Thursday, 30 September 2010

Afghan opium production down, but prices rise

The latest UN Office on Drugs and Crime report on Afghan opium production says that total opium poppy cultivation did not change between 2009 and 2010, remaining at 123,000 hectares. Ninety-eight per cent was in nine provinces in the south and west of the country, indicating a strong link between insurgency and illicit crop cultivation.
However, total opium production was estimated at 3,600 tonnes, down 48 per cent on last year, due to a disease that affected the crop. In total 20 provinces that were opium-free in 2009 remained so this year.
Income to farmers from the crop amounted to $604 million, up from £438 million last year. The reason for the increase in price was the crop disease mentioned above. With smaller amounts of opium available, the price rose. With wheat prices also falling, it meant that the discrepancy between opium and wheat prices - at 6:1 - grew wider, which could encourage more farmers to return to opium production in future.
Yury Fedotov, Executive Director of UNODC, on launching the report in Vienna today, said "We need a broader strategy to support farmers throughout Afghanistan by providing them with access to markets and a secure environment. Stability and security, combined with sustainable alternative development opportunities, will give farmers the chance to make a living without resorting to opium poppy cultivation".

New York Times reports on Pak Army executions

The New York Times has today followed up my story of Pakistani soldiers executing six militants, published here on Monday (see below). The article by Jane Perlez says that American officials - presumably from the CIA - and retired US and Pakistani military officers said the video "appeared to be credible". One said "There are things you can fake, and things you can't fake. You can't fake this." Perlez's article notes that CIA director Leon Panetta, who was in Islamabad on Wednesday, was expected to raise the subject with General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, head of the ISI.
The Pakistani Army has denied that its soldiers were involved, saying that the video is a fake. However, the soldiers are wearing Pakistan Army uniforms and appear to be using G-3 rifles, which are standard issue and rarely used by militants.
When I posted the video I was unable to hear any dialogue, but Perlez reports that before opening fire, one of the soldiers asks his commander "One by one or together?" The commander replies, "Together".

Bets placed on future of Zardari government in PK

In what must rank as one of the most ironic comments of the year, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said this morning that bets were being placed on the future of the Zardari government. Do you think anyone got odds on Minister of State for Defence Production Abdul Qayyum Jatoi resigning last week? If so, I think a steward's inquiry is in order.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Pak Army executes six alleged Taliban in Swat

This video, posted yesterday on YouTube, purports to show members of the Pakistan Army in Swat executing six alleged members of the Pakistan Taliban in cold blood. Please don't watch it unless you think it necessary. I have posted it because it appears to confirm that the Pakistan Army has been carrying out a policy of extra-judicial killings. There have been rumours of this for some time, but no proof.
There is no indication when the video was shot, nor whereabouts in Swat the killings took place. There is no actual sound on the video; its soundtrack is a religious song, presumably mourning the dead men. The video, which lasts for 5mins and 42 seconds, shows the six men, who are all blindfolded, being led to a location next to a wall. One of the soldiers goes up to each of them in turn and says something. He then returns to the group of soldiers, who raise their rifles, take aim and fire. A soldier goes over to the bodies and finishes them off with rifle shots.
Presumably the video was filmed by one of the soldiers. It is now imperative that this person is located and the full story of these killings is uncovered. YouTube must ensure the video is protected as evidence of a potential crime against humanity.
Update: The video was taken down by the user on 4 October.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Land speculators grab Afghan refugee camps

Afghan refugees in the devastated Azakhel camp

Thousands of Afghan refugees who have been living in camps in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa for the last 30 years are being forced to leave Pakistan following recent devastating floods as speculators make a grab for valuable land, according to reports.
The Azakhel camp, 40 kms from Peshawar and holding 23,000 Afghans, was devastated by the floods, but refugees who wanted to return and rebuild their shattered houses have been given two weeks to leave. Negotiations between the camp elders - who asked for a six-month deadline - and landowners and the government have broken down. Alternative sites were offered, but were turned down by the refugees, who said they had to recover their belongings buried under tons of rubble in the devastated houses.
Ali Anan Qamar, District Coordination Officer in Nowshera, said that he stopped the Afghan refugees from reconstruction of their destroyed mud houses after receiving applications from land owners requesting the district administration to refrain refugees from rebuilding their houses.
Around 70,000 Afghan refugees living in 13 camps - from a total of 1.7 million Afghans still living in Pakistan - were affected by the floods, according to the UN refugee agency. Twelve thousand homes were destroyed. Many families have not received any aid at all since the inundation.
The UNHCR said in August that speculators around Peshawar were pressurising refugees not to return to their camps so that they could develop the land, which has become valuable in recent years. At that time it said it had received assurances from federal authorities, including the Ministry of State and Frontier Regions and the Chief Commissioners for Afghan Refugees that all the refugees could return to their homes. Those promises now appear to be worthless.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Guide to shortwave radio in Afghanistan

The British DX Club has produced a useful guide to shortwave radio broadcasts to Afghanistan. DXing, in case you didn't know, is the hobby of tuning in and identifying distant radio or television signals, or making two-way radio contact with distant stations in amateur radio, citizens' band radio or other two-way radio communications. Many DXers also attempt to receive written verifications of reception (sometimes referred to as "QSLs" or "veries") from the stations heard. The name of the hobby comes from DX, telegraphic shorthand for "distance" or "distant".
The British DX Club is based in Caversham, near Reading in Berkshire - hardly surprising as this is also the home of BBC Monitoring which produces summaries of press, TV and radio reports from 150 countries in more than 100 languages.
There is little shortwave broadcasting within Afghanistan - although the government-operated Radio Afghanistan is in the process of installing a new 100 kW shortwave transmitter. Radio Solh (Peace Radio), which was a US military psyop radio station broadcast from Bagram Air Base, operated until January last year, but is no longer on air.
However, many external broadcasters transmit on shortwave to Afghanistan, in particular Radio Free Afghanistan (Radio Azadi), which is a service from RFE/RL, which broadcasts daily in Pashto and Dari; and its sister organisation Radio Mashaal, which began broadcasting in January this year in local Pashto dialects to Pakistan and the border regions with Afghanistan. It was specifically set up to counter Islamist broadcasts.
Radio Ashna, which is the Pashto/Dari service of Voice of America launched in 2006, also broadcasts daily and includes regular call-in shows. Deewa Radio is another VoA service broadcast in Pashto in the Afghan-Pakistan border region.
Other shortwave services include the BBC World Service in Pashto and Dari - which claims to have 5.9 million shortwave listeners in Afghanistan - China Radio International, Radio Cairo, Radio France International, Deutsche Welle, All India Radio, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran and several others.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Fake election voter registration cards seized

Fake voter registration cards printed in Peshawar

TOLO News in Kabul is reporting that large numbers of voting cards for the 18 September Parliamentary elections in Afghanistan are being forged in Peshawar in neighbouring Pakistan.
An employee of the press that printed the forged cards told TOLO News about the scandal.
TOLO News quoted an official from the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan who said that they had informed the security forces about the forgeries. "IEC can distinguish between the forged voting cards and the real ones, since the papers we use are different," said Noor Mohammad Noor, the IEC spokesman. The spokesman added that 3,000 of the forged voting cards had been seized in Ghazni. Earlier today the IEC held a press conference where the issue was discussed extensively. You can find a verbatim report of the event here.
According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the owner of one printing house in Peshawar, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the printing of fake voter registration cards had been going on since the start of the electoral campaign in Afghanistan on 25 June. They quoted a printshop owner as saying "Each individual candidate who has referred to us has asked us to publish around 60,000 papers. We have not set a fixed fee for the publishing work. We have charged them between 200 to 300 rupees per ballot".
Already there are serious questions about the legitimacy and security of the ballot, with at least 938 polling stations covering 14 per cent of the electorate not opening due to security concerns. It should be remembered, however, that another5,897 will remain open. More than 2,000 candidates are vying for 249 seats in the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga. The Taliban has threatened to cut the fingers off of anyone who votes. They say they will be able to identify voters by the dye on their fingers.
Ironically, the IEC demonstrated a new Danish ink today, containing 25 per cent silver nitrate, that it insists cannot be removed. "If we increase it over 25 per cent it would harm the skin and the Ministry of Public Health would not allow us to do so," said IEC head Dr Fazal Ahmad Manawi.
Whether or not the election goes ahead there are likely to be serious doubts about the outcome, both in terms of fraud and participation.

Monday, 13 September 2010

US documents shed light on dealings with Pakistan

The US National Archive has issued a remarkable set of documents showing diplomatic and military events in the aftermath of 9/11 between the United States and Pakistan. For example, a diplomatic cable dated November 2002 reports on a discussion in Pakistan between Richard Haass, then director of policy planning at the US State Dept, and an unnamed Pakistani official - probably the head of the Army.
Haass says he has been told that the Pakistani Army is completely committed to the idea of wiping out al-Qaeda in the tribal territories along the border with Afghanistan. His informant told him that US military operations in Afghanistan had created a window of opportunity for the Pakistan Army to enter "No-go areas" in the tribal areas where it could not previously operate. He adds that during the Tora Bora operation, the army had deployed along the border opposite Tora Bora with local leaders' cooperation. "Tribes were overawed by US firepower across the border and had allowed the Pakistan Army to operate freely. That window had since closed", the informant told Haass.
Another cable, dated 13 September 2001 and detailing a meeting between deputy secretary Richard Armitage and Lieutenant General Mahmud Ahmed, head of Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, sets out Americas seven demands for the Taliban in the light of the 9/11 attacks of two days earlier. These were to:
Stop al-Qaeda operatives at Pakistan's borders, intercept arms shipments and end all logistical suport for Osama bin Laden;
Provide the US with blanket overflight and landing rights of Pakistan;
Provide as needed territorial access to US and Allied military intelligence and other personnel to conduct operations against the perpetrators of terror or those who harbour them;
Provide the US with certain intelligence, redacted;
Continue publicly to condemn the 9/11 attacks and any other attacks against the US or its friends and allies;
Cut off all shipments of fuel to the Taliban, as well as recruits en route to Afghanistan;
Should the evidence strongly implicate bin Laden, and should Afghanistan and the Taliban continue to harbour him and his network, then Pakistan should break all diplomatic relations with the Taliban government, end support for them and assist the US to destroy bin Laden and his network.
The conditions were accepted by General Musharraf, as can be seen here.
Another cable shows that in late September 2001 ISI head General Mahmud Ahmed was about to meet for a second time with Mullah Omar of the Taliban to ask him to give up Osama bin Laden to the USA as a way of avoiding war.
General Mahmud urged American Ambassador Wendy Chamberlin not to be too hard on the Taliban: "I implore you not to act in anger. Real victory will come in negotiations." He added that if the Taliban were deposed, Afghanisan would revert to warlordism. An account of Mahmud's first trip to meet Mullah Omar, on 17 September 2001 in Kandahar, is contained in another of the newly released documents. Shortly after returning from his second trip, Mahmud was sacked as head of the ISI by General Musharraf.
In all there are 15 documents in this collection. Well worth reading, particularly a 2005 report written by State Department officials called "Impressions of Waziristan".

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Afghan Parliamentary vote likely to be 'messy'

Afghanistan's Parliamentary elections next week are likely to be "messy, fiercely contested and manipulated at all levels", according to a report by Martine van Bijlert for the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
The report, Who Controls the Vote?, focuses on nine provincial case studies of the 2009 provincial council elections and finds evidence of massive ballot-stuffing, tally fraud and manipulation of the final results at the tally centre. It says that this year's candidates and local Independent Electoral Commission staff will revert to the same tactics again.
Van Bijlert says that the expectation of widespread fraud should not detract observers from flagging up misconduct: "It is the silence, or late and muted reactions, of international observers that have often most confused Afghan voters", she says.

UK Parliament holds its first full Afghanistan debate

Parliamentary debates on Afghanistan have a habit of going against the prevailing government. In Holland the government fell after losing a vote and in Canada it led to the decision to withdraw combat troops. So it was probably with a degree of trepidation that British ministers contemplated the debate held on Thursday. In fact, this was the first full-day debate ever held in the House of Commons on this subject and it only took place because the newly formed Backbench Business Committee decided to call it.
In the end ministers had little cause for concern. The House debated the motion: "This House supports the continued deployment of UK armed forces in Afghanistan" which was supported by an overwhelming majority. The official Hansard transcript of the debate can be found here.
Peter Bone, the Tory MP for Wellingborough who moved the motion, stated that "Parliament has not previously had a chance to debate the war in Afghanistan on a substantive motion", which is shocking, considering the fact that British troops have been there for almost ten years.
Many fascinating points were made on both sides of the debate. Bob Stewart, a former commanding officer in the 1st Battalion, The Mercian Regiment, pointed out that out of the 300 soldiers in the Battalion, 12 had been killed on the present tour and 70 more had been injured. There is still a month to go on the tour.
Labour MP Paul Flynn led the opposition to the motion. He noted that 334 British soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan and six times as many had been wounded. He criticised the British move into Helmand province in 2006 and noted that the Prime Minister and his Foreign Secretary had been unable to complete their tour of Afghanistan recently due to enemy action. His criticisms are worth repeating:
"We have heard optimism, and nothing but, year after year and in debate after debate, when they have told us that we have turned the corner. The Deputy Prime Minister used the same expression the other day, saying that things are going well now and we just have to hang on. We have turned so many corners that we have been around the block half a dozen times in Afghanistan, but we are still in hell and the situation is still getting worse. We believe in the possibility that the Afghan national army can take over, but it is mainly drug addicted and it routinely oppresses its own people. In one incident, 300 members of the Afghan army were guarding a convoy when they were attacked by seven members of the Taliban and they fled, with their commander saying, "Why should they sacrifice their lives and kill fellow Afghans in order to defend a corrupt leader from a different clan and to promote the policies of a foreign country?" Indeed, one is entitled to ask that.
"The Afghan police service routinely extorts money from its own citizens. When the police went into the village of Penkala, the local elders came forward and said, "Last time they came here, they practised bacha bazi on our young boys." That refers to the routine ritual sexual exploitation of young boys. They also said, "The Taliban were here before. They were wicked people, but they were people of principle." The Afghan police are a criminal police service. Many of them are not paid, so they are expected to get their money in this way."
Former diplomat and founder of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul, Rory Stewart, also spoke eloquently in the debate.
After five hours of debate the House divided by 310 to 14 in support of the motion. Those voting against: John Baron, Katy Clark, Jeremy Corbyn, John Cryer, Jonathan Edwards, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, Dr Julian Huppert, Mark Lazarowicz, Caroline Lucas, John McDonnell, Dennis Skinner, Karl Turner and David Winnick.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

British journalist freed in Pakistan

Asad Qureshi, the British journalist kidnapped in March in North Waziristan, has been freed and reunited with his family in Islamabad, according to reports. Qureshi, who was working on a Channel 4 documentary, was taken prisoner along with two Pakistani former intelligence officers - one of whom was subsequently murdered by his captors - and a driver. There is no word on the fate of the driver or of Colonel Imam, a well-known former ISI officer who claims to have trained many of the leaders of the Afghan Taliban in guerrilla tactics.
The other ISI officer, Khalid Khwaja, was shot and dumped outside the town of Mir Ali on 28 April. Days before he had been shown in a videotape 'confessing' to being an American spy.
The group responsible for the kidnaps and killing called itself the Asian Tigers, but was in fact a splinter group from the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a notorious sectarian group that originated in the Punjab. They were also known as the Punjabi Taliban, even though their ranks included some discredited members of the Mahsud tribe from Waziristan.
Two weeks ago, the leader of the Asian Tigers, Usman Punjabi, was killed along with five of his followers in a shoot-out with rivals in a dispute over an Arab widow in the Dandy Darpakhel area of North Waziristan. It is likely that Qureshi's release is connected to this event, which effectively destroyed the Asian Tigers as an organisation.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, it has been reported that Japanese journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka, who had been held captive for five months, was freed on Monday after using his guard's new phone to send a Twitter message. Interesting to note that his captors were from Hezb-e-Islami, but pretended they were from the Taliban.
Update: On Friday it was reported that Qureshi's driver, Rustam Khan, has also been released by the kidnap gang that had been holding them and Col. Imam. Still no word on the fate of Col. Imam.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

US charges Pakistan Taliban leader

The US criminal complaint against Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan leader Hakimullah Mahsud, can be found here. The document, unsealed last week, makes interesting reading, although it still does not explain how so many CIA officers were killed and wounded by suicide bomber Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, the Jordanian doctor who penetrated the US military base in Khost on 30 December last year.
Drawn up by FBI special agent Thomas Q Krall on 20 August, it states that "witnesses advised that at approximately 4.30pm local time al-Balawi arrived at the base by car. He exited the rights side of the vehicle and appeared to be wearing traditional Afghan attire. He was also carrying a crutch or cane. Base security approached al-Balawi as he stood next to the vehicle. Al-Balawi was observed reaching under his clothing and then detonating an explosive device that was hidden under his clothing. The blast from the explosion killed al-Balawi and seven US citizens. It also injured six other US citizens."
Other accounts of the incident suggest that al-Balawi was in a room crowded with CIA personnel when he detonated his bomb. He had not been searched and this was why his attack was so devastating. This seems to make more sense than the scenario of him exploding his bomb when approached by security staff, as set out in Krall's affidavit.
Hakimullah is charged with conspiracy to murder US nationals outside the United States and also with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction. In US law, a weapon of mass destruction is defined to include any "destructive device", including a bomb, grenade, rocket with more than four ounces of propellant, a mine or a missile having an explosive on incendiary charge of more than a quarter of one ounce. Under this definition, just about everything bar a bullet is a "weapon of mass destruction". In fact the definition is so wide as to be meaningless. Did this definition also apply to Saddam's Iraq, I wonder?

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Interview with Taliban IED commander

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the Afghan Taliban) website has published an interview with Qari Khairullah Muneeb, commander for IED Units in the Dand Area, south of Kandahar.
He says the mujahideen in his district, which includes Biad, Mia Dost and Ashraaf, are divided into 37 brigades of fighters.
Since operations began in April 2010 there have been 91 major IED attacks in Dand, most of them aimed at armoured vehicles. "So far these tactics have proved very successful and have caused widespread dismay in enemy ranks", says Muneeb. "We have published a brief report of these operations in a calendar format. This calendar, which is easily accessible, provides detailed records of the type attack, the date of attack, and the names of the Mujahideen brigades responsible for the attack." Very considerate of him and I am sure he will be thanked by US intelligence operatives for making their job so easy.
Muneeb adds that efforts to restrict the import of chemicals used to make the IEDs has had little effect on their operations and that the explosions are big enough to destroy most armoured vehicles. He denied that any civilians were killed by these IEDs - which is hard to believe considering the number of reports to the contrary.
No doubt the US Army's Joint IED Defeat Organisation will be reading this interview with interest. That organisation's budget has been increased from $2.28 billion in 2010 to 3.46 billion in 2011. Most IEDs cost less than $100 to assemble.