Wednesday 24 June 2009

Pak Air Force staff court martialed for terror links

Fifty-seven members of the Pakistan Air Force have been arrested and charged with having links to terrorism over the last two years, according to reports appearing today in the Pakistan media. Some of the investigations against the men began during General Musharraf's rule over the country. A PAF official called Mushtaq was arrested and that led to others being rounded up.
The arrests took place all over the country, including in Kamra, Lahore, Sargodha, Mianwali and Karachi. Of the 57 arrested, 26 have faced a court martial, where sentences ranging from three-and-a-half years to 17 years were handed down. Six others received death sentences for involvement in serious, but unspecified crimes.
At least one fugitive is still at large and his photos have been posted up around military bases. No details about the nature of the links or the offences that resulted in death sentences.
Update: The PAF has confirmed that the men were arrested following an assassination attempt on former President Musharraf in 2003. All the arrests took place more than two years ago. Relatives of some of the men have protested their innocence, saying they were targeted for voting against Musharraf in a referendum.

Rohde and Ludin's lucky escape

Kidnapping, particularly of journalists, is a big business in Afghanistan, with high rewards for those involved. It is thought, for example, that in October 2007 the Korean government paid millions of dollars to Taliban fighters for the release of a group of 19 Korean Christian missionaries. Despite protests from journalists working in Afghanistan who fear copycat kidnappings, money continues to be paid.
So it was with great relief that we read last week of the remarkable escape of New York Times journalist David Rohde and his Afghan fixer, Tahir Ludin, from a compound somewhere in North Waziristan. Rohde had been captured last November south of Kabul on his way to meet a local Taliban commander.
We will have to wait until Rohde publishes his own story to find out all the details, but in the meantime, New York magazine has published an excellent article on the case. Matthew Cole’s piece makes it clear that there is a lot more to this story than meets the eye. And don't forget that there are others still being held.

Tuesday 23 June 2009

Tide turns agains the Taliban in Pakistan?

Events in Pakistan may yet have a great bearing on the conflict in Afghanistan. This video, filmed in Pakistan in the Punjabi city of Jhelum a week ago, shows a protest against the Taliban and al-Qaeda after they murdered the renowned cleric, Dr. Mufti Sarfaraz Naeemi in Lahore in a suicide attack in his mosque. Dr Naeemi had issued a fatwa correctly stating that suicide bombings are forbidden by Islam and had also condemned Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) – sister organisation to its Afghan counterpart - as un-Islamic.
Despite Dr Naeemi’s killing and last week's bombing of the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar, it is clear that the TTP are now on the defensive in Pakistan. The Swat Valley, where for the last two months the Pakistan Army has been engaged in a fierce confrontation with Islamist militants, has now been cleared. Some of the estimated 2.5 million internal refugees will soon be able to start returning to their homes and harvesting their crops.
Significantly, in some areas of Swat local villagers took up arms against the TTP fighters. At least three villages in Upper Dir were cleared by local lashkars (militias) who killed more than a dozen TTP fighters.
The big test will be the Army’s campaign in Waziristan. Up to 10,000 fighters loyal to TTP Emir Baitullah Mahsud, along with hundreds of Arab, Uzbek and Chechen fighters from al-Qaeda are based in this remote tribal agency bordering Afghanistan. It is likely that much of the al-Qaeda leadership is also in this region.
The Army’s new offensive, known as ‘Path of Salvation’, is already underway, although it has so far only involved air strikes and artillery bombardments. But Pakistani officials have already been able to drive a wedge between Mahsud and two former allies, Turkistan Bhittani and Qari Zainuddin Mahsud, both of whom have called Baitullah an enemy of Islam.
Qari Zainuddin Mahsud, who comes from the same tribe as Baitullah, was killed today when one of his guards opened fire on him in the north-western town of Dera Ismail Khan. Turkistan Bhittani, 40, remains a significant threat.
According to a well-informed article published by the Jamestown Foundation

Bhittani told local jirgas that he will take revenge on Baitullah for killing innocent Pakistani civilians and security forces. The article describes him thus:
Turkistan Bhittani, 40, once a friend of Baitullah Mahsud who fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, is now his biggest enemy. Turkistan also served in the Frontier Corps (FC) until his retirement in 1998. He developed differences with Baitullah and parted ways with him when Baitullah slaughtered some FC officials and began using suicide bombing as a tool to terrorize his opponents inside Pakistan."
These divisions and the formation of lashkars are significant. Nothing similar has happened in Afghanistan so far, but if the jihadi infrastructure built up by Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service over many years begins to come apart, it will undoubtedly have an impact on the Afghan Taliban leadership, who are mostly based in Quetta in Baluchistan.

Saturday 20 June 2009

Local conflict key to peace in Afghanistan

Local conflict in Afghanistan is increasing at a faster rate than the insurgency and armed conflict, says a new report from the Afghan organisation Cooperation for Peace and Unity.

I have been impressed by the quality of CPAU’s work and have commented on several of their previous reports. This latest report, Trends in local Afghan conflicts, is based on CPAU’s research into local conflicts in five provinces in the country. All five local conflicts were the subject of separate reports and this latest publication pulls all this work together.

It notes that there has been a significant increase in local conflicts since 2005 and that these conflicts are increasingly involving whole communities and that they are increasingly threatening livelihoods and undermining the ability of government and aid agencies to work effectively.

“Local conflict is affecting many communities which struggle to find suitable ways of resolving their disagreements. Many of these conflicts turn violent and they are being aggravated by the worsening security situation in Afghanistan,” said CPAU’s director, Kanishka Nawabi.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, CPAU has also found that the work of international development agencies can exacerbate these local conflicts. They cite several cases where development projects have led to water and land disputes that have threatened the ability of local people to support themselves.

“The international community has an obligation to ensure that its programmes in Afghanistan do not increase local conflict and make the situation worse for local people,” says Nawabi.

CPAU wants more peace building and conflict resolution projects to help resolve these disputes and also wants to improve access to justice and non-violent conflict resolution. It is calling on the international aid agencies to ensure that their programmes address local conflict and include funding for peace building, including a new programme for charity workers.

Thursday 18 June 2009

A quick update

After a little over six months of writing this blog, I thought I should bring readers up to date on how it is going. First, the blog presently receives around 30 to 40 hits per day, with a total of around 2,700. Particularly successful were the blog on the Taliban cartoon, which has been picked up all over the place, and also the blog on TIME magazine, which sadly refuses to further acknowledge the fact that it printed a recycled and inaccurate story about General Dostum.

I have been asked to become an official France24 ‘Observer’, which means that my blog features on the France24 website. I have also been quoted by Asia Media Forum, which picked up the Taliban cartoon story. And the Russian website now runs a banner ad notifying its readers of my existence.

When I launched the blog, I decided to keep my identity private. However, as it is now becoming an open secret I have updated my personal information. Finally I would like to thank you all for reading this blog and making it worthwhile for me.

Tuesday 9 June 2009

Growing opium poppies - but not in Afghanistan

My picture, taken today, shows large fields of opium poppies (papaver somniferum), which are the principal crop of southern Afghanistan and the source of 90 per cent of the world’s heroin. But this picture was not taken in Helmand, the main opium-growing region. It was not even taken in Afghanistan. What about Turkey or Burma? No. Give up?

The astonishing truth is that this picture was taken in Oxfordshire in the south of England. Faced with a growing shortage of morphine and codeine for medicine, the UK’s Home Office has granted the pharmaceutical company Macfarlan Smith, a world leader in the production of alkaloid opiates, a licence to harvest poppies in Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire. Hundreds of acres are now under cultivation. The company then processes the poppies into pain-killing drugs for use by doctors all over the country.

Nor is Britain the only country that is experiencing a massive shortage of poppy-derived morphine. There are shortages in many parts of the world.

Why then are we destroying opium fields in Afghanistan? A good question, particularly as this week it is being reported that there is a growing recognition that Afghanistan’s counter-narcotic strategy is failing. Two weeks ago the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen told the US Senate that the international community was losing the battle against opium production in Afghanistan. Mullen said foreign forces in Afghanistan need to do more than simply fight Taliban militants who are paid by criminal groups to protect opium crops.

And last week it was announced that UN officials in Afghanistan are attempting to create a 'flood of drugs' in the country intended to destroy the value of opium and force poppy farmers to switch to legal crops such as wheat.

After the failure to destroy poppies in Afghanistan's volatile south, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says the answer is to stop the drugs from leaving the country in the first place. The have realised that manual eradication is inefficient and instead propose flooding the country with cheap opium. Last year the Afghan government succeeded in destroying only 3.5% of Afghanistan's 157,000 hectares of poppy because eradication teams were either attacked or bought off by local drug lords.

The ‘flooding’ option has clearly not been thought through and will probably result in thousands more opium/heroin addicts in Afghanistan.

What about encouraging poppy production in order to satisfy the world market for morphine? The Senlis Council proposed this strategy some time ago in its report Poppy for Medicine. Despite receiving backing from the European Parliament, nothing much more has happened. Perhaps it is an idea whose time has now come?

Thursday 4 June 2009

Taliban uses cartoon character to tell the news

Just come across this on YouTube. The cartoon guy, ('Dickie') reads out the usual list of highly imaginative battle reports from the Taliban. The words he uses are taken directly from the communiques issued on the official Taliban website. This is the second such broadcast. The first was released on 25 May. They are made by someone called 'resistz2exist'. No idea where this person is based. Other videos from the same source are all pro-Taliban. Remarkable though that someone close to the Taliban has the technical expertise to produce this kind of material. My guess is that the voice is synthesised, although comments on that point would be welcomed. Don't let anyone tell you that the Taliban are a bunch of unsophisticated tribals living in caves. This little production, which is only a few days old, took both skill and money.