Thursday, 27 August 2009

Afghan journalist murdered en route to Peshawar

Very sad to hear about the murder of journalist Janullah Hashimzada, 37, shot dead by four masked gunmen on 24 August in a targetted assassination in the Soor Kamar area of Jamrud sub-district on the road between the border town of Torkham and Peshawar in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province.
Although no one has so far claimed responsibility for the murder, Janullah’s friend Aimal Khattak claimed unknown men had threatened the journalist with death some three weeks ago.
Januallah was the Peshawar correspondent for Afghanistan Pahjwok News Agency, and was also bureau chief in Peshawar for the Pashto TV channel Shamshad. He also filed reports for AP, al-Arabiya TV channel and other outlets.
At a condolence meeting and fateha khwani held at the Peshawar Press Club on Tuesday, the club's President, Shamim Shahid said Janullah's death was "a great loss to the journalists' community and to freedom of the press." He added that Janullah was "very cooperative while sharing information on Afghan affairs" and that he was "a sincere friend and a humble human being."
Danish Karokhel, head of Pajhwok news service in Kabul, said Janullah was a professional journalist who covered major stories in Pakistan for Pajhwok and other media organizations. Mohammad Israr Atal, a staffer of Shamshad TV's Peshawar Bureau, recalled the precious moments he had spent with Janullah. "I never felt professional jealousy or distrust while working with Janullah in our office," he said. "We have been deprived of a good friend and a caring boss", he added.
He left three daughters and a widow to mourn his death. Daud Khattak, another friend of Janullah, said he was a brave journalist who visited and interviewed the Mujahideen and Taliban leaders both in tribal areas of Pakistan and troubled parts of Afghanistan.
The International Federation of Journalists has demanded a full inquiry into Janullah's death, with IFJ General Secretary Aidan White noting that "Pakistan’s highest authorities must take quick action to overcome the failings of local authorities to properly investigate previous murders of journalists in Pakistan.”
The IFJ statement pointed out that Janullah was working with the Afghan Independent Journalists’ Association (AIJA), an IFJ affiliate, to set up an AIJA regional office in Peshawar, in order to assist Afghan journalists and media professionals working in Pakistan, as well as Pakistani journalists.
AIJA President Rahimullah Samander said the death of Hashimzada was an enormous loss for the Afghan journalists’ community, and the association’s offices in Afghanistan’s eastern four provinces were investigating the murder. The AIJA has called on Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to intervene with counterparts in Pakistan and request assurance of a full and immediate investigation.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

TTP in disarray after death of Baitullah Mahsud

After several weeks travelling through the remote mountains and valleys of Kyrgyzstan with little contact with the outside world, I return to find that Baitullah Mahsud, leader of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) appears to have been killed in a US drone attack on 5 August, along with his wife and two others, in the Zangra area of Waziristan. According to reports he was staying at the house of his father in law, Malik Ikramuddin Mahsud, and four of his children were injured in the attack
Three days before his death I wrote on this blog that it would either be a US missile or an assassin's bullet that killed Baitullah; Pakistan's ISI considered him an asset and their much-trumpeted offensive in South Waziristan aimed at dislodging him has still yet to take place.
Mahsud's death is a serious blow to the whole TTP project. There are few, if any, leaders capable of holding this loose amalgam of tribal militants together. Unity in the name of Wahhabi Islam may be of interest to some factions, but tribal factionalism is stronger still.
The ragbag of factions will have much to ponder in the wake of Mahsud's death. Foremost in their minds will be an appraisal of what happened in Malakand and the Swat Valley, where the TTP has suffered a significant defeat. With hundreds of thousands of people returning to their homes, there is little sympathy for the remaining militants still sheltering in the hills. Even the revelation of extra-judicial killings of TTP fighters by Pakistan's security forces has caused little stir.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says it has come across "credible accounts of extrajudicial killings and complaints of reprisal attacks by the security forces during the operation in Swat". It singles out the death of militant leader Maulvi Misbahuddin and says credible evidence shows he had been held by the security forces shortly before his body and that of his son were found in Bacha Bazar. The government claims that they were killed in an encounter, while eyewitnesses maintain they were arrested by the police in Mardan.
In another case, Amir Izzat, spokesperson for the Swat militants, was arrested in Amandara. Two days later the authorities claimed that he was killed, allegedly by militants who tried to rescue him when they attacked the vehicle taking him to jail. HRCP says "Independent journalists claim that the targeted vehicle shown to them did not even have an engine."
The Commission adds: "The most harrowing reports were of dead bodies strewn upside down by the military with notes attached to the bodies warning that anyone supporting the Taliban will meet the same fate." Clearly the militants had taken a step too far. Instead of concentrating on Afghanistan, they were attempting to spread their influence and control into the Pakistan heartlands and some sections of the military decided that enough was enough.
The issue of where the TTP chooses to fight will continue to create problems for the movement. Some of the factions are only interested in fighting the Americans and their allies in Afghanistan, while others have set their sights, rather ludicrously, on Islamabad. There are also divisions over the question of foreign fighters and the relationship with al-Qaeda.
In the wake of Mahsud's death - which has still not been officially acknowledged by the TTP - a 42-member shura held in south Waziristan is said to have appointed Hakimullah Mahsud as its new emir. However, even this is uncertain. The Pakistan military say Hakimullah was killed in factional fighting following Baitullah's death and that they new leader is in fact one of his brothers, disguised to look like him. Whatever the truth, these are clear signs of disarray.
It would be foolish to predict the demise of the TTP too soon. And even if it now sinks into fratricide, the Quetta-based leadership of the Afghan Taliban will not give up its fight. One obvious question - if the US is able to strike with impunity at targets in South Waziristan, why can't it hit Mullah Omar and his cronies in Quetta? My bet is that there is a deal between the US and Pakistan that rules out drone attacks in Baluchistan. Any views?

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

See you after the election...

For the next couple of weeks I will be travelling in remote parts of Central Asia. It is unlikely I will be able to access this blog until my return. By then, the Afghan Presidential elections will be over and we may be in a new phase of the country's history. Alternatively, it may just be more of the same. Either way, I hope to continue where I left off. (PS I'm still looking for a copy of that Taliban code of conduct...).

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

A report someone didn't want you to read

Clearly someone in Whitehall didn't want too many people to read Britain's Parliamentary Select Committee on Foreign Affairs' report on Afghanistan. They chose to release it on Sunday, immediately after the House of Commons had closed for its extended summer holiday and without issuing a press release.
Entitled Global Security: Afghanistan and Pakistan, the report is strongly (but carefully) critical of the present government's policy (there is a Labour majority on the committee), but more critical of both EU and American policy under President George W Bush. Germany also comes in for criticism for failing to train the Afghan police.
On American policy, the report says:
"Some, though certainly not all, of the responsibility for problems in Afghanistan since 2001 must be attributed to the direction of US policy in the years immediately after the military intervention in 2001. The unilateralist tendencies of the US under the Bush administration, and its focus on military goals to the exclusion of many other strategically important issues, set the tone for the international community’s early presence in Afghanistan."
The committee is also critical of Coalition bombing, saying that:
"The use of air power and acts of considerable cultural insensitivity on the part of some Coalition Forces over an extended period have done much to shape negative perceptions among ordinary Afghans about the military and the international effort in Afghanistan. This problem has caused damage, both real and perceived, that will in many instances be difficult to undo."
For those of you not used to the UK system, these reports are compiled by MPs, who take both written and oral evidence. They are published without interference by ministers and are often critical of government policy. Even so, this report is particularly critical of both UK government and international policy.
The committee makes strong points about corruption, concluding that "virtually no tangible progress has been made in tackling the endemic problem of corruption, and that in many cases the problem has actually become worse. ... policy commitments, action plans and all manner of strategies are of little value if they are not accompanied by the political will on the part of the Afghan President and government to drive forward change and tackle corruption at senior levels."
It says Britain should relinquish its role as lead nation on drug eradication in Afghanistan and cede this responsibility to the UN, together with ISAF.
Overall, the international community "has delivered much less than it promised and that its impact has been significantly diluted by the absence of a unified vision and strategy, grounded in the realities of Afghanistan’s history, culture and politics."
On the subject of Pakistan, the committee singles out the madrassahs for criticism and suggests Saudi funding is behind some of the most radical ones. The committee has noted a change of attitude by some Pakistani generals but remains concerned that "this may not necessarily be replicated elsewhere within the army and ISI."
The report suggests the British government should "address" the problems created by the imposition of the Durand Line on local Pashtun tribes. Good luck on that one, particularly since the report also reveals, astonishingly, that no-one in the Foreign Office can speak Pashto!
Other problems noted:
  • "We conclude that there has been significant ‘mission creep’ in the British deployment to Afghanistan".
  • "The UK deployment to Helmand was undermined by unrealistic planning at senior levels, poor co-ordination between Whitehall departments and crucially, a failure to provide the military with clear direction".
One final point: some of the best material submitted to this inquiry is not included in the main report. For that you have to dig into the background documents. Check out the evidence given by intrepid journalist Sean Langan who was held as a prisoner on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border for two months earlier this year. He made his oral presentation shortly after being set free. Of his captivity, he says:
"On my most recent trip, I became all too aware of just how much of a safe-haven the tribal areas of Pakistan have become. I was surrounded by Taliban training camps, who test-fired their weapons on a daily basis, and I was told Arab mujahideen openly patrol the roads. And before being released after three months in captivity - I was brought to a Taliban safe-house in Peshawar, just minutes away from the Pakistan military HQ. Which is why I agree with the American general who said NATO operations in Afghanistan are like "mowing the lawn". The seeds of the insurgency are sown in Pakistan, and that is where the focus needs to be."
Can't disagree with that.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Signs of a deal between Mahsud and Pak Army

.....................................A shy Baitullah Mahsud.......................

Is the Pakistan Army going to press ahead with a major offensive in South Waziristan aimed at breaking the power of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan leader Baitullah Mahsud? Don't hold your breath.
After trumpeting the achievements of Operation Rah-e-Rast (Straight Path) in the Swat Valley and other districts in Malakand, the Army announced in mid-June it was launching its new offensive, called Path of Salvation (Rah-e-Najat), aimed at breaking Mahsud's power in his tribal homeland.
But unlike Swat, where the Taliban has little local support or depth, Mahsud has a formidable military presence in South Waziristan, with around 10,000 fighters, including many Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens and other foreigners. Elements of al-Qaeda's leadership are also based in the area.
At first it looked as though the new offensive was progressing well. There was the formation of an anti-Mahsud alliance of the TTP leader's old foes - the Bhittani tribe, Waziristan Baba, and the quickly-murdered Qari Zainuddin, amongst others. The Americans and the Pakistani airforce appeared to be coordinating their air attacks for once and the Pakistani Army was soon shelling suspected 'hideouts' and cutting off roads of escape. Baitullah already had a $5 million bounty on his head from the Americans and a further $615,000 from the Pakistan government, as a result of his murderous campaign of suicide bombings.
But all this is to misunderstand the nature of the relationship between the TTP leaders and the Pakistani military and (more importantly) the ISI intelligence service. It was the ISI that encouraged the Taliban from Afghanistan to settle in Waziristan after the fall of their regime in Kabul and which has built up Baitullah into the figurehead he has since become. The formation of the TTP itself two years ago could not have taken place without ISI approval.
Baitullah Mahsud's mistake has been to operate and interfere too much in the internal politics of Pakistan, to the detriment of the military's campaign in Afghanistan, where Pakistan wishes to exert much more influence. In Swat the TTP lost all sense of perspective and thought they could do as they wished, even though there is no desire in the wider parts of the country for the extremist Wahhabism they profess and which is itself in stark contrast to the traditional ideals of Pakhtunwali.
So now we are hearing that the Army has 'temporarily' shelved its plans to push into militant havens in Waziristan, amid reports of secret talks between Mahsud and the Pakistani army. And elders from the Mahsud tribe have told the Taliban chief that the fight against the Pakistani army is "spoiling their plan" and that the only beneficiaries from the violence are the US-led troops stationed in neighbouring Afghanistan. In other words, they would prefer to concentrate on fighting in Afghanistan, rather than wasting their time in Pakistan.
A deal is already being talked about: Mahsud will be required to end suicide and other attacks against civil, military and foreign targets inside Pakistan and in return the army will delay the launch of attacks against him and his followers. Note that there is not a word about Afghanistan in all this.
Such a deal is not without precedent. Don't forget that the problems in Swat started with a similar deal and there have been similar agreements with Baitullah before, most recently in 2007.
If true, this deal will certainly lead to tensions with the Americans, who desperately want Mahsud neutralised. However, the Pakistanis will say that they are over-stretched in Swat, where hostilities continue and where soldiers will have to stay for months or years to help two million people uprooted by the conflict return to their homes and businesses.
And it is doubtful that anything short of a full military offensive could displace the militants from the harsh landscape - ideal for ambush - of south Waziristan anyway. If Mahsud is finally killed it will not be by the Pakistan Army, but either by a US drone missile strike or an assassin's bullet from one of his many tribal enemies.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

The perils of thoughtless analysis

In April the US Directorate of National Intelligence's Open Source Center - a part of the American intelligence community that produces reports based on open source material - used data from the Worldwide Incidents Tracking System to analyse violent incidents in Afghanistan.
The report was for official use, but a copy has ended up on the website of the Federation of American Scientists where it can easily be accessed.
It's called Afghanistan - Geospatial Analysis Reveals Patterns in Terrorist Incidents 2004-2008 and uses some novel techniques in an effort to make violence in Afghanistan more understandable, from a military point of view.
When I checked, the WITS database had details of more than 4,000 incidents in Afghanistan over this period. Not all record geographical details. However, the data is strong and it allows all kinds of analysis, including the following:
mapping incident density, identifying the dominant ethnic group where incidents occurred, mapping incidents by district or province, identifying seasonal changes in patterns of attack, distributions of deaths and kidnappings, comparisons with events in neighbouring Pakistan, etc.
The results are mixed. We find out, for example, that it is possible to predict, with reasonable accuracy, where attacks will occur, based on previous attacks. This is hardly rocket science, but potentially useful in a situation where troops are rotating every six months or so. Incidents per district can be worked out, as can who carried out the attacks.
The report includes a table on attacks showing in one column 'perpetrator' and in the next column '%age of attacks'. Problem: the categorisation of who carried out an attack rests with a US platoon commander or Afghan policeman who may often know little about the complexity of Taliban politics.
So we find out that 64% of all attacks are carried out by 'Taliban'. 'Unknown' accounts for 33 percent. The remaining three per cent is divided between 'Taliban/al-Qaeda'(2%), 'Al-Qaeda' (1%), 'Taliban/Other' (0.3%), 'Hizb-i-Islami' (0.21%), 'Islamic Jihad Union' (0.17%), and even (I have no idea how) 'Taliban/Nigeria' (0.02%).
This categorisation bears no relationship to the reality of the Taliban on the ground. Most analysts accept that there are around seven factions. All this is lost through the analysis because the people deciding who carried out the attack are not able to make an accurate choice. In computer teminology this can be described as crap in = crap out.
The same problem dogs the analysis of incident type, where we are told that 42 per cent of attacks are IEDs. Next comes 36 per cent for 'Armed attacks'. 'Ambush' rates just 0.46% of all incidents - surely an underestimate? And what about attacks that start with an IED explosion and are followed up by armed attacks? They don't seem to exist.
Some information is quite interesting. The analysis shows, for example, a trend that attacks move south and west in the winter and north and east in the summer. It also shows that hotspots follow the main national highway and predominately fall in the Pashtun ethnic areas in the south. Most are also very close to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The lesson here is that computers are wonderful at processing information in lots of interesting ways. But if you give them rubbish data, they will probably mislead you. With cleaner information, this kind of analysis could be very helpful indeed.