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.
Great interview by Newsweek's Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau with Agha Jan Motasim, former head of the Taliban's Quetta Shura Committee until last summer, when he was gunned down in a Karachi street by hardline opponents within the organisation.
It's gone almost unreported in the Western press, but the jailbreak at Bannu Central Prison in the northwest of the country on 15 April, in which 384 inmates (out of 944) escaped following an attack by around 150 militants, is the largest such escape in Pakistan's history. Not only that, but the central government was warned by the security services of an impending attack on the prison as far back as 5 January in a letter which identified Bannu jail as a target, along with Kohat's Air Force base and the local police station. The militants, from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, blew up the prison gates and freed their comrades-in-arms, with scarcely any opposition. They arrived in a convoy of about 20 vehicles and were armed with RPGs and assault rifles. All access roads were blocked as they broke into the prison. So confident were they of their safety that the unnamed commander of the raid called journalists afterwards to brag about his audacious attack. “We had maps of the area and we had complete maps and plans of the jail as well,” the commander told Reuters. “All I have to say is we have people who support us in Bannu. It was with their support that this operation was successful.” The attackers moved quickly through the prison, apparently seeking out Adnan Rasheed, a former junior technician in the Pakistan Air Force who had been sentenced to death for his part in a 2003 plot to kill former president Pervez Musharraf. “We had set one hour as the target time for our mission. This included entering the jail, breaking out our people, getting back into our vehicles and reaching a safe spot,” said the commander, although they were actually in the prison for two hours. Their job was made easier by the fact that there were only 36 poorly equipped guards on duty instead of the 150 called for. None had had any formal training and some of the rifles they were using were being sought by locals as antiques to hang on their walls. They quickly gave up any resistance, while Police reinforcements arrived only after the attackers had withdrawn. It has since emerged that Rasheed was reportedly contributing to several social networking sites including Facebook and various blogs while he was on death row in prison. A reporter who received regular messages from him said that he had access to a cell phone in almost all the places he was held and had had to change his number several times. Since the jailbreak 108 prisoners have returned voluntarily while 35 others had been arrested. At least one has been shot dead. The KP government has removed Bannu Division’s Commissioner Abdullah Mehsud, Inspector General (Prisons) Arshad Majeed Mohmand, Deputy Inspector General (Bannu Range) Muhammad Iftikhar Khan and Deputy Superintendent (Bannu Jail) Muhammad Zahid from their posts and put them on 'special duty'. A five-member committee set up on the order of Chief Minister Amir Haider Khan Hoti has been asked to complete its inquiry within 15 days.
UPDATE: It is being suggested in some quarters in Pakistan that the raid on Bannu Prison is not all it appears to be. According to some sources, the 'raid' was part of a deal between the TTP and the ISI connected to the release of two Swiss hostages in March who had been held by the former since July last year. Olivier David Och, 31, and Daniela Widmer, 28, were kidnapped in Baluchistan, around 170 kilometres east of Quetta, but released in North Waziristan.
According to reports, the TTP were told in advance that there would be no opposition to their attack on the prison if they freed the two hostages.
* This is the 500th article I have written for Circling the Lion's Den since it began in November 2008. More than 77,000 people have visited the site and monthly hits presently average around 5,000.
Funds appear to be getting tight for the Taliban, whose Financial Commission has issued a plea for funds on the organisation's website - backed by the threat of Hellfire. The statement makes the point that anyone who does not give them funds will die a hypocrite and go to Hell: "Thus, save yourself from a greater hardship in the Hereafter and protect yourself against hellfire." The article suggests "saving up" for the Hereafter by making payments to the Islamic Emirate's Financial Commission. It offers a couple of phone numbers and a couple of email addresses - almost like having a direct line to God. Do these people really believe that you can buy salvation? I thought that is what they preached against. PS I do not advise you to take advantage of this financial opportunity. You may be disappointed.
Current talks with the Taliban are unlikely to result in a sustainable peace, according to a report from the International Crisis Group. Talking about Talks: towards a political settlement in Afghanistan says negotiations could even lead to further destabilisation of the country. The Afghan security forces will find it hard to fill the power vacuum following the withdrawal of foreign troops and growing political differences within the country will undermine the prospects for peace. The ICG recommends the appointment of a UN-mandated mediation team and the adoption of a more realistic approach to resolving the conflict. The report says President Karzai's government and its international backers have adopted a "market bazaar" approach to negotiations: "Bargains are being cutwith any and all comers, regardless of their political relevance or ability to influence outcomes. Far from being Afghan-led, the negotiating agenda has been dominated by Washington’s desire to obtain a decent interval between the planned U.S. troop drawdown and the possibility of another bloody chapter in the conflict." The ICG report adds that efforts to start negotiations have been half-hearted and haphazard, stoking fears among ethnic minorities, civil society and women: "A thorough reassessment of Karzai’s national reconciliation policy, the role of the High Peace Council and the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP) is urgently needed. The program has faced staunch resistance from local security officials mistrustful of participants’ motives, and its impact has been minimal at best." It's another very depressing report.
Sad to say that Gilgit-Baltistan is becoming engulfed in sectarian violence following the bloody massacre of 18 Shiites in February (see my report on that event here). Today another 10 people were killed in two incidents. Five died in Gilgit when hand grenades were thrown at a rally of the violently anti-Shia Ahle Sunnah Wal Jamaat organisation, who were protesting at the arrest of one of their leaders, Attaullah Saqib. He is known to be the leader of the Gilgit branch of Sipah-e-Sabah, a viciously sectarian organisation. Why they were allowed to hold a rally in a predominantly Shia area at a time of heightened tension is anyone's guess. A few hours later, in a repeat of the original massacre that ignited the troubles in the northern areas, five people were taken off buses in Chilat and shot dead by the side of the road. Four vehicles were set on fire. In that original incident in February 18 men were taken from buses travelling along the Karakorum Highway in Kohistan by men wearing army uniform and shot at the side of the road. All government, non-government and education institutions have been closed for an indefinite period and the Army has been deployed onto the streets to enforce a curfew. What an entirely avoidable tragedy.