Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Al-Qaeda, Taliban Assassins Striking Widely

Yesterday's attack at the five-star Serena Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, was another instance of a spreading assassination campaign by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Afghan security authorities have now identified the Pakistani-based terrorist, Siraj Haggani, as the instigator of this attack, which resulted in eight deaths at the hotel, including at least one American. The apparent target of the attack, the visiting Norwegian foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Stoere, was elsewhere in the hotel and escaped unhurt.

Just as in a celebrated past assassination, that of anti-Taliban fighter Ahmed Massoud, just before 9-11, by two terrorists disguised as journalists, the attackers used a disguise, with at least one dressed in the uniform of an Afghan police officer. At least one attacker gained entrance to the hotel lobby and started firing on guests.

The Benazir Bhutto assassination in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on Dec. 27 was, most likely, the act of Al-Qaeda or elements of the Pakistani government affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Also, there were bombings that killed at least 31 persons in Algiers, many of them United Nations employees, the recent murder of four French citizens vacationing in Mauritania, and there was an assassination attempt just today involving an American Embassy vehicle traveling north of Beirut, that killed at least 3 Lebanese citizens, including one employed by the Embassy, the first direct attack against U.S. diplomatic interests in Lebanon since the 1980s.

And, of course, this doesn't count the assassinations of innocents taking place virtually every day in Iraq -- in markets, hotels, Baghdad and Mosul neighborhoods and elsewhere. These have been repressed 60% by American military action, but continue to some extent.

Assassination is a characteristic operation of the Al-Qaeda and Taliban vipers, and it explains why there has to be such tight security when President Bush travels abroad, as he is to the Middle East this week, and even here at home of the presidential candidates. We cannot by any means presume that the terrorists would be above such possible attacks, as a means to interfere in the American election. They threaten assassinations of Westerners in numerous tapes and videos distributed throughout the world on Islamic Web sites, and even through such television networks as Al-Jazeera. In the wake of the new Kabul attack, the Taliban said today it will target restaurants in the Afghan capital frequented by Westerners.

It has become clear, meanwhile, that the Pakistani border areas adjacent to Afghanistan have become the new heartland of the terrorists. The weakened regime of dictator Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan has proved incapable of preventing the consolidation of this bastion, and, despite some intervention from time to time of American special forces, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and their allies continue to spread their power into populated areas of that country. Just today, in its lead story, the New York Times reports that Pakistan's intelligence agency has lost control of certain networks of extremists which it once had nurtured.

Recently, in a New Hampshire debate of Democratic presidential candidates, all three major contenders, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards, declared that if they were informed of the precise whereabouts of Osama bin Laden they would send in American forces to get him. This generated yet another statement by Musharraf warning against American incursions into the Pakistani borderlands.

It is clear, however, that the Democratic candidates have it right: If we locate bin Laden, we simply cannot afford to allow him to escape once again. American security trumps Pakistani security, especially considering the danger that Pakistani nuclear weapons could fall into terrorist hands should the Musharraf regime collapse.

This week, also, there has been confirmation of reports that a force of 3,200 U.S. Marines will be sent to Afghanistan to buttress allied forces there. This movement comes amid resistance by NATO allies against U.S. entreaties for reinforcing the number of Europeans fighting in Afghanistan.

Altogether, the center of the War on Terror has moved east from Iraq into Afghanistan and Pakistan, but there are, as well, new Al-Qaeda attacks in North Africa.

To a certain extent, the American election campaign has moved toward more economic concerns and less controversy over U.S. participation in military campaigns in the Middle East. But, make no mistake, this crisis-ridden region remains a fulcrum of world power politics, and doing in the assassins is integral to U.S. national security.

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The Los Angeles Times continues to do an admirable job of covering stories outside the main flow of the news. Two stories just yesterday come to mind. In one, in the Business section, Jessica Guynn wrote most entertainingly of the free meals the Google Corp. feeds to its employees at its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. In a second, on Page 1, Jeffrey Fleishman wrote about the difficult lives of American women who have married Saudi Arabian men, converted to Islam and moved to Saudi Arabia. This is a little like voluntarily walking into Dante's Circles of Hell.

Even when the Times is picking up articles from other newspapers, it is frequently choosing well. Another article yesterday told the inspiring story of John Muir Laws, who has been photographing insect and other life in the Sierra, honoring the great naturalist whom he was named after. This article came from the Washington Post.

I'm glad also to see that sports editor Randy Harvey has sent tennis writer Lisa Dillman to Melbourne to cover the Australian Open, after a one-year hiatus of covering that splendid event.

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