Sunday 22 March 2009

Another way of resolving conflict

Any day now Richard Holbrooke’s review of American policy in Afghanistan will be published. Whatever the results of the study, we can be reasonably sure that much of it will be dominated by military thinking. Already there have been leaks suggesting, for example, that the US will extend its Predator drone strikes into Balochistan or that an attempt will be made to bribeTaliban foot soldiers away from the organisation.

The emphasis on military thinking is hardly surprising for a country that is obsessed by 9/11 and the threat from al-Qaeda and other extremist Islamist organisations. American generals want to inflict a defeat on the Taliban similar to the one they have inflicted on al-Qaeda and its supporters in Iraq.

It is not going to be so easy in Afghanistan. Even with an extra 17,000 US troops, the total number of Coalition soldiers in the country remains well below the level needed to inflict a severe defeat on an insurgent population. Iraq is much smaller than Afghanistan, with a smaller population and yet at times there were as many as 160,000 combat troops in the country. Most of these were concentrated in just one or two provinces such as al-Anbar, which meant that huge assets could be brought to bear on insurgent groups. Of course, huge damage was also done – who now remembers Falluja?

And the fact that the conflict in Afghanistan is being directed from a neighbouring country – Pakistan – that provides a never-ending stream of recruits, equipment and money, and whose military leadership has a vested interest in the continuation of the conflict – means the insurgency will not be easily defeated. Just over the border in Bajaur, even full-scale warfare and thousands of deaths in the Pakistan Army campaign against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan needed nine months to win a ceasefire that everyone knows is worth nothing.

I sincerely hope that Mr Holbrooke and his advisers are aware that the problems of Afghanistan cannot – repeat, cannot – be solved militarily. They would do well to examine the work of organisations like Cooperation for Peace and Unity, an Afghan not-for-profit think-tank that has been instrumental in establish Peace Councils in areas where the traditional mechanisms for resolving conflicts have been destroyed.

CPAU has begun to publish a series of conflict analysis studies on different areas - Badakhshan, Kunduz, Kabul, Wardak and Ghazni – that use local data to investigate the reasons behind conflicts over the last seven or eight years. The studies are funded by the Irish charity Trocaire.

The most recent study, on Kunduz is very revealing. It shows that the issue most likely to generate violent conflict in the ethnically mixed areas surrounding Kunduz is land. The background to this is the fact that tens of thousands of Pashtuns were expelled from the area following the collapse of the Taliban in 2001 and now local political parties are trying to position themselves as protectors of Uzbek and Tajik intererests. This, of course, allows the Taliban to present themselves as protectors of Pashtun interests.

The study says that rapid settlement of land disputes, many of them going back to 2001, needs to be implemented. And second, that part of any strategy to counter the Taliban has to include measures to counter the alienation of Kunduz Pashtuns.

There is much more in this study and it should be essential reading for anyone who seriously wants to understand the ways in which Afghanistan works. (A second study, on Kabul, also makes fascinating reading).

So when you read the headlines in the next few days about American muscle-flexing in Afghanistan, please don’t forget that history is never really about white hats and black hats. I think the US marine who had that Zippo lighter engraved back in Vietnam in 1967 had it just about right.

Thursday 5 March 2009

Barbarians strike at the Pashtuns' great poet

The damaged mausoleum of Abdurrahman Baba (Pashtun Post)

I arrived in Peshawar last night much quicker than I expected. This frontier city is now only a two-hour drive from Islambad along the new motorway. Instead of the chaos and confusion of the Grand Trunk (GT) Road, the journey was almost serene as the road cut through green fields and orchards and crossed river after river. Peshawar was once considered an Afghan city, until the Sikhs won it in battle and then the British defeated the Sikhs. Thus was it inherited by Pakistan.
But at its heart Peshawar is still Afghan to the core. Its huge expansion in the last 30 years, fuelled by the millions of Afghan refugees for whom it became home during the war against the Soviets, has done nothing to lessen this feeling. Women wearing the Afghan burka can be seen everywhere and whole districts are populated by those Afghans who never returned home.
More particularly, Peshawar is a Pashtun city, sitting in the heart of the North West Frontier Province and close by the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
And it is increasingly a Taliban city. Although they have no electoral support, theTaliban have the muscle and the influence to dominate the city. Since I arrived I have heard many accounts of Pashto language poets and singers giving up their profession for their own safety. Some have left for foreign countries and even - ironically - for Afghanistan, where they feel less constrained than here, where the Wahhabi influence is strong and growing.
One consequence of all this is that few visitors come here any more. Last night I went to the Khan Klub for dinner. This magnificent and famous five-storey haveli or guesthouse in the old part of the city, boasts five-star rooms decorated with wonderful local carpets, "classical eastern music" and "full service eastern and western fare restaurant".
In fact, when we arrived, there were no guests. We were the first foreigners to enter the building since February 2008. Despite this, our hosts produced a wonderful meal, served to us by candlelight.
This morning, the reality of the alien intolerance introduced by the Arabs of al-Qaeda into Pashtun culture was brought home in the usual way - by an explosion. There have been many explosions in this city, but few were as poignant as this one. No-one was killed, but every Pushtun was hurt by this bomb.
The target was the mausoleum of Abdurrahman Baba, the greatest of the Pashtun Sufi poets. The outer wall of his mausoleum in the Hazarkhwani area of the city was completely destroyed. According to an article in the Pashtun Post a group of unidentified militants used remote control bombs to destroy the four pillars of the building.
No matter which misguided people carried out this bombing, it was aimed at destroying Pashtun culture - the poems of Khushal Khan Khattak and Rahman Baba and later followers such as Ameer Hamza Shinwari and the journalist Mahmud Tarzi.
None was more important to Pashtun culture than Rahman Baba. He was born in 1632 just to the south of Peshawar and was a great Sufi poet in the tradition of Rumi. His wonderful poems teach the need for toleration, peace and spirituality. What could justify an attack on his mortal remains?
Four years ago Robert Sampson and Momin Khan Jaja published the 900-page
The Poetry of Rahman Baba - Poet of the Pashtuns, the poet's complete works. You can find out more about the book here. In fact, I urge you to buy a copy, just to show the bastards who did this today that the pen of a great man is mightier than the sword.
As I mentioned in my previous blog, the Pashtuns are the real victims of the vicious strain of Wahhabi Islam that was introduced into this region during the anti-Soviet jihad and which is now in the ascendancy. It is not their choice, but one that is being imposed on them by outsiders. Their culture is being strangled by gunmen and killers who care nothing for the great traditions of a proud people.

Monday 2 March 2009

An evening with the Pashtuns of Karachi

Pashtun does not equal Taliban, say the men of Karachi

I've been in Pakistan for two or three weeks, mostly in Islamabad, but for the last couple of days I have been in the chaotic (to me) port city of Karachi. Once Pakistan's capital, it is still a major
centre of business and commerce. It is also home to around 15 million people, making it one of the largest cities in the world.
What is less well known is that Karachi is also home to more than three million Pashtuns (or Pukhtuns) from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), many of whom have arrived since the 1980s following the upheavals caused by the war against the Soviets in neighbouring Afghanistan. Others have been here since the 1950s and many were born here.
Pashtuns - particularly the Afridis - run much of the city's transport system, owning and driving the thousands of gaily coloured buses that snake their way through the traffic, their superstructures loaded with masses of chrome, chains and brightly painted scenes and patterns.
They also run much of Pakistan's road transport business, including almost all of the trucks that move between here and Peshawar, and some of which take supplies to the Coalition troops in Afghanistan.
The presence of so many Pashtuns has for some time been a source of tension for Karachi's political bosses, most of whom are members of the MQM and are Mohajirs descended from Moslems who fled from India to Pakistan at the time of Partition.
Last night I heard about this first hand in two hujras I attended, the first in the Sher Shah area of Karachi and the second in Shirin Jinna Colony. This was an extraordinary experience. Both were attended by people in the transport industry - about a dozen at the first meeting and around 70 at the second. A hujra is a traditional tribal gathering of men, held most nights, where all manner of issues are discussed.
Both meetings were formal, in that introductions were made and tea was served. It was unthinkable to leave before taking tea. Those attending were mostly Afridis, but there was a wide mixture of tribes present, including Shinwaris, Yusufzais and Mohmands. I won't name them, but several were prominent men in their communities.
At both meetings a common theme emerged. These men told me that they had been characterised as 'Talibans' and that the world seemed to think they were all terrorists. They wanted to impress upon me that this was untrue (see my picture above). They were devout Moslems, to be sure, but this did not mean they agreed with the Taliban. They felt that their homelands were being used to fight other peoples' battles - indeed it was the reason that many of them had left the NWFP in the first place during the anti-Soviet period.
Now, they said, they were under a different kind of pressure. The MQM was making it more and more difficult for them to stay in Karachi. Last week there had been a spate of vehicle burnings and when one of their drivers had tried to stop this, he had himself been burnt to death. If they try to apply for a job they are told they have to get ID papers from the NWFP, as they will not be issued here. This means obtaining birth certificates and other documentation that is simply not available. Many of them told me they had been born in Karachi, so why should they go to the NWFP to get papers?
This is the reality behind the perceived threat of 'Talibanisation' of Karachi. Already, I have seen videos on YouTube that try to suggest the Pashtuns are making a bid to take over the city. Of course, during the course of such a short visit, I can make no judgement on such a claim. However, there is a wider point here. Pashtuns from the NWFP and from FATA in particular are now scattered all over Pakistan and the Gulf. The tribal society that existed a generation ago no longer exists except in the most remote areas. It is this breakdown in tribalism that has been exploited by al-Qaeda and its supporters in some of the more remote regions.
Al-Qaeda had even sought to exacerbate this problem, not least by killing the traditional tribal maliks who dispensed justice. According to some reports, more than 170 maliks have been killed, many of them by Uzbek islamists who have no comprehension or interest in tribal culture. They are the same people who wish to impose their own stark and inhuman form of Islam onto the people of the region.
We sometimes forget that it is not only the West that is a victim of the intolerance of the salafists and takfiris associated with al-Qaeda. It is also their hosts, the Pashtuns, who have become victims of their own generosity and hospitality towards Osama bin Laden and his followers.