Thursday, 29 October 2009

Waziristan offensive "unlikely to curb militancy"

The Pakistan Army's campaign against the Mahsuds in South Waziristan is "unlikely to succeed in curbing the spread of religious militancy in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), unless the Pakistan government implements political reforms in that part of the country", according to a report from the International Crisis Group.
Pakistan: Countering Militancy in FATA argues that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has gained significant power in the tribal areas by dismantling or assuming control of an already weakened tribal structure. The reason for this success lies is short-sighted military policies and laws that date back more than 100 years to the colonial era.
The report says the military continues to rely on a two-pronged approach of sporadic strikes followed by negotiations with the militants, a strategy that ensures the militants gain in strength and influence.
In the midst of the latest military campaign and others in Bajaur and Khyber agencies, around a million FATA residents (out of around 3.5 million) have been displaced, with little provision being made for those affected.
The continuing fighting and lack of rights means that there is little chance of winning FATA tribesmen and their families over to form a broad coalition against the militants.
Instead of relying on the colonial era system of patronage and collective punishment, the Pakistan government "must enact and the international community, particularly the US, should support a reform agenda that would encourage political diversity and competition, enhance economic opportunity and extend constitutionally guaranteed civil and political rights and the protection of the courts."
Although President Zardari announced reforms back in August, nothing has yet happened. Those reforms, the ICG report says, should include repeal of the hated Frontier Crimes Regulation 1901, which legitimises collective punishment. FATA should be merged with the North West Frontier Province and become subject to national laws.
None of this will be easy, as the report's authors understand: "The state’s writ in FATA is tenuous by design. The military is averse to changing FATA’s ambiguous status since it has, since Pakistan’s independence, used this strategic region as a base to promote perceived interests in neighbouring Afghanistan through local and Afghan proxies."
That is surely the most important point. FATA is in the mess it is primarily because it has been useful for other agendas. Will that change? Will Pakistan military doctrine change? Not in a hurry.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

US Diplomat resigns over Afghan policy

The first US diplomat to resign his post over Afghanistan has published a letter today setting out the reasons why. Matthew P Hoh, a former US Marine and until this week a Senior Civilian Representative for the US Government in Zabul Province, resigned his post on 10 September. His four-page letter published in the Washington Post states: ""I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States' presence in Afghanistan". He added: "I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end."

Monday, 26 October 2009

The realities of fighting in Afghanistan

I have remarked before that it is not easy to follow the military campaign in Afghanistan. Whilst there are daily reports of attacks and casualties, it is harder to find detailed assessments of what is actually happening. Recently I have come across accounts of two of the most spectacular battles involving US troops in Afghanistan. I strongly advise you to read them. Both incidents occurred in Nuristan. The first occurred at Combat Outpost Kahler in Wanat on 13 July last year. During this engagement nine US soldiers were killed and the outpost was almost overrun. Then, on 3 October this year, in a near-identical incident, eight more US soldiers (and many more ANA soldiers) died during a 36-hour battle at Combat Outpost Keating. Highly recommended.

More warnings from Punjab police department

Terrorists are planning to attack two places of worship of a "Muslim sect" (Shias?) in the Faisal Town and Model Town areas of Lahore, according to reports from the Punjab Home Department in Pakistan. The department has issued a circular to senior police officials, including the inspector general of the Punjab Police and commissioners, stating that three terrorists from the Tribal Areas have been assigned to hit the targets during morning, evening or early night prayers.
Bearing in mind that the Punjab Home Department accurately predicted both the attack on the GHQ in Rawalpindi and the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team earlier this year, perhaps these reports should be taken seriously?
Another report from the same source states that a group of terrorists has dispatched two young men to target reporters, anchorpersons and analysts who voice opposition to the terrorists’ point of view. It added that terrorists are planning to abduct senior government officials and political figures to use them to pressure the government to release their imprisoned colleagues.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Who will benefit from re-run of Presidential election?

Who will benefit from the re-run of the Presidential elections in Afghanistan? No-one except the the insurgents is my guess. The whole election process is now mired by corruption allegations and has left President Karzai looking like a spiv, willing to do a deal with anyone who will give him a vote.
Even before the voting began, Karzai had brought disrepute on himself by doing deals with warlords and local power brokers in order to win votes. Worst of all, he allowed General Dostum to return to the country from exile in Turkey in order to garner the votes of his Uzbek and Turcoman followers. This was despite the fact that there is a strong possibility war crimes charges will be brought against the General over his treatment of Taliban prisoners in late 2001.
Nor is it only the present incumbent who looks bad. So too does the United Nations, whose top officials were clearly divided on whether or not another election should take place. In September Peter Galbraith, the deputy head of the UN Mission, abruptly left the country after refusing to take part in what he called "a cover-up" of fraud.
Galbraith, son of the great American economist and a former US ambassador to Croatia, said that before the 20 August election, he wanted to take steps to minimise fraud by eliminating "ghost" polling stations in Taliban-held territory - but his boss, Norwegian Mr Kai Eide, rejected the proposal.
During the election, the UN collected data on fraud - but Mr Eide ordered that it not be shared with the Election Complaints Commission, he said. And after the election, Mr Eide objected to Mr Galbraith's insistence that the Independent Election Commission stick to its published anti-fraud criteria, he added.
"I was not prepared to be complicit in a cover-up or in an effort to downplay the fraud that took place. I felt we had to face squarely the fraud that took place. Kai downplayed the fraud."
A few weeks later and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the dismissal of Mr Galbraith "in the best interest of the mission". Galbraith's account of the whole mess is horrifying.
Soon after that one of the two Afghans on a UN-backed commission looking into vote fraud in the election resigned, citing interference by foreigners. Maulavi Mustafa Barakzai alleged that the three foreigners on the panel — one American, one Canadian and one Dutch national— were “making all decisions on their own” without consultation. The complaints commission rejected the allegation.
Now that it has finally been decided to hold another election, it begs the question of whether or not Mr Galbraith should be reinstated (and Mr Eide sacked), as everything he said was true and the UN is now doing what he said they should do. Either way, the likelihood is that the turn-out will be crushingly low and that Karzai will win, to limp on as a damaged president.
Surely it would have been more sensible to persuade Karzai to share power with Abdullah Abdullah, his rival, and call off the second ballot?
Already Mullah Omar's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IOA) is gloating over the likely confusion of a second ballot. Yesterday it issued a statement:
"It is now clear as the broad daylight that the August 20 elections in Afghanistan was readily ludicrous and preposterous which caused more shame and disgrace to the surrogate regime in Kabul. Only a minuscule numbers of voters participated in the polling from among the 30 million Afghans. Still the elections were fraught with fraud, ballot stuffing and corruption.
"A great number of Afghans observed a complete boycott. It is still a matter of extreme shame for the supporters of the sham democracy, that they were merely able to announce the results after the passage of two months."
Hard to argue with that. The statement goes on:
"If the Americans and their allies had not their goals and hidden agenda, they would not have blocked the way of the election results from being declared soon. But they did not achieve what they wanted to achieve as a result of the elections.
"This is why they are themselves sacrificing the so-called democracy, which they are supposed to build. By doing so, they have manifested that they are abiding by the rules and the slogans as long as they correspond with their interests. Otherwise, they are not bound by any rule."
That is exactly how it appears to many people in Afghanistan, who will say that the West only supports democracy when it gives the right result.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The world impact of Afghanistan's drugs trade

In a sequel to its September Afghan Opium Survey 2009, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has produced a new report called "Addiction, Crime and Insurgency: the transnational threat of Afghan opium.
The new report makes for uncomfortable reading. We are told that every year more people die from Afghan opium - perhaps 100,000 globally - than from any other drug in the world. The Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, is swamped by Afghan opium, with an estimated one million opiate users. In Russia more people died from drugs each year (30-40,000) than the total number of Red Army soldiers killed in Afghanistan.In Central Asia, the injection of Afghan heroin has led to an HIV epidemic caused by the sharing of dirty needles.
Overall the global market for Afghan opium is worth around $65 billion. The trade has turned the Afghan-Pakistan border into a "massive illicit free trade zone of drugs, chemical precursors, money, people and weapons." In the years 2006-7 the drug-related funds accruing to insurgents and warlords were estimated by UNODC at $300-400 million a year. Although that figure may have declined since then, the drug trade is now a major source of funds for the Taliban.
The report's most disturbing finding relates to Central Asia: "The most sinister development yet is taking shape outside Afghanistan. Drugs are funding insurgency in Central Asia where the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Party of Turkmenistan, the East Turkistan Liberation Organization and other extremist groups are also profiting from the trade. The Silk Route, turned into a heroin route,is carving out a path of death and violence through one of the world’s most strategic, yet volatile regions. The perfect storm of drugs, crime and insurgency that has swirled around the Afghanistan/Pakistan border for years, is heading for Central Asia. If quick preventive measures are not put into place, a big chunk of Eurasia could be lost – together with its massive energy reserves."

Helmand's forgotten American past

Documentary film maker Adam Curtis (The Power of Nightmares, The Century of the Self, etc) has written a wonderful blog entry about US involvement in the development of Afghanistan - and in particular Helmand Province - in the years following the Second World War. The city of Lashkar Gar was planned and built by American companies, as were the hundreds of miles of canals that now provide such excellent cover for Taliban fighters. The blog includes some great film clips and stills from publicity material produced at the time.

The Pakistan Taliban's tribal rivals

Guardian reporter Declan Walsh has a fascinating half-interview with Misbahuddin Mehsud, leader of the Abdullah Mehsud group, one of at least four factions in Pakistan's Pashtun tribal areas that is opposed to the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) of Hakimullah Mehsud.
Walsh met Misbahuddin in the frontier town of Dera Ismail Khan, but after initial pleasantries, the tribal fighter declined to answer any direct questions, referring them all to an aide. The aide confirmed that the Abdullah Mehsud group is helping the Pakistan Army in its campaign against Hakimullah's TTP by sealing off the southern border of South Waziristan.
Like the other groups in the region that have come to an agreement with the Pakistan Army - the Turkistan Bhittani group, Maulvi Nazir's group and Hafiz Gul Bahadur's group - the Abdullah Mehsud group is primarily opposed to Hakimullah's TTP because of recent attacks on civilians and the Pakistan Army.
All of these groups are strongly in support of cross-border actions against the Afghan Army and Coalition forces in Afghanistan. In this aspect they neatly reflect the schizophrenic outlook of many in Pakistan's military and political elites, who only began to worry about the fundamentalist Islamists when they focussed their attention on introducing Wahhabism into Pakistan.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Drone strikes in Pakistan the "least bad option"

Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann have written an informative analysis of US drone missile strikes in Pakistan, in part prompted by claims that a disproportionate number of civilians have been killed by Predator missiles.
While some have claimed that up to 700 civilians have been killed in the drone strikes analysed by the authors, they suggest the number of civilian deaths since 2006 lies somewhere between 250-320 - around 32 per cent of all casualties.
They say the attacks have killed around 530 people since President Obama has been in office, including five or six senior leaders of jihadi groups. Of those, between 250-400 are reported to have been lower-level militants, with around a quarter being civilians.
President Obama has dramatically increased the number of drones strikes; 43 this year so far, compared with 34 in all of 2008.
Bergen and Tiedemann point out that although the drone attacks can be judged to be successful, they may be on shaky legal ground. They quote Columbia Law School professor Matthew Waxman: "The principle of proportionality says that a military target may not be attacked if doing so is likely to cause incidental civilian casualties or damage that would be excessive in relation to the expected military advantage of the attack.... But there is no consensus on how to calculate these values (how do you compare the value of civilian lives versus the value of disrupting high-level terrorist operational planning?) Nor is there consensus on what imbalance is ‘excessive.' It's very hard to draw definitive conclusions because it requires assessments about such things as the expected military gain from neutralizing the target, the likely civilian harm, and the availability of alternative means of attacking that could save innocent lives."
Bergen and Tiedemann's judgement?: "Drone strikes will remain an important tool to disrupt al Qaeda and Taliban operations and to kill the leaders of these organizations, but they also consistently kill Pakistani civilians, angering the population and prompting violent acts of revenge from the Pakistani Taliban.
"For the time being, however, they appear to be the least bad option the United States has for reducing the threat from Pakistan's militants, given that an American ground assault into Pakistan's tribal regions is out of the question, and that U.S. and Pakistani strategic interests are more closely aligned today than they have been in years because of the two countries' shared interest in attacking the Pakistani Taliban and their al Qaeda allies."

US radio most popular in Afghanistan, ctte told

Some interesting information emerged in the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations about the impact of radio and TV broadcasting by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Speaking to a hearing of the subcommittee on International Operations and Organizations, Human Rights, Democracy, and Global Women’s Issues last week, Jeffrey Hirschberg from the RFE/RL Broadcasting Board of Governors, told the Senators that the two organisation produce a round-the-clock stream of programming in both Dari and Pashto via AM from Kabul and five local FM stations across the country. There is also a shortwave broadcast and VOA also broadcasts a daily hour-long TV programme in Dari and Pashto over Afghanistan state TV.
The combined audience of VOA and RFE/RL is the biggest in the country in terms of audience reach. They now reach 56 per cent of all Afghan adults every week – a regular audience of nearly 10 million people.
Hirschberg says RFE/RL’s combined Dari and Pashto service is, by itself, the most popular media outlet in the country. He says it is also the service Afghans say they turn to first for news and information. The stations claim to reach around a quarter of those who say they strongly oppose the Afghan government.
The reach of the stations is undeniable. During the recent Presidential elections, for example, RFE/RL inverviewed all 41 candidates on phone-in programmes, as well as co-hosting Afghanistan State Television's only presidential election debate.
The stations cover a wide range of issues, including Islam and human rights. When the Afghan Parliament passed a law restricting the rights of Shia women, VOA TV broadcast a special show featuring both opponents and supporters of the law. Participants included Senator Barbara Boxer and Melanne Verveer, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues.
Speaking in more detail about the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, Joaquin Blaya from the BBG said that in 2006 Voice of America initiated a new dedicated service in the unique regional Pashto dialect, called Deewa Radio.
This station focuses on local issues and produces nine hours of daily programming, including live news, current affairs, call-in shows, and music. It transmits via AM, FM, and shortwave, with text and audio available on the Internet.
Data on Deewa’s audience from the BBG’s first audience survey in the region are still being collated, but an earlier study by the USAID suggested Deewa had a wide following. Every day, on average around 400 people call in to take part in on-air discussion programmes.
Earlier this year, to complement Deewa, the US Congress endorsed new RFE/RL Pashto broadcasts for the border region. Working in cooperation with Deewa Radio, the new Radio Azadi will broadcast for six hours a day. With reporters on both sides of the border and throughout Pakistan, and with a bureau in Peshawar or another city, the new station aims to combat radical Islamist broadcasting in Pakistan.
Blaya added in written testimony: "Once fully operational, Azadi will have the capacity to send headlines and breaking news to listeners via mobile phones and SMS text messages. Cell phone ownership is widespread in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and while less so in the border region, the new text messaging capacity will nonetheless let the BBG engage people well beyond the reach of insurgent broadcasters."

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Maps and sitreps on the Waziristan offensive

Anyone who wants to follow in detail the progress of the Pakistan Army's assault on the Mahsud tribal territories in South Waziristan should check out the detailed maps and sitreps being provided by the Critical Threats Project of the American Enterprise Institute. And don't forget Google Earth!

Iran leaders divided on who is behind Baluch bombing

The Jundullah Iran logo

The Jundullah Iran, which carried out the suicide bombing in Sarbaz in south-eastern Iran on 18 October that killed six senior Revolutionary Guards and around 40 other people has published a statement explaining the action.
It names the suicide bomber at Abdul Wahid Mohammadi Srawani, saying he acted in response to the crimes of the Iranian regime, "which has killed hundreds of young people during the past year alone, through firing squad, hanging or martyrdom under torture."
The Iranians do not appear to have a clear line on who is behind Jundallah. On Tuesday Iran's police chief, Brigadier General Ismail Ahmadi Moqaddam, blamed "foreign intelligence agencies" for the attack,which killed a Lieutenant Commander of the Revolutionary Guards, the Sistan and Baluchistan Revolutionary Guards commander and commanders from Sarbaz and the Amiralmoemenin Brigade.
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki chose to blame "criminals, traitors, mercenaries and agents of foreign enemies", before he announced he was going to call his Pakistani opposite number to discuss the attack.
Intelligence minister Hojjatoleslam Heidar Moslehi also chose to blame Pakistan, while President Ahmedinejad announced that he had had a conversation with Pakistan's President Zardari.
However, Mohsen Rezaei, secretary of Iran's Expediency Council, was clearly off message, choosing instead to blame Israel, the Iraq-based Mojahedin-e Khalq Organisation and Britain.
A statement from Teheran calling on Interpol to arrest Jundallah's leader, Abdolmalek Rigi, says proof that the organisation is supported by America comes from "confessions" made by Rigi's brother, who is in Iranian custody - having been handed over by Pakistan.
It is true that there has been some speculation that the CIA is financing extreme Baluchi Islamists to attack Iran, and the Sunni Baluchis (as well as some ethnic Arabs in the south of Iran) have always been seen as easy allies for anyone who wants to upset Teheran. Saddam Hussein supported the Baluchis during Iraq's war against Iran and further back it is possible that there was some US involvement.
Yet it is much more likely that this group is primarily influenced by the Taliban and al-Qaeda than by any intelligence agency. All that could change, however, if it became evident (as some have suggested) that Iran was in any way supporting the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan,. If that were to happen, there is little doubt that Iranian Baluchistan would become the venue for a proxy war.
Update: In late October the Pakistani government told its Iranian counterparts that Jundallah was supported by both the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Iranian officials were also told that Jundallah leader Abdolmalek Rigi had met recently with senior TTP figures.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Pakistani jihadis lose the plot

This article by Amir Mir about the attack on GHQ in Rawalpindi last weekend, published yesterday in Pakistan's The News is fascinating. First, we find out that the Pakistani authorities brought important jihadi leaders directly from custody to the hostage incident in Rawalpindi in order to negotiate with the hostage takers.
Second, it shows that the team of ten attackers - who reportedly included three Uzbeks - were not interested in negotiations. They simply made demands for the freeing of imprisoned comrades and announced they would start killing hostages if their demands were not granted.
Third, it shows the hypocrisy of senior TTP jihadis. While he was happy for his gunfodder followers to blow themselves to pieces, Dr Usman, an army deserter and the oldest and most senior figure, hid in a roof space in the hope that he would save his skin. Usman appeared in a recent al-Qaeda video, produced and distributed by the As-Sahab media house, which is based in Pakistan.
(Incidentally, the fact that three of the attackers exploded their suicide jackets and yet were unable to kill anyone is also remarkable. Either they were particularly inept, or their heart was not in it.)
Fourth, it confirms that al-Qaeda - or at least the ideology of al-Qaeda - dominates the thinking of Hakimullah Mahsud's group. Far more so, in fact, than it dominates the Quetta Shura of the Afghan Taliban.
The TTP seems to have forgotten that it was nurtured and tolerated by the Pakistan military simply because it was seen as a way of influencing events in Afghanistan. In contrast, the strategy of attacking Pakistani institutions is the brainchild of Dr Ayman Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's second in command, who has issued a string of videos over the last year urging Pakistanis to turn on their own government.
Seldom in the past have the Pashtun tribes from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) taken on the Pakistan Army and state offensively. Generally, they have acted defensively to protect their tribal lands against incursion.
Now things have changed. As the most significant faction of the TTP, the Mahsud tribe, under the leadership first of Baitullah and now of Hakimullah Mahsud, appear to have lost the plot and decided to launch attacks directly on the Pakistani state, killing dozens of innocent people in the process. It is a clear sign that the Mahsud leadership has sold out to the Arabs of al-Qaeda and that they have lost all notion of what it means to be a Pashtun.
And finally, maybe the incident itself shows something else. The audacious attacks of the last week have the whiff of desperation about them. Certainly, these are the attacks promised by Hakimullah Mahsud at his recent press 'event' in South Wazirstan. What their purpose is, however, is unclear. Do they really think they can win?
Does Hakimullah think the Army will decide not to launch an attack on South Waziristan? Even if there was doubt before, the army is now obliged to avenge the humiliation of Rawalpindi. Whatever you may think of it, the Punjabi-dominated Pakistan Army does not easily accept disgrace.
If I had to put money on it, I would say that Hakimullah - like his kinsman Baitullah - is not destined to live his three-score years and ten. Either the Army or the drones will get him before long. There are plenty of tribesmen out there willing to pass on information in exchange for a reward. In particular there are Mahsuds who resent the close relationship built up between the TTP and the Uzbeks, Chechens, Arabs and other foreigners.
One final point: several of the most recent attacks have been carried out - or have been led - by Punjabis. As I noted in a recent posting, the Punjabi Taliban, made up of elements of Jaish-e-Mohammed and Laskkar-e-Toiba, are now a significant part of the alliance put together by Baitullah Mahsud in 2007. They are particularly sectarian and have a long history of attacks against Shias and also involvement in the longstanding insurgency in Kashmir.
The basis for this is the landholding pattern in southern Punjab, where many landowners are Shias, while their tenants are Sunnis. Years of government inaction over the feudal landholding patterns has only exacerbated the problem.
The fact that these organisations are now turning against the state is simply a case of the ISI's pigeons coming home to roost. Historically the ISI recruited from the southern Punjab for its proxy war against India in Kashmir. Following the earthquake in 2005 and agreements with India and the United States, the level of insurgent activity in Kashmir reduced dramatically and the home-grown jihadis relocated to the tribal belt, strengthening their relations with both the Mahsuds and with al-Qaeda. And at a more general level there has been a clear shift by Punjabis from the moderate Barelvi school of Islam to extreme forms of Deobandism and Wahhabism.
Already this was noticeable in Afghanistan, where young boys from the Punjab have been used as suicide bombers. Now the same phenomenon is being felt in Pakistan itself.
As the Army's offensive gets underway in South Waziristan there will be more of these attacks in the Punjab and elsewhere. But the die has already been cast. The militants have lost the initiative and Pakistanis have turned against them.

Monday, 12 October 2009

IEDs not a new invention on the frontier

One other small point I noted in General Skeen's remarkable book (see below). It relates to IEDs. Perhaps you thought that they were a new invention, introduced to this part of the world from Iraq? Not true. Here's what the General had to say in 1932:
"Our 'dud' shells and aeroplane bombs have provided the tribesman with a supply of high explosive, which he has latterly been turning to good account in the making of tin-can bombs, which are generally buried and lightly covered with sand on a kachcha (rough) road or track. When found, they must be treated with the greatest respect. The best way is to explode them with rifle fire from a safe distance. If this cannot be done, they should be destroyed, preferably by the Sappers, on the lines laid down for 'dud' grenades."

Pakistan Army waits for the right moment to strike

As government ministers in Pakistan announce publicly that an attack on South Waziristan is "imminent", it is worth looking in more detail at the Pakistan Army strategy.
The government and military have been much criticised for not pressing ahead with an offensive in South Waziristan Agency (SWA), particularly in the light of the attack on GHQ in Rawalpindi. Critics say that there should have been a rapid movement into the area in order to capitalise on the successes in Malakand and Swat, where the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) has been all but wiped out and many militants have been forced from the area, some into Afghanistan and others into the tribal territories. Instead, say the critics, the gap has given the militants a much-needed breathing space and allowed them to take the initiative.
However, the picture is not so simple. The army is also engaged in offensives in Khyber agency, in Tirah, in Bajaur, Malakand and some other areas. It has adopted a strategy of attempting to isolate South Waziristan from other parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to minimise the chances of a general tribal uprising against the army.
This has also involved trying to buy off other tribal militias in nearby areas, including the Abdullah Mahsud group and the Bhittanis. Although there is no love lost between these groups and Hakimullah Mahsud's TTP, it is possible that they would lay aside their differences and unite to fight an army incursion. Howeve, all the indications are that deals have been done between the Army and the Mahsud's traditional foes in South Waziristan.
Remember also that the Pakistan Army - like the British Army before it - has never successfully pacified the tribes in South Waziristan. I am reminded of this in reading General Sir Andrew Skeen's wonderful book, Passing it On: Short talks on Tribal Fighting on the North West Frontier of India, first published in 1932 (and republished as Tribal Fighting in NWFP by Vanguard Books, Lahore, 2009).
Skeen, who had "footslogged or ridden most of the frontier from Mastuj to Kalat", says:
"I place the Mahsud highest as a fighter along with the Maimond, a little folk, but stark. The Afridi probably comes third - his blood feuds and sectional quarrels make him somewhat less ready to die. But all are apt in war and taken all in all are probably the finest individual fighters in the east, really formidable enemies, to despise whom means sure trouble."
He adds: "These men are hard as nails: they live on little, carry nothing but a rifle and a few cartridges, a knife and a bit of food and they are shod for quick and sure movement."
It is hardly surprising that the Pakistan Army is adopting a cautious approach to the long-awaited offensive. Air superiority means very little when the primary form of attack for the tribesmen is ambush and hit-and-run actions. The terrain is forbidding with few roads and ridge after ridge of high serrated mountains that allow large numbers of irregulars to appear and disappear at will.
For weeks now the army has also been shelling suspected hideouts of the TTP, as well as holding the whole Mahsud tribe liable, under the harsh Frontier Control Regulations, to having its property seized by the state.
It will now be looking for signs that its campaign of attrition is beginning to bear fruit. Some clues can be found in the regular statistics produced by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies.
By aggregating these figures, we can show, for example, that between the beginning of May and the end of December, TTP and others carried out a total of 1,053 attacks in Pakistan. The peak number of attacks occurred in June and July as the army offensive got underway in the Swat Valley. However, since then the number of attacks has begun to decline. The number of people killed over the same period as a result of terrorism or military action is calculated as 4,812. Of these 3,694 were categorised at Islamist militants, 731 were civilians and 387 were from the security forces - army, police, frontier constabulary, etc.
As with the number of attacks, the numbers of civilians being killed has dropped dramatically. Deaths of militants cluster around the beginning of June, the end of July and the middle of September.
I cannot vouch for the accuracy of these figures as I don't know for sure how PIPS gathers its information. Much of it comes from press reports or army reports, both of which are potentially unreliable. However, the figures would seem to show that militant activity is declining. If that is the case - despite recent bombing and shooting attacks aimed at prestige targets - it may mean that the insurgency in FATA is beginning to weaken. Once the army is sure of that fact, it will probably decide to attack, if only to avenge the humiliation of Rawalpindi.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Pakistan ignored advance warning of GHQ attack

One of the terrorists killed by the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi

The threats made last week by Hakimullah Mahsud and other members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) at an impromptu press conference that they would attack the Pakistan government and carry out tit-for-tat attacks in response to US drone strikes appear to be coming to fruition.
In the last week we have seen the suicide bombing of the World Food Program headquarters in Islamabad (five dead), the bombing of a market in Peshawar that killed over 50 people and, most recently, the assault on the Pakistan Army's headquarters in Rawalpindi, that ended this morning when special forces commandos shot dead a suicide bomber holding dozens of hostages and killed or captured the other members of the 10-strong gang.
However, there are important differences to note about the Rawalpindi attack that highlight the growing role of Punjabis in the ranks of the TTP. One fact overlooked in the coverage of Hakimullah's press conference was that sitting at his right side amongst the tribal members of TTP was Qari Mohammad Zafar, leader of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the man behind the September 2008 Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad and March 2002 bombing of the US Consulate in Karachi.
It looks increasingly likely that the Rawalpindi operation was planned and carried out by one of the Punjabi groups. Already this year they have carried out the attack on the police training academy in Lahore on 3 March and the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team a few weeks previously. The method used by the attackers - the use of fedayeen gunmen to kill any available targets and to take hostages until they were killed - rather than the detonation of suicide bombers - also shows remarkable similarities to the attack on Mumbai last November.
A claim has already been received for Saturday's attack in Rawalpindi by the Amjad Farooqi group of the TTP. This is in fact just another name for Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. They and Jaish-e Mohammad both have their main powerbases in the southern Punjab, although more recently they have both been strengthening their relationships with the TTP. Their aim is to make the TTP into a regional franchise across Pakistan.
Farooqi himself was killed in 2004, but the leader of the Rawalpindi attackers, a former army medic and deserter named as Aqeel or Dr Usman, was involved in several attacks with Farooqi and is also believed to have been involved in the attacks in Lahore earlier this year.
The military and police in Pakistan both had clear warning of the Rawalpindi attack. On 5 October The News reported accurately: "Terrorist planning bloodshed in GHQ: May attack central building in military uniform". The story quoted a police report revealing that terrorists belonging to the TTP, in collaboration with the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Jaish-e-Mohammad, were planning to attack the GHQ in Rawalpindi.
The report further warned that the terrorists were planning to make their way into the GHQ wearing military uniforms and riding a military vehicle. “Alternately, they may use a vehicle, which would be driven to the boundary wall of the GHQ where one of its portions is reportedly broken and they would jump into the compound by scaling/using a ladder. They may then move to the central building of the GHQ and resort to indiscriminate firing, which may result in bloodshed,” said the police report.
The News also reported that on 16 July the Punjab home department circulated an unambiguous warning quoting an unnamed “source” about the likely terrorist attack on the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Pakistan Army. The letter was classified “immediate, confidential, restricted, not to be circulated, source report”, and was signed by the additional secretary, internal security on a report of the Crime Investigation Department (CID) of the Punjab. Those who saw it included the Inspector General of Police (IGP), Punjab, the additional IGP, Special Branch, Punjab, and all divisional commissioners.
Copies also went to the Punjab chief secretary, intelligence officials, the ISI and sections of the army and air force.
This is not the first time that the Punjab CID has produced accurate advance information about a terrorist attack. In January this year they accurately warned the Punjab government about plans to target the Sri Lankan cricket team during its visit to Pakistan, which took place two months later. On that occasion the CID said that a terrorist attack would likely be carried out while the Sri Lankan team would be travelling “between the hotel and stadium or at hotel during their stay”. That is exactly what happened on 3 March.
Update: On Monday newly appointed TTP spokesman Azam Tariq claimed responsibility for the Rawalpindi attack and threatened more. "It was carried out by our Punjab unit," he said. "We will take revenge for our martyrs and will carry out more attacks, whether it's the GHQ or something bigger," he said. The same day another suicide bomber attack on an army convoy at Alpurai in Shangla to the east of the Swat Valley left more than 40 dead, most of them civilians.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Jordanian royals fighting in Afghanistan?

A curious item in the Pakistan newspapers this morning caught my eye. Details differ according to which version you read, but according to Dawn and The News, six women, all members of the Jordanian royal family, are due to be handed over to the Jordanian Embassy in Islamabad tomorrow following the death of their husbands in a Coalition airstrike several months ago.
The women were handed by tribesmen into the custody of Javed Ibrahim Paracha, a former member of Pakistan's National Assembly and now chairman of the World Prisoners Relief Commission of Pakistan, based in Kohat. His organisation specialises in repatriating foreigners who have become stranded in Pakistan.
The Dawn report says that there are six women plus children, all the widows of Jordanian Arabs who were fighting against the Coalition in Afghanistan. The report adds that the women are members of the Jordanian royal family.
Their menfolk, says the report, were killed in a bombing raid on militant hideouts in Orakzai and Kurram Agencies a few months ago.
A report in The News is more specific. It says the group includes five princesses and an eight-month old prince and that their father, named as Prince Rafiq, was recently killed in Afghanistan. It names the five princesses as Hiyyam, Fatima, Zainab, Khadija, Zuhra and the young prince as Ahmed. The report added that one of the Jordanian princesses, Hiyyam, is wife of Prince Nasir bin Saleh, who was killed in Afghanistan recently and now there was no male member in her family so she had decided to leave for Jordan.
After Mr Paracha contacted the Jordanian Embassy, an official spoke to the women and confirmed their identity and made arrangements for them to return to Jordan. They will be handed into the Embassy's custody tomorrow.
I can find no reference to Prince Nasir bin Saleh or Prince Rafiq, so cannot be sure they are members of Jordan's royal family. Anyone have any more details?
PS A small number of Jordanian military personnel run and guard a highly respected field hospital in Mazar-e-Sharif, but do not take part in offensive operations in Afghanistan.
Update: At a press conference in Peshawar yesterday, Javed Ibrahim Paracha said that although the woman claimed that she belonged to the Jordanian royal family, the ambassador refuted her claim stating that no member of the royal family had ever fought against the NATO forces in Afghanistan. Mr Paracha added that around 50 family members of deceased Arab fighters had approached him for help with repatriation to their respective countries.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Have some fun with Google Earth!

If you've got a few moments, try this. Use Google Earth to look at Afghanistan and surrounding areas. I took a look at the border with Pakistan. Make sure you check the boxes for all the addtional features such as YouTube and places of interest. These will then be included on the image of the landscape you then view. You will be amazed at what you find.
As you zoom in on areas you know only from news reports, hundreds of tags indicating videos come into view. Click on them and, if you are lucky, there will be a video linked directly to the geographical location. (There is also a lot of miscellaneous stuff on there, but don't let that put you off).
It is fascinating to look at the towns and villages in South Waziristan and to see how beautiful a place it is, despite its foreboding reputation. People have posted YouTube videos of local dancers and singers. You realise that there is a culture here beyond that projected by the Taliban and other fundamentalists.
Further north, in Parachinar, there is a video of dozens of Shi'as chanting and beating their chests to a slow rhythm. As you move across the landscape more videos and other markers come into view. One guy has put a video showing views of his village in Tirah. Along the border, predictably, there are videos of firefights, most of them from American soldiers. Nothing showing the location of Predator strikes yet, but doubtless it will come.
Be warned! This is very absorbing. But somehow it works so much better than looking through endless lists of videos on a website.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Afghanistan's impact on a rattled Pakistan

My apologies - three posts today is a record. However, I came across the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Afghanistan's Impact on Pakistan held yesterday in Washington and in the light of the passing of the Kerry-Lugar legislation into law, thought I should bring some of the contributions to your attention.
Steve Coll, author of the excellent Ghost Wars, spoke eloquently on the possible impact of a hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan on Pakistan. He talked about how US foreign policy had contributed to a paranoia amongst Pakistan's military that the US would leave the region as soon as it had pacified Afghanistan and that US was secretly in cahoots with India.
His main point?:
"Between withdrawal signals and blind militarization there is a more sustainable strategy, one that I hope the Obama Administration is the in the process of defining. It would make clear that the Taliban will never be permitted to take power in Kabul or major cities. It would seek and enforce stability in Afghan population centers but emphasize politics over combat, urban stability over rural patrolling, Afghan solutions over Western ones, and it would incorporate Pakistan more directly into creative and persistent diplomatic efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and the region."
Former CIA officer Milt Bearden also made an interesting contribution. I will quote part of his testimony - on regional players - at length because it shows the extent to which China is also a player in Afghanistan:
"China, viewed by Pakistan as its most reliable ally, is jockeying for position in Afghanistan, partly as a counterweight to growing Indian influence and partly to advance its own long-term economic goals in the region -- the quest for natural resources. China has also built a new, turnkey Pakistani port at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, in Pakistan's Baluchistan Province, a project China acknowledges as having strategic value matching that of the Karakoram Highway, completed by the Chinese in 1986, and linking Pakistan with Xinjiang. In addition to Gwadar serving as a potential Chinese naval anchor, Beijing is also interested in turning it into an energy-transport hub by building an oil pipeline from Gwadar into China’s Xinjiang. The planned pipeline will carry crude oil from Arab and African sources. Inside Afghanistan, China has secured an interest in the the huge (estimated $88 billion) copper deposits in Aynak, in Logar Province south of Kabul.
China is also interested in in the massive iron deposits in Hajigak, west of Kabul. Hydrocarbon and mineral deposits in the arc from Herat in the west, across northern Afghanistan are in play with Iran, China and Russia. In effect, the other regional players are busily setting the stage for exploitation of Afghanistan’s natural resources, while the United States remains bogged down with the war. This should change."

Uzbek Islamist leader killed in Pakistan drone attack

The Pakistani military is confirming that Tahir Yuldashev, leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, was killed in a drone attack in South Waziristan on 27 August. His death has only just come to light because his followers have tried to keep it a secret.
In the attack US Predator drones fired three missiles at a house in the scenic Kanigoram Valley. At least eight people were killed and another six sustained serious injuries. The attack came only weeks after another US drone attack killed Pakistan Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud.
Yuldashev is said to have been Mahsud's mentor and to have provided him with an Uzbek bodyguard. His death will be a blow to the thousands of Uzbeks who are living in Waziristan, particularly around the town of Mir Ali.
Two weeks ago Najmiddin Kamolitdinovic Jalolov, the leader of another Uzbek group based in Waziristan, the Islamic Jihad Union, was reportedly killed, also in a US drone missile strike.
As well as being the leader of the IMU, Yuldashev was close to al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Dr Ayman Zawahiri. He brought with him a tough and disciplined fighting force, skilled fighters known for their bravery and ruthlessness. It is Uzbeks who have been responsible for killing the traditional tribal maliks and khans in the border areas as a way of increasing the influence of al-Qaeda.
Yuldashev was co-founder of the IMU, along with Juma Namangani, who was killed in 2001 following the fall of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. He is thought to have been one of the thousands of fighters who were flown out of Kunduz by the Pakistan airforce in November 2001 following a secret agreement with the Americans. In 2004 he was surrounded by Pakistani forces, but managed to escape after his fighters put up a determined resistance.
Yuldashev's death has been reported before on many occasions, only for him to surface and deny the reports. But there are clear indications that this time he may be dead: he has always quickly denied such reports and nor did he issue his traditional address to the faithful during the recent Eid al-Fitr celebrations.
Three days ago, a caller to Radio Ozodlik in Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley said he was calling from Pakistan and that he was Yuldashev's bodyguard. The "bodyguard" refused to identify himself and asked not to broadcast his voice on air, claiming that he feared for his life. He added that as well as Yuldashev, several important field commanders had also been killed at the same time.
He also said that an ethnic Tatar from Russia called Abdurakhman had become the new leader of the IMU. Presumably this is Zubair Ibn Abdurakhman, 40, who was IMU spokesman and deputy head of the organisation.
Update: Pakistani newspapers are now reporting that the new leader of the IMU is Qari Usman Jan, an Uzbek who has been a senior commander within the organisation for several years. Jan mediated between the IMU and local tribesmen in 2007 when fighting broke out in South Waziristan between the two groups. The papers say that Yuldashev died in in a private hospital in Zhob, Baluchistan where he had been taken after the bombing raid in which he lost an arm and a leg.
Further Update (22 Jan 2010): The German newspaper Die Welt reported on 12 January that Yuldashev had appeared in a new video, suggesting that he had not been killed in the airstrike. He is quoted as saying
“We must rid the world of infidels. There are no limits for us. Our goal is to take over not only Afghanistan and Pakistan but the whole world and re-establish a caliphate as Allah commanded”. “Last year, we lost many of our brothers. But their deaths went to a good cause. Our main goal is the establishment of a caliphate and we must sacrifice everything to reach it,” he added.

Insight into the military campaign in Helmand

Despite the intensity of the fighting in Afghanistan, it is exceptionally hard to find accounts of what is actually happening in areas like the southern province of Helmand. News reports - most of which originate with military press officers - talk about the latest casualties or, occasionally, about a new offensive against a Taliban target. But seldom do you read anything approaching a narrative.
An excellent exception to this state of affairs is a new report from the US-based Institute for the Study of War. Written by Jeffrey A. Dressler, Securing Helmand: Understanding and responding to the enemy explains to the reader the ebbs and flows of attack and counter-attack in this critical region.
Dressler says, for example, that "The enemy system in Helmand is resourced and directed by the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST). The enemy is determined, well-organized, and entrenched in the province. In recent years, the enemy has shown its ability to adapt to the evolving conflict by developing and executing coherent campaign plans." He goes through these campaigns, showing how they evolved and who was behind the decision making.
He divides Helmand into three distinct, but related, areas of southern, central and northern Helmand River Valley, each of which is used in different ways by the Taliban. The southern area facilitates the movement of foreign fighters and weapons to central Helmand, as well as facilitating the refining, storage and eventual movement of narcotics out of Helmand, mainly through the province’s southern border with Pakistan.
Central Helmand is the Taliban’s centre of gravity in the province, particularly the areas west of the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah and around the province’s economic centre of Gereshk in the Nahri Sarraj district.
In northern Helmand the Taliban is entrenched along the Helmand and Musa Qala Rivers, in and around the fertile farmland mainly used for opium cultivation.
Dressler says that the most critical population centres in the province are Lashkar Gah, Gereshk, Nad Ali, Nawa, Garmser, Sangin, Musa Qala, and Kajaki and that these population centres must be the focus of Coalition activity.
British activity in Helmand is carefully analysed by Dressler, who notes that it was, from the beginning in 2006, a comprehensive approach, involving the military, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. The strategy was designed to mirror the British "Malayan inkspot strategy": by focussing on the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, it was hoped that the perceived benefits in terms of security, social and economic improvement and political stability would spread to outlying towns and villages.
However, says Dressler, the strategy has not worked. He points to differing agendas. The military planners say that you cannot have development without security, while the DFID and FCO staff are under pressure to show signs of development that are not based on "kinetic activity".
He adds that the British effort has also been hampered by misuse of funds and the Taliban's control of the roads surrounding the district. The UK Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee report published in July (see my post on this subject) offers a way forward, with its emphasis on improving security as a way of stabilising the province.
Dressler's report provides a sober assessment of Britain's Panther's Claw offensive this summer. Dressler says the operation was timed to allow some of the 80,000 elegible voters to take part in the Presidential election on 20 August. However only 150 turned out to vote in the town of Babaji, which was the only place thought safe enough to open a polling station.
Overall, says Dressler, "The shortcomings of Panther’s Claw were evident. First, the force failed to comprehensively and methodically clear the green zone. Hence, the transition to the holding phase was premature. An insufficient holding force has been left to oppose an enemy presence that is still quite strong. The poor voter turnout was likely a result of an enemy presence that remains capable of intimidating and coercing the local population. Although the British may hold Babaji district center, the remainder of the green zone is not under their control. Despite the magnitude of Panther’s Claw, the result is likely to be the same as previous operations throughout Helmand."
This report contains much very useful information and is indispensable for anyone who wants to understand how the Taliban fights and organises in its most important battlefield.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

How Shia personal status law got on the statute book

The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit has published a revealing study of the way in which the controversial Shi'ite Personal Status Law (SPSL) came onto the statute book.
A Closer Look: The Policy and Law-Making Process Behind the Shi'ite Personal Status Law is about how a law that was almost unmentioned by the national or international media until it was signed into effect in March 2009, suddenly became the subject of countless articles in the international media.
It was just as world leaders were meeting in London for the G20 conference that the implications of several clauses in the statute caused a furore and before long it was dubbed a "rape law" by the international media.
Journalists and commentators noted that the law required a woman to ask permission to leave the house except on urgent business, that she had a duty to "make herself up" or "dress up" for her husband when demanded, and a duty not to refuse sex when her husband wanted it.
There was plenty of criticism: "President Karzai should not sacrifice women for short-term political deal-making," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "He is playing with fire. How will he be able to refuse demands for similar discriminatory laws from other communities?"
Afghan Women in parliament complained that the law was rushed through, aided by several prominent Shia leaders. Despite calls not to sign the law, President Karzai signed it in an apparent attempt to garner political support for his presidential re-election campaign.
The provisions of the SPSL directly contradict the Afghan constitution, which bans any kind of discrimination and distinction between citizens. Article 22 states that men and women "have equal rights and duties before the law." The law also contravenes the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to which Afghanistan is a signatory.
And there was another mystery about this law. Most Shias in Afghanistan are Hazaras, who have been renowned for their support for democracy and women rights. Hazara women in particular have achieved remarkable success: the first woman as presidential secretary; the first woman as the Women’s Affair minister; the first woman as governor and the first woman as the Independent Human Rights commissioner in Afghanistan.
Hazara women registered more then 58% of the women's vote in the previous presidential election and they presently have the highest literacy rate. Why should their community support such a retrogressive law?

One explanation is that the impetus for the law came from a group of Iranian-sponsored ulema - Shaikh Mohseni Kandahari, Sayyed Alemi Balkhi and others - who have little public support, but were considered vital to the election hopes of President Karzai.
The AREU report looks into all these issues and seeks to draw conclusions, although in a more guarded way. It says: "The SPSL highlights the persisting legacies of Afghanistan’s political past. It demonstrates the continued power of patronage networks and behind-the-scenes deal-making in Afghan politics, as well as the complex roles of powerful mujahiddin figures from the Soviet resistance era, like Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and Mohammad Asif Mohseni, who continue to dominate on the basis of allegiances."
The report also makes the point that the public was not involved in any way in the political process that led to the framing of this law. One of the key recommendations is that elected representatives should be more responsive to their constituents.
In the end, as a result of the international furore over the 'rape' provisions, in early July the Afghan ministry of Justice conducted a review of the SPSL that led to the omission of 12 articles and further amendments. On 9 July civil society groups issued a joint open letter to the President’s office arguing that the changes were ambiguous and many of their recommendations were not taken into account. The president nonetheless approved the revised version and the law was published in the Official Gazette no. 988 on 27 July 2009, effectively becoming enforceable as law.
This may not be the end of the matter, not least because the Sunni family law code is likely to be presented to Parliament in the next few months. Based on Hanafi jurisprudence, it is very likely to be subjected to various interpretations of religious law. Will the voice of women be heard in this debate?