afghanistan is in our own interest and we are very much cognizant of this."

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UN nuke official says they will return to Iran, indicating progress on talks

VIENNA – A U.N. nuclear team on Wednesday announced plans to revisit Tehran "in the very near future," indicating some progress on its quest to wrest information from Iran about allegations that it secretly worked on an atomic arms program.

The announcement from mission leader Herman Nackaerts came shortly after his team landed at Vienna airport and on the heels of three days of discussions with Iranian officials.

While Nackaerts gave no details on what the International Atomic Energy Agency experts had achieved, diplomats had said before their departure that their main focus was to break Iranian resistance to talking about the weapons program allegations.

"We had three days of intensive discussions about all our priorities, and we are committed to resolve all the outstanding issues," Nackaerts told reporters. "And the Iranians said the are committed, too.

"But of course there's still a lot of work to be done," he said. "So we have planned another trip in the very near future."

Any progress on the issue would be significant. Iran has refused to discuss the alleged weapons experiments for more than three years, saying they are based on "fabricated documents" provided by a "few arrogant countries" -- a phrase authorities in Iran often use to refer to the United States and its allies.

The IAEA team was seeking progress on its efforts to talk to key Iranian scientists suspected of working on a weapons program. They also hoped to break down opposition to their plans to inspect documents related to nuclear work and secure commitments from Iranian authorities to allow future visits.

Beyond concerns about the purported weapons work, The United States and its allies want Iran to halt uranium enrichment, which they worry could eventually lead to weapons-grade material and the production of nuclear weapons. Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes -- generating electricity and producing medical radioisotopes to treat cancer patients.

Tehran is under four sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions because of its refusal to heed international concerns about its nuclear programs, as well as penalties imposed by the United States and Western nations meant to force it into dialogue

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Putin says he may face runoff in Russia's election

MOSCOW – Prime Minister Vladimir Putin says he could face a runoff in Russia's presidential vote in March -- his first acknowledgment that he may fail to muster enough support for an outright victory.

Putin's statement Wednesday signaled that he might be willing to accept a less dominating father-of-the nation image if he fails to win more than 50 percent in the first round on March 4, rather than risk igniting more public outrage through blatant vote rigging.

Evidence of fraud in favor of Putin's party in December's parliamentary election triggered the largest protests since the Soviet collapse two decades ago.

Putin said at a meeting with election monitors that "there is nothing horrible" about a runoff and he's ready for one, according to Russian news reports.

But he also warned of the dangers of a second round, saying it would lead to a "certain destabilization of the political situation." The need for stability in Russia has been the mantra of Putin's campaign.

Putin won his previous two presidential terms in 2000 and 2004 in the first round. After moving into the prime minister's job due to term limits, he has remained Russia's top political figure, but has seen his support dwindle amid growing public frustration with his rigid controls over the political scene, rampant corruption and rising social inequality.

Opinion polls show support for Putin running between 40 and 50 percent. If he fails to get a majority of the vote, he will face a runoff on March 25, most likely against Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.

Putin announced his bid to reclaim the presidency in September and said he would then name Dmitry Medvedev, his protege and successor as president, as his prime minister. That job swap was seen as a show of cynical disrespect for the values of democracy, fueling public anger that spilled into heated December protests.

Putin initially played down the street rallies and derided the participants as U.S. puppets working to undermine Russia. He later took a more conciliatory stance, in an apparent effort to split the opposition.

He promised Wednesday to give government jobs to some of his political opponents if he is elected.

Putin also instructed vote monitors to ensure strict observance of election rules. He previously has ordered that web cameras be installed in all polling stations in an effort to fend off opposition claims of persistent vote rigging.

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In Israel, UN chief argues against attack on Iran

JERUSALEM – The U.N. chief has told Israel the international standoff over Iran's suspect nuclear program must be resolved peacefully.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon delivered his message at a time of growing concerns that Israel could be planning an attack on Iran. Israel, like the West, believes Iran is developing nuclear weapons and says no option, including force, can be ruled out in stopping it. Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful

At a news conference with Israel's prime minister, Ban urged the Iranians to prove their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. When asked whether he fears an Israeli attack, he said "there is no alternative to a peaceful resolution of these issues."

U.N. nuclear inspectors said Wednesday they would soon return to Tehran after a "good trip" to the Iranian capital.

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Russian envoy reportedly says country would veto UN resolution on Syria it deems unacceptable

Russia’s envoy to the United Nations reportedly said Wednesday that the country would veto any U.N. resolution on Syria that it deemed unacceptable.

Reuters reported that Russia would veto any draft resolution calling on President Bashar Al Assad to leave his post unless the document makes clear that there would be no military intervention.

On Tuesday, Western powers and Arab countries at the U.N. sought to overcome Russia's opposition to the measure. Addressing the Security Council, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to allay Moscow's concerns that the resolution could open the door to eventual military intervention in Syria, as took place in Libya last year.

"I know that some members here may be concerned that the Security Council is headed toward another Libya," she said. "That is a false analogy."

"It is time for the international community to put aside our own differences and send a clear message of support to the people of Syria," Clinton said.

Russia has stood by Assad as he tries to crush an uprising that began last March. In October, Moscow vetoed the first Security Council attempt to condemn Syria's crackdown and has shown little sign of budging in its rejection of the new measure.

The latest resolution would demand Assad carry out an Arab League peace plan by which he would hand his powers to the vice president and allow formation of a unity government to pave the way for elections.

On Wednesday, shelling and machine gun fire rattled in towns along the Wadi Barada, a valley in the mountains a few miles northwest of Damascus near the Lebanese border, according to online video posted by activists.

The valley leads to the mountain resort town of Zabadani, an opposition stronghold that has been under the control of rebel soldiers and protesters for several weeks.

At least six army defectors were killed in the fighting, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said some of the regime forces battered the towns of Deir Qanoun and Ein al-Fija, causing an unconfirmed number of casualties.

Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said at least 17 people were killed in the valley, including five military dissidents from the group known as the Free Syrian Army. It was impossible to reconcile the two group's figures.

The fact that rebels made it to the doorstep of Damascus, the seat of Assad's power, was a dangerous development for the regime. Rebel soldiers had grown bolder, setting up checkpoints and protecting protesters in suburbs surrounding Damascus.

But a military offensive largely succeeded in crushing the remaining resistance on the eastern side of the capital by Tuesday. The LCC said troops were raiding homes in some of those suburbs Wednesday, looking for activists.

In the central city of Homs, one of the biggest flashpoints of the uprising and a scene of daily fighting, government troops were shelling neighborhoods and fighting defectors in several neighborhoods. At least eight residents were killed, the Observatory said.

Regime troops were also fighting defectors Wednesday in the northeastern region of Idlib and the southern area of Daraa, activists said.

The U.N. estimated several weeks ago that more than 5,400 people have been killed in the Syrian government crackdown, but has not been able to update the figure. The death toll from Monday's offensive in the suburbs was around 100 people, making it among the bloodiest days since the uprising began, according to the two activist groups.

The U.N. Security Council resolution would give Assad 15 days to start implementing the Arab peace plan and halt the crackdown, otherwise the Council would consider "further measures."

That would likely mean economic and other sanctions. But Moscow says it could lay the groundwork for later military intervention. Russia, a longtime ally of Assad, has insisted the crisis can be resolved by negotiations and that U.N. action thwarts any dialogue.

Arab officials joined Western countries in trying to persuade Russia to back the measure.

Deputy Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed bin Helli said Wednesday the League sought the U.N. resolution to back its peace plan and boost an Arab solution for the crisis, not to bring in international military action.

The League "is still committed ... to solving this crisis in the Arab framework, away from any outside intervention," he said during a visit to Baghdad.

Moscow's stance is motivated in part by its strategic and defense ties, including weapons sales, with Syria. Russia also rejects what it sees as a a world order dominated by the U.S.

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Italian authorities identify German killed in Costa Concordia

GIGLIO, Italy – Italian authorities say they have identified another person killed when the Costa Concordia cruise ship capsized last month -- a German woman named Siglinde Stumpf.

Stumpf was identified Wednesday by the prefecture in the city of Grosseto, a body that represents the Rome government.

Strumpf is the 17th person whose body has been identified following the grounding of the cruise ship on Jan. 13.

The Grosseto prefecture now lists 15 others as still missing. The search for them, however, has been hampered by rough seas and a decision not to keep looking within the submerged hulk of the ship, which is considered too dangerous now.

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