Compiled by Tim Lister
Petraeus concerned by "downward spiral" of US-Pak relations
Taliban show renewed influence in Kandahar
Karzai accused of impeding work against corruption
Syria: heavy gunfire in Homs, Damascus suburb on lockdown
Syria: has US given up on reform?
Syria: activists in US warned by FBI
Libya's financial meltdown
Yemen claims to have killed al Qaeda commander (again)
Yemen: health crisis worsens
Somalia: how famine might help Shabaab
Iraq: Sadr militia splinters into criminal gangs
Petraeus tries to end downward spiral of relations with Pakistan
Petraeus reveals he has just met the Pakistani Chief of Staff in Rawalpindi – speaks of difficult state of US-Pakistan relations. He made these remarks in Paris:
"They'll be the first to say that there are limits to how much they can do," said the man who headed the United States' longest-running war for the last year, with less territory controlled by militants today but civilian deaths up.
"They have a lot of short sticks in hornets nests right now and they have to consolidate some of those gains." Petraeus said Pakistani anti-militant operations have been impressive but they "clearly need further effort to deal with some of the other elements, like the Qaeda network in North Waziristan and the Taliban in Baluchistan".
"This relationship is in a difficult stage," Petraeus said, blaming WikiLeaks revelations, the arrest of CIA agent Raymond Davis as well as the killing by US forces of Al-Qaeda kingpin Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan in May.
He said he had just been to Rawalpindi to meet the Pakistani chief of staff, "to see if this is the moment where we can start, in a sense, reviving, once again strengthening the relationship" rather than "seeing it spiral further down."
"I’d like to think that we are at that point and that we can indeed do that," he said. "Certainly this relationship is in a difficult stage. But however difficult the relationship may be, it is one that we need to continue to work."
But on the Hill, an effort to strip Pakistan's aid...
The House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday began a push to strip Pakistan of all foreign aid from the U.S. unless Congress is assured Pakistan is helping root out terrorists.
The bill, which is being marked up but currently lacks a Senate version, would slash $6.4 billion from President Barack Obama’s $51 billion request for the State Department and foreign operations, according to the AP.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), said Wednesday that the measure would send a clear message to the country in which Osama bin Laden hid for years without detection.
Pakistan, she said, is "on notice that it is no longer business as usual and that they will be held to account if they continue to refuse to cooperate with our efforts to eliminate the nuclear black market, destroy the remaining elements of Osama Bin Laden’s network, and vigorously pursue our counter-terrorism objectives."
Taliban show they still have influence in Kandahar
On Monday the Taliban intimidated mobile phone companies into closing their networks for two nights in a row. Such shutdowns, a show of Taliban strength, are common in the rural districts but unprecedented in what had been the relatively secure confines of the city.
"A lot of positive changes have occurred over the last 12 to 18 months, and he was part of that progress," said Brigadier General Kenneth Dahl, the senior Nato officer responsible for development and governance in the south. "It's clearly a setback."
There is widespread speculation in the city that Tooryalai Wesa, the region's governor, an Afghan-Canadian technocrat, will leave his post now that his friend and protector (Karzai's bother) is gone. "I don't think he will stay much longer," one of the governor's close relatives confirmed.
Karzai accused of impeding work against corruption
The Associated Press reports: Afghan officials are thwarting U.S. efforts to protect American aid from being stolen or diverted to Taliban insurgents, a new report said Wednesday, specifically naming President Hamid Karzai as part of the problem.
U.S. government agencies in Kabul also came in for criticism for not working closely enough with each other to track U.S. cash flowing to Afghanistan.
Amid a growing financial scandal, and after billions in aid have been sent to his country, Karzai has banned U.S. Treasury officials who were working as advisers at the central bank, according to the report from the top U.S. auditor for reconstruction in the war-ravaged nation.
The Treasury advisers won't return because working conditions at the bank have become too hostile, it said.
Raising a new alarm over a national banking scandal that's left Afghanistan in financial crisis, the report cites Karzai's move as one of a number of ways in which his government fails to cooperate with costly international efforts to improve the country's financial sector.
Taliban hacking "amateurish"
The Washington Post reports: The Taliban’s claim on Wednesday that "the deceptive enemy" had hacked its Web site and cellphones drew skepticism from those who track cyber operations in the war zone.
One former intelligence official thought the operation too "amateurish" to be the work of U.S. cyber or information operation specialists. "If you’re good enough, you can penetrate a computer and copy everything in it. Why would you do something amateurish like send a text to say Mullah Omar’s dead?’’
One military intelligence official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was conceivable that the Americans were trying to "perturb the network" to provoke the Taliban to start communicating with one another so that intelligence operatives could begin to listen in or track them.
*Although the Taliban banned television during its time in power between 1996 and 2001, its communication strategy in the decade-long war now includes a website, mobile phone text messages, emails and posts on Twitter and Facebook.
Pakistani author and Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid said that, prior to 2001, the Taliban's "media reach to the Afghan people and the world had been virtually zero and totally ineffective."
"They learnt quickly that the war against the Americans had to be fought on many fronts," he said.
Great photos from the front – Kunar and Helmand military operations this week. See them here
Just what is being transferred to Afghan control?
Two of the provinces that will be transferred, Bamiyan and Panshir, have handled much of their own security during the nearly 10 years that international forces have been in Afghanistan and are strongly anti-Taliban, ethnically homogenous and relatively peaceful.
Of the four cities being transferred, two of them — Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, and Mehtarlam in Laghman Province — are islands of relative calm in otherwise still violent and unpredictable provinces. The other two, Mazar-i-Sharif in Balkh Province in the north and Herat in the west, are in provinces that have been less violent than most others. The remaining place where the transfer is planned, Kabul Province, has a large concentration of security forces, both Afghan and Western, making it one of the best patrolled areas of Afghanistan. Not all of Kabul Province will be transferred: Sarobi District will remain under control of French NATO troops a bit longer.
Peace talks with the Taliban – a one-year window
Gilles Dorronsoro, a Afghanistan analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, said summer 2012 is the de facto deadline for a peace deal, as by then troop levels and funding for the NATO-led mission will have been reduced by a third.
"After that it will be very difficult because of pressure from the Taliban," Dorronsoro said. He believes Taliban attacks will rise as troops withdraw, but said peace talks could still make headway by then.
But, he said, key to any progress will be help from Pakistan, whose border areas with Afghanistan provide sanctuary to Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked networks who have so far shown no willingness to lay down arms.
"Why wouldn't the Taliban negotiate? Pakistan asks them to, they can win international recognition, money and they won't be bombed every day," he said.
But he said: "The Taliban won't talk to (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai, because the key point of the negotiations is the retreat of foreign forces."
Two British citizens arrested in Afghanistan
British forces detained two Britons in Afghanistan, officials said on Thursday, in connection with a possible attack on UK interests, the Times reported.
They were arrested last week at a hotel near the Iranian border during a counter-terrorism raid, the newspaper reported. It reported they were arrested in a covert mission involving British and Afghan forces while they were staying at the International Trade Centre hotel in the western city of Herat.
The Times said it was the first time UK forces had detained British nationals in Afghanistan. "The operation last week was believed to have been carried out in response to a suspected threat to British rather than Afghan security," the paper said.
Libya's financial collapse
from CNN's Ivan Watson
In an exclusive interview with CNN, Moammar Gadhafi’s finance minister revealed Libya has suffered $50 billion in losses as a result of the 5 month conflict [in large part due to loss of oil exports]. Faced with a NATO blockade of airports and seaports, the government is expending massive financial resources to fix the prices of basic commodities. But that hasn’t stopped long fuel lines at petrol stations. Around Tripoli, their are signs of resilience. Hard to believe there’s a war, for example, when you see families packing Tripoli’s spectacular Mediterranean Sea beaches. But the civil war has shattered an ambitious, $170 billion dollar plan to modernize Libya...leaving the countryside scattered with unfinished apartment buildings, half-constructed highways and airports.
NATO strikes focus on town close to Misrata
From Ministry of Defence in London: "NATO taskings kept the UK’s operational contribution focused on Zlitan throughout Wednesday. RAF jets attacked some 29 buildings in and around the town which had been variously confirmed by detailed reconnaissance and analysis as command and control centres, and military supply, ammunition and fuel storage facilities used by Colonel Qadhafi’s troops in repressing the local people. Our aircraft also struck five multiple rocket launcher systems and a pair of heavy infantry weapon positions in the area.
Allegations of human rights abuses against Libyan rebels
One of the corpses had been cleanly decapitated, while the trousers of another had been ripped down to his ankles, a way of humiliating a dead enemy.
The green uniforms were the same as those worn by loyalists fighting for Col. Muammer Gaddafi in Libya's civil war. No one from the rebel side claimed the corpses, or declared their loved ones missing.
There was no funeral, or call to the media by the rebels to see the 'atrocities committed by the regime'.
Since the bodies were seen by the Daily Telegraph attempts to discover their identities have been unsuccessful, in part because of obstruction by rebel authorities in the area. Having highlighted the discovery to those authorities the area was subsequently bulldozed and the bodies disappeared.
The find will add to concerns highlighted in recent days over human rights violations by rebel forces. Human Rights Watch last week said that had looted homes, shops and hospitals and beaten captives as they advanced.
Yemen claims al Qaeda leaders killed
Two al-Qaeda leaders have been killed in Abyan province, a provincial security source said Wednesday, according to Yemen’s state news agency, Saba. The two were Aidh al-Shabwani and Awadh Mohammed Saleh al-Shabwani, who have been killed among many others militants in clashes with Yemeni armed forces in Abyan, the source said, according to Saba.
Background: Aidh al Shabwani has long been a target of Yemens security forces, who launched air strikes against him in Marib province in January 2010. While not one of the top leaders in AQAP, he appears to have been a senior operational commander and comes from a prominent clan in Marib in Yemen which has long been at odds with the central govt.. Yemeni authorities have previously claimed t have killed him – back in 2010.
Yemen: more violence in Taiz
One youngster was killed and six others injured when republican guards shot at youth protesters in Taiz, the medical team in freedom square Taiz said.
Eyewitnesses said that guards started shooting at protesters after they refused to disperse and end the march that started at 11 in the morning. Tear gas was also used against the protesters, eyewitnesses said.
*The Daily Telegraph reports: A British shipping consultant resident in Aden was killed when his booby trapped car exploded Wednesday. It's believed the first assassination of a foreigner in the city; where al Qaeda has gained strangth.
The shipping consultant, who was in his 60s but was not identified by the Foreign Office on Wednesday is believed to have been a long-term resident of the southern port city.
Officials there said his car had been booby-trapped. "He started the car and it immediately exploded and he was engulfed in flames," a witness said.
Yemen's health crisis worsens
From The National, in Saudi Arabia: Intermittent power cuts across the country have meant that at times electricity has been available for just a few hours per day. Without electricity perishable goods cannot be stored. Blood banks, hospitals and medical supplies have been affected, especially with the fuel needed to supply generators becoming scarce.
The high price of petrol means the tankers that usually provide a lifeline by delivering water to people's homes are off the road. Water is in frighteningly short supply. Families simply do not know when the tanker will call to their homes next.
The public health risks of reduced water intake are obvious. It could be only a matter of time before we start to hear of large numbers of people affected by dehydration, kidney infections and high blood pressure. Acute watery diarrhoea has already been reported in the south – a consequence of the fighting is that large numbers of families have been displaced and have lost their access to clean water.
Reports show that food prices are increasing sharply with costs of staple goods higher than ever before.
Syria: intense gunfire in city of Homs
Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, says tanks have closed on some neighbourhoods in Homs including Bab Sbaa, where the main raids are taking place.
A resident in the city, says mosque loudspeakers are calling for people to aid Bab Sbaa. The resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals, says the neighbourhood has been subjected to heavy machine-gun fire since 4am Thursday.
Human rights activists and residents of Homs, Syria's third largest city, are reporting intense gunfire as security forces conduct raids and arrests.
"Many gunmen on the streets [are] shooting randomly," Al Jazeera's Rula Amin said from Beirut, according to sources in Homs.
"People are telling us some of the injured and people who have been killed are still on the streets. People have not been able to pick them up because there's so much [gunfire]."
Syria: Elite troops put Damascus suburb on lockdown
The New York Times reports: Loyalist troops commanded by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brother surrounded a suburb in the capital Damascus on Wednesday, residents said, part of a campaign to crush growing protests against Assad's rule.
Troops and militiamen also stepped up assaults on residential neighbourhoods in the city of Homs, another focal point for the protests where activists say forces killed at least 16 people on Tuesday.
"Hundreds of Fourth Division troops have sealed off all of Harasta's dozen entrances," said a resident of the conservative Damascus suburb of 150,000 people. "They are wearing combat fatigues, helmets, ammunition belts and carrying assault rifles. Water, electricity and phones have been cut."
Syria: has US given up on reform?
David Ignatius in the Washington Post:The new policy was signaled by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s blunt statement on July 11 that Assad had "lost legitimacy" and that "our goal is . . . a democratic transformation."
Clinton has left the door open slightly for reformers within the Assad regime. Last Saturday in Istanbul, she urged "an opposition that can provide a pathway, hopefully in peaceful cooperation with the government, to a better future." The administration is closely monitoring "who in the current power structure might be amenable to a transition," says a senior White House official.
A second White House official summarizes the new approach this way: "The Assad ship is sinking. The most important thing is to get people to realize this, so that, hopefully, they will jump off the ship and get on the lifeboat."
*The European Union on Monday said it could look at further sanctions against individuals involved in the crackdown on protesters, but didn't give a time frame.
Turkey, one of Mr. Assad's closest allies in recent years, also has toughened its tone toward Damascus and has hosted a series of opposition conferences. But the international response to the bloodletting remains much weaker than that against Libya's Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Diplomats routinely rule out Libya-style military intervention in Syria, while Turkey, the EU and the U.S. all continue to leave a door open for Mr. Assad to stay in power—unlike the case of Col. Ghadafi.
For now, the path to more-severe sanctions appears to be blocked at the United Nations Security Council by veto threats from Russia, diplomats say. Turkey, a direct neighbor and important trading partner for Syria, has so far shown no interest in imposing sanctions unilaterally.
Russians urge engagement of Assad
An international response to the uprising in Syria should not risk pushing the country toward war, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Tuesday.The Russian leader, who is on an official visit to Germany, said he and Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed "several options" to urge Syrian President Bashar Assad to stop using violence, implement reforms and engage with the opposition.
Medvedev said he believes the no-fly zone approved by the U.N. Security Council in Libya led that country to war. "We do not want that the events in Syria unfold as they did in Libya. That is why we are cautious here," the Russian leader said through a translator.
FBI warns Syrian activists in US
CNN's Jill Dougherty reporting Thursday:
FBI recently met with Syrian activists in the US opposed to the Assad government to warn them about possible Syrian Embassy surveillance of anti Assad demonstrations in NYC and DC and possible retribution against their family members living in Syria. 2 weeks ago, the State Department called in the Syrian Ambassador to discuss the matter.
Will Somali famine strengthen hand of Shabaab?
From CNN's Tim Lister and Barnara StarrFor aid donors and humanitarian agencies, it is a Faustian bargain: reach and save tens of thousands of people on the verge of starving to death. The price: come to an "understanding" with one of the most active affiliates of al Qaeda, and perhaps help it retain control of large swathes of Somalia.
Such is the equation in the Horn of Africa, where the worst famine in a generation threatens more than ten million people. Many of them live - or rather cling to life - in areas of Somalia controlled by the militant Islamist group al Shabaab, which has sworn allegiance to al Qaeda and is designated a terrorist group by the United States.
Previously, al Shabaab has either refused to allow aid agencies to operate in areas it controls, or imposed tight conditions on their work. In 2009 it banned many foreign aid organizations from providing aid in southern Somalia - describing them as western spies and Christian crusaders. In January 2010, the UN World Food Program pulled its workers out of the region after they were threatened and harassed by the group.
Iraq: legal issues could stymie troop deal
Legal safeguards for U.S. troops could become a major stumbling block to any potential deal with Iraq to keep some American forces in the country beyond a year-end withdrawal deadline.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's shaky coalition government has yet to decide whether it will ask the United States to keep some of the 46,000 remaining U.S. troops in the country beyond 2011, despite U.S. and Iraqi military concerns about security gaps once American forces leave.
U.S. officials are warning Iraq's government that, without a request from Baghdad soon, it will become increasingly difficult and costly to overhaul the U.S. drawdown plan. New Defense Secretary Leon Panetta this month aired his frustration over the delay, saying: "Dammit, make a decision."
But options apparently being weighed by Maliki as a way to sidestep political paralysis raise the risk of resistance from Washington, further complicating the prospects of a deal.
Iraq: Moqtada al-Sadr's militia splinters into armed gangs
Anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army has spawned dozens of renegade splinter groups which frequently assassinate Iraqi officials on behalf of foreign sponsors, Sadrist and security officials say.
The Mehdi Army, which fought against U.S. troops after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, has fractured into small, well-trained and well-armed criminal gangs involved in contract killings, kidnapping and extortion from homeowners, businessmen and government agencies, particularly in Baghdad.
A popular Shi'ite cleric who leads the militia as well as his own political bloc, Sadr has repudiated the splinter groups, describing them as "murderers" and "criminals," and has called on Iraqi security forces and tribes to expel them.
Pentagon sends new intel program to Afghanistan – but is it any use?
The Pentagon’s top researchers have rushed a classified and controversial intelligence program into Afghanistan. Known as "Nexus 7," and previously undisclosed as a war-zone surveillance effort, it ties together everything from spy radars to fruit prices in order to glean clues about Afghan instability.
The program has been pushed hard by the leadership of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. They see Nexus 7 as both a breakthrough data-analysis tool and an opportunity to move beyond its traditional, long-range research role and into a more active wartime mission.
But those efforts are drawing fire from some frontline intel operators who see Nexus 7 as little more than a glorified grad-school project, wasting tens of millions on duplicative technology that has nothing to do with stopping the Taliban.
Utilities a terror target?
From CNN's Susan Candiotti State and local law enforcement officials have been told to look out for threats targeting private utility facilities in the U.S., according to a new intelligence bulletin issued Tuesday by the Department of Homeland Security.
"While DHS has no specific, credible intelligence of an imminent threat posed to the private-sector utilities, several recent incidents highlight the ongoing threat to infrastructure in the utility sectors from insiders and outsiders seeking facility-specific information that might be exploited in an attack," DHS spokesman Matthew Chandler said.
The department will work closely with state and local officials including utility companies "to take steps to best protect from potential threats, including protecting our nation's infrastructure," he said.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism analyst at the conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies argues that we're losing the war against al Qaeda:
First, our security spending isn’t sustainable. If we do the right thing, and make intelligent cuts to our security apparatus, then we can maintain a fairly consistent level of security. The trouble is you can’t look at security spending in an actuarial way. You don’t know the relationship between cost and lives saved.
Second, look at the places where al-Qaida has a significant foothold. Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen. They’re able to mass pretty significant fighting forces. The trend line is in the wrong direction. You have bad governance, coupled with looming environmental catastrophes in these regions. Pakistan’s embroiled in its worst energy crisis ever. You have skyrocketing food prices. All coupled with a fundamentalist presence, it indicates that things are likely to get worse.
Third, most commentators look at the Arab Spring and say, "It’s devastating to al-Qaida!" But it creates more space for them.