The shift in U.S. military command in Afghanistan is not so much a strategic shift but a reminder of what's at stake for Washington, an expert said.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called Monday for the resignation of the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, to make way for Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
President Barack Obama unveiled a military strategy for Afghanistan that relies in part on lessons learned from the successful counterinsurgency campaign led by Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq.
While McKiernan led the way in calling for renewed efforts in Afghanistan, McChrystal, a Special Forces expert, is more intimately familiar with Petraeus and his military doctrines.
Some critics say the change in leadership is part of a changing strategy in Afghanistan, but Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the move is not only in line with counterinsurgency doctrine but also a reminder that the Obama administration needs to get it right in Afghanistan.
"There's going to be a very high degree of accountability imposed by the secretary of defense over outcomes in this theater," Biddle said. "If you don't produce outcomes, real improvement on the ground, you will evidently be held personally responsible."
Biddle cautions, however, that the appointment of a special-operations expert to the Afghan command could anger many Afghan officials, who are already concerned about the aggressive tactics of U.S. Special Forces.
Taliban use voter ID to pass border
Fighters loyal to the Taliban are using voter-identification cards as official documents to pass through border checkpoints along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
The Globe and Mail newspaper in Canada reports Taliban fighters have no intention of voting but followed advice from top commanders in Pakistan who suggested voter cards would help militants pass by Afghan border troops.
"If we want to go into the city or other districts, we face NATO forces or (Afghan) police," one fighter told The Globe and Mail. "If we show these kinds of cards, they let us go free and don't make any problems against us."
Elections officials in Afghanistan said there is little they can do to curb the activity. Taliban fighters are indistinguishable from everyday citizens, and the government is encouraging the public to register to vote.
"The Taliban don't have any specific uniform, so the people who came to the (voter-registration drive) got their registration cards," Independent Election Commission spokesman Noor Mohammad Noor said.
Afghan security forces are downplaying the incidents, saying the focus is on providing security for the upcoming elections.
"The enemy has always attempted to destabilize our election process," Afghan Brig. Gen. Shir Mohammad Zazai told the Canadian newspaper. "Our biggest concern is focusing on the upcoming elections. We want them to be safe for the people."
Karzai set for victory
Hamid Karzai is set to win another term as president of Afghanistan as his opposition evaporates, but fears are mounting over the direction of his government.
Nangarhar provincial Gov. Gul Agha Shirzai, a Pashtun and former warlord with renowned national popularity, dropped out of the race following negotiations with Karzai. Other top officials soon followed.
The Financial Times reports modest opposition may come from former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, though his ties to Tajik militias make it difficult to win favor among the Pashtun population.
Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official, could launch a challenge to Karzai as an opposition candidate, but he faces a backlash from his aggressive personality.
Washington has blasted Karzai for turning a blind eye to government corruption, which critics say contributes to the growing regional insurgency. For his part, Karzai has continued to lash out at the American military, saying mounting civilian casualties are just as destabilizing.
Karzai, meanwhile, brought Muhammad Qasim Fahim, a former militia leader who faced war crimes charges, on the ticket as vice president, lending fodder to his critics.
Karzai may be the leader most able to bring stability to Afghanistan as the war effort there gains momentum, but a reputation for corruption and heavy-handed tactics may leave a stain on Kabul.
An authoritarian government in Baghdad
Obstinate governance and the consolidated power of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki foreshadow a possible authoritarian government in Iraq, a scholar noted.
Maliki exhibits tight control over national military forces, as apparent in the arrest of the Iraqi commander who unilaterally approved an April 26 raid by U.S. forces in the southern city of Kut that killed a civilian and a police officer.
In 2008, Maliki personally directed attacks on Shiite militants in the south in an effort to gain control in Basra while replacing a Kurdish division of the Iraqi army with an Arab unit in volatile Diyala province, which lies within the so-called disputed territories at the heart of regional tensions.
Meanwhile, Maliki and his loyalists in the State of Law list emerged from the January provincial elections with a significant power base, particularly in the south.
Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said these trends are troublesome, as it appears Maliki is "laying the foundation for the re-emergence of an authoritarian style of Iraqi politics."
With U.S. forces preparing to pull out of Iraqi cities by the end of June, Washington needs to nurture its relationship with Maliki, key government officials and sectarian and religious leaders to balance the power structures in Baghdad, Eisenstadt wrote.
He called on Washington to work closely with the United Nations as key deadlines of the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement with Baghdad approach or run the real risk of stoking an anti-American backlash.
Kurds plan strategy meeting
Kurdish groups in Iraq are planning a conference in Erbil to discuss a political strategy to tackle the issue of regional ambitions peacefully, leaders said.
Pishtiwan Sadiq, a leader in the Kurdistan Democratic Party, told Iraqi analytical Web site Niqash.org the agenda for the conference was to secure gains in the Kurdish territories and to protect their regional interests.
"Kurdish parties will meet during the conference to discuss means of developing a strategy for a peaceful political struggle," he said.
The conference comes as Turkish and Iranian forces ramp up their aggression against Kurdish separatists in the region. Ankara, meanwhile, announced it was planning a similar effort in order to persuade pro-Kurdish groups to abandon violent opposition.
Most Kurdish groups have embraced political methods to stake their claims to the region, but Iranian Kurds have so far refused to lay down their weapons. They, along with members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, say the Erbil conference will divide Kurdish efforts, not unite them.
"We believe that the aim is to weaken the spirit of the Kurdish resistance," said Murad Qarilan with the PKK. "This is why we won't participate in a conference which will begin by asking us to disarm."
Torture suspect dies in prison
The alleged al-Qaida trainer who claimed he was tortured into linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaida has committed suicide in a Libyan prison, a rights group said.
U.S. President George W. Bush relied on testimony from Ibn al-Sheik al-Libi to make the case that al-Qaida had trained Iraqi agents in the use of chemical and biological weapons, CNN reports. Libi's testimony was used by Secretary of State Colin Powell in a U.N. Security Council presentation in the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
"He's a fairly significant figure in the counter-terrorism world, and his testimony I would say provided the linchpin for the invasion of Iraq," said Stacy Sullivan, a counter-terrorism expert with Human Rights Watch.
Libi was captured in Pakistan in 2001 on allegations he had trained al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan. He retracted his claims in 2004, saying he made the statements while undergoing harsh interrogation tactics at the hands of Egyptian intelligence officers.
His claims were questioned as early as 2002 by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, which said he was "intentionally misleading" his interrogators. A Senate Intelligence Committee report in 2006, meanwhile, found no evidence that al-Qaida had worked with the Saddam government directly.
Human Rights Watch said CIA officers transferred Libi to Egypt in 2002 in a practice known as "rendition." CIA documents say Libi "knew nothing" about the al-Qaida link to Iraq and "had difficulty even coming up with a story."
Human Rights Watch called on Libyan authorities to investigate the death.