Monday, 29 March 2010

Shaping public opinion in Europe

Worried that France and Germany could go the same way as Holland - and that governments could fall or founder over policy on Afghanistan - the CIA drew up a classified document in March outlining possible PR strategies to shore up public opinion in both countries.
The PR strategies differ for each country. In France, the CIA reckons that a campaign based on public sympathy for Afghan refugees and women would be the most effective.
In Germany, it suggests concentrating on the fear of the consequences of defeat - drugs, more refugees, terrorism - and also the loss in Germany's standing within NATO.
How do I know this? Simple. The document has now been leaked onto Wikileaks.
Dated 11 March 2010, the document was written by "a CIA expert on strategic communication", who is a member of what the CIA calls its Red Cell, which has been charged by the Director of Intelligence with thinking "out-of-the-box".
The Red Cell document notes the interesting paradox that although more than 80 per cent of German and French respondents in a recent poll were against further deployment of troops to Afghanistan, only around one per cent identified Afghanistan as the most urgent issue facing their nation.
However, it argues that with upcoming regional elections in both France and Germany, an increase in military casualties could "become a tipping point in converting passive opposition into active calls for immediate withdrawal."
The kind of communications advice it offers is very specific:
"Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanizing the ISAF role in combating the Taliban because of women’s ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears of a Taliban victory. Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German, and other European women could help to overcome pervasive skepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission."
We are not being manipulated, are we?

Friday, 26 March 2010

Website for Ghani Khan, the great Pashto poet

Ghani Khan (1914-96), son of the reknowned Pashtun leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, is reckoned by many to be the greatest Pashto language poet of the twentieth century. You can find an excellent website, containing translations of many of his finest poems and more biographical information, here. I very much enjoyed the poem called 'Leader'. And read the guest book.

Hezbe-e-Islami keep on talking to Afghan govt.

Talks between the Afghan government and representatives of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami group on Monday went well, according to a spokeman for the group. “So far, the talks have been very, very positive,” spokesman Haroon Zarghun told Dawn.
The delegation included Hekmatyar’s deputy Qutbuddin Hilal, Hekmatyar's son-in-law and Afghanistan’s former ambassador to Pakistan Dr Ghairat Baheer, as well as senior leader Ustad Qaribur Rehman Saeed.
Haroon Zarghun said the delegation would meet President Karzai again when he returned from his three-day official visit to China. They were also expected to meet American and Nato officials to discuss the 15-point peace plan, the spokesman said.
The delegation also met former arch rivals from the Northern Alliance, including Vice-President Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, Speaker of the Afghan parliament Younis Qanouni and leader of Ittehad-i-Islami Professor Abdur Rab Rasul Sayyaf.
They also met with former Taliban leaders, now in Kabul, including their former foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil, Arsala Rehmani and former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef.
A detailed backgrounder on the talks, by Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, can be found here

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Afghan government websites mostly moribund

Having tried unsuccessfully a couple of days ago to find an online copy of the Donor Financial Review on the the Afghan Ministry of Finance's website, I thought I should just do a quick check on other ministry websites to see how up-to-date they were. The findings are not very good.
The news section of the Wolesi Jirga (National Assemby) website is updated regularly and gives accurate information in English, Pashto and Dari. However, most of the other sections - links, archive, general information, biographies have either not been written or not updated for two or three years.
The website for the Meshrano Jirga - the Upper House - has clearly not been updated since its design in August 2007, despite a long introductory letter promising to keep it running.
The Ministry of the Interior site is completely moribund and appears not to have been finished when it was designed in 2008. There are no press releases, no links, no contact details.
The Ministry of Counter Narcotics has not been updated since December 2008.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock website was last updated in April 2009.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs website is live, but very basic.
The Ministry of Commerce was unavailable, as was the Ministry of Public Health .
The Ministry of Finance website has not been updated since mid-2007.
The Ministry of Women's Affairs website has not been updated since May 2009 and is unfinished.
The Ministry of Higher Education website is up-to-date, with a press statement from February 2010.
The Ministry of Education website was last updated in January. Its public discussion board contains no comments.
The Ministry of Information and Culture website has not been updated since July 2008.
The Ministry of Justice website is lively and up-to-date, but a bit thin on news.
The Ministry of Transport website has not been updated since November last year.
The Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled website has not been updated since July 2009.
The Ministry of Defence page says it has an English language page, but it does not. Not sure how up-to-date the Dari/Pashto pages are.
On the brighter side, the website of the President is regularly updated and tells you all you need to know about President Karzai's official activities.
In summary, the websites for only five ministries are working. The rest are either not functioning or they are so basic as to be useless. I wonder how many consultants were paid to design these rubbish websites and how much they received for their efforts?

Monday, 22 March 2010

Where all the donor money went

Afghanistan's Ministry of Finance has just released its latest Donor Financial Review. Although I have not been able to obtain a copy, there is a detailed summary on the IRIN website.
The review shows that donors spent $36bn in Afghanistan in 2001-2009 out of a total of $62bn pledged in grants and loans.
If you look at what countries pleadged and what they delivered, then Sweden came out best, having turned 90 percent of its pledges into concrete funding, followed by the UK and the USA, while the Asian Development Bank ranked last at 60 per cent.
And the USA has been the single largest donor to Afghanistan over the past eight years, disbursing $23.417bn.
Per capital donor aid over the past five years has been $1,241 - far less than the amount spent in Iraq and Bosnia, despite Afghanistan having some of the worst poverty and vulnerability indicators in the world.
Low aid absorption capacity has also been cited as a reason why more aid has not reached the vulnerable in Afghanistan, experts say.
President Karzai's government has been pilloried over allegations of endemic corruption, ineptitude and the mismanagement of aid, but it was responsible for disbursing only 23 per cent of foreign grants (about $8 billion). The remaining 77 per cent - totalling over $29bn - was spent directly by donors with little or no government input.
Of this $29bn, more than $15bn was disbursed directly by foreign military channels, according to the DFR. This includes the Commanders Emergency Response Program - where senior officers in the field have access to cash for tactical spending - and the Provincial Reconstruction Funds.
IRIN quotes Mark Ward, a UN special adviser on development in Afghanistan, saying that donors have funded their own projects because the government has not produced enough well designed national programmes.
"The donors' projects are often not designed closely with the Afghan government and may reflect domestic priorities, not Afghan priorities," he told IRIN.
Over half of the total disbursed assistance in 2002-2009 (about $19 bn) was spent on the security sector, particularly on strengthening the police and army, the DFR figures show.
Health received six percent, education and culture nine percent and agriculture and rural development got 18 per cent of the total.
Looking at where money was spent shows that the northern areas did much better than was thought:
$5.2bn in the central provinces
$1.7bn in the north
$1.6bn in the northeast
$1.4bn in the east
$1.3bn in the west
$1.2bn in the south
$0.9bn in southwest
The really interesting question is how much of all those billions is still in Afghanistan - and how much has been reinvested in swanky housing developments in Dubai and the rest of the Gulf?
Update: The Donor Financial Review document can be found here. Thanks to Colin.

So many negotiations, pt2.

The Taliban leadership has put out a statement today on the Kai Eide affair (see article below). The statement includes the following point:
"Some baseless propaganda is underway, claiming that a delegation of the Islamic Emirate had participated in meetings held in Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Maldives and now as per their claim, have met Kei Eide. The Islamic Emirate refutes these allegations and clearly declares that delegations of the Islamic Emirate have not participated in these meetings.
Similarly, the propaganda launched against the esteemed deputy Amir of the Islamic Emirate, Mullah Barodar Akhund, allegedly involving him in these meeting has no basis. No one can produce evidence to indicate his participation. This is an enemy effort to create mistrust among Mujahideen.
If some irresponsible persons presumably participated in the said meeting in the name of the Islamic Emirate, they can't be considered as representatives of the Islamic Emirate but it might have happened that some opportunists cashed in on the moribund condition of the enemy."
So according to the Taliban leadership, Mullah Barodar, who is now held in a Pakistani prison, along with several other senior leaders of the Taliban, was never involved in meetings. He remains, according to this statement, "esteemed".
At the same time, Hezb-i-Islami, the organisation controlled by warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is quite definitely involved in negotiations in Kabul. This morning it was reported that a five-man delegation from Hizb-i-Islami arrived in the capital 10 days ago, and a second one, including Qutbudin Halal, a powerful figure in the group, came on Saturday.
The delegation is carrying a 15-point plan that calls for foreign forces to start pulling out in July, said the group's spokesman in Pakistan.
The plan also calls for the Afghan parliament to serve until December. After that, parliament would be replaced by an interim government, or shura, which would hold local and national elections within a year, according to the plan. A new Afghan constitution would be written, merging the current version with ones used earlier.
Two weeks ago it was reported that Hekmatyar's forces had become involved in fighting against Taliban fighters trying to move into their districts in Baghlan province in the north of the country. Around 70 Hekmatyar fighters defected to the government side.
All these events are likely to be connected to the peace jirga now being organised by the Karzai government and set for three days beginning on 29 April. Karzai will be anxious to make sure that some credible elements of the Taliban attend the jirga.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

So many negotiations, so many leaders

So let's recap: on Friday former UN representative to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, told the BBC that he had been in contact with key Taliban leaders since last spring, but that the recent arrest of Taliban leaders in Pakistan had closed an important secret channel of communications.
In particular, he claimed that the arrest of Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Barodar in Pakistan was aimed at disrupting the negotiations.
Then on Friday, Mr Eide's former deputy, Peter Galbraith, with whom he had a very public bust-up over the UN's lack of action over election fraud last September, came out to say that Eide was exaggerating his own role:
"He was not meeting with senior Taliban leaders," said Galbraith, who was Eide's close friend until Eide fired him for raising questions about the massive election fraud perpetrated by President Hamid Karzai's government last September. "He's greatly exaggerating."
Galbraith added that he was aware of the meetings mentioned by Eide but did not participate in them and that they were with lower-level people who may or may not have had ties to the Taliban.
"The meetings were not particularly often and it was never clear where these people stood and what their connections were to the Taliban," he said, suggesting they might have been disgruntled former Taliban associates.
Galbraith also rejected Eide's contention that the recent arrests of Afghan Taliban leaders by the Pakistani military was the reason the talks broke down, as Eide claims.
Also on Friday, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, came out against Eide, saying that he was "extremely gratified" by the arrest of Mullah Barodar and other key Taliban leaders. He said the arrests brought “more pressure” on the Taliban than before and the move was “good for the military operation” in Afghanistan.
At the same time, Dawn newspaper reported that an official Taliban spokesman, Qari Mohammad Yousaf Ahmadi, also denied that Eide had been involved in meaningful negotiations:
“We don’t know what objective Mr Eide wants to achieve by telling such lies. The Taliban held no negotiations with Kai Eide or any other UN official,” said Ahmadi.
Asked if the Taliban had held talks with Saudi Arabia or any other country, the spokesman said: “No, there is no change in our stance.”
The Afghan Islamic Press is also reporting that Agha Jan Motasim, Mullah Omar's son-in-law, who was also arrested in Pakistan recently, had been dismissed by the Taliban seven months ago for holding talks without permission from the leadership. The agency said it had been told that Agha Mutasim held no post in the Taliban at the time of his arrest in Karachi last month.
So what is going on?
Is it possibile that there are numerous contacts taking place? The Taliban elements that had been meeting secretly with Eide seems to be the least important and that is why everyone has dismissed his claims as exaggerated.
But the Barodar group is much more significant. Mutasim was part of this group and the fact that he was thrown out of the Taliban - despite his close connection to Mullah Omar - must mean that his role in negotiations had been discovered and disapproved of by the leadership. And then it would have only been a matter of time before the hardliners realised that there was a faction around Barodar that was open to discussions with Karzai. Once discovered, then clearly their lives would be in danger.
In this context it makes sense for the Pakistani authorities to 'arrest' them - and protect their lives. They will undoubtedly have a role to play in the near future.
Holbrooke is right to say that the remaining Taliban leadership - now dispersed and finding it hard to communicate - will be under much more pressure than before, particularly as the Coalition military campaign continues to gather pace in Helmand and Kandahar.
US military planners are clearly happy with the way things are at present. They want the Taliban to be as weak as possible before negotiations begin. That is why they are now intent on driving Taliban fighters from towns like Marjah and also securing Kandahar. They are also doing their utmost to break the back of the Islamists in Pakistan's tribal areas by hitting them with drone missiles at every opportunity.
And the results are showing. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan is now almost leaderless and reduced to conducting bloody bombings that kill more civilians than soldiers, while al-Qaeda's ranks have been severely weakened with the killing of a number of very experienced operatives in recent raids. At the same time there are signs that Pakistan's love affair with extreme Islam is beginning to wane. On Saturday, for example, around 700 Pashtun tribesmen gathered in the Pakistani city of Peshawar and pledged themselves to destroy the militants plagueing their lands.
Negotiations will come, but not just yet.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

IEDs are major killer of Coalition troops

Some interesting details on IEDs in Afghanistan and Iraq emerged yesterday in testimony before the US House Armed Services Committee by Lt.Gen. Michael L Oates, director of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organisation (JIEDDO).
Oates, whose job is to provide counter-IED solutions, told the committee that Afghanistan has experienced a near doubling of IED events in the last year, with a corresponding rise in US and Coalition casualties. At the same time the threat in Iraq is roughly 10 per cent of its 2007 peak.
The statistics speak for themselves. In the last three years casualty rates in Afghanistan have increased by roughly 50 per cent. This means IED attacks cause about 50 per cent more casualties than they did three years ago. Iraq, in comparison, has a US IED casualty rate that is about half that of Afghanistan.
In total the U.S. military recorded 8,159 IED incidents in Afghanistan in 2009, compared with 3,867 in 2008 and 2,677 the year before.
Last month, for example, 721 IEDs blew up or were defused in Afghanistan, slowing a major Marine-led offensive in Helmand province and killing 28 US and allied troops. These bombs are the leading cause of Coalition casualties by a large margin.
The number of IED attacks in Iraq, in contrast, has plummeted: at their peak in 2007, Iraqi insurgents employed 23,000 IEDs. Last year, that number fell to about 3,000, according to U.S. military figures.
The difference between the two countries is explained by the much more rural terrain in Afghanistan where there are few paved roads, allowing bombs to be hidden easily in the middle of the road or in culverts. In many places driving off-road is just not possible, making vehicles an easier target.
The use of non-metallic, fertilizer-based bombs means they are more difficult to detect and the frequency of dismounted patrols means there are more targets.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Afghan Film archive survives - just

The Afghanistan Times Daily website reports on the fact that the continuing survival of the Afghan National Film Archive, consisting of around 2,000 canisters containing the only known copies of some Afghan films and documentaries, remains precarious. It has almost burnt down twice in the past decade.
First it was the Taliban government that tried to burn the films and turn the building into a weapons museum. The archivists risked their lives hiding the precious films in ceilings, airducts and hidden cupboards.
I saw examples of the same bravery myself early in 2002 when I visited Kabul. Staff at the National Art Gallery had hidden paintings or, in some cases, painted over human figures in some works and turned them into landscapes, in order not to offend the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islam and to preserve valued artworks for a future generation.
The second attack on the Afghan National Film Archive happened recently when Taliban insurgents came within an ace of blowing up the entire building after setting off a car bomb targetting NATO troops at a nearby military base.
In recent years things have improved at the Archives. The archivists' initial attempts to make digital copies of the films were hampered by the lack of an editing table.The French offered to house the collection, but that proved impossible because of Afghan worries about the chance of the archive getting lost in transit.
Eventually the Spanish national archive provided a film editing machine and the staff now hope all the film will be digitized in about two years time.
The article goes on to mention a lot of films made by Afghan directors, mostly outside the country. They include: the Shirin Gul-o-Shir Agha trilogy made in Russia, Foreign Land, Sheraghai Daghalbaaz, In The Wrong Hands, Shade of Fire, Three Friends, Shekast-e-Ishq (made in Pakistan), Aftaab-e-Bighroob (made in Tajikistan) and Kidnapping (made in Germany). Also mentioned are Academy-Award submission Fire Dancer and the French film Khakestar-o-Khak. Anyone seen any of these?
You can read a brief history of the Afghan film industry and brief reviews of many of these films here.

More woes for Pakistan's counter-terror agency

The director of Pakistan's troubled anti-terrorism coordinating body may resign after proposals he made for the way the organisation should be governed were watered down by the interior ministry.
Tariq Pervez, coordinator of the National Counterterrorism Authority (Nacta) had recommended the creation of a high-powered board of governors with the prime minister as chairman and senior ministers, along with the chiefs of the Inter Services Intelligence and the Intelligence Bureau, as members.
However, after Pervez submitted the proposals to the interior ministry they were changed without explanation to make the Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, chairman of the board of governors.
Pervez has let it be known that this change will severely limit the effectiveness of the organisation. Had it been headed by the prime minister, then other ministers would have ensured they attended. But without him, ministers are likely to depute less senior staff to take their places.
The Nacta was established more than a year ago, with a great fanfare, but so far has achieved almost nothing. It has become bogged down in bureaucratic disputes over who should be in control, despite offers from Britain and other countries to finance its work.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

US Congressional hearings slam Lashkar e-Toiba

The US House Committee on Foreign Affairs held hearings into the Lashkar e-Toiba organisation on Thursday, with witnesses noting the strong connections to Pakistan's intelligence community and the extent to which LeT is deeply imbedded within Pakistani society.
Originally set up by the Pakistani military to help prosecute its undeclared war against India in Kashmir, since 2002 LeT has become ever closer to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and al-Qaeda. Its operatives were responsible for the 2008 attacks on Mumbai and countless other atrocities.
In an emotional outburt, Representative Gary L Ackerman told the hearing that "This group of savages needs to be crushed. Not in a month. Not in a year. Not when the situation stabilizes in Afghanistan. Not when things are under control in Pakistan. Now. Today and everyday going forward. We’re not doing it, and we’re not effectively leading a global effort to do it. And we’re going to regret this mistake. We’re going to regret it bitterly."
Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation think-tank, said that there was little to separate LeT from al-Qaeda: "The US must develop policies that approach the LeT with the same urgency as that which the US deals with the threat from al-Qaeda. Given the potential for LeT-linked terrorist cells to conduct a Mumbai-style attack here in the US, Washington must pursue policies that contain and shut down the operations of this deadly organization."
Dr. Marvin G. Weinbaum, scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute, said "Were Pakistan to become seriously destabilized, LeT's reputation for charity, piety and patriotism, together with its close ties to senior officers of the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment, would make it a potential vehicle to transform the Pakistani society into a Sharia state similar to that of Afghanistan in the 1990s.
Ashley Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, said "So long as the Pakistani Army and the security establishment more generally conclude that their private interests (and their conception of the national interest) are undermined by a permanent reconciliation between India and Pakistan, they will not rid themselves of the terrorist groups they have begotten and which serve their purposes—irrespective of what New Delhi or Kabul or Washington may desire."
Are they right? Yes.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Research: some Pashtuns welcome drone strikes

An article in the most recent edition of the Jamestown Foundation's Terrorism Monitor offers an unusual perspective on the drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal territories, suggesting that a small sample of Pashtun students were strongly in support of them.
Author Farhat Taj, a Pakistani journalist and PhD. Research Fellow at the University of Oslo, interviewed 15 Pashtun students at different colleges throughout the country. Each interview lasted between one and two hours and each one of the interviewees came from a different village in Waziristan.
Due to security fears, none of the students agreed to a tape-recorded interview, but all allowed the researcher to make written notes during the interview.
Despite the small sample, the results of Taj's interviews are revealing. The students were unanimous on the fact that the Taliban have completely taken over the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), especially North and South Waziristan, saying that this had happened with the help of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and Punjabi militants from organisations including Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hizbul Mujahideen, Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi etc, as well as foreign fighters, including al-Qaeda Arabs.
The students held the militants responsible for:
• Damaging their culture and traditions.
• Eliminating their entire traditional and indigenous leadership.
• Weakening the tribal society.
• Occupying their houses by force.
• Destroying their traditional and democratic institution of jirga (an assembly of elders that makes decisions based on consensus) and tribal code of Pashtunwali (“The Way of the Pashtuns”), replacing it instead with their own strict brand of Shari’a.
• Bringing destruction to homes and businesses by inciting Pakistani military operations.
The majority of the respondents (13 of 15) did not see the drone attacks as a violation of the sovereignty of Pakistan. "Their argument is very simple: the state of Pakistan has already surrendered FATA to the militants, therefore, Pakistan has no reason to object to the drone attacks. Pakistan will have this right only if can retake the areas from the militants."
Some respondents said that FATA is used by the militants and the ISI as a launching pad for attacks on ISAF and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Each of the respondents remembered seeing the bodies of those martyred in Afghanistan in their villages. They all believed that drone attacks had resulted in substantial damage to the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban and their Arab and Punjabi allies. They believed the attacks caused minimum casualties to civilians.
It is worth emphasising that these conclusions are taken from a very small sample. However, their views entirely coincide with Pashtuns I met at meetings in Karachi last year (see my blog posting here), who were strongly opposed to both the militants and the ISI operating in their tribal homelands.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Good Taliban or Bad Taliban?

Almost as memorable as the the iconic film of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers is my recollection of Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, giving a press conference in his back garden in Islamabad on the night in October 2001 when US forces began the invasion of Afghanistan.
Zaeef, invariably wearing his black Taliban turban, had become the public face of the Islamic Emirate, defending ad nauseam the grotesque decision to destroy the buddhas at Bamiyan or Mullah Omar's refusal to hand Osama bin Laden over to the Americans. For a short time he was on the world stage, our only access to the mysterious and terrifying government of the country he represented.
His autobiography, My Life with the Taliban, is a truly remarkable book and genuinely adds to the sum of knowledge on this most written-about subject. Its author - and editors Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn- should be congratulated.
After four ghastly years in Guantanamo Bay Zaeef, who now lives in Kabul and often acts as a conduit to his former comrades, shows few signs that he has in any way changed his allegiances, although it is clear that he bitterly regrets the consequences of 9/11 and argues that a deal to hand over bin Laden to a neutral court in a Muslim country prior to the attacks could have been reached. Yet his anger is palpable and it is clear we are not dealing with a Mandela figure, willing to forgive and forget.
He makes few concessions towards either the Americans who wrongly imprisoned him for so long, or to the Karzai regime in Kabul - or for that matter, towards Pakistan, whose politicians and intelligence officers he clearly hates:
"Now, as then, the ISI acts at will, abusing and overruling the elected government whenever they deem it necessary. It is a military intelligence adminstration that is led by Pakistan's military commanders. It is the combined clandestine services, civil and military. It shackles, detains and releases, and at times it assassinates. Its operations often take place far beyond its own borders, in Afghanistan, India or in Iran. It runs a network of spies in each country and often recruits from among the local population to carry out covert missions. Its personnel are skilled and receive training in various fields, from espionage techniques to explosives." There speaks one who knows.
This intelligent and pious man has produced a remarkable book, and a rare one at that. Almost nothing is known about the events he describes and he has produced an epic first draft (and first-hand account) of recent Afghan history. Here writes a man who, according to his own narrative, originated the idea of the organisation which later became the Taliban.
And he was present at the historic meeting when Mullah Omar was made its leader and only 20 metres away from the Emir al-Mumineen when he lost his eye fighting against the Russians.
No senior Taliban has ever written anything so intimate or so accurate.
Zaeef, like so many of the Taliban, is a Pashtun from a town close to Kandahar and his description of what happened to his family following the Soviet invasion is typical of hundreds of thousands of his fellow Afghans.
He was from a poor background but rose to become one of Mullah Omar's most trusted ministers. Continually in this book he tries to leave the limelight and retreat to study in a small mosque, but each time he is pressed back into service, particularly by Mullah Omar, who knew him from the earliest days.
Zaeef, for all his skill and knowledge, remains untouched by the horrors inflicted on Afghanistan by the Taliban. The woman shot to death in front of a crowd at the Kabul football stadium? She had killed her husband and it was right. And I have never read a book where so many of the protagonists are now dead.
He speaks at one point of the Taliban's finances in the mid-90s. Not only was corruption endemic, but the economy was broken:
"The Taliban's budget for the entire country each year amounted to roughly $80 million. Military expenditures took the lion's share of the budget. From what was left, our portion for development came to 70-75bn Afghanis - about $7 million at the time. The budget didn't even come close to what was needed in order to start any serious development; it was like a drop of water that falls on a hot stone, evaporating without leaving any trace."
At some point you can begin to see why it made more sense for Zaeef to seek the sanctuary of a mosque rather than face up to the fact that the Taliban/al-Qaeda view of government cannot cope with modern society - or even a traditional, agricultural society such as Afghanistan.
Despite his stubborness - combined with silence on his own views of bin Laden and al-Qaeda - Zaeef's book is absolutely essential reading. He, more than anyone else, speaks eloquently for those with whom Karzai will have to negotiate.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Another Pakistan Taliban leader killed?

In yet another blow to the remnants of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, one of the organisation's stalwarts, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, is reported to have been killed in a Pakistani Army airstrike on a hideout in Mohmand Agency yesterday, along with around 20 of his supporters.
Faqir Mohammad, a former teacher, was a deputy leader of the TTP and for a short while following the death of the organisation's former leader, Baitullah Mahsud in August last year, claimed he was the temporary leader.
His usual area of operations was in Bajaur Agency, an area which has recently seen a major offensive by the Pakistani Army. However, he was also active in the Swat Valley following the TTP's takeover last year.
Noted for his close relations with al-Qaeda - and in particular to Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri - Mohammad's death, if confirmed, will be a huge blow to the TTP. Although he did not come from the TTP's heartland of Waziristan, he held considerable sway in Mohmand and Bajaur. Another senior TTP commander, Qari Ziaur Rehman, is believed to have been killed in the same raid. Ziaur Rehman was believed to be the head of the Taliban in Kunar and Nuristan provinces of Afghanistan and the US had offered a reward of USD 350,000 for him.
Reports said he would often move from Bajaur Agency to Afghanistan with his fighters to carry out attacks on US-led forces. Omar Rehman, alias Fateh Muhammad, is the third TTP leader killed in the airstrike, which took place in the Pandiali area of Mohmand. He was best known for leading Taliban fighters from Swat into Buner, a district located 100 km from Islamabad, last year.
Update: Reuters is claiming that one of its reporters spoke to Faqir Mohammad yesterday, who claimed he was uninjured. "I'm fine. It's just propaganda," said the man on the telephone who identified himself as Mohammad. The Reuters reporter said he recognized his voice.
"I was in Bajaur, not Mohmand that day. None of our commanders were killed in the attack. We lost some fighters and women," said the man purporting to be Mohammad.

Friday, 5 March 2010

The Westerners who train for jihad in Pakistan

A survey of 21 'serious' plots by Islamist militants against the West written by Paul Cruickshank for the New America Foundation has found that in just over half the cases the plotters either received direction from or trained with al-Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan.
The Militant Pipeline between the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and the West looks at plots including the UK fertilizer bombers, the UK airline plotters, the German 'Sauerland' group and others. Using interrogation reports, courtroom testimony, confessions and statements, the paper offers eyewitness accounts of the remote tribal borderland between Afghanistan and Pakistan and outlines how al-Qaeda's effectiveness has been affected by drone strikes and how it runs its camps.
It quotes counter-terrorism officials who say that more than 100 Westerners have travelled to the North West Frontier Province in the last year for training. The report suggests that the most serious conspiracies in the West involved people who had travelled to Pakistan for training.
However, it is worth remembering that nine of the plots that this report examines had little input from Pakistan or from al-Qaeda, but were hatched without external help. And Cruickshank illustrates very clearly that for those who make it to Pakistan today, things are not so easy as they once were. Speaking of a Belgian-French group who travelled to Pakistan, he adds: "The accounts by the Westerners also indicate that al-Qaeda is increasingly dependent on whichever militants reach its safe haven in the tribal areas. But that has created headaches for both al-Qaeda and potential recruits. Both Vinas and the Belgian-French group were initially regarded as potential spies when they first entered the tribal region and tried to connect with al-Qaeda. Vinas, in particular, had to show great persistence in order to join. After flying to Lahore in September 2007 with just a few contacts in militant circles, he spent six months before connecting with al-Qaeda in the tribal areas. That included months in Peshawar trying to find the right contacts and several trips from there into the tribal areas until he was accepted into al-Qaeda’s ranks."

Pakistani crackdown on Afghan Taliban continues

The arrests of key Afghan Taliban leaders in Pakistan are continuing, with reports yesterday that the son-in-law of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the organisation's leader, was arrested in a raid on a house in the Ahsanabad area of Karachi.
Motasim Agha Jan, who was once in-charge of the Taliban's political affairs, was arrested along with several of his accomplices, official sources said, as part of an ongoing crackdown on the "Quetta Shura" and is the seventh senior leader to be arrested in Pakistan in the past two months.
According to Pakistani reports, he is believed to have led Taliban leaders in recent talks in Saudi Arabia. They says that initially he had insisted he was called Tayyeb Popalzai in an effort to hide his identity.
Others arrested in recent weeks include Mullah Abdul Ghani Barodar, considered to be Mullah Omar's deputy and head of the group's military operations, who was arrested in Karachi last month in a joint operation by the CIA and Pakistani intelligence agencies. Mullah Abdul Kabir, operational commander for the four eastern Afghan provinces of Nangarhar, Laghman, Kunar and Nuristan, was also arrested near the northwestern Pakistan city of Nowshera.
Mullah Abdul Salam and Mullah Mir Mohammad, the Taliban "shadow" governors for the northern Kunduz and Baghlan provinces respectively, were also arrested in Nowshera district.
Another Afghan Taliban leader arrested in Pakistan much earlier is Younis Akhundzada alias Akhundzada Popalzai. He served in important positions in the Taliban government in Afghanistan during 1994-2001 and was reportedly made "shadow" Governor of Zabul province. Mullah Syed Tayyeb Agha, former spokesman for Mullah Omar, too was arrested in the Saeedabad area Karachi on Monday, according to official sources. He was arrested along with Hakimuddin Mahsud, a close aide of former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan leader Baitullah Mahsud. Hakimuddin had apparently moved to Karachi after Baitullah's death last August because he had reservations about the new TTP leadership created by Hakimullah Mahsud - now also dead.
It is now clear that many Afghan Taliban leaders moved to Karachi after US officials complained - and presumably provided evidence - that they were living in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province. Pakistan had previously insisted that Afghan Taliban leaders were not hiding in the country.
The capture of the senior Afghan Taliban leaders has sparked a row between the Pakistani and Afghan governments with Kabul demanding all the arrested militant leaders be handed over to its custody. So far Pakistan is refusing to do this, despite strong pressure from American diplomats.
The real question is what all these arrests mean. Are they evidence of a change in Pakistani policy towards the Afghan Taliban? Or, as some people are suggesting, is this evidence of a coup against a conciliatory faction within the Taliban, aimed at taking them out in order that hardliners can run the group unimpeded by those who want to negotiate with the Karzai regime?

Afghanistan's darkness made visible

I have just come across a remarkable audio slideshow of photographs taken by Seamus Murphy and hosted on the website of The Asia Society. Murphy, who narrates the slideshow, took the pictures between 1994-2006 in Afghanistan and published them in A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan. You can buy copies of the book here.