As Afghanistan drawdown looms, concerns about Pakistan

Hostage held by al-Qaida says he will be killed if demands not met

May 07, 2012|By Matthew Hay Brown, The Baltimore Sun

Back from a visit to Kabul, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger expressed confidence in relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan. It's Pakistan that concerns him.

"A lot of terrorists are being trained and harbored in Pakistan," said Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee. "That's a serious problem."

As if to underscore his concerns, a Rockville man who was kidnapped by al-Qaida in Pakistan last year said in a newly released video that his captors will kill him if the U.S. doesn't meet their demands.

"My life is in your hands, Mr. President," veteran development worker Warren Weinstein said in the video, which was posted late Sunday on several militant websites. "If you accept the demands, I live; if you don't accept the demands, then I die."

Weinstein, 70, was abducted last August in the eastern city of Lahore. Al-Qaida has demanded that the United States halt airstrikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan and free terror suspects from Guantanamo Bay.

In the video, Weinstein addressed President Barack Obama directly: "It's important you accept the demands and act quickly and don't delay. There'll be no benefit in delaying. It will just make things more difficult for me."

The White House expressed concern for Weinstein and condemned his kidnapping, but said Monday it does not and would not negotiate with al-Qaida. Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed an agreement last week to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan to fight terrorism and train Afghans for at least a decade after U.S. combat troops withdraw in 2014.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government continues to prosecute alleged terrorists. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the attacks of the Sept. 11, 2001, and four other men were arraigned Saturday on charges related to the deaths of nearly 3,000 people at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and on United Airlines Flight 93.

Marylanders continue to make up part of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan; there are 523 members of the Maryland National Guard serving in eight units based in Kabul, Bagram, Helmand and Kandahar.

Brig. Gen. Charles W. Whittington Jr., the highest-ranking Maryland Guard member in that country, said he has seen progress in the Afghan security forces the U.S. is training and in life there generally.

"You see kids out on the street," Whittington said by phone from Kabul. "You see people walking around in the parks here. … You can tell that our presence here makes a difference."

Ruppersberger traveled to the volatile Afghanistan-Pakistan border region during his visit last week. His observations matched those of other analysts, who warn that the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan have provided a haven and staging ground for attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan.

"That relationship with Pakistan has to improve for us to continue to effectively protect our country from future terrorist attacks," the Baltimore County lawmaker said.

Ruppersberger traveled in a delegation that included leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees. Their principal goal, he said, was to make sure that U.S. intelligence personnel in Afghanistan have the resources they need, particularly as they prepare for a larger role when U.S. combat troops leave in two years.

The delegation also met with Karzai and with Marine Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of NATO forces in the country.

The visit came after several incidents this year enflamed tensions between the U.S. and Afghanistan. These included an Internet video that appeared to show Marines urinating on Taliban corpses, the burning of the Quran at the U.S. air base at Bagram and the killing of 16 Afghan villagers, allegedly by an Army sergeant.

The Quran burning sparked several days of violent protests and attacks on international forces, apparently including the killing of Maryland National Guard Maj. Robert J. Marchanti II of Baltimore County. He was shot to death inside a secure ministry building in Kabul.

Ruppersberger said U.S. and Afghan leaders remain on the same page.

"Remember, this is a war zone — has been for a long time," he said. "Whenever there's an incident, it's serious, it impacts on groups of people. But what we learned, in our conversation with Karzai, and also with General Allen, is our relationship with the Afghan security forces is very strong and very positive.

"That's the key to making sure that the terrorist organizations and the Taliban do not take control of the country and allow them again to have an open area where they can plan attacks against the United States."

Ruppersberger expressed concern that Pakistan could become such an area. He said that "some of the Pakistani military and intelligence have relationships with those people who are fighting us."

Taliban fighters killed 14 Pakistani soldiers in a key militant sanctuary along the Afghan border, officials said Monday.

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