Sunday, 21 December 2008

Who's who in Guantanamo

The Brookings Institution has published a brief, but important, report called The Current Detainee Population in Guantanamo: An Empirical Study which makes for interesting reading. The report notes that since the camp opened in January 2002, the Pentagon has consistently refused to identify those who have been held there.
"We have sought to identify the detainee population using a variety of records, mostly from habeas corpus litigation", say the authors, " and we have sorted the current population into subgroups using both the government's allegations against detainees and detainee statements about their own affiliations and conduct."
The authors say that as of mid-December there were 248 detainees left in the camp - out of a total of around 779 detainees who have passed through since it was opened. Since 2004, when the Pentagon set up a review to evaluate the 558 remaining prisoners, 330 have been transferred or released. Other facts gathered by the Brookings researchers include the following:
1) 81 detainees travelled to Afghanistan for jihad
2) 130 stayed in al-Qaeda, Taliban or other guest/safe houses
3) 169 detainees took military or terrorist training in Afghanistan
4) 84 actually fought for the Taliban, many of them on the front lines against the Northern Alliance
5) 88 were at Tora Bora
6) 71 detainees' names or aliases were found on computers, hard drives, physical lists of al-Qaeda operatives, or other material seized in raids on al-Qaeda safehouses and facilities.
7) 64 detainees were captured under "circumstances - military surrenders, live combat actions, travelling in a large pack of mujahideen, or in the company of senior al-Qaeda figures, for example - that strongly suggest belligerency".
8) 28 detainees served on Osama bin Laden's security detail.

The Brookings Institution says that in order to make more concrete the US government's allegations against each of the present detainees, it has created five broad categories that help illuminate the role that each of them allegedly played in the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other groups.
Looking at the figures this way we see that:
1) 27 were members of al-Qaeda's leadership cadre
2) 99 were lower-level al-Qaeda operatives
3) 9 were members of the Taliban's leadership cadre
4) 93 were foreign fighters
5) 14 were Taliban fighters and operatives.

The problem of what to do with these remaining prisoners will eventually be solved by the new Obama Administration about to enter the White House. The foreign fighters in particular are said to pose a serious problem, although hundreds have been allowed to return home without incident. However, it has always struck me as odd that so many Afghans were held in Guantanamo. It cannot be because they were directly involved in bin Laden's activities. None of them would have been privy to the plans for the 9/11 attacks, not least because many of the Arabs around bin Laden looked down on the Afghans.
It is also unlikely that they were being trained for al-Qaeda operations abroad. Many of them were captured in the final days of the Taliban regime when their leaders deserted them and fled to Pakistan. Some of them were simply regular Taliban fighters involved in fighting the Northern Alliance. Others were Pakistani Pakhtuns sent over the border in a futile gesture of bravado and solidarity.
It is thought that at least another 60 prisoners are due for imminent release and the US has suggested that maybe only up to 80 others will enter into the US legal system following the closure of the remaining prisoner facilities. For some idea of the options, this article by Benjamin Wittes and Jack Goldsmith is very useful. Whatever happens, the closure of Guantanamo Bay cannot come quick enough.
Incidentally, if you would like to find out which 'celebrities' have recently visited Guantanamo, you might want to check out this page. If you would like to follow official news on what is happening with the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, you can look here.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Thriving on a sense of injustice

This morning the Guardian published a fascinating report by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad based on his interviews with a number of Taliban fighters in Wardak province, in Ghazni and in Kabul. The subject of much of the report was Qomendan Hemmet, a young Taliban commander who declared: "When I started in this area, three years ago, I had six fighters, one RPG and two machine guns like these. Now I have 500 fighters, 30 machine guns and hundreds of RPGs."
There is no way at present of checking these figures, but even allowing for a degree of hyperbole, no-one can now doubt that the Taliban is becoming organised throughout the country. Qomendan Hemmet explained how each province now has its own Taliban governor, military leader and shura (consultation) council. Below these are the district commanders, who in turn have smaller units under their command.
Hemmet explained that the Taliban now place a great deal of emphasis on offering some form of government in the areas in which it has a presence. Most importantly, its sharia courts dispense justice, mostly in cases involving bandits or land disputes. The success of the Taliban in offering even a modicum of justice may be one of the reasons behind the recent announcement by the Karzai government that it had begun executing criminals. It wants to be seen as decisive and as popular as the Taleban in the way it tackles crime and property.
Another interviewee, Mullah Muhamadi, also emphasised the importance the Taliban now attaches to being seen to be a government in waiting. "When we control a province we need to provide service to the people. We want to show the people that we can rule and that we are ready for the day when we take over Kabul, that we have learned from our mistakes."
Those mistakes, it would seem, include the closing down of all schools and also the open-ended support for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. While deeply resenting what they see as the military occupation of their country by foreign forces, the new Taliban also know that it was bin Laden who brought death and destruction to their country by launching the 9/11 attacks from their soil. He may now have support amongst some of the tribes along the border because of personal connections, but most Afghans feel little, if any, allegiance to bin Laden and the global jihad.
The Taliban interviewed by Abdul-Ahad appear to have a consistent plan based on cutting the cities off from their hinterlands. They remark that the army and police may control the roads by day, but by night they are in charge. This strategy, most successfully developed by the Peoples Liberation Army in China under Mao Zedong, is just about the only one that can be followed by what is, in essence, a peasant militia. It is unlikely to lead to the collapse of the present government, but it will make much of the country ungovernable.
The reasons it is being successful include the fact that much of the population, particularly in the south, is disillusioned with the Karzai government for not getting rid of warlordism and not settling accounts with those who carried out atrocities in the past.
A good example of this has come to light in the last week. According to IRIN, the UN's office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the site of a mass grave at Dasht-e-Leili near Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan, has been disturbed in the last few months and human remains have been removed. The group Physicians for Human Rights, who discovered the mass grave in 2002, issued a statement alleging that General Abdul Rashid Dostum (see my previous blog below) is responsible for the recent excavations. The involvement of Dostum is examined in more detail in an investigation by Tom Lasseter of McClatchy newspapers.
It was Dostum's men who were accused of carrying out the original massacre of more than 2,000 captured Taliban fighters who had surrendered to the Northern Alliance and US Special Forces after the fall of the city of Kunduz in November 2001. Ever since PHR discovered the remains in January 2002 it has been advocating a full inquiry into what happened there. Their own investigations showed that many of those who died had suffocated as a result of being crammed into freight containers. It was a shocking crime. At the time the US government played down reports about the deaths, saying only that several dozen had died.
However, PHR has now issued much more information that it received from the Departments of Defense and State and also the CIA as a result of a FOIA inquiry.
The documents include a State Department intelligence assessment from November 2002 advising government officials that the remains of between 1,500 and 2,000 individuals were deposited at the site, and that four Afghans who witnessed the death of the prisoners and/or the disposal of their remains had been detained, tortured, killed, and/or disappeared. "Despite having this information," says PHR, "the US Government did not revise its public statements on the issue, nor did it launch a vigorous investigation into the circumstances surrounding these alleged crimes".
PHR adds that the FOIA response calls into question the US Government’s commitment to its responsibilities under the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. These laws require full investigation and accountability for war crimes undertaken by allies during joint military operations. During the time in question, US Army and CIA personnel were advising, equipping and protecting General Dostum, and both parties received the prisoners who surrendered at Kunduz.
So is it any surprise when we now hear that many Afghans are flocking to the banner of a resurgent Taliban? It took several years after 2001 for the Taliban to regain its confidence and to reassert its military forces. Now, as everyone can see for themselves that great unjustices have still not been put right, that aid money appears to have evaporated and that the old warlords continue in power we can harldy be surprised that the insurgency is getting stronger.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Taliban tightens the screw

The news that new talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban are to take place in Dubai in the next few days is welcome, although the Taliban leader Mullah Omar has issued an uncompromising statement - his first for some time - in which he appears to argue that Coalition forces in the country are on the brink of defeat.
Speaking on the eve of Eid e Ghorban, Mullah Omar suggests that the collapse of the US economy is directly related to its military activities in Afghanistan and Iraq and warns that sending more troops to back the regime in Kabul will not relieve the situation. "Thus the current armed clashed which now number into tens, will spiral up to hundreds of armed clashes. Your current casualties of hundreds will jack up to thousand casualties of dead and injured simultaneously," he says.
He does not specifically mention the Dubai talks, but last time negotiations took place, at the end of September, the Taliban leadership denied that they had happened. "The Afghan Islamic Emirate leadership council considers such baseless rumours as a failed attempt of the enemy to create mistrust and concerns among Afghans and other nations and Mujahideen. No official member of the Taliban is currently or in the past negotiating with the US or the puppet Afghan govrnment. A few former officials of Taliban who are under house arrest or have surrendered do not represent the Islamic Emirate."
Precisely who is involved in the negotiations and their importance will be the subject of a future posting, but whatever is happening in Dubai, it is clear that the Taliban and other groups opposed to the Karzai government are now in control of much of the country. According to a bleak new report from the independent International Council on Security and Development, the Taliban now has a permanent presence in 72 per cent of the country - up from 54 per cent a year ago (see map above).
The report claims that four of the five routes out of Kabul to neighbouring countries are now unsafe for Afghan or international travel. It points to a growing nexus between the Taliban and criminal elements who are "closing a noose" around the capital.
"The Taliban are now dictating terms in Afghanistan, both politically and militarily," says the report. "At the national level, talk of reconciliation and power sharing between undefined moderate elements of the movement and elected government officials is commonplace. At a local level, the Taliban are manoeuvring skilfully to fill the governance void, frequently offering a mellower version of localised leadership than characterised their last stint in power."
The report continues: "It is their combination of recruitment bulk and propaganda know-how that enables the Taliban to outlast NATO-ISAF and US forces. Simplistic though it may be, their unity of purpose gives them a distinct edge over the cumbersome command structure of Western security and development efforts."
"We don't see the figures in this report as being credible at all," said NATO spokesman James Appathurai. "The Taliban are only present in the south and east, which is already less than 50 percent of the country." And the Afghan government has also rejected the report and said "in addition to the questionable methodology of the report and its conceptual confusion, the report has misinterpreted the sporadic, terrorizing, and media-oriented activities of the Taliban."
Yet it is clear that travel in Afghanistan is now almost impossible for most aid workers, who cannot even visit the projects they are supposed to be financing.
And just across the border in Pakistan supporters of the Taliban have in recent days been engaged in a campaign of attacks against military supply convoys entering the country via the Khyber Pass. On Sunday 7th December insurgents broke into a depot on the ring road outside Peshawar and set fire to 50 containers. The previous night they had burned more than 100 vehicles (see picture above) carrying military supplies. Security guards said that around 200 militants had entered the terminal shouting Allah-o-Akbar and 'Down with America'. A week ago 22 trucks carrying food supplies were burned in the same area.
While these attacks are unlikely to act as a serious threat to the military mission in Afghanistan, they are certainly more than pinpricks. More important than the effect on supplies is the propaganda value. They demonstrate to the average Afghan that Karzai's government is losing control of the country. And in a country where historically people wait to see who is winning before deciding who to support, time is running out.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Gone at last?

So is it farewell, General Abdurrashid Dostum? The notorious Uzbek warlord flew out of Afghanistan onTuesday in a Turkish government jet, possibly to end his days in exile in Ankara - although a Turkish government official has merely confirmed that he is in the country for the Eid Ghorban festival. Removed from his largely symbolic job as military chief of staff to the President in February after kidnapping and beating up a former ally, it is being said that President Karzai agreed to drop all charges if Dostum left the country permanently.
Details of theoriginal incident are unclear, but on 2 February 2008, Dostum's fighters reportedly kidnapped Akbar Bai, a former ally who had become his rival. During the attack Bai, his son, and a bodyguard were allegedly beaten (according to former US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Dostum personally assaulted Bai with a beer bottle, almost killing him), and another bodyguard shot. The following day Dostum's house was surrounded by police. Bai and the three others were freed and hospitalized. According to the authorities, the stand-off ended with Dostum's agreement to cooperate with the authorities in an investigation of the incident.
A few weeks later he was suspended from his post. President Karzai was initially reluctant to take any action, but with growing protests he was forced to act. The investigation concluded in the autumn and then there appears to have been a certain amount of horse-trading, which has not reflected well on the President. Akbar Bai agreed to drop all charges and Dostum was restored to his old job on 30 October, if only to ensure he didn't lose too much face. However it may now be that he has agreed to leave Afghanistan forever.
Dostum's long and bloody political career began in the 1970s. He first rose to prominence as a Communist Party union boss and following the Soviet intervention backed the pro-Moscow government in its battle against the Western-backed mujahideen. He soon rose to become commander of the 53rd Infantry Division and then Unit 374 in Jowzjan, which was loyal to President Najibullah.
After the Russians left Afghanistan Dostum joined forces with the Tajik leader Ahmed Shah Massoud in April 1992 to fight against the islamist, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. His forces later captured Kabul where they were accused of rape and looting. Then in 1994 he swapped sides again, this time teaming up with Hekmatyar (another notorious warlord) to fight Massoud and the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani. Once more charges of rape and looting were laid against his militiamen.
When the Taliban swept to power in 1996 Dostum teamed up with Rabbani and even protected Massoud's troops as they withdrew from Kabul in the face of the Taliban onslaught.
Based in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Dostum established a kind of mini-state where he earned a reputation for cruelty, sometimes executing people by having them driven over by tanks. However, in 1998 he fell out with his second-in-command, General Abdul Malik - who defected to the Taliban - and was forced to flee to Turkey where he lived in exile until April 2001 when he once again joined forces with the Northern Alliance of Massoud and the Herat-based Ismail Khan.
After the Taliban were driven from power it emerged that Dostum's troops had been responsible for a massacre of several thousand Taliban who had been captured in the northern city of Kunduz. The men were loaded into containers where many of them died after Dostum's men opened fire. Others were suffocated. The massacre remains one of the most shameful events in modern Afghan history.
Dostum's men were also involved in the battle at Qala-e-Jangi, an old fortress where around 300 mostly foreign fighters (Arabs, Chechens and Pakistanis) were held at the end of November 2001. The fighters staged an uprising in which CIA agent Mike Spann was killed. It ended after almost a week with air strikes that killed all but 86 of the foreign fighters, most of whom were later transferred to Guantanamo Bay.
Under the Karzai government Dostum was initially deputy defence minister, but he continued to court controversy and became involved in fighting against the Tajik commander Ustad Atta Mohammed Noor over control of Mazar-e-Sharif. Although that conflict later subsided, he remained a thorn in the side of Karzai, who was unable to touch him because of his support amongst the Uzbeks.
The attack on Akbar Bai seems to have been the final straw and although Karzai was reluctant to move against him, in the end he seems to have beeb persuaded to leave the country, according to Watan newspaper. In the northern provinces where he had wide support from the Uzbek population, Dostum was revered and could count on a loyal following. He allowed religious freedom (he is an atheist) and also allowed women to work outside the home.
Whilst Dostum may have protected the interests of his kinsmen in the northern provinces, he was never able to reconcile himself to the idea of a democratic Afghanistan. If he has left is a victory of sorts for progressive forces in the country, although it has shown President Karzai in a poor light for his indecisiveness. We can only hope that a few more of the Soviet-era warlords will follow his example and quit the country for good.