Friday, 31 August 2012

Guantanamo's Virtual Museum

"The museum features a large variety of facilities including the Tipton-Three Exhibition Space, the Jumah al-Dossari Center for Critical Studies, as well as an extensive array of public programming." From the welcome page of  The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History. This is worth a visit. Great project.

The dangers of public apathy

Writing in the WSJ this week, Max Boot calls Afghanistan the "Who Cares?" War. He cites the fact that Rajiv Chandrasekaran' new book on the war, Little America, published two months ago, has only sold around 5,000 copies in hardcover. By comparison, Chandrasekaran's book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, about the Iraq War, sold more than 120,000 copies in hardback and paperback.
Boot also points to Obama's silence on the war - and that of his political opponents - and to the polls showing more than 60 per cent of Americans are against the war, even if they don't want to go out on the streets and protest. As the Presidential election approaches that silence is set to become deafening.
The same phenomenon is evident in the UK, where there is a public silence and absence of debate on the war itself, although public demonstrations of affection for fallen soldiers have become enshrined in emotional ceremonies outside the airbases to which their remains are repatriated. Wootton Bassett, the small town close to one of the bases, was renamed Royal Wootton Bassett last year in recognition of the devotion its citizens have shown to the fallen.
At the same time, no-one talks about why the troops are in Afghanistan, what they are doing or what they are hoping to achieve. TV news coverage is generally limited to spectacular atrocities or troop losses. No national newspaper in the UK is anywhere near giving its readers a clear picture of what is happening in the country or surrounding region. There is a silence on the fact that we are supporting a corrupt, anti-democratic government that will only last as long as it is propped up by foreign troops.
Despite all this, Boot says that public apathy may be good in that it will allow the Americans to keep up to 30,000 troops in Afghanistan indefinitely without any domestic opposition and that this will allow the job in hand - whatever that is - to be completed. More likely that the war - never talked about, never scrutinised - will become dirtier, less effective and even more directionless than it is at present.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

CIA 'turned down 1999 opportunity to kill bin Laden'

And while we are in the realm of who did what and when, a book published in June in Poland by former spy Alexander Makowski called Ferreting out bin Laden - published in Poland in June but not yet available in English, claims that a group of Afghans offered to kill Osama bin Laden in Kandahar in 1999, but were turned down by the CIA. Makowski says he was a middle man in the plot.
Speaking of the Afghan plan, Makowski says: “They gave us the exact location of the houses where bin Laden would be staying in Kandahar, the route he would be taking between his living quarters, his meeting place, and what kind of transportation he would be using,” Makowski told McClatchy Newspapers in a recent interview. He says the Afghans planned to use car bombs to kill bin Laden.
In October1999 a CIA officer flew to Warsaw with a response. “I would like everyone here to be absolutely clear on one thing: We do not have a license to kill,” the officer told top officials at the headquarters of Polish intelligence.“We have to capture bin Laden safe and sound so that he can stand trial and be sentenced legally". Really.
Makowski also claims that the CIA, when faced in 1996 with a choice of supporting Ahmed Shah Massoud or the Taliban to rule Afghanistan, supported the latter. Some interesting stuff here.

Read more here:

Taliban denies beheadings in Helmand

So what is the truth behind the alleged beheading of 17 people, including two women, in the Shah Kariz region, Kajaki District, which is in a part of Helmand province controlled by the Taliban? President Karzai has condemned the killings, calling them 'unforgiveable' and in defiance of Islamic teaching. US officials also condemned the beheadings, with the US Embassy in Kabul calling them a "shameful act." Major General John R Allen, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, described the killers as "cowards." 
Various explanations for the massacre have been put forward, including that the victims were planning to make contact with Coalition troops, or that they were engaged in a mixed wedding celebration.
The Taliban has put forward a different explanation on its website. Spokesman Qari Muhammad Yousuf Ahmadi writes:
"A secret music party was organised inside a remote house close to the wells in the desert between Roshanabad and Shah Karez areas of Musa Kala district, Helmand province because no-one can dare to do such a vile thing openly. Around 20 corrupt individuals participated in this event and boys dressed in women clothing were forced to dance. According to information gathered, the said group turned their guns on each other and killed each other around midnight after getting heavily drunk, becoming both the killers and the killed. The government spokesman of Helmand Province promptly and brazenly blamed Mujahideen for this infamous incident which Karzai and others blindly accepted. We once again call on all media outlets to refrain from attributing such reports to the Mujahideen."
Afghan boys being dressed up as girls to dance in front of drunken, gun-toting tribesmen? Makes perfect sense to me. File this one under black propaganda ops.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Another jailbreak threatened in Pakistan

Reports are circulating in Pakistan that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is planning a jail break-out at Faisalabad Central Jail to free its members being held there. Such warnings are not to be taken lightly, considering the successful storming of Bannu prison earlier this year in which hundreds of prisoners were set free by the TTP. An advance warning of that attack was also received, but ignored by the prison authorities.
The Punjab prison authorities have asked the ministry of interior to deploy Rangers at all nine central jails where the most dangerous prisoners are held and is beginning to train some prison staff in how to fight off an attack. One report says that jail authorities have conducted thorough search operations in the jails and have so far uncovered 2,000 illicit mobile phones from prisoners and suspended 65 jailers for negligence. Phone jammers are also due to be installed in three of the prisons.
Let's hope that any of the guards deployed at Faisalabad have at least been issued with ammunition. Some of the guards at Bannu later said they were last issued with bullets at the time of country's independence in 1947.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Cyberwarfare in full swing in Afghanistan

A senior American general has admitted that the US has been launching cyber attacks against its opponents in Afghanistan, according to a report by AP.
Marine Lt. Gen. Richard P. Mills, who is now a deputy commandant with the Marine Corps and who was in charge of international forces in southwestern Afghanistan between 2010-11, admitted the attacks whilst speaking at a conference in Baltimore last week.
He said: “I can tell you that as a commander in Afghanistan in the year 2010, I was able to use my cyber operations against my adversary with great impact. I was able to get inside his nets, infect his command-and-control, and in fact defend myself against his almost constant incursions to get inside my wire, to affect my operations.”
General Mills' open admission of this up-to-now highly secret part of US military strategy is significant. It is likely that the operations he was referring to came under the auspices of Operation Earnest Voice, the Army's strategic communication and information operation aimed at disrupting online jihadi activity, as reported by this blog in March last year.
The General's decision to speak out is likely to be criticised in some quarters, where forewarning the enemy is sometimes perceived as forearming them. The fact that the Taliban, according to the General's own comments, are deeply engaged in offensive cyberwarfare is a remarkable admission and one that needs further investigation.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Iran's deafening silence over plight of PK Shias

Given the continuing massacres of Shias in northern Pakistan, in Balochistan and, most signficantly, in Parachinar in FATA, how do we explain the silence of the Iranian regime and its failure to offer even words of support to its co-religionists?
Alex Vatanka, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, has a good go at explaining the relationship in an interesting article in the latest edition of Trends in Islamist Ideology, Vol 13.
His article The Guardian of Pakistan's Shia notes that Teheran's actions have rarely matched its rhetoric about the plight of Shias in Pakistan. "Indeed, among the ranks of Pakistan’s Shia activists, many today are disappointed by what they perceive as the lack of Iranian pressure on Islamabad to take measures to protect the Shia of Parachinar and to crackdown on sectarian groups and ideologies.  In Iran as well, there are analysts and even senior Shia clergy who have condemned what they deem to be Teheran’s weak stance toward anti-Shia violence in Pakistan."
Vatanka thinks Iran's stance could change in the near future. He notes: "Iran’s outreach to the Shia of Pakistan has historically fluctuated as a function of sectarian relations inside Pakistan and of Tehran’s overall relations with Islamabad. When sectarian tensions rise in Pakistan and Tehran-Islamabad relations are poor, Iran’s support for the Pakistani Shia has historically been at its strongest. In the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, for example, when sectarian tensions and violence expanded in Pakistan, the Iranian regime became a strident supporter of the Shia and of militant Shiism. Now, given the deteriorating state of Shia-Sunni relations in Pakistan, and also given the fact that Iran’s clerical establishment is under attack by “Shiite nationalists” at home, conditions may be ripe for Iran to take renewed interest in the plight of Pakistan’s Shia once again."

Killers of Shias likely from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi

The killers of more than 20 Shia men returning home to the Gilgit and Skardu areas last week were most likely members of Lashkar-e Jhangvi, according to an eyewitness who gave an interview to the Pakistani media. The interview can be found on the ShiaKilling website - incredible that there is a dedicated website for this subject!
The four buses were stopped by 30-40 gunmen at Babu Sir in Mansehra district. One witness who survived by hiding under one of the buses says they all had long hair and appeared to be Pashtuns from the tribal areas. The unnamed witness whose interview is mentioned above claims that the Shia men on the four buses travelling from Rawalpindi to Astor in the mountainous north of the country were identified when the gunmen asked them questions about Sunni Islamic rites. When they failed to answer the questions correctly, they were taken to the back of one of the buses and on the command 'action!', were shot to death. After the shooting stopped the killers, dressed in Pakistan Army fatigues, chanted 'Death to the Shia Infidels!' and 'Long Live Lashkar-e-Jhangvi!'.
LJ was formed in Pakistan in 1996 and specialises in killings Shias. It is also thought to have been behind the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in March 2009 and there is evidence that the suicide bomber who killed Benazir Bhutto and others in December 2007 was a member of the organisation. 
Update: One of the most remarkable things about these killings is that Sunni passengers on the buses reportedly refused to cooperate with the killers to identify fellow passengers as Shias. They were beaten and at least four Sunnis were shot dead for refusing to help the killers identify the Shia passengers. 

Mystery of mobile phone call ban in Pakistan

What is the explanation for Pakistan's decision to suspend mobile phone services for millions of people on the eve of the Eid festival? Cell phones went blank in Karachi, Lahore, Quetta, Multan and some other cities  from 8 pm Sunday until Monday mid-morning. It is a time when Pakistanis traditionally send each other messages welcoming the end of Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr holiday.
According to Interior minister Rehman Malik, the ban was brought in because the government was particularly worried that militants affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Pakistan Taliban might use the Eid festival to plan attacks in the Punjab and Sindh. “The Punjab government has requested us to suspend cell-phone service in some parts of the province, but we think it should also be made temporarily inoperative in sensitive areas of Baluchistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, because terrorists usually use mobile phones in their acts of terrorism,” he said on Sunday.
The ban came in the wake of a particularly brazen attack by TTP gunmen last Thursday on an airforce base at Kamra that is believed to hold some of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. On the same day more than 20 Shia pilgrims were taken off a bus by men wearing army uniforms in the northwestern district of Mansehra and executed. The murdered men were mostly from the Astore Valley, a remote area on the western slope of the Himalayan mountain, Nanga Parbat. They were returning home to celebrate Eid. A very similar attack took place on 28 February in which 18 Shia men were killed at the side of the road. More on that attack here.
The phone call ban also followed a similar ban in much of Balochistan on 14 August, Independence Day. And before that, on 23 March this year, Pakistan's government also shut down mobile phone services in Balochistan for around 14 hours on the eve of another national holiday known as Pakistan Day. The government said cell phone services were suspended in order to implement the obscure ‘national security plan.’
Precisely how the phone call ban is meant to stop terrorist attacks has not been explained by the authorities in Pakistan.They continue to recur with sickening regularity.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Donors turning their back on TTP in Peshawar

The IPS News Agency is reporting that donors in Pakistan are turning their back on the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) this Eid, giving instead to well established charities catering for orphans and widows. The agency quotes Sharifullah Shah, a local doctor who for the past five years has given $500 every Eid to the militants. This year he is giving his money to the Edhi Welfare Centre. 
“I know the (Centre) uses this money to educate and care for orphaned local children, while the Taliban insurgents just pump my money into their violent actions,” Shah told the news agency, adding that his donations to the Taliban were tantamount to “aiding terrorism”.
 Similar sentiments were expressed by Umar Gul, a cloth merchant in the old part of the City. “We have been giving 2.5 percent of our earnings in Zakat to the Taliban for the past 10 years because we wanted our money to be spent in the service of Allah but this year we stopped because the Taliban killed people in terrorist attacks using our money,” he said.
Gul says he now wishes he had never made contributions to the TTP. 
Gul adds that after the fall of the Taliban regime in neighbouring Afghanistan, people swarmed the donation camps established by religious parties, believing them to be defenders of Islam. “Now, they  have become kidnappers, extortionists and killers of humanity,” Gul said in reference to the TTP.
A local prayer leader reinforced the views of the other interviewees: “We, the Muslims, are of the firm belief that the month of Ramadan brings a plethora of blessings for human beings and those who resort to killing and injuring during this time have no relation to Islam,” he said. “My followers used to hand more than $1000 to a jihadist group working under the umbrella of TTP every Ramadan but they have plainly refused to pay them donations anymore,” he added.
Part of the reason donations have fallen off is because of the TTP's refusal to halt hostilities during Ramadan.  Mian Iftikhar Hussain, spokesman of the Awami National Party government in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, whose only son was killed by militants in July 2010, noted
“Islam preaches brotherhood and peace while the Taliban are doing exactly the opposite. We (requested) the Taliban to desist from militancy during Ramadan but all such pleas fell on deaf ears”.
With donations falling so dramatically, the TTP and other jihadist organisations are resorting to bank robberies and kidnappings to raise funds. In March, the BBC reported that kidnappings were on the rise in Karach. Last year there were more than 100 recorded cases of kidnap for ransom - a record high. As well as being organised and tenacious, the militants are greedy. They demanded more than $6m (£3.77m) for a prominent local industrialist abducted late last year. In that case, there was no pay-out. The businessman was freed by a police raid, in which three of the kidnappers were killed.
Reporter Orla Guerin interviewed a TTP militant who claimed that his organisation was raising $80,000 a month in Karachi through kidnaps and robberies.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Cosy chats with Karimov? I don't think so

Odd to see Sarah Chayes at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace advocating cosy chats with Uzbekistan's murderous Karimov regime to discuss post-2014 Afghanistan.
"U.S. policymakers might do well to take time to listen to how Uzbeks see events in Afghanistan playing out, and perhaps to base some contingency planning of their own on the insights. Uzbeks’ relationships and potential leverage with key Afghan interlocutors are also precious assets. What about some quiet meetings in Tashkent with Afghans and Uzbeks, to brainstorm creative ways out of a presaged implosion?", she says.
With the intermittent closure of the supply routes through Pakistan to Afghanistan, the US has been forced to rely on resupplying its troops via Uzbekistan and this has seen a degree of pragmatic engagement between the two countries. General Petraeus visited in 2009 and other senior bureaucrats have made the trip, presumably holding their noses as they did so. As recently as June this year Deputy Secretary Bill Burns visited Uzbekistan to discuss security issues, including Afghanistan.
But no-one can seriously believe that it is in US interests to go into partnership with Karimov and his kleptomaniac daughter Gulnara Karimova.
No-one in their right mind can ignore the fact that the Karimov regime is one of the most brutal in the world. Ms Chayes would do well to read any recent Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch report on the country. And if that's not good enough she could try the leaked US diplomatic cables on the Wikileaks site, one of which described the country as "a nightmarish world of rampant corruption, organised crime, forced labour in the cotton fields, and torture". Karimova was described as "the single most hated person in the country".
The latest Congressional Research Service report Uzbekistan: Recent Developments and US Interests, published last week, says pretty much the same thing. Think again, Carnegie.

TTP backs off Imran Khan death threat

Imran Khan doing what he does best
First they said they would kill him, but now they are not so sure. An AP report published yesterday carried a claim from Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan that the organisation's suicide bombers would kill cricketer-turned-politican Imran Khan if he attempted to lead an anti-drone march into South Waziristan in September.
"If he comes, our suicide bombers will target him," Ahsan told the AP. "We will kill him". Speaking from a remote compound in Shawal in South Waziristan, Ahsan said that they regard Khan as a 'liberal' and an infidel and that they didn't want his help in opposing drone attacks.
By today, however, Ahsan had changed his tune: “The TTP shura will decide what to do a week before his arrival and will announce it,” Ahsan said, adding that “it’s sure and clear that we don’t have any sympathy with Imran Khan, neither do we need his sympathy, as he himself claims to be a liberal, and we see liberals as infidels.”
Clearly the TTP spokesman had spoken out of turn. To cover his embarrassment he blamed the journalist who had conducted the interview: “The reporter added the death threat himself, bypassing the norms of journalism; he tried to break a news story for his publicity and it shows his immorality,” he said. More likely is that even the TTP knows that killing Imran Khan would bring a whirlwind down on their heads. Pashtuns, more than anything else, love their cricketers.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Making sense of FATA

I've always had the greatest respect for the FATA Research Centre, based in Pakistan and under the direction of former BBC radio journalist Dr Ashraf Ali. Its website is a source of unbiased and useful information on this most impenetrable area of Pakistan.
In strategic terms, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas is one of the most important pieces of real estate in the world. Largely unknown to the outside world, impossible to visit, home to a plethora of Pashtun tribes, location of the remnants of the al-Qaeda leadership and, sadly, a pawn in the hands of the Pakistan military, FATA is unlike anywhere else on earth.
Millions of people live in FATA and millions more have fled - to the Gulf, to Karachi and to the so-called 'settled areas' on its borders. South Waziristan, for example, has been forcibly cleared of Mahsuds, a tribe with a proud warrior history. Elsewhere hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people - that's refugees in common parlance - languish in forgotten camps. Thousands of young men with few prospects and even less money have been persuaded to fight on behalf of murderous gangs under the false banner of 'jihad against the West', even though many of them spend more time killing each other and innocent civilians than ever fighting 'Crusaders'.
Arab money and Pakistan's own corrupted military ambitions have seduced these young men into an endless cycle of pointless violence. Do any of the factions in FATA really know what they are fighting for, besides loot and prestige?
In amongst this mayhem, the majority of Pashtuns from the tribal areas want nothing more than to be left to live their lives. They want roads and electricity, education and development, the same things as their compatriots. They want the right to organise politically and an end to militancy. That much is clear from a detailed study of opinions in the area recently conducted by the FRC. Local support for militancy has reduced significantly, according to Extremism and Radicalization: an overview of the social, political, cultural and Economic landscape of FATA. Not surprisingly, many blame their woes on the Western presence in neighbouring Afghanistan, although this doesn't necessarily translate into a burning desire to fight across the border.
Local traditions such as jirgas to make decisions and the tribal code of Pakhtunwali, once the cornerstone of their culture, have been subverted in recent years and abused by strangers, who have treated the local youth as little more than cannon fodder. "Militant groups' lucrative offer of food, clothes, weapons, drugs and public charm of authority drive them to join militant groups", says the report. "They are pushed into a deep desire of revenge against US and Pakistan Army, as revenge is one of the important components of Pakhtoon code of life."
FRC is one of the very few groups trying to make sense of what is happening in FATA. We should all support its efforts.

Friday, 3 August 2012

How the Taliban recruits - info for asylum officials

The European Asylum Support Office has published a report on Afghanistan aimed at providing information to support government officials who assess asylum applications from Afghan nationals.
Based on open source information, the report, Afghanistan: Taliban Strategies - Recruitment gives an overview of Taliban strategy for the recruitment of fighters. This is particularly important as fear of recruitment by the Taliban remains an important motive for Afghans seeking asylum in the EU.
Much of the historical section of the report is based on well-known sources - Thomas Ruttig, Mullah Zaeef, Antonio Giustozzi, etc - and is reasonably accurate, if a little jumpy.
There is some useful information on Taliban recruitment. For example, a Danish Immigration Service fact-finding mission to Afghanistan in February/March this year found that the Taliban is trying to recruit more educated people to help expand their communication and propaganda efforts and to operate more advanced weapons systems. They also want medical staff. 
Whereas in the past recruits were deployed away from their home areas, now they are deployed locally. According to most reports, coercion is seldom a factor today in recruitment of Taliban fighters. Not surprisingly in a country with high unemployment, money plays a factor, although not in the long term. Kinship and tribal connections remain important factors.
Many interesting little nuggets in this report which also contains a very detailed bibliography.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Haqqani network - Follow the money

Follow the money. It's an old adage, but one of the best. And journalist Gretchen Peters  knows this more than most. For some years now she has been researching the nexus between money and the various Taliban factions, in particular looking into the opium trade in her book Seeds of Terror, and her pamphlet How Opium Profits the Taliban for the US Institute of Peace.
Now she has produced Haqqani Network Financing: The Evolution of an Industry for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Her groundbreaking study shows in some detail how this remarkable Afghan clan has been able to build up unique cash-generating business enterprises to finance its very effective campaign against the Karzai government and its Western allies.
From its base in Pakistan's North Waziristan - where it exists with the blessing of the ISI - the Haqqanis have created a mafia-like empire that now stretches across Pakistan and into the Gulf. Peters says the Haqqani network is involved in an array of illegal activities: it extorts from businesses in Afghanistan's south-east and in FATA; takes part in kidnap-for-ransom schemes; protects and taxes illicit smuggling rings as well as smuggling itself; has partial ownership stakes in dozens, if not hundreds, of real estate holdings and in construction firms, import-export operations and transport businesses; raises donations from ideological supporters; and finally, is involved in large-scale money laundering.
Peters says that whilst conventional wisdom suggests that all these activities are directed towards supporting the network's military and religious objectives, in fact they are also an end in themselves. She sums it up like this:
"This report will make the case that the Haqqanis have evolved over more than three decades into an efficient mafia-type network exhibiting robust relationships with regional political, military and economic circles, and that members of the group have a financial incentive to remain the dealmakers and the enforcers in their area of operations. The report will also demonstrate how the Haqqanis’ involvement in criminal and profit-making activities has diversified over time in pragmatic response to shifting funding conditions and economic opportunities. At each stage of the group’s history, Haqqani network leaders have leveraged strategic alliances and relationships to consolidate their position of authority within the community and to secure their sources of funding."
Peters says that continued warfare in Afghanistan benefits the Haqqanis financially and that they have little incentive to end the fighting or to give up the autonomy they have found in Pakistan's tribal areas. The network's comparatively small size means its members can adapt to changes very quickly, whilst making it difficult for outsiders to penetrate. It does, however, have weaknesses, including repetitive behaviour, paranoia over traitors and a leadership which may be too small and too centralised.
What is most remarkable is that the network's finances have never come under sustained attack, in part because it is protected by the Pakistani state, but also because US war planners are too focussed on military activity to understand how to take on this kind of enemy. As Peters says: "a stepped‐up U.S. effort to identify and disrupt Haqqani business activities and logistical supply lines, modeled on previous successful campaigns against other transnational crime networks around the globe, could significantly degrade the network’s capacity to cause trouble." Is anyone listening?