WASHINGTON: Repeat after me: Pigs can't fly. Repeat after me: The moon is not made of cheese. Repeat after me: Fire will certainly burn.
Perhaps you hold these truths to be self-evident. But let's face it, the whole Wall Street debacle, with its cost of some $700 billion to generations of Americans, was based on the fathomless human ability to disregard facts and believe in cloud-cuckoo-land.
Risk no longer existed. The penniless could afford a $200,000 house. Real estate prices could only go up. Securities full of toxic loans would prove benign. Debt was desirable, leverage lovely, greed great. Two and two made five. And streets were lined with gold.
How could it happen? That outraged question springs now to everyone's lips. But from Dutch tulips to Californian dotcoms, great heists have happened and will again. No relief from reality is as sweet as the illusion that money might actually grow on trees.
A close friend wrote to me suggesting I take a look at Rudyard Kipling's poem, "The Gods of the Copybook Headings," in the light of current events. Written in 1919, when Kipling was 53, in an England drained by the Great War, which had taken the life of his teenage son, the poem makes sobering reading.
A copybook was a school exercise book used to practice handwriting. At the tops of pages, proverbs and sayings (like "Stick to the Devil you Know"), appeared in exemplary script to be copied by pupils. The truisms were called "copybook headings."
As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
And what are the qualities of these "Gods of the Copybook Headings?" The fourth verse sets them out.
With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
Truth, in short, confronts delusion and utopia.
Kipling is not much in fashion these days, other than for his children's books. For a politically correct age, he speaks too bluntly of the world's - and empire's - cruel ironies. But his vivid evocation of war's horror, man's hypocrisy, illusion's price, power's passing and life's implacability make him important in this American moment.
As it happens - life's ironies - I was reading Kipling after watching the vice-presidential debate, or more precisely Sarah Palin, the winking "Main-Streeter" from Wasilla. And the words of hers that rang in my ears were:
"One thing that Americans do at this time, also, though, is let's commit ourselves just everyday American people, Joe Six Pack, hockey moms across the nation, I think we need to band together and say 'Never Again.' Never will we be exploited and taken advantage of again by those managing our money and loaning us these dollars."
I'm sorry, Governor Palin, words matter. Life has its solemn lessons. "Never Again" is a hallowed phrase applicable not to the loss of a mortgage, but to the Holocaust and genocide.
Granting verbal equivalency to a $60,000 loan and 6 million murdered Jews, or 800,000 slaughtered Rwandans, is grotesque. Perhaps Palin didn't mean it, but that's no less grave. The world's seriousness escapes her.
Not Kipling, who wrote in "Epitaphs of the War" (1914-1918):
If any question why we died,
I wonder, after the lying and loss, in the midst of the wars, in the face of the 760,000 lost jobs, is Palin's "little bit of reality from Wasilla Main Street" enough?
"The Gods of the Copybook Headings" ends as follows:
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man -
Palin, Mainstreeter that she is, loves to drop her g's, so she'd no doubt call the poet Kiplin'. She might have asked, with that wink, to call him "Rud."
That's cutesy politics. But pigs still don't have wings. It's time for copybook realists in the White House.
At last, many of the world's political leaders have begun to realize that diverting land and food crops to produce biofuels leads to higher food prices. But an equally important consequence of this policy folly is being largely ignored in the public and political debate: Producing biofuels will further deplete the world's already overtaxed water supply.
This is emblematic of a larger and increasingly dangerous disregard for the world's most valuable, irreplaceable and finite natural resource: fresh water.
Seventy percent of all water withdrawal is already used in agriculture, and while all such activity requires water, growing enough soy or corn to create biofuels is especially water-intensive. For example, to produce just one gallon of diesel fuel up to 9,000 gallons of water are required. Up to 4,000 gallons are needed to produce enough corn for the same amount of ethanol. By way of contrast, producing enough food to meet the caloric needs of one person for one day in, for example, Tunisia or Egypt requires about 666 gallons of water, and twice as much in California (caloric needs and intakes vary widely from region to region due to dietary customs).
If all of the biofuel targets and timelines set by governments across the world are met, we can expect water withdrawals for agriculture to increase by up to one-third. Making a dent in the world's energy problems with biofuels will require much more water than the world can afford to give up. There simply isn't enough; water tables are falling throughout the world. While there are substitutes for oil, there are none for water.
The world is facing a water crisis and, consequently, a food crisis that in terms of severity and potential impact far supersedes the current food crisis or the exhaustion of fossil fuels. Either it never occurred to biofuel advocates to ask about the amount of water needed for biofuel production, or they simply chose to ignore this particular inconvenient truth.
According to a report by the International Water Management Institute, by 2025, about one third of the world's population, perhaps as many as 3 billion people, will face water shortages. From an agricultural standpoint, we may be looking at losses equivalent to the entire grain crops of India and the United States by then. According to some estimates, even without biofuels, we will very likely reach the upper limit of available fresh water for worldwide consumption, more than 2.9 billion cubic miles, by 2050. A growing reliance on biofuels would exacerbate an already difficult challenge.
There was a remarkable lack of careful planning in the drive to convert food to fuel. In Europe and the United States, a developer trying to open a shopping center is subjected to an extensive environmental impact assessment. But when politicians decided to promote biofuels, the decisions were not preceded with a comparably thorough analysis of environmental sustainability.
Regardless of how it happened, policy makers neglected the dwindling supply of a resource essential to life in order to replace fossil fuels and fight global warming. This was not a sensible trade-off. There is no question that we have to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. But biofuels derived from food crops planted exclusively for that use are clearly the wrong solution. While there are substitutes for oil, there aren't any for water.
This scandal is instructive because it was caused, in part, by the general attitude toward water in both the developed and developing world. Water is still treated as a limitless resource in too many communities, and one reason is that it is has no price. States heavily subsidize water usage so that it is sometimes even free for both farmers and consumers. Because it is not assigned a value in the marketplace, there is no incentive for using it efficiently. If water were not free or heavily subsidized, would biofuels still be produced? I doubt it!
The water problem can be solved. It requires much more careful stewardship of water supplies by local and national governments. I, for one, also believe reasonable pricing policies would help by encouraging the use and development of water efficient crops and smart irrigation systems. But even those who disagree with that prescription should be deeply disturbed by the lack of attention paid to water by those who rushed headlong to biofuels as the answer to the world's energy problems. As the international community grapples with how to fight global warming and build a sustainable future, it must stop ignoring a priority that is even more pressing.
Failure to address the water problem will result in food scarcity. Water scarcity is no longer an environmental issue. It is a national and international security issue that can not be ignored.
Peter Brabeck-Letmathe is the chairman and former chief executive of Nestlé.
China says new milk tests show clean
BEIJING: China, mired in a health scandal over contaminated dairy products at home and abroad, said new tests had revealed no melamine in liquid milk on the home market.
It was the second time in days China has tried to repair confidence in its dairy products, saying also on Thursday the latest chemical tests had come back clean.
China's quality supervision authority had sent more than 5,000 inspectors to carry out "round-the-clock scrutiny" at dairy factories to restore consumer confidence, Xinhua news agency said on Sunday.
Thousands of children in China have fallen ill and four have died after drinking melamine-laced milk. The dairy scare, China's latest in a long line of food safety problems, also prompted mounting recalls and warnings abroad.
Samples of 609 batches of liquid, as opposed to powdered, milk from 27 cities across China were found free of melamine, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) announced.
The test was the sixth in China after the tainted milk powder scandal erupted last month. A total of 2,093 batches of liquid milk under 115 brands, among other dairy products, had been checked since then, Xinhua news agency said, citing the AQSIQ.
There was no clean bill of health, though, for powdered milk. The food safety watchdog said on Wednesday that 31 more batches had tested positive for melamine, which has been added to cheat nutrition tests.
The Ministry of Agriculture said Saturday it had developed an emergency rescue plan with the Ministry of Finance to give special subsidies to dairy farmers who have suffered from shrinking demand.
AQSIQ director Wang Yong told Xinhua that the government would "strive to ensure" all dairy products were melamine-free.
"Food safety concerns not only the health of the public, but also the life of business," Wang was quoted as saying.
ALMATY, Kazakhstan: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday that the United States was not playing a "zero-sum game" with the Kremlin to pry the former Communist states of Central Asia away from Russia.
Making a short stopover in the Kazakh capital, Astana, after a one-day visit to India, Rice also rejected the idea that any country exercised "a special sphere of influence" in the region.
President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia, who in August said that Moscow had "privileged interests" among its former colonies, visited Kazakhstan just two weeks before Rice's visit. Vice President Dick Cheney also visited the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine in early September.
"Kazakhstan is an independent country," Rice said in answer to a question of whether the United States was trying to steal Russia's allies, in comments reprinted on the State Department's Web site. "It can have friendships with whomever it wishes."
Later, after meeting with Kazakhstan's foreign minister, Marat Tazhin, she added, "This is not some kind of contest for the affection of Kazakhstan between the countries of the region."
Tazhin - whose boss, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, has performed a delicate balancing act among the world's major powers, and whose country holds major oil and gas reserves - part said Kazakhstan enjoyed a good relationship with both Russia and the United States. Relations with Moscow are "very politically correct," he said.
Rice's statements, however, take place against a backdrop of heightened tension between Washington and Moscow, along with growing indications that the balance of power among the former Soviet republics may in fact be tilting toward the Kremlin.
Besides the emphatic show of strength in Georgia in August - demonstrating the extent to which the Kremlin was willing to go to protect its interests, analysts say - Moscow has lately broadened its offensive and made further significant inroads in the strategic field of oil and gas.
Last month, during an official visit to Uzbekistan, Vladimir Putin, Russia's current prime minister and former president, sealed a key deal to buy Uzbekistan's natural gas output at market prices - assuring that the Kremlin would preserve its access to the country's extensive hydrocarbon reserves.
At the same time, Kazakh and Uzbek officials agreed to build a new gas pipeline to feed into the Russian pipeline system, dealing a heavy blow to Western hopes to transport Central Asian gas to Europe via a route bypassing Russia. Kazakhstan, meanwhile, has blocked plans to build an oil terminal in Georgia, which would have injected needed cash into the Caucasus state's economy.
Moscow has furthermore offered to buy all natural gas from Azerbaijan, another former Soviet republic whose large hydrocarbon reserves are coveted by the United States and Europe. Analysts say that if Azerbaijan agrees to the Kremlin's terms, it will further diminish Western influence in the region, and possibly deal a death blow to the Nabucco pipeline, a project that Europe hopes would help wean it from its dependence on Russian gas.
Dropped "h" causes trouble for France's Kouchner
PARIS: A dropped 'h' landed English-speaking French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in trouble on Sunday after he was mistakenly quoted as saying Israel could gobble up Iran if it wanted to.
"I honestly don't believe that it will give any immunity to Iran ... because you will eat them before," Kouchner was quoted by Israel's Haaretz newspaper as saying in an interview about the possibility of Tehran gaining a nuclear weapon.
But the French Foreign Ministry issued a brief statement later saying Koucher had said 'hit' -- meaning carrying out a surgical pre-emptive strike -- rather than 'eat'.
"He regrets the unfortunate misunderstanding this phonetic confusion has caused," the ministry said.
The letter 'h' is silent in French and many French people inadvertently drop it when speaking English.
The foible gave rise to the "Allo, Allo" title of a British Broadcasting Corp television comedy about wartime France and colours the accent of the blundering Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films.
WASHINGTON: When Afghan security forces found an enormous cache of heroin hidden beneath concrete blocks in a tractor-trailer outside Kandahar in 2004, the local Afghan commander quickly impounded the truck and notified his boss.
Before long, the commander, Habibullah Jan, received a telephone call from Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of President Hamid Karzai, asking him to release the vehicle and the drugs, Jan later told American investigators, according to notes from the debriefing obtained by The New York Times, of which the International Herald Tribune is the global edition. He said he complied after getting a phone call from an aide to President Karzai directing him to release the truck.
Two years later, American and Afghan counternarcotics forces stopped another truck, this time near Kabul, finding more than 50 kilograms, or 110 pounds, of heroin. Soon after the seizure, U.S. investigators told other American officials that they had discovered links between the drug shipment and a bodyguard believed to be an intermediary for Ahmed Wali Karzai, according to a participant in the briefing.
The assertions about the involvement of the president's brother in the incidents were never investigated, according to American and Afghan officials, even though allegations that he has benefited from narcotics trafficking have circulated widely in Afghanistan.
Both President Karzai and Ahmed Wali Karzai, now the chief of the Kandahar Provincial Council, the governing body for the region that includes Afghanistan's second largest city, after Kabul, dismiss the allegations as politically motivated attacks by longtime foes.
"I am not a drug dealer; I never was, and I never will be," the president's brother said in a recent interview. "I am a victim of vicious politics."
But the assertions about him have deeply worried top American officials in Kabul and in Washington. The U.S. officials fear that perceptions that the Afghan president might be protecting his brother are damaging his credibility and undermining efforts by the United States to support his government, which was been under siege from rivals and a Taliban insurgency fueled by drug money, several senior Bush administration officials said. Their concerns have intensified as American troops have been deployed to the country in growing numbers.
"What appears to be a fairly common Afghan public perception of corruption inside their government is a tremendously corrosive element working against establishing long-term confidence in that government - a very serious matter," said Lieutenant General David Barno, who was commander of coalition military forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 and is now retired. "That could be problematic strategically for the United States."
The White House says it believes that Ahmed Wali Karzai is involved in drug trafficking, and American officials have repeatedly warned President Karzai that his brother is a political liability, two senior Bush administration officials said during interviews last week.
Numerous reports link Ahmed Wali Karzai to the drug trade, according to current and former officials from the White House, the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, who would speak only on condition of anonymity.
In meetings with President Karzai, including a 2006 session with the U.S. ambassador, the Central Intelligence Agency's station chief and their British counterparts, American officials have talked about the allegations in hopes that the president might move his brother out of the country, said several people who took part in or were briefed on the talks.
"We thought the concern expressed to Karzai might be enough to get him out of there," one official said. But President Karzai has resisted, demanding clear-cut evidence of wrongdoing, several officials said. "We don't have the kind of hard, direct evidence that you could take to get a criminal indictment," a White House official said. "That allows Karzai to say, 'Where's your proof?"'
Neither the Drug Enforcement Administration, which conducts counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan, nor the fledgling Afghan anti-drug agency has pursued investigations into the accusations against the president's brother.
Several American investigators said senior officials at the DEA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence complained to them that the White House favored a hands-off approach toward Ahmed Wali Karzai because of the political delicacy of the matter.
But White House officials dispute that, instead citing limited DEA resources in Kandahar and southern Afghanistan and the absence of political will in the Afghan government to go after major drug suspects as the reasons for the lack of an inquiry.
"We invested considerable resources into building Afghan capability to conduct such investigations and consistently encouraged Karzai to take on the big fish and address widespread Afghan suspicions about the link between his brother and narcotics," said Meghan O'Sullivan, who was the coordinator for Afghanistan and Iraq at the National Security Council until last year.
A press secretary for President Karzai denied that the president's brother was involved in drug trafficking or that the president had intervened to help him.
Spokesmen for the Drug Enforcement Administration, the State Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.
The concerns about Ahmed Wali Karzai have surfaced recently because of the imprisonment of an informant who tipped off American and Afghan investigators to the drug-filled truck outside Kabul in 2006.
The informant, Hajji Aman Kheri, was arrested a year later on charges of plotting to kill an Afghan vice president in 2002. The Afghan Supreme Court recently ordered him freed for lack of evidence, but he has not been released. Nearly 100 political leaders in his home region protested his continued incarceration last month.
Kheri, in a phone interview from jail in Kabul, said he had been an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. intelligence agencies, an assertion confirmed by American counternarcotics and intelligence officials. Several of those officials, frustrated that the Bush administration was not pressing for Kheri's release, came forward to disclose his role in the drug seizure.
Ever since the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, critics have charged that the Bush administration has failed to take aggressive action against the Afghan narcotics trade, because of both opposition from the Karzai government and reluctance by the U.S. military to get bogged down by eradication and interdiction efforts that would antagonize local warlords and Afghan poppy farmers.
The rising violence in Afghanistan and fractious political situation in Pakistan have become leading issues in the American presidential campaign and the debates between the candidates. Indeed, after seven years of war in the region, it's time to ask a very impolite set of questions: If we did, by chance, capture or kill Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, would Afghanistan still matter? Would there be public support for sending more American troops to stabilize a country that has rarely in its history enjoyed strong central government and that abuts a tribal area in Pakistan that neither the British nor the Pakistanis have ever been able to control? Is the war in Afghanistan, deep down, anything more than a manhunt for a handful of individuals? And if it is, how do we define victory there?
After all, Afghanistan is not the only ungovernable space with an Islamic setting around the world that can provide a base for terrorists who want to attack the United States. The world is full of them: from Somalia to the southern Philippines to the Indonesian archipelago.
Better, perhaps, not to be tied down with thousands of troops in one or two places, and instead use sophisticated, high-tech covert means to hunt down hostile groups wherever they crop up. The problem with Osama bin Laden, one could argue, was not that he had a haven in Afghanistan in the 1990s but that he was not pursued there with sufficient vigor.
So, here's my answer: In fact, Afghanistan is more than a manhunt, and it does matter, for reasons that have not been fully fleshed out by policymakers or the military.
Just because you can't pacify all the ungovernable Islamic spaces on the map doesn't mean you can't fix the one or two that are the most important, that have strategic weight over wide regions. For Afghanistan looms larger than it appears.
Strategically, culturally and historically speaking, Afghanistan and Pakistan are inseparable. In the 16th and 17th centuries, both countries, along with northern India, were united under the Mughal Empire. Today Pakistan, with 165 million people, is a nuclearized Yugoslavia in the making, and threatens to be torn apart by the Taliban rebellion in its North-West Frontier Province (and, possibly, by the growing Baluchi and Sindhi separatist movements in its southern half).
Since its birth 60 years ago, Pakistan has had darkly Shakespearean politics driven by passion and vendetta in which a small cast of individuals - Mohammad Zia ul-Haq; Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his daughter, Benazir; Nawaz Sharif; Pervez Musharraf - have in turn executed, replaced and imprisoned one another. The only qualification of the new president, Asif Ali Zardari, is that he is Benazir Bhutto's widower. The soap opera goes on, as Sharif, a two-time former prime minister, will undoubtedly seek to undermine him by leveraging his native Punjab against Zardari's Sindhi base.
Yet Pakistan is salvageable: It has an expanding urban middle class, and recent elections have by and large seen the defeat of religious extremists in favor of moderates. Pakistan's future may hinge on the degree to which the United States can work with the Pakistani military to keep the Taliban rebellion from expanding not only throughout Afghanistan, but into Pakistan's own cities as well.
Paradoxically, that will mean making deals with some Taliban groups against others. For the Taliban are not a monolithic organization, but bands of ornery Pashtun backwoodsmen who have been cut out of the power base in Afghanistan by an increasingly corrupt and ineffectual government in Kabul. They are not Al Qaeda: They lack a well-defined worldview and some are susceptible to political entreaties.
But if our drone air strikes are not accompanied by nation-building steps like constructing roads and water wells, we will fail and Pakistan will be further destabilized.
A failure in Afghanistan that destabilized Pakistan would do India no favors. Indeed, Pakistan would not go quietly into history. Sindhi and Baluchi separatists talk openly of an alliance with India if Pakistan unravels. But India, while its intelligence services now and then stoke Baluchi separatism, is terrified of such a development.
India's gravest problem - the one that has bedeviled its rise to great power status and with which its army is obsessed - is the fact that it shares long borders with dysfunctional states like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. The more responsible Indian nationalists see their country's expansion not in terms of hard conquest, but in terms of soft economic envelopment of its neighbors.
And an American failure in Afghanistan would set in motion a string of consequences that threaten such a benign vision.
In the end, victory in Afghanistan can be defined by achieving the kind of security there that existed in the 1960s, when King Zahir Shah controlled the major cities and the roads connecting them, and a relative peace reigned. Even under a weak central government, Afghanistan could finally achieve economic salvation: the construction of a web of energy pipelines that have been envisioned for years connecting Central Asia with the Indian Ocean.
These might run, for example, from the natural gas fields of Turkmenistan down through Afghanistan and into the dense population zones of Pakistan and India, with terminals at ports like Gwadar in Pakistani Baluchistan and Surat in the Indian state of Gujarat.
In other words, in Afghanistan we are not simply trying to save a country, but to give a whole region a new kind of prosperity and stability, united rather than divided by energy needs, that would be implicitly pro-American.
Indeed, a main reason the Pakistanis have been hesitant to work with us in the tribal areas is their fear that a manhunt is all we care about, rather than the region's long-term prospects.
The Pakistanis take note of our burgeoning strategic partnership with India, even as they believe that India's recent opening of several consulates in Afghanistan is aimed at helping Baluchi separatists weaken Pakistan.
Consequently, they feel squeezed, and on the brink of being deserted by us once we track down Al Qaeda's leading figures.
Afghanistan is a strategic rear base that India and Pakistan are now fighting over; both countries fear chaos there and desperately want us to calm it.
What the Pentagon calls the "long war" is the defining geopolitical issue of our time, and Afghanistan is at its heart. The fate of Eurasia hangs in the balance.
Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
LONDON: Britain's commander in Afghanistan has said the war against the Taliban cannot be won, the Sunday Times reported.
It quoted Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith as saying in an interview that if the Taliban were willing to talk, then that might be "precisely the sort of progress" needed to end the insurgency.
"We're not going to win this war. It's about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that's not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army," he said.
He said his forces had "taken the sting out of the Taliban for 2008" but that troops may well leave Afghanistan with there still being a low level of insurgency.
NATO commanders and diplomats have been saying for some time that the Taliban insurgency cannot be defeated by military means alone and that negotiations with the militants will ultimately be needed to bring an end to the conflict.
"If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that's precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this," Carleton-Smith said. "That shouldn't make people uncomfortable."
Violence in Afghanistan has increased to its worst level since 2001, when U.S.-led forces overthrew the ruling Taliban following the September 11 attacks on the United States.
A senior Taliban commander on Friday rejected reconciliation with what he called the "puppet" Afghan government.
Mullah Brother, who served as a top military commander while the Taliban were in power, repeated the Taliban's war aim of fighting till the more than 70,000 U.S. and NATO troops were driven from the country.
He said the insurgents would not negotiate while there were still foreign troops on Afghan soil.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said last week he had asked the king of Saudi Arabia to mediate in talks with the insurgents and called on Taliban leader Mullah Omar to return to his homeland and to make peace.
DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan: The angry Taliban reaction to the latest suspected U.S. missile strike in Pakistan could be an indication that a top militant died in the attack, officials and residents of the border region said Sunday as the death toll from the strike rose to 24.
The U.S. contends that parts of the Pakistani border region, especially in its semiautonomous tribal areas, are bases for militants attacking U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan; Washington has recently increased pressure on Pakistan to eliminate the havens.
The frontier region is believed to be a possible hiding place for the Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri. Several Arab militants were said to be among the dead in the strike in North Waziristan on Friday.
Two Pakistani intelligence officials said that two people wounded in the attack died over the weekend at a hospital in Miran Shah, the main town in North Waziristan. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the news media, said the overall death toll had risen to 24.
Based on information from informants and agents in the field, the intelligence officials said the Taliban appeared unusually perturbed over the latest attack. Their anger was a signal that a senior militant may have been killed, but that has yet to be confirmed, they said. Taliban spokesmen could not be reached for comment Sunday. Neither could Pakistani government or military spokesmen.
Earlier, a Pakistan Army spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, said initial reports indicated that at least 20 people had been killed. He said there was "speculation" that many were foreign militants, but he cautioned that the army was still awaiting a detailed report.
The United States rarely acknowledges such attacks. 1st Lieutenant Nathan Perry, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, said he had "no information to give" about the reported attacks. He did not deny U.S. involvement.
Pakistani military and civilian leaders have complained that the attacks violate the country's sovereignty, kill civilians and anger the local population, making it harder to defeat the militants. Extremists based in the border region are blamed for recent attacks in Pakistan, including the Sept. 20 truck bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad that killed more than 50 people.
The prime minister's office announced Saturday that a special joint session of Parliament would be held Wednesday so that intelligence agencies could privately brief lawmakers about the militant threat facing the country.
Ahsan Iqbal, a senior member of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League opposition party, welcomed the joint session, saying it could help clarify U.S. motives in beginning operations in Pakistan.
The Pakistani military has been carrying out its own operations against insurgents in the northwest, most notably in Bajaur, a tribal region Abbas called a "mega-sanctuary" for militants.
The United States has praised the military offensive in Bajaur, but it has also led to a major humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced by the fighting. Many are in refugee camps in Pakistan, but some 20,000 Pakistanis have crossed the border into eastern Afghanistan, according to the United Nations.
A warning from Singapore fund director proves prophetic
SINGAPORE: When Tony Tan, executive director of the biggest sovereign wealth fund in Singapore, warned in July that the world might plunge into its worst recession in 30 years, many shrugged off his remarks as being too gloomy.
Three months later, Tan's prophecy has become reality as the credit crisis ravages U.S. and European banks and takes a growing toll on global growth.
The Government of Singapore Investment Corp., or GIC, is sitting with 7 percent of its estimated $300 billion portfolio in cash and another 26 percent in government bonds issued by Group of 7 countries.
Tan, a former Singapore finance minister, and his team are now cautiously sifting through the financial carnage to shop for distressed assets in the United States in an effort to increase long-term returns for Singapore's central bank.
GIC released its first performance report last month, a filing that was made after Western lawmakers pushed for more transparency from sovereign funds. It showed a 4.5 percent return in Singapore dollars over the past 20 years.
"We should not assume that the worst is over and we continue to be watchful and prudent in our assessment of the economic risks and in our investments," Tan said when the report was made public.
GIC, which manages part of Singapore's foreign reserves, invested $18 billion in UBS and Citigroup in December and January, though shares of the two banks have since fallen as the credit crisis worsened.
By contrast, Warren Buffett, regarded as one of the world's smartest investors, waited until the past two weeks to spend $8 billion on shares in Goldman Sachs and General Electric.
Tan has said that U.S. investments will remain a big part of his portfolio, but GIC has said it may use some of its cash to buy shares of companies in emerging Asian markets.
Tan joined GIC in 2005 after a stint as chief executive of Oversea-Chinese Banking, a lender in Singapore, and more than a decade in politics. He has a PhD in applied mathematics.
He was once tipped by Singapore's first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, as his successor, though the post eventually went to Goh Chok Tong in 1990.
People who have worked with Tan describe him as willing to consult with others before making decisions, but dogged once his mind is made up, and confident enough to stick with a contrarian view.
GIC has limited its losses from the UBS and Citigroup investments by taking advantage of price-reset clauses in the original agreements after the two banks raised more cash to repair their balance sheets. Tan has said that GIC has the financial capacity to invest in another bank.
"We always look at the risk first," Tan said in January. "Our philosophy is if you look after the downside, the upside will look after itself."
ISTANBUL: Turkish warplanes have bombed Kurdish rebel bases in northern Iraq, the Turkish military said Sunday, two days after 15 Turkish soldiers were killed and at least 20 wounded in an attack by Kurdish separatist rebels in the mountainous border area of eastern Turkey.
The planes bombed Saturday in Iraq's Avasin Basyan region and returned safely to their bases, the Turkish military said.
The military's deputy chief, meanwhile, accused leaders in northern Iraq of tolerating the rebels.
"We don't receive any kind of support from the local administration in the northern part of Iraq," the officer, General Hasan Igsiz, said Sunday. "Our expectation from them is to accept that the terrorist organization is a terrorist organization and eliminate the support provided to it."
The soldiers were killed Friday night in an attack on the Aktutun border post in Semdinli, a district that borders Iran and Iraq, the military said. Twenty-three Kurdish fighters of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, also known as the PKK, were also killed.
The attack was the deadliest since last October, when Kurdish fighters killed 13 Turkish soldiers in an ambush near the town of Daglica. That attack touched off a political confrontation between Turkey and Iraq, where some rebels hide. Turkey bombed targets there, over Iraqi objections, and later sent troops in, but withdrew them eight days later under American pressure.
Turkey, a NATO member, has been fighting Kurdish separatists in its southeast since the 1980s. Kurdish rebels want greater autonomy for Turkey's minority Kurdish population, a condition that the Turkey says would lead to secession. The conflict has died down substantially since the bloody days of the 1980s and '90s.
Even so, the attack was the most serious in a year, and the Turkish authorities will be under pressure to respond. Regional elections are scheduled for March, and Turkish officials will take pains to show the public that they are working hard to punish the rebels for their attacks.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cut short a trip in Central Asia, and returned to Ankara, Turkey's capital, where he held a more than two-hour meeting with the country's top security officials on how to respond to the attack. Though nothing specific was made public from the meeting, the country's president, Abdullah Gul, said in a statement that the attack would "be investigated until the very end to find out how and with whose help" it was carried out.
The Turkish military says it needs Iraqi help to halt the rebel infiltration from bases across the long and mountainous border. It says that its surveillance capabilities in Iraq are limited, and that the rugged terrain makes it difficult to defend positions.
Iraq's national government has pledged to cooperate with Turkey.
President Jalal Talabani, who is a Kurd, told Gul during a telephone call Saturday that he condemned the Friday attack.
Brigadier General Metin Gurak of the Turkish General Staff told reporters in Ankara that the rebels had used heavy artillery, leading to the high number of military casualties, Turkey's state-run Anatolian Agency reported. He said two soldiers were also reported missing after the attack.
Turkey often blames Iraq for harboring the fighters in its Kurdish enclave. But the PKK has hide-outs in Turkey as well, and Iraqi officials say that Turkey blames Iraq to avoid taking responsibility for rebels on its own soil.
The Turkish Parliament is expected to approve a government request to extend a deadline that would allow the Turkish military to take action in northern Iraq. The current mandate expires Oct. 17.
Necati Ozgen, a retired general who has been in charge of the Aktutun base, said that assailants must have entered through Iraq, since the military base faces the small village right by the border and has unattainable high mountains behind it.
"There seems to be a major intelligence failure," Ozgen said during an interview on Turkey's NTV television. "It is impossible for a large group to reach as far as the base, before the villagers or village guards notice them."
The border post, Aktutun Gendarmerie Station, has been attacked frequently in the past, most recently in May. NTV reported that 20 soldiers were killed in a major battle there in September 1992, when the war was deadlier.
Semdinli has also been the scene of violence in which the Turkish military has been incriminated. Several members of a paramilitary force are suspects in a bomb attack inside a bookstore in the largely Kurdish town in 2005. Turkey's former top military commander, Yasar Buyukanit, acknowledged knowing one of the suspects, who had served under his command, describing him as a "good fellow."
The men's trial is still continuing, with the next hearing scheduled for Dec. 19.
BAGHDAD: Eleven Iraqis, including women and children, were killed Sunday after U.S. forces came under attack by gunfire and a suicide bomber during a raid in Mosul, the military said. There were no casualties among American forces.
Separately in the northern city, gunmen opened fire on mourners in a funeral tent, killing four people and wounding three, according to Iraqi officials.
Violence has declined drastically throughout Iraq, but Mosul remains a major security challenge despite recent U.S.-Iraqi military operations aimed at routing Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and other Sunni insurgents from the city.
"Most of the Mosul residents live in fear because of such raids conducted by U.S. forces, and even sometimes the Iraqi forces," said Thaier Ahmed, a 32-year-old teacher. "It is a horrible incident that has led to the killing of innocent people, including children."
In the Mosul raid, American troops came under heavy gunfire after entering a house believed to be holding a suspected insurgent Sunday, and a man inside detonated a suicide vest, the military said in a statement.
Five "terrorists" as well as three women and three children were killed, according to the statement. It did not specify how the people had died or give their nationalities.
Two other children, including one who was wounded, were found near the building and moved to safety, the military said. A weapons cache was later found inside.
"This is just another tragic example of how Al Qaeda in Iraq hides behind innocent Iraqis," said a U.S. military spokesman, Rear Admiral Patrick Driscoll.
Iraqi police officials in Mosul, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to make the information public, said the 11 people killed were all from one family. The said the dead included a 7-year-old boy.
Hours later, the funeral tent was struck in the Zanjili neighborhood of western Mosul, according to the police and hospital workers.
In Baghdad on Sunday, the first Egyptian foreign minister to visit Iraq in nearly two decades arrived and promised to help Iraq face its challenges.
"We reject sectarianism, extremism, violence," Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said. "And we hope that peace and security will prevail in Iraq."
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari of Iraq welcomed plans to open a new Egyptian Embassy soon in Baghdad. Cairo currently has several diplomats based in the U.S.-protected Green Zone.
The high-level visit reflected decreasing tension between Iraq's Shiite-led government and mainly Sunni Arab countries in the region.
Strong earthquake jolts Central Asia
A strong earthquake struck Central Asia on Sunday but there were no immediate reports of damage or casualties, officials and witnesses said.
The quake jolted an area between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most densely populated corner prone to ethnic tension and instability.
The earthquake was felt throughout the region, mainly in Kyrgyzstan, but there were conflicting reports about the magnitude and epicentre.
The U.S. Geological Survey reported that a 6.3-magnitude tremor struck 35 miles (55 km) east of Sary-Tash near the borders of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan at 9:52 p.m. (4:52 p.m. British time).
The Kyrgyz Emergencies Ministry said a quake measuring about 8 on a 12-point scale of earthquake intensity, hit a remote part of Tajikistan and jolted an area near Kyrgyzstan's second-biggest city, Osh.
"There are no reports of casualties or destruction. We are checking all information," Ramis Satybekov, an Emergencies Ministry official, told Reuters by telephone from Osh.
A Tajik earthquake detection centre said the quake struck on the border between Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and China.
The governor of Kyrgyzstan's Osh region, speaking to Reuters by telephone, said: "Everyone has been mobilised and we are checking all the sites."
Alla Pyatibratova, a journalist in Osh, said Kyrgyzstan's second-biggest city was calm.
"Everyone felt the earthquake and immediately ran outside. I did not see anything destroyed," she said by telephone. "People returned to their homes after a while."
Earthquakes are frequent occurrences in Central Asia, a region wedged between Afghanistan, Iran, Russia and China.
In 1966, the Uzbek capital Tashkent was flattened by a 7.5 earthquake when hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless. A 6.0 magnitude quake on the 12-level rocked Tashkent this August but there was no damage.
WASHINGTON: A day after Governor Sarah Palin accused Senator Barack Obama of "palling around with terrorists," a top Obama campaign official dismissed such talk as "ridiculous" and said that if Senator John McCain truly meant to lead an honorable campaign he should tell Palin to "knock it off."
Palin's comment, which referred to Obama's links to William Ayers, a former Chicago radical, came after a senior McCain adviser, Greg Strimple, said that the Republican candidate was "looking at turning the page on this financial crisis and getting back to discussing Mr. Obama's liberal - aggressively liberal - record."
The remark by Palin appeared to signal a tougher line of attack in the campaign's last four weeks, targeting Obama's associations, character and readiness to lead - areas of continuing vulnerability for the Democratic candidate, according even to polls that give him a national lead. But the Democrats were pushing back; they unveiled an ad calling McCain "erratic" and "out of touch on the economy."
Palin specifically mentioned a New York Times article about Obama's links to Ayers, saying: "Turns out one of Barack's earliest supporters is a man who, according to The New York Times, and they are hardly ever wrong, was a domestic terrorist and part of a group that, quote, launched a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol. Wow."
"This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America," she said.
But The Times article also noted that Ayers and Obama "do not appear to have been close. Nor has Obama ever expressed sympathy for the radical views and actions of Ayers."
Ayers, part of the antiwar Weather Underground movement linked to some deadly anti-government bombings in the 1960s, was never convicted of any illegal act. Now an education professor in Chicago, he was host at a fund-raising event for Obama early in the Democrat's political career.
Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, national co-chairman for Obama, on Sunday dismissed the Palin comments out-of-hand.
"I mean, really, how ridiculous," she told Fox News. "Do they really think Americans are going to think that Barack Obama's palling around with terrorists?"
"I hope John McCain is a strong enough leader to tell at least his vice-presidential candidate to knock it off."
Still, with McCain losing support in some battleground states hard-hit by the economic downturn, his campaign seemed intent on changing the subject through sharp-edged attacks like Palin's.
"If the McCain campaign doesn't do it," Brit Hume, managing editor of Fox News, said Sunday, "they're out of their minds."
Thus, one McCain surrogate, Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, referred twice on Sunday to Ayers as an "unrepentant domestic terrorist" whose past raised real questions about Obama's judgment.
Leading McCain backers insisted that the race was far from over. At this point eight years ago, noted Senator Joe Lieberman - then the Democratic vice presidential candidate but now a McCain supporter - the Democrats trailed by about the same margin as McCain does now. They ultimately won more votes than George W. Bush while losing a bitterly contested election that was decided in the courts.
"The four weeks that are left are an eternity," the Republican strategist Joe Gaylord told The Associated Press.
Yet, even Karl Rove, the former Bush political strategist, said Sunday that the McCain campaign had made some questionable moves.
As each candidate battles in states that went narrowly to the other party in 2004, Rove said, "We're down now to where McCain is playing basically in five John Kerry states and Obama is playing in nine Bush states. Obama has forced this more on to Republican turf and off of Democratic turf, and that's where you'd like to be."
He questioned the way McCain had made it known that he was effectively ceding Michigan, a key state. When Obama scaled down his efforts in Alaska, North Dakota, Nebraska and Georgia, he did so quietly.
"The question is whether you do it smartly like Obama did or in a high-profile leak like McCain did," Rove said.
The presidential candidates meet Tuesday in Nashville for their second debate, in a town-hall format that might make direct attacks more difficult.
But there seemed little doubt that the bad economic news has knocked McCain off stride, and Obama will try to exploit that on Tuesday.
Senator Mel Martinez, Republican of Florida, acknowledged that the recent troubles had weighed on McCain's fortunes in his state just as they had in Michigan. "McCain was well ahead in Florida before the economic crisis hit," he said on ABC, though he predicted that McCain could yet bounce back.
And Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, said that polls there showed Obama doing better "because voters are paying attention" to the economy.
Analysts said that groups supporting McCain, if not the candidate himself, seemed poised to again bring up the inflammatory remarks of Obama's former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and Obama's past connections to the Chicago real estate developer Antoin Rezko, a convicted felon. Obama has severed ties to both men.
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