This blog aims to highlight issues and information that don't always make it into the mainstream media. Recognising that comment is cheap, wherever possible it will link you directly to documents and sources that are mentioned in the text.
I realised some time ago that it was impossible to write about Afghanistan without writing about Pakistan and other neighbouring countries. With that in mind, the reader will come across articles that, while not specifically about Afghanistan, in some way shed light on the conflict.
If you would like to get an idea of the level of skill, professionalism and regard for human rights exhibited by Blackwater/Xe/Paravant - whatever you want to call the company - then I suggest you read Senator Carl Levin's opening remarks to the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday. Senator Levin notes that Paravant, (simply another name for Blackwater) gained its one and only contract in Afghanistan in 2008 when it entered into a subcontract with Raytheon Technical Services Company to perform weapons training for the Afghan National Army. The immediate cause of the Senate committee hearings was an event that took place on 5 May 2009, when Justin Cannon and Christopher Drotleff, two men working for Paravant in Afghanistan, fired their weapons, killing two Afghan civilians and injuring a third. Levin said: "In reviewing the Army’s investigation of the incident, then-CSTC-A Commanding General Richard Formica said that it appeared that the contractor personnel involved had “violated alcohol consumption policies, were not authorized to possess weapons, violated use of force rules, and violated movement control policies.” According to the Department of Justice prosecutors, the 5 May 2009 shooting “caused diplomatic difficulties for United States State Department representatives in Afghanistan” and impacted “the national security interests of the United States.” According to one media report, the shooting “turned an entire neighborhood against the U.S. presence” and quoted a local elder as saying, “if they keep killing civilians, I’m sure some Afghans will decide to become insurgents.” On 6 January 2010, Cannon and Drotleff were indicted on firearm and homicide charges for their involvement in the May shooting and they are now awaiting trial. But that is not the half of it. Months before that event, on 9 December 2008, another event involving Paravant personnel took place which should have rung alarm bells. Let's quote Levin again: "Paravant Program Manager Johnnie Walker told Committee staff that on December 9, 2008, the Paravant training team working at Camp Darulaman decided that it was “going to learn how to shoot” from a vehicle when, in what Walker described as a “wild idea,” the training team leader decided to get on the back of a moving car with a loaded AK-47 and “ride it like a stagecoach.” The vehicle subsequently hit a bump, causing the team leader’s AK-47 to discharge, seriously injuring one of the Paravant trainers on his team. The reckless disregard for weapons safety is particularly striking given that he and his team were hired for the specific purpose of teaching the Afghan National Army how to safely use their weapons." And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Read this article if you want to know what military contractors are doing in our name in Afghanistan. Don't kid yourself for a moment that Afghans differentiate between disciplined regular soldiers and these morons. They don't. Incidentally, here's some background on Drotleff and Cannon. A court order directing that Drotleff be detained during trial concluded that his military record, prior to joining Paravant was “abysmal.” It apparently included assault, insubordinate conduct, absence without leave, failure to obey order or regulation, larceny and wrongful appropriation. Drotleff’s criminal record after his discharge from the military included convictions for reckless driving, disturbing the peace, assault and battery, driving while intoxicated, resisting arrest and trespassing. In ordering that Drotleff be detained during his ongoing trial, the court explicitly referenced his “extensive criminal history” and “propensity for violence.” Levin also noted that public reports reveal red flags in the military record of Paravant contractor Justin Cannon. In January this year an AP report noted that Cannon was discharged from the U.S. military after he was absent without leave for 22 days and tested positive for cocaine. While the proposal for the Paravant contract – which was signed by Vice President for Contracts and Compliance Mr. Fred Roitz – stated that the company maintained a copy of the military service records of each of its independent contractors, the company informed the Committee that it does not have those records for Cannon or Drotleff in their files.
Anand Gopal of the Christian Science Monitor is reporting that almost half of the Afghan Taliban's 15-strong leadership council has been arrested in Pakistan in the last week. In addition to the well publicised capture of Quetta Shura members Mullah Abdul Ghani Barodar, Maulavi Abdul Kabir, Mullah Mohammad Younis and two provincial governors, he says the other arrested leaders include: Mullah Abdul Qayoum Zakir, who oversees the movement’s military affairs, Mullah Muhammad Hassan, Mullah Ahmed Jan Akhunzada, and Mullah Abdul Raouf. Gopal's report seems well sourced, coming from two Pakistani intelligence officials and a senior UN official. Clearly something serious is going on. Watch this space. Meanwhile it is also being reported that Pakistan has agreed to hand over Mullah Barodar to Afghan custody. The move followed a visit to Islamabad by the FBI director Robert Mueller, who is believe to have convinced the Pakistanis to take this course of action.
Reza Jan of the Critical Threats Project of the American Enterprise Institute has produced a useful summary of continuing Pakistani Army actions in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). He reports that the Pakistani government and the military leadership have belatedly come to realise that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) insurgency is a mortal threat to the state. In response, in recent months the military has built upon the momentum it achieved in the Swat and South Waziristan operations and the growing unpopularity of the TTP to expand its area of operations into other parts of FATA, including, Bajaur, Orakzai and Kurram. The Army's operations aim to target and disrupt the TTP leadership and to stimulate local uprisings against the organisation as a way of bringing the insurgency to an end. Author Reza Jan notes that a key factor in determining long-term success against the TTP will be whether the Pakistani military sustains the post-conflict phase of operations in a focused manner and the success it has in empowering local lashkars to resist renewed attempts at encroachment by the TTP. The report contains some useful background information, pointing out, for example, that Orakzai contains the world's largest illegal arms bazaar at Darra Adam Khel, which is also the base for the bloodthirsty Commander Tariq Group of the TTP, led by Tariq Afridi. Another interesting insight is the account of an uprising by Shia Stori Khel tribesmen against the TTP. Tensions between incoming fighters from South Waziristan - including many foreigners - and locals were said to have been behind numerous incidents in the region. This report is very useful, if only because it shows that the Pakistani Army's South Waziristan operation was not simply cosmetic. The Army, it would seem, is doing what it can to harass and destroy the militants, without doing so much that it creates a general uprising against the state.
The Baluchi nationalist leader believed to be behind a bombing campaign in Iran has been captured, according to Iran's state TV. Abdolmalek Rigi, whose brother is already on death row in Iran, was captured within the last few days and is now being held in eastern Iran, according to reports. Rigi, who heads the Jundallah organisation, which is fighting for autonomy for Iranian Baluchis, is alleged to have been behind a bomb explosion on 18 October last year that killed 42 people, including six senior Revolutionary Guards commanders in Zahedan in south-east Iran. The circumstances of Rigi's capture are murky. TV footage (see still pic above) shows him being led out of a private executive jet, accompanied by several armed figures dressed in black. However, Iran's official IRNA news agency said that Rigi had been travelling in a plane to an Arab country via Pakistan before his arrest. "His plane was ordered to land and then he was arrested after the plane was searched", according to news agency AFP. Another report says he was arrested from a plane flying from Dubai to Kyrgyzstan. Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar said today that Rigi was captured outside the country and brought into Iran. “This evil person who took orders from intelligence agents of foreign countries was captured in a proper time outside the country,” he told reporters in Birjand, eastern Iran. Najjar added, “Abdolmalek intended to move from one place to another place to plan a new evil act” who was trapped by Iranian security and intelligence forces. The strong likelihood is that Rigi was captured in Pakistan and handed over to the Iranians. In October Pakistani officials told the Iranians that Jundallah was supported by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and the sectarian Lashkar-e-Jhangvi organisation. Iranian officials later claimed that Rigi had been in an American military base in Afghanistan only 24 hours before his capture and that he was issued with Afghani travel documents. They also said he had recently been in European countries. None of these claims could be verified.
Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency has published an updated version of its Red Book of 'Most Wanted Terrorists'. Containing 119 names, the list includes some of the most dangerous men in the country, including those who planned and carried out the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the attempted murder of former President Musharraf. For each terrorist listed there is an extensive description and a short summary of their crimes. Heading up the list, for example, is Ibad ur Rahman from Attock. The report notes: "He was close associate of Baitullah Mehsud (killed) and member of terrorist cell constituted by Nadir Khan @ Qari Ismail (killed) of Madrassa Haqqania Akora Khattak, Nowshehra. This group joined Baitullah Mehsud in 2007 and under the direction of Baitullah Mehsud executed suicide attack on Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto on 27-12-2007" and that "He used to operate training camp at Soor Dhand, near Bara, Khyber Agency and has excellence in explosives and bomb making." Also on the list are a number of financiers of the Lashkar-e-Toiba group and crew members of boats used by terrorists. Presumably these are boats used in the attack on Mumbai. Another of those listed is Rana Ishfaq Ahmed. Described as having a bullet wound in his shoulder, he is wanted in connection with the bombing of the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad. The report says: "Brother of Rana Ilyas (arrested) and linked with Qari Saifullah Akhtar Group in Waziristan. He is trained jihadi and main suspect of Marriott bombing. He is associated with HJI since 1997 and used to get monthly salary from the organization. He got training from Afghanistan in 1998. Presently connected with Taliban in Waziristan. He lodged suicide bomber of Marriott blast namely Zakir Ullah with him in Peshawar before the incident. He along with Ibrar ud Din (at large) got rented Vitz car used in the incident. He also served as driver of Maulana Alam Tariq brother of assassinated Maulana Azam Tariq of SSP." Some of the details listed are fascinating and contain much more information than is generally found in the Pakistani media. Well worth perusing.
In the three weeks since the London conference on Afghanistan, events have moved at a breakneck pace. The joint offensive in Helmand, involving up to 15,000 soldiers, is now into its second week. In Pakistan, a whole raft of senior Taliban officials have been captured; in the badlands of North Waziristan drone strikes have continued apace, in the process killing a scion of the Haqqani clan, while it has also been revealed that in early January elements of the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami met with Afghan government officials in the Maldives to discuss the possibility of peace. Some, if not all, of these events may be related. What is beginning to emerge is that there is a possible consensus about a way forward through negotiations. The Western powers, the Afghan government, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, even Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah accept that it is possible to talk to the 'good' Taliban, providing the 'bad' Taliban - namely, those Talibs who continue to ally themselves with al-Qaeda and other Islamist fanatics - can be excluded. The most important change - which should be seen as seismic in its importance - seems to be amongst the Pakistani military, which until now has been unremittingly opposed to a negotiated agreement between the Karzai government and the Taliban. From a Pakistani perspective, such an agreement threatened to bolster the position of India in Afghanistan, without leading to an agreement over Kashmir. Pakistan's military and civilian leadership has always maintained (in private) that control over the mujahideen guaranteed it a place at the negotiating table over any final settlement in Afghanistan. If it was not happy, then the tribal fighters would be used to make Afghanistan ungovernable. Several things have happened to make Pakistan rethink. The first and most important is that India was effectively isolated at the London conference. Despite having provided £1.2 billion in aid to Afghanistan, India's opposition to any talks with the Taliban was brushed aside. According to The Times of India: "The Afghanistan conference in London last week was a shocker for Indian mandarins who had hoped to muscle in and get a larger say in Afghan policy given the money and effort New Delhi has put into the reconstruction efforts. But what happened was that India got blindsided by the British swallowing the Pakistani line that Islamabad could deliver peace by negotiating with the Taliban." India continues to believe that a deal with the Taliban will mean a Taliban takeover in Kabul. The second thing that happened is that the Pakistan military has realised that it can no longer protect its proteges in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, particularly in North and South Waziristan. While it reluctantly agreed to launch the offensive in South Waziristan last October, it put little pressure on the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and killed very few of its fighters. But that did not stop the Americans killing most of the TTP leadership in a drone strike in mid-January. The organisation is now decapitated and on the road to disintegration. When the American Defence Secretary Robert Gates suggested in Islamabad a week later that the Pakistani military should mount an attack on safe havens in North Waziristan sheltering the ISI-backed Haqqani network, the very next day the official spokesman of the Pakistan Army, Maj Gen Athar Abbas, haughtily stated that Pakistan’s “over-stretched” armed forces had no plans for undertaking any fresh anti-militant operations in 2010. This was seen as a snub to the Obama administration which decided to mount its own attacks, firing dozens of rockets from drones over the next few days. So far this year there have been more than 20 drone attacks in the Tribal areas. The pace of attacks moved up a gear after the killing of seven CIA officers in Khost at the end of December by a Jordanian suicide bomber who had been trained in Pakistan. Faced with missile strikes that were increasingly targetted on important mujahideen leaders (and whose effectiveness was confirmed this week with the death in a drone strike of one of Jalaluddin Haqqani's sons), it is clear that Pakistan can no longer protect its 'assets' in the region and it therefore makes more sense to get the best possible negotiated deal. Whether or not the arrest of Taliban military commander Mullah Barodar in Karachi is part of this new thinking by Pakistan is unclear, but the fact that more than a dozen top Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda figures - including two shadow provincial governors - have been arrested in the last two weeks makes it is hard not to conclude that a change of direction is underway. Perhaps we can now begin to understand the optimism exhibited by US and British military commanders at the beginning of this year. Despite what appeared to be a dire situation, McChrystal et al were all very upbeat. They would have known about the events taking place in the background - the planned negotiations, the fact that both Hekmatyar and sections of the Taliban were willing to negotiate, the engagement of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and the OIC. Fighting is still very intense in Helmand around the strategically important town of Marjah, where ISAF has already gone to great lengths to explain it is only interested in killing foreigners and die-hards. Will the momentum towards negotiations continue? My guess is that it will. The main issue now will be sorting out how the Taliban's main demand - for the withdrawal of foreign troops - can be finessed or renegotiated. Update: Afghanistan's TolAfghan website is reporting that another senior Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Kabir, head of its political committee, has also been captured in recent days.
The capture of Mullah Barodar Akhund, the Taliban's most senior military commander and generally reckoned to be second only to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, is a devastating blow to the organisation, possibily the largest set-back it has suffered in the last eight years. He was picked up, allegedly in Karachi, in a joint US-Pakistan operation. The fact that US officials were involved suggests that Barodar was probably traced through his communications. Barodar, whose real name is Abdul Ghani, was the Taliban's deputy minister of defence until the regime was toppled in 2001. Until his arrest he was in charge of day-to-day military operations and also Taliban finances. He was allegedly arrested more than a week ago, but the story only broke yesterday. He belongs to the Popalzai tribe of Pashtuns, the same as President Karzai, but little else is known about him. No picture has ever been published of him, although he is believed to have direct contact with Mullah Omar. Doubtless his interrogators will be attempting to find out all they can about Mullah Omar's recent movements. In his most recent interview, given at the end of December, Barodar told the Afghan Islamic Press that 2009 was a very successful year for the mujahideen. "The casualties and financial and losses they inflicted on the invaders could be found in reports, speeches and announcements of the Pentagon and other Western sources, who said the casualties of the past seven years has been equal to the losses and casualties of the current year. That means the current year has been the bloodiest year full of calamities and fears for them in the past eight years which is a great achievement of the mojahedin." He declined to be drawn on the question of the Taliban's relationship with al-Qaeda, simply saying that no-one in Afghanistan would be allowed to use the country to prepare attacks on a third country. He said it made no sense to talk about 'good' Taliban and 'bad' Taliban. Then again, He also denied that any of the Taliban leadership was in Pakistan. There is already speculation that Barodar's arrest may have been facilitated by the Pakistani military because he is in favour of negotiations. Arresting him in this way - just before the beginning of Operation Moshtarak - could be a way of Pakistan showing that it can play a role in facilitating negotiations with the Taliban leadership. Certainly it is hard to explain why they should have allowed the arrest to take place otherwise, as they have made it clear in the past that the Afghan Taliban leadership is under their protection. For example, the Pakistanis would not allow drone strikes anywhere in Baluchistan, but particularly in Quetta where much of the Taliban leadership resides.
I missed it when it was first published in November last year, but the US National Security Archive has published The Taliban Biography: The structure and leadership of the Taliban 1996-2002. For those of you interested in understanding the personalities that were once/are still in the Taliban leadership, this document is very useful. In particular the National Security Archive staff have pulled together a comprehensive chart compiled entirely from US government sources that details biographical and professional information on more than 40 important Taliban officials. The report itself links to a large number of primary intel documents. It mentions the obvious figures such as Mullah Omar (one of whose four wives was a daughter of Osama bin Laden, it says) and mentions that the now-deceased Mullah Mohammad Rabbani, his deputy until 2001, disagreed with the policy of sheltering bin Laden. We also learn that Abdul Rahman Zahid was the Taliban's director of banking. At the start of the anti-Soviet jihad "he was in Dubai as a young man collecting funds from traders." I wonder where he is now.
The News in Pakistan reports that an arms dealer called Reemal, a Borakhel Wazir from Naurak village near Miranshah in North Waziristan, was badly injured yesterday when his double cabin pick-up truck was destroyed by a bomb blast. Three other people in the vehicle were also injured and one at least had a limb amputated at the Agency Headquarters Hospital in Miranshah. According to The News, Reemal was suspected of having a number of FIM-92 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that he had bought during the anti-Soviet jihad and had stored ever since in a secret location. Around 500 Stinger missiles were originally provided by the CIA to mujahideen groups for use against Soviet helicopters and attack aircraft, where they proved to be very effective. So concerned were the Americans about the fact that some of the missiles were unaccounted for that in the early 1990s they introduced a $55 million buy-back programme and managed to remove dozens from the region. Whether or not the missiles would still work is a matter of debate. They will be around 20 years old now, and it is said their battery only last for four years. But knowing the ingenuity of Pakistan's tribal arms bazaars, anything could be possible. Tribal militants and their al-Qaeda allies who are presently being decimated by CIA drone missile strikes would receive a huge morale boost if they were able to lay their hands on fully functioning Stingers. Three weeks ago Reemal's brother was also shot dead in Miranshah. No-one has claimed responsibility for either attack.
The death of Hakimullah Mahsud, confirmed earlier this week, will have a significant impact on the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the bloodthirsty gang he led until succumbing to injuries caused by a US drone missile strike in mid-January. The organisation's future is uncertain and it is likely to become increasingly irrelevant, with its remaining members either joining forces with the al-Qaeda remnants still operating in the harsh borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, or lapsing into criminality. Hakimullah and his lieutenants Qari Hussein and Waliur Rahman - both of whose fate is still unknown - presided over a period of bloodletting that is almost without precedent in modern Pakistan history. Little if any of this was achieved by either conventional military attacks or even by guerrilla warfare. Their main weapon was the suicide bomber. Qari Hussein in particular developed an expertise in training young boys to blow themselves to pieces. Sometimes these attacks were aimed at the Pakistan military, but mostly they happened in crowded public places as a way of striking terror into the heart of Pakistan. The bombers killed far more innocent Pakistani civilians than soldiers. At the time of its formation three years ago, the TTP, under the leadership of Baitullah Mahsud, had the potential to cause considerable problems for Pakistan. Created with strong support from Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda and with tacit support from sections of the Pakistani intelligence community, it capitalised on the growing insurgency in Afghanistan, but tried to extend that struggle into Pakistan itself, particularly after the government's attack on the Lal Masjid mosque in Islamabad. Surprisingly, the Musharraf regime appeared oblivious to this possibility and willingly conceded territory and political power to the organisation. The Army made tentative moves against militants in South Waziristan, but after hundreds of soldiers were captured, it withdrew its forces and left the TTP to get on with it. In 2009 the full consequences of this policty of laissez faire became clear, particularly in the Swat Valley, where the Taliban established a state-within-a-state, only a hundred miles or so from the capital. Brutal killings, public beatings, the banning of education for girls, forced abductions of young men to fight or become suicide bombers, followed one after the other. Finally, in late spring 2009, the Army moved against the militants in the Swat Valley. The TTP fighters, despite their swagger, were by then deeply resented by most Swatis. They had no political programme other than a vague idea of a bastardised sharia law and were unable to win support other than from a minority of landless peasants who had longstanding grievances against their landlords. More than a million residents of the Valley were forced to leave their homes as the Army moved in to clear out the TTP, many of whose fighters were from South Waziristan and were regarded as 'foreigners' by the locals. Many of the militants were as much motivated by plunder as they were by any religious ideology. With the death of the founding TTP leader Baitullah Mahsud in a drone strike in early August, the organisation was plunged into crisis. The succession was not clear, with different factions allegedly shooting it out. Hakimullah came out on top of the pile, mainly because he was seen as an effective and experienced guerrilla leader, having cut his teeth ambushing NATO convoys in the Khyber Pass. It is said that al-Qaeda played a major role in securing his position. But there were always tensions beneath the surface, not least because many tribal militants from FATA were unhappy with the decision to target the Pakistani state itself. Even the Afghanistan Taliban of Mullah Omar tried to distance itself from the TTP, saying it no longer wanted to be known as the Taliban. As the TTP campaign against the Pakistani state gathered momentum - aided and abetted by an influx of fanatical Punjabi militants - the Army made its move into South Waziristan last October. Despite the rumoured 15,000 TTP fighters, the Army encountered little opposition as it advanced into areas where government soldiers had never before been allowed to operate. More than a quarter of a million new refugees were created. The Army trashed dozens of villages and destroyed the family homes of most of the TTP leaders and still they met little opposition. Long-standing sanctuaries for Uzbek and Chechen sympathisers were destroyed and massive amounts of arms and ammunition seized. Hakimullah and his henchmen moved further into FATA, accepting the reluctant hospitality of the Haqqani clan in neighbouring North Waziristan. When asked where all his fighters were, Waliur Rahman, from a secret hideout, told AP he had sent them all to fight in Afghanistan. This was a lie. By December many of the less committed TTP fighters could see where things were going and had silently melted away. Even the elders of his own tribe, the Mahsuds, turned against Hakimullah and offered to hand him over if they caught him. And as the Pakistan military consolidated its positions in South Waziristan, the CIA drone attacks increased in intensity - and in accuracy. So when it became clear that Hakimullah had played a major role in training the Jordanian suicide bomber who killed seven CIA officers in Afghanistan on 30 December, it was only a matter of time before he would run out of luck. The unprecedented storm of drone attacks that followed the CIA killings - with a dozen strikes in less than three weeks - shattered the TTP leadership and its aura of invincibility. Now no-one is safe. There are no longer any safe havens. This lesson will not have been missed by the remaining TTP militants in the tribal territories of Pakistan. They will have to decide if it is worth being martyred for the crazed and delusional rantings of idealogues like al-Zawahiri. Most, it can be guaranteed, will prefer returning to their old trades of drug smuggling and car theft.
The new TTP commander Noor Jamal administers a beating
A senior Tehreek-e-Taliban leader has confirmed the death of the organisation's leader, Hakimullah Mahsud, according to Pakistani reports. He said Hakimullah died near Multan as he was being taken to Karachi from South Waziristan for treatment for injuries sustained in a drone attack on Shaktoi, North Waziristan on 14 January. Around 10 other people were killed in the attack. Some sources are saying his nominated succesor is Maulvi Noor Jamal, who comes from Orakzai region. Noor Jamal originally rose to prominence as leader of the TTP in the Kurram tribal area. When the Pakistani military offensive against the TTP began in South Waziristan in October, he was given additional responsibilities in the adjoining area of Orakzai. Noor Jamal, who was a close friend of Hakimullah, has a reputation for cruelty. Videos are circulating showing him flogging two men and a teenage boy (see photo above). “He kills humans like one will kill chickens,” one resident who left Kurram last year because he was wanted by Noor Jamal’s men told Dawn newspaper. Noor Jamal is said to be in his late 30s and was a teacher and prayer leader at a local religious school before he was appointed TTP leader in Kurram by Hakimullah.
Maulana Fazl-ur Rahman, leader of his own faction (JUI-F) of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam in Pakistan, told The Nation newspaper today that there were more than 9,000 staff from the US mercenary company Blackwater (now known as Xe) in Islamabad alone. He was concerned that there were more Blackwater staff than police officers in the capital city. According to the paper: "He further stated that if Taliban were involved in crime in Pakistan then Blackwater was also involved in the same thing, adding that the Americans should not be given a free hand in Pakistan." In the 2008 elections, Rahman's faction won only six general seats in the National Assembly, plus one additional seat in the Women Reserved section. In the provincial assemblies, it won 14 seats in the NWFP Assembly, but could only muster two seats in the 371-seat Punjab Assembly. The faction is generally regarded as being close to the Afghan Taliban, not least because many of the latter's leaders studied at madrassahs run by JUI-F in Pakistan. In some quarters Rahman is known as Maulana Diesel, following his involvement in a scandal involving the sale of diesel export permits. Rahman's comments echo those of Mufti Mohammad Rafi Usmani, grand mufti of Pakistan, who, as I reported here, said in December that Blackwater was responsible for a bomb attack in Karachi that left 43 people dead.
Tomorrow night (Tuesday) I will be chairing a discussion at the Frontline Club in London on 'Understanding the Taliban'. Amongst the panel will be Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn - the only two Westerners living in Kandahar. They are also responsible for editing My Life with the Taliban, the autobiography of Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan. The event is already a sell-out, but I will report on it here. And I thoroughly recommend the book, which I will be reviewing shortly. Update: The event was a great success. As well as the two previously mentioned speakers, Horia Mosadiq from Amnesty International and journalist Ken Guest also took part in the panel discussion. You can listen to a podcast here.
With the US now confirming that Hakimullah Mahsud, leader of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, was killed in a drone strike in mid-January, it remains to be seen what has happened to his two most senior aides (and potential successors), Qari Hussein and Waliur Rahman. Neither man has made a public appearance or statement since the time of the drone attack. If both have been killed, it will be a major setback for the organisation, although one thing the TTP is not short of is funds. According to NWFP governor, Owais Ghani, the TTP is spending around 3.6 billion rupees (£27 million) on its estimated 15,000 fighters. The money comes from the opium trade. Much of the opium grown in Afghanistan is transported to the FATA border areas, where TTP fighters ensure it gets to the middlemen who buy, refine and sell the drug, both in Pakistan and internationally. Perhaps its true that the TTP is spending such large amounts of money on wages for its fighters, although they don't appear to have earned their cash, as little has been seen of the thousands of rumoured TTP fighters hiding in the hills of Waziristan. They have not put up any serious resistance to the Pakistan Army offensive in either South or North Waziristan. And a few weeks ago in an interview with AP Waliur Rahman had to explain the lack of fighters in the area by saying he had sent them all to Afghanistan to fight the Americans. Do they really exist, I wonder?
With the possibility of talks between the Afghan government and its Taliban foes now taking a central role, it is worth taking a look at an article by Hamid Mir, published in The News, which gives the fullest account published so far of the talks that took place in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in September 2008. According to Mir: "The Afghan Taliban in the Makkah talks were represented by their former foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, former minister Maulvi Arsala Rahmani, and Afghanistan’s last ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef. It is said the trio had travelled to Makkah to perform Umra, but sources said they were hosted as official guests of the Saudi government. They were also among those who attended the Iftar-cum-dinner party of King Abdullah on September 29, 2008. The Afghanistan government delegation was led by former chief justice Maulvi Abdul Hadi Shinwari and included, among others, Abdul Salam Rocketi, a Taliban commander under Mullah Omar who eventually surrendered to the US." Mir says the talks foundered over Taliban demands that all US and foreign forces leave the country before they would consider such questions as handing over Osama bin Laden or signing up to support the Afghan constitution. He also says that Prince Turki al-Faisal played an important role in convening the talks. Prior to the talks, the Saudis also sent an emissary to North Waziristan to meet with the Afghan Taliban leadership. At one point it was hoped the emissary might be able to meet with al-Qaeda's deputy leader, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri. The meeting never took place and only lower-level Taliban leaders made themselves available, possibly for security reasons. The make-up of the Taliban delegation to Mecca explains how the Taliban can claim that no official representatives were present at the talks. All three men are former Taliban ministers who live under the Karzai regime and have renounced violence, but who retain links with their former comrades.
Haseeb Humayoon's report for the Institute for the Study of War on President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan elections, The Re-election of Hamid Karzai, answers a number of questions that have been bugging me for some time. Why did US Ambassador Eikenberry ostentatiously visit the office of rival candidates during the election campaign and why did US Special Representative Richard Holbrooke press so hard for a run-off against Abdullah Abdullah? Most fundamentally, why did the US allow the media and public to believe that it was against a Karzai victory in the elections? Humayoon argues cogently that most Afghans were against such a run-off. He says that US diplomats underestimated President Karzai's grip on the political machine in Kabul. Karzai was able to outsmart US diplomats because he had formed alliances (documented by this blog, but not by many writers) with a select group of regional and local leaders, including Ismail Khan, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, Haji Mohammad Muhaqiq and Gul Agha Sherzai. He says that the choice of vice president and defence minister Marshal Fahim was critical to the success of Karzai's campaign. Karzai's political machine also included the nucleus of a new political elite, savvy and connected, whose reach to areas outside Kabul, says Humayoon, "is much greater than generally recognised. Often their influence beyond the capital exists through personal, commercial, family, and political networks, rather than through official institutions that are easily recognizable to the international community." Humayoon says that the Kabul regime has not so much been losing out to insurgents in more remote parts of Afghanistan. Instead, both Kabul and the insurgents have been competing to fill political vacuums, where there has been no political life for more than a generation. This makes perfect sense and is a perceptive insight. The corollary is that although the insurgency has been expanding, few people have noticed the extent to which Karzai and his allies have also been extending their political networks outside the capital. It therefore follows that there is little point in trying to explain events in Afghanistan by using such terms as 'corruption', 'fraud' or 'warlords'. This form of analysis belongs to a different era. Of course, corruption continues to exist, but concentrating on this hides the growing commercial interests and the rise of an "ambitious, wealthy and influential political class". Although Afghanistan's political set-up may give the appearance of fragility, it has some strengths. Humayoon says it now needs to develop a national political culture, a state bureaucracy (with separate interests from the political players) and a system that can deliver economic and social reform. Overall, this is an excellent report. It is significant that it has been written by an Afghan, who is able to follow the twists and turns amongst the political elite in Kabul. Already, we can see that Karzai's efforts to lead from the front on the question of reintegrating Taliban supporters is not necessarily an action that stems from political weakness, but from a wilyness and political acumen that have so far been much underestimated. There's life in the old fox yet.
Just watched award-winning film-maker Najibullah Quraishi's remarkable film Afghanistan: Behind Enemy Lines, shown tonight on Channel 4. At enormous personal risk, Quraishi spent two weeks with a mujahideen group from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezbe-Islami in the north-east of the country, around Baghlan and Kunduz. Besides being the the first account from the standpoint of the insurgents of the situation in this part of Afghanistan, the film is absolutely gripping. Quraishi somehow managed to obtain access to the mujahideen group, who spoke openly to him, almost as if the camera was not there. They talked about the Chechens, Uzbeks and Arabs that fought with them, the way they organised, the tactics they used. Quraishi kept his camera running throughout, even as he was being questioned by a suspicious fighter. He was asked if he would take a gun in his hand and join in an ambush. "My camera is my gun", he replied in a swift and confident retort that could have saved his life. We watched as members of the group lay in ambush, waiting for an American tank on a low-loader to pass. They missed it twice in the morning fog. They argued when bombs did not explode and then jumped with surprise when someone dialled a mobile number as a test - and the bomb exploded. A senior figure told Quraishi that he commanded around 4,000 fighters - more in the summer when Pashtuns from the south arrived to fight. The fighters appeared to have easy and open access to the local villages. One stated that they had no problem blocking the road. Coalition forces in the area - mainly German - seldom engaged them. The fighters were confident, cocky even. In a brilliant move, after he left the muhahideen group, Quraishi travelled the same stretch of road on which he had filmed the ambush and spoke to Afghan police about security. They told him the mujahideen were never anywhere near the road due to constant patrols. Quraishi filmed one confident policeman standing over a dead mujahid. Three days later he filmed the corpse of the policeman. Quraishi worked with producer James Doran on the documentary. The two men go back to 2003, when Doran made the remarkable film Afghan Massacre: The convoy of death, about the 2001 murder of several thousand Taliban prisoners by troops loyal to General Abdul Rashid Dostum. According to Doran, US military personnel knew what was happening and refused to stop it. He has alleged that film exists of US forces present during the massacre, but this is strongly denied by the Pentagon. Quraishi's film is deeply unsettling and will certainly have a major impact on public perceptions of the war in Afghanistan. I have little doubt that he will pick up an armful of awards for a courageous piece of film-making. He had to leave the mujahideen when two men arrived from Pakistan and began to ask how he had obtained permission to film. That of course is the real question here. Who is financing Hezb-Islami and its 4,000 fighters?