Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held talks with the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) leaders in Ramallah, West Bank, on March 4, including Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and President Mahmoud Abbas. Reuters news described Fayyad as the "pointman in Western-backed reconstruction plans for the Gaza Strip that freeze out the territory's Hamas Islamist rulers."
During a Gaza reconstruction conference held at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, on March 2, international donors pledged $4.481 billion in aid help the Palestinian economy and rebuild the devastated Gaza strip. The United States was represented at the conference by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who pledged $900 million — $300 million for Gaza reconstruction and another $600 million to support the Palestinian National Authority's (PNA) budget shortfalls and operating expenses.
In her first trip abroad since becoming secretary of state, Hillary Clinton traveled to four Asian countries including China, the world's most populous country, where human-rights concerns were trumped by global economic concerns during Clinton's February 20-22 visit. China is still an openly communist nation and has a dismal human-rights track record. But it also has the world's fastest-growing major economy and is the largest foreign holder of U.S. Treasury securities.
Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, predicted on February 18 that the additional 17,000 U.S. troops scheduled to be sent to Afghanistan will remain there for three to five years. "This is not a temporary force uplift," said McKiernan at a Pentagon news conference. "It will need to be sustained for some period of time, for the next three to four to five years."
President Barack Obama decided February 16 to send an additional 17,000 U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan, as part of his campaign promise to increase U.S. presence in that troubled nation. The decision comes days after a sobering U.S. intelligence assessment authored by retired Admiral Dennis Blair concluded that "corruption has exceeded culturally tolerable levels and is eroding the legitimacy of the government.”
The government of Pakistan announced on February 16 that it had agreed to accept a system of strict Islamic law, or sharia, in the Malakand region of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP), which includes the Swat Valley, as well as a suspension of military operations in the area. The agreement effectively abandons parts of Pakistan to the Taliban insurgents, creating a sanctuary from which they can further threaten supply lines supporting the NATO military operation in neighboring Afghanistan. Taliban insurgents have also used the area as a base from which to launch attacks against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
As Iran celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Khomeini Revolution and the American hostage crisis, U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were both talking about talking — with each other. Ahmadinejad, on February 10, said his country "is ready to hold talks, but talks in a fair atmosphere with mutual respect." He made the remarks at a rally to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, when members of the PLO-trained Revolutionary Guards took over the U.S. embassy and held the embassy personnel hostage for 444 days.
Less than two weeks after Iraq’s provincial elections, the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki welcomed a large high-level delegation from Iran. Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki led the delegation, which visited Baghdad on February 11 and included representatives from the Central Bank and oil, trade, and energy ministries. Mottaki met with his Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, as well as Prime Minister al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani.
Provincial council elections in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces on January 31 strengthened Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party, a militant Shia Islamic group, while also bringing many Sunnis who had boycotted the 2005 elections back into the political process. More than 14,400 candidates ran for 440 seats in the councils, which appoint the provincial governor and oversee finance and reconstruction. The three provinces of the Kurdish autonomous region and Kirkuk will hold elections in May.
President Barack Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, who arrived in Pakistan on February 9, met the next day with President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, and army chief General Ashfaq Kayani during a three-day visit. "I am here to listen and learn the ground realities of this critically important country," the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan quoted Holbrooke as saying upon his arrival in Pakistan.
On February 5, we reported about the fate of the U.S. air base at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, which has played a key role in supplying the heavily American NATO forces in the ongoing military operation in Afghanistan — an operation that promises to expand into an ongoing war in the model of Iraq.