Congress blocks Afghan aid as Petraeus steps up

Congress blocks Afghan aid as Petraeus steps up. Recent elections in Burundi are slammed by opposition politicians as unfree and unfair. Both Russia and the US scramble to play down spy arrests in a bid to maintain good relations. 17 combatants left dead in clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish rebels. All this and more in today’s briefing...
Josephine Whitaker
1 July 2010

A subcommittee of the United States house of representatives has blocked $3.9 billion in aid requested by the Obama administration for Afghanistan, citing ongoing corruption in the war-torn country.

Nita Lowey, chair of the House sub-committee on aid appropriations, said the aid would be reconsidered after the subcommittee holds hearings to review anti-corruption measures taken by the government of Prime Minister Hamid Karzai. Explaining the sub-committee’s decision, Lowey said that “I do not intend to appropriate one more dime for assistance to Afghanistan until I have confidence that US taxpayer money is not being abused to line the pockets of corrupt Afghan government officials, drug lords and terrorists.” The subcommittee has also requested US government auditors to audit all US aid to Afghanistan over the last three years.

The sub-committee’s decision comes hours after General David Petraeus was confirmed as commander of international forces in Afghanistan by a vote in the US senate. Petraeus will replace General Stanley McChrystal, who was stripped of his command after his criticisms of the Obama administration were published in Rolling Stone magazine. Petraeus warned at his senate nomination hearing Tuesday that fighting in Afghanistan “may get more intense in the next few months”, before the situation starts to improve.

The openSecurity verdict: The sub-committee’s decision comes as public attention has been briefly re-focused on the nine-year-long conflict after the sacking of McChrystal. Corruption has long been a sore point in relations between alliance members, particularly the US, and the Karzai administration. In response to accusations of corruption, the Afghan government says that the issue is being blown out of proportion. Najib Manalai, a government spokesman, said that corruption is not prevelent at levels alleged by the US.

What’s more, corruption is not – as Manalai argues – just a government problem. According to Al Jazeera, the Afghan finance ministry says that, although over 20 billion USD in aid was given to Afghanistan over the last four years, only four billion USD of that was channelled through the government itself. The rest was given to foreign aid and development agencies or security contractors, over which the Afghan government exercises little control. Manalai has called for a joint investigation into corruption.

According to US officials, the move will not affect military or humanitarian aid, which is legislated for independently. However, according to critics, the block will negatively impact on crucial infrastructure initiatives such as an electrification project in Kandahar province.

Some observers believe that the decision of the sub-committee on aid appropriations symbolizes changing public sentiment in members of the Nato-led alliance. Canada, Poland and the Netherlands, three alliance members, have already announced plans to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan. The new British foreign secretary, William Hague, today announced that he would be “very surprised” if Afghan forces could not take responsibility for their own security by 2014. After the US’ bloodiest month of combat since the invasion began in late 2001, with 102 American soldiers killed in June alone, it appears that public support for this war is wearing thin. Analysts are now waiting to see how the sub-committee’s decision may affect the mood in Congress prior to a forthcoming vote on a separate request from Obama for $33 billion in military aid and 30,000 additional troops.

While the subcommittee’s decision may send a strong message to Kabul about corruption, it may ultimately jeopardise the alliance’s efforts to earn the support of the Afghan civilian population if it cuts off funding for services – a crucial element of Obama’s Afghan strategy.

Burundi elections slammed by opposition

Key opposition leaders in Burundi have branded Monday’s presidential elections, in which incumbent Pierre Nkurunziza was re-elected for a second five-year term, a “masquerade”.

After years of civil war, Burundi has recently been touted as a democratisation success story. It has a burgeoning civil society, an independent media and over forty political parties. But allegations of fraud and intimidation have cast a shadow over the recent elections.

Opposition politicians accused Nkurunziza’s National Council for the Defence of Democracy of rigging local elections held in May, despite the fact that these elections were described by independent observers as largely fair.

However, in recent weeks opposition parties have been banned from meeting, and many opposition politicians have been arrested. One week before polling began, key challenger and former rebel, Agathon Rwasa, disappeared, claiming in a statement released from a secret location that the government wanted to arrest him.

A series of grenade attacks has rocked Bujumbara, the Burundian capital, in recent weeks, including an attack just hours before polling closed on Monday. These attacks are, according to analysts, an attempt to discourage voting.

The opposition has refused to recognise the outcome of Monday’s election, which gave Nkurunziza 92 percent of the vote. Most have also said they will not participate in parliamentary elections scheduled for later in the year. Pancrace Cimpaye, spokesman for the Front for Democracy, one of the country’s largest parties, described the election as “a joke”.

Analysts are rightly concerned that a political crisis in Burundi or a descent into one-party rule may destabilise what is already a very volatile region. The Great Lakes region has long been shaken by conflict on ethnic lines and destabilised by the presence of rebel groups from neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. Already there are fears that Burundi may now set a negative example for other countries in the region such as Uganda, which is due to hold presidential elections early next year.

Russia and US scramble to play down spy arrests

Russian officials have backtracked on an earlier announcement that the arrest of ten suspected spies in the United States was “baseless and improper”, in what analysts are describing as a careful attempt not to derail the ‘reset’ in relations between Moscow and Washington.

When the US justice department announced on Monday that ten alleged Russian spies had been arrested in the eastern seaboard region of the US, analysts were quick to point out echoes of the Cold War. However, since Monday, both sides have sought to downplay possible tensions in the relationship. A Russian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Russia expects the incident “will not negatively affect Russian-US relations”. PJ Crowley, a state department spokesman insisted that Washington was going to “work as hard as we can to move beyond this”.

Meanwhile, the eleventh suspect in this case, Christopher Robert Metsos, a Canadian believed to be the ring’s money man, has disappeared in Cyprus, breaking the terms of his bail. 

Seventeen left dead in Turkey Kurdish clashes

Clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish rebels left seventeen people dead last night in the Siirt province of Turkey. Twelve members of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), two soldiers and three members of a pro-government militia were killed in the clashes, according to sources in the Turkish military. The PKK has yet to confirm or deny the deaths.

According to army reports, PKK rebels attacked a military unit and ambushed a government-paid militia in Siirt late on Wednesday night. The fleeing rebels were then attacked by government helicopters, leaving twelve rebels dead.

Violence has been escalating in recent weeks in south-eastern Turkey, with dozens killed in clashes, despite government concessions last year. The clashes come just a day after four Turkish soldiers were injured in a PKK attack in Van, also in the south-east of the country.

The PKK’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, announced from prison earlier this year that he had given up hope of a dialogue, and the PKK have since called off its one-year ceasefire. Since, there have been renewed attacks against military targets.

Meanwhile, the Turkish state news agency, Anatolian, announced that 400 Kurdish rebels had been detained in Syria. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has faced public anger over its attempts to placate Kurdish rebels, has overseen an improvement in relations with Syria and had previously called on allies to stop funding the rebels and to extradite rebel suspects to Turkey.

The PKK began its armed struggle for autonomy in south-eastern Turkey over 25 years ago. After hopes that the conflict was winding down, recent attacks and bombings do not bode well for security, either in Turkey's major cities or the south east.

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