Friday 31 July 2009

Anyone seen full copy of Taliban code of conduct?

I have tried, without success, to find a full English translation of the Taliban's new code of conduct, as reported by al-Jazeera. I would like to comment on the code, but don't think I can until I have read it. Can anyone help?

Thursday 30 July 2009

You read it here first

"It is clear that from next year onwards the British government will be under enormous pressure to reduce its spending in Afghanistan. It will not be long before signs of this - possibly in terms of greater support for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban - become apparent."
Circling the Lion's Den, 7 July 2009

"The key part though that I was emphasising in my speech at NATO today is the importance of local engagement because it is there that the mass of non-ideological Taliban supporters are giving passive or sometimes active support to the Taliban. They need to be brought within the constitutional fold and I think that is possible if one works with the grain of what is, remains a deeply tribal society in Afghanistan."
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, Interview with Channel 4 News, 28 July 2009.

Wednesday 29 July 2009

Missing US soldier spotted - report

A report in yesterday's edition of the Dari-language newspaper Roznama Cheragh says that Bowe Bergdahl, the missing US serviceman (see below) suspected of deserting, was spotted by residents of Andar district in southern Ghazni province. The report, translated on the blog In my Country, says he was seen in Ibrahazi bazaar last Friday. It adds that the unshaven soldier was seen in the company of Taliban fighters while being fitted out with Afghan clothes and a Pakool, the traditional warm hat used by many Afghans.

Tuesday 28 July 2009

A strange story of multiple suicide in Nimroz

What are we to make of a report, published by Afghan Islamic Press, that eight drug addicts in the city of Naranj in Nimroz Province in Afghanistan's south west, committed suicide by hanging earlier this week?
Governor Ghulam Dastagir Azad told AIP that the addicts killed themselves in the Qabaristani area of the city. He added that some time previously police had picked up 250 addicts in the city and had taken them to hospitals for detoxification, but they had returned to the city and, presumably, to drug taking.
"I asked the Public Health department time and again to set up a clinic for addicts in the province, but to no avail," he said.
There are said to be nearly 20,000 addicts in Nimroz province alone and it remains a major opium producing area. Last year anti-narcotics minister General Khodaidad said the number of addicts in Afghanistan had risen to 1.5 million, up from 900,000 two years previously. There are just 40 clinics offering minimal treatment for addicts.
Two points can be made about this story. First, I find it impossible to believe that eight addicts decided simultaneously to commit suicide by hanging in the same area of a small regional town. That obviously raises questions about whether or not police were involved in the deaths.
Second, it reinforces a point I have made here before: the main victims of Afghanistan's poppy harvest are not in the West, but are primarily local people. No opportunity should be lost to remind Afghans that the Taliban and the warlords who deal in opium and heroin are responsible for the deaths of thousands of fellow Moslems.

Sunday 26 July 2009

Speculation grows that Bergdahl is a deserter

Is PFC Bowe Bergdahl, the American GI who disappeared on 30 June and was allegedly captured in eastern Afghanistan by the Taliban, a deserter? Stories now appearing on a number of US military blogs and elsewhere suggest that this is the case. Bouhammer's Afghanistan Blog makes the case in detail. He points to the video issued by the Taliban of Bergdahl eating and talking and notes that "the soldier is not under any duress, stress, strain, etc. I think it is safe to call it as it is."
He adds: "I saw an AP report that stated this soldier lagged behind on a patrol and it implied he was kidnapped that way. But the same article said he was not noticed missing until a formation the next day. I can tell you that story is complete BS. No leader of any kind takes his unit on dismounted patrol and then comes back into the base without knowing he has everyone. Afghanistan is not the type of environment where everyone walks “Ranger File” or “Ducks in a Row” and you lose someone because they are walking slow. We're not talking about triple canopy jungle here, we are talking about desert. Regardless, that story is completely false and shame on the Associated Press for even thinking about printing it, much less actually printing it."
If you watch the full video, which is over 20 minutes long, a number of points strike you immediately. Bergdahl appears to have been schooled. He says US casualties in Afghanistan are higher than admitted and that soldiers' morale is low and that they are scared. Huge numbers of soldiers are committing suicide, going AWOL or deserting, he says. He says he is being well treated, "as a guest in a regular household in America", and that he sees the Taliban as "ordinary people fighting for their country". The video is effectively Taliban propaganda, spoken by Bergdahl. One other interesting point: his interrogator, who is never seen, speaks with a clear English accent.
Bouhammer is not the only person arguing that Bergdahl is a deserter. PJ Tobia, a freelance reporter living in Kabul, is much more specific. "I’ve been reporting for over a week (along with the AP and WaPo) that Bowe Bergdahl, the US soldier who’s gone missing in eastern Afghanistan, walked off the base on his own accord.
Now, somebody close to the people searching for Bergdahl has repeated this assertion saying that the soldier left “a note behind that said he was going to the mountains to find himself. He took a journal and 4 or 5 knives with him.” My source tells me that Bergdahl arrived at a village and asked if anybody spoke English. That’s when he was captured."
Tobia notes that during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan many Russian soldiers deserted: "Back in the 80’s Russian soldiers defected regularly. Artyom Borovik’s fantastic book The Hidden War talks at great length about Soviet soldiers who fled their bases and joined the Mujahidin. Many of them fought alongside their former enemies for years. A few even stayed here in Afghanistan. One of them is a well-known cab driver here in Kabul, though I’ve never met him. I’m told that another was a bodyguard for Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Afghan hero and Northern Alliance leader who helped drive the Russians out of this country."
The most likely explanation for Bergdahl's 'capture' is that villagers close to his base sold or passed him on to the Haqqani Taliban network, which is active in Paktika, the region in which he disappeared. AP says he is being held by Maulvi Sangin. In the video, recorded on or about 14 July, his interrogator clumsily attempts to suggest he is in Kandahar. In their first statement on Bergdahl, issued on 6 July, the Taliban claimed that a soldier had come out of his garrison at a place called Malakh in Yousaf Khel district of Paktika and had been captured by mujahideen.

Saturday 25 July 2009

Fighting still intense in Pakistan's Swat Valley

The Utror river in Kalam Bazaar in happier days

Fighting in the Swat Valley in north-western Pakistan between the Army and Tehreek-e-Taliban militants is still fierce, even though people are beginning to return to their houses in the southern parts of the region. Yesterday the Pakistan Army said 16 militants were killed in the Maidan area of Lower Dir, while another five were killed in different parts of the Valley.
One incident in particular, in the beautiful Kalam Valley, indicates just how fierce the fighting has become. When a group of Taliban fighters set up a checkpoint close to the the village of Urtror, the villagers called the security forces who arrived and shot dead one of the militants. Another jumped into the river Swat and was reported drowned, while six others escaped.
However, that was not the end of the affair. According to The News International, "the security forces reportedly hanged the body of the slain militant from a pole on Gammon bridge near Kalam town. This practice is apparently being followed to warn the militants of a similar fate."
This report accords with others I have seen that suggest the bodies of militants have been put on public display or left in public places by the Army as a warning to others.
The viciousness of the TTP fighters who have arrived in the area is not in doubt either. Ghazala Khan, writing for the blog All things Pakistan recounts a horrific story from a young woman called Palwasha from the Charbagh area of the Swat Valley. TTP militants tried to force her father to marry off Palwasha and her three sisters on the spot to four men they brought to the family house. Read her blog to find out what happened.
The situation in Swat - not to mention other parts of the North West Frontier Province and FATA - is nothing if not complex. It has always been my belief that a good knowledge of the tribal structure and history in this part of the world is essential. Without it, most military action can only exacerbate problems.
After years in which the US Army in particular has failed to distinguish between the different Taliban factions - or even between those that operate in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and those that confine themselves to the tribal territories - things now seem to be changing. In this context a new report by the Nine Eleven/Finding Answers (NEFA) Foundation is to be welcomed.
Written by NEFA Foundation Senior Investigator Claudio Franco, The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan: The Bajaur Case is to be welcomed. It is the first of three reports that aim to explain the background to the various Taliban factions in Pakistan. This first report looks into the Pakistan Army's offensive in Bajaur, which started a year ago and which was the first indication that there had been some kind of change of policy by the army in its attitude towards the militants who had effectively declared independence from Islamabad. It concentrates on the history and background of Faqir Mohammed.
Franco makes the point that up until 2007 Bajaur mainly functioned as a logistical base for the more active TTP campaigns further south in Waziristan. However, he says, "Terrorist plots targeting both London and Barcelona, respectively, in 2005 and 2007, were linked to al-Qaida operatives based in the Bajaur area. Moreover, the Agency border passes, in particular the Nawa Pass, have functioned for years as a revolving door to and from neighboring Kunar Province in Afghanistan."
The report is invaluable and personally I can't wait to see the next two.

Thursday 23 July 2009

Anti-Baitullah group formed in South Waziristan

I write from Pakistan, where two news items catch my eye. First a report in Dawn that says a new anti-Baitullah Mehsud alliance has come into being in South Waziristan, headed by Ikhlas Khan (also known as Waziristan Baba), but also including the Turkistan Bhittani faction and the Haji Tehsil Khan Wazir factions.
The report says the new group has already established offices in the Gomal, Umar Adda, Jandola, Pang and Sheikh Autar areas of South Waziristan. It adds that Waziristan Baba believes Baitullah was behind the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto and that he would avenge the killings of innocent people by Baitullah. "Those who destroy hospitals and schools and kill our brothers and sisters are not our well-wishers," he is quoted as saying.
The new alliance follows the recent assassination of Qari Zainuddin (see my previous post on this subject), who had been urging tribesmen to rise up against Baitullah and the Tehreek-e-Taliban. It will be named the Abdullah Mehsud Alliance - the same name used by Qari Zainuddin for his organisation.
A second item that caught my eye, also in Dawn, refers to four bodies found on the Tank-Jandola road in South Waziristan yesterday. The bodies included two sons of Gul Pir, a Baitullah Mehsud commander who was himself killed in an army operation in the Sheikh Utar area three days ago.
The report does not say who killed them, but adds the following: "According to sources, incidents of target killing are taking place in the town of Tank and adjoining areas and Baitullah's men are at the receiving end. It may be added that earlier the Baitullah group virtually ruled the area but now it is under the control of its adversary, Turkistan Bhittani."
This is clearly an important development. Is the tide beginning to turn against Baitullah in his heartland? And who are the assassins?

Monday 20 July 2009

Afghan heroes reach the highest peak

Congratulations to the Afghan mountaineers who on Sunday became the first Afghans to conquer their homeland's highest peak, 7,492-metre Noshaq Month, in north-eastern Afghanistan. What a fantastic achievement!
Malang, 35, and Amruddin, 25, both members of the Afghans to the Top expedition, made it to Noshaq's peak on Sunday, where they planted the Afghan national flag. Two other Afghan climbers, Gurg Ali (28) and Afiat Khan (28), made it to the mountain's base camp. All four are from Ishkashim, a town in the northern province of Badakhshan about an hour from Noshaq Valley.
The idea for the expedition came about after a visit to the region by three French mountaineers in 2007. When they heard the four young Afghans express their dream of reaching the highest peak, they decided to do something about it. Using funds from Mountain Wilderness International, the Aga Khan Foundation, the United Nations and USAID, they were able to make the expedition possible.
According to the Afghans to the Top website in October 2008, the Afghan mountaineers invited the organizers of the the project for a trek to Noshaq base camp to assess and conceptualize the timeline and budget that would be required for the expedition.
Then in April and May this year the four Afghans were invited to a mountaineering course at Chamonix in the Alps to complete their mountaineering skills through a technical training course organized under the auspices of the national school of ski and alpinism (ENSA) by Jean Annequin and Simon Destombes, the two guides on the expedition.
The training they received in France means the men will also be able to work as professional mountain guides on their return to Afghanistan. A diploma will confirm this instruction.
Noshaq, the highest peak in Afghanistan and the second highest in the Hindu Kush range after Pakistan's Tirich Mir, attracted climbers from all over the world in 1960s and 1970s. The first ascent was made by two Japanese climbers in 1960.
But three decades of war made climbing almost impossible - until now.
"The Afghans to the Top expedition would like to send out a message of peace, and remind the world that it is, once again, safe to travel to the north part of the country," a statement posted at the expedition's website said.
"The four young Afghan guides participating in this adventure will then be able to start their careers as mountain guides and organize more treks and expeditions in the years to come," it said.

Photos: L/R, T/B: Gurg Ali, Amruddin, Malang and Afiat Khan, ready to challenge Mt. Noshaq, main image. Pics courtesy of Afghans to the Top expedition website.

Sunday 19 July 2009

Afghan govt shuts down anti-Karzai websites

AP reports that the Afghan interior ministry has blocked at least five internet sites, four of which feature the name of President Hamid Karzai and one named after the current interior minister. The sites are:
(The President's official website can be found here) has clearly been put up by opponents of the President. It consists of a single page with a picture of Karzai in the company of US special forces soldiers in November 2001 (see above) and tries to suggest that Karzai was put in power by the CIA:
"It is worth noting that while this picture confirms how Karzai owed his safety only to the US "A-team" protection, most American media and the BBC were portraying Karzai as the "leader of the Pashtuns ," as it was alleged that he was the one who had started to raise Afghanistan's Southern tribes against the Taliban rule. It is pertinent to note that Mr. Hamid Karzai's following was, for the least, meager and not really Afghan!" does not appear to be functioning at all. appears to be offering various sexual services with Russian women, while is an online store connected to Ariana TV in Afghanistan.
The final site,, is named after the interior minister, but has been put up by Kabul Press to protest about the conviction and continuing detention of journalist student Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, who was initially sentenced to death - later commuted to 20 years in prison - for downloading and distributing a report criticising the treatment of women under Islamic Law.
A spokesman for Karzai's presidential campaign, Waheed Omar, at first admitted that the sites had been closed at their request, but later denied this.
Although the sites cannot be viewed by anyone using any of the 25 Afghan ISPs, they can easily be seen through other links.
Update: According to a statement on its website, Kabul Press, which receives 600,000 hits a month, has also now been blocked. The statement says: "Because Kabulpress targets corruption in the Afghan government, aid agencies working in Afghanistan, and international governments that support the current Afghan government, it has been a thorn in the side of the Karzai administration for several years." The article says that it has been aware for some time of an impending crackdown on websites by the Afghan government.

Friday 17 July 2009

Dostum denies massacre, confirms return to Kabul

General Abdul Rashid Dostum gave a recorded statement to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty today in which he denies that any Taliban or al-Qaeda prisoners were abused in November 2001 by troops under his command. "It is impossible that Taliban or Al-Qaeda prisoners could have been abused", he says. "Our doctors in Sheberghan, the U.S. medical team, and officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the city of Konduz all helped prisoners who were injured by bombardments on the front lines. Most of them were saved from death. I repeat once again that I had given very clear orders for all of our troops in the Northern United Front to treat prisoners well."
The statement is challenged by a separate statement from Sam Zarifi, Asia-Pacific director for Amnesty International, who questions many of Dostum's assertions. It is curious that there is no direct interview with Dostum. My guess is that he refused to allow himself to be cross-examined by a reporter and only agreed to an uncut recorded statement.
If the General is so convinced that no prisoners were abused, then it is hard to see why he should object to a full inquiry into the matter. To date he has strongly opposed such an inquiry.
One thing however, is clear. He says he is returning to Afghanistan: "
I want to assure you all that General Dostum will soon be among the heroic peoples of Afghanistan. The way of struggle is never a smooth path. It is always a road with highs and lows. General Dostum has seen many of these highs and lows. Spreading such rumours will never have an impact on his strong will."

Thursday 16 July 2009

Will the truth about Dostum's massacre finally come out?

Hats off to Physicians for Human Rights, the organisation that has been fighting a long and lonely battle to investigate the November 2001 killing of up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners in northern Afghanistan. Now, it seems, President Obama is willing to reopen the controversy.
The prisoners, who had been captured at Kunduz, were being transported in container trucks by troops under the command of the Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who at the time was being paid by the CIA. When the prisoners eventually arrived at Sheberghan Prison many hundreds of them were dead or dying, having suffocated in the containers. The dead were buried close by in the desert at Dasht-e-Leili (see picture above).
PHR first reported on the killings in February 2002 and has since sent experts to the burial site to verify the story. The location itself, now much tampered with by Dostum's men, is an official war crimes site.
Despite their vociferous and principled campaign, it has taken PHR until this week for the US Administration to respond. You can find a full timeline for the PHR investigation here.
Following a New York Times article by James Risen last week, President Obama signalled that he may act on the scandal. He told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he has directed his national security team to look into the 2001 deaths and stated that the government needs to find out whether actions by the US contributed to possible war crimes. "If it appears that our conduct in some way supported violations of the laws of war, then I think that, you know, we have to know about that", said the President.
But what really lies behind this decision? All the evidence suggests that it is much more political than at first meets the eye. As readers of this blog will know, President Karzai recently reinstated General Dostum in his job as Army chief of staff, despite the fact that he was forced to leave Afghanistan at the end of last year and go into exile in Turkey (which is where he is at present).
The reason for his impending return is simple; President Karzai needs the votes of Dostum's Uzbek supporters and so has done a deal.
This has not gone down well in Washington, where they thought they had got rid of Dostum for good. So it looks like the decision finally to open up the murky history of this massacre is in effect a shot across Karzai's bows. If Dostum is rehabilitated, then the USA will push ahead with a war crimes tribunal.
Anyone who believes in democracy in Afghanistan must make sure that Dostum never returns to the country. Go to the PHR website and register your support for their campaign.

Wednesday 15 July 2009

List of Afghan Presidential candidates

After making a request to the independent electoral commission in Afghanistan for a list of presidential candidates in English earlier this week, I was duly sent the details. At the risk of boring my readers I am going to publish the list in full, not least because it has hardly been circulated. Here is the full list of 41 candidates:

Haji Rahim Jan Shinzad
Mohammad Yasin Safi
Mohammad Sarwar Ahmadzai
Eng. Moin-ul-din Ulfati
Dr. Habib Mangal
Zabih-U-llah Ghazi Noristani
Sayed Jalal Karim
Mirwais Yasini
Bismillah Shir
Bashir Ahmad Bizhan
Motasim Billah Mazhabi
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai
Abdul Latif Pedram
Shahnawaz Tanai
Dr. Mohammad Nasir Anis
Mulla Abdul Salam Rockity
Zia-ul-haq Hafizi
Mohammad Akbar Oria
Baz Mohammad Kofi - withdrawn
Sangin Mohammad Rahmani
Mahbob-U-lah Koshani
Mohammad Hakim Torsan
Abdul Hasib Arian
Mulla Ghulam Mohammad Rigi
Ramazan Bashardost
Mawlawi Mohammad Sayed Hashimi - withdrawn
Abdul Majid Samim
Nasrullah Baryalai Arsalai - withdrawn
Alhaj Shah Mahmood Popal
Mrs. Shahla Ata
Dr. Ghulam Faroq Nijrabi
Alhaj Abdul Ghafor Zori
Mohammad Hashim Tawfiqi
Haji Hasan Ali Sultani
Hamid Karzai
Mawlana Abdul Qadir Imami Ghori
Dr. Abdullah Abdullah
Dr. Ferozan Fanah
Abdul Jabar Sabit
Hidayat Amin Arsala
Gul Ahmmad Yama

There is no indication of political party for any of the candidates, most of whom are unknown. However, there are two women and I recognise the names of several besides the incumbent. There is, for example, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister who says that President Karzai offered him a plum job if he decided not to run. There is also Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, former finance minister who many people believe is a possible serious contender.
At a slightly different level is Mullah Rockity. Readers may remember him as a former Taliban commander who earned his name due to his prowess with an RPG rocket launcher against the Soviets. After his arrest by the Americans in Kandahar in 2001, he was detained for almost a year before he was released (you can find a more detailed profile here).
Curiously, it appears that rumours are circulating in Kabul that President Karzai may withdraw from the race in favour of either Dr Ghani or Dr Abdullah. The rumours were reported in the newspaper Roznama Mandegar today. Yesterday, another newspaper, Wrazpanra Weesa, reported that up to 20 candidates were about to withdraw in favour of Dr Abdullah. Clearly there is something happening in the Presidential Palace.
Update 26/7/09: Two candidates have withdrawn from the presidential race in the last few days. Nasrullah Baryalai Arsalai withdrew in favour of Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Mawlawi Mohammad Sayed Hashimi, a Shi'ite cleric who leads the Islamic Revolution Movement of Afghanistan, withdrew in favour of Hamid Karzai. More withdrawals are expected in the coming days.
Update 2 - 31/7/09: Candidate Baz Mohammad Kofi announced his withdrawal from the presidential race in Kabul yesterday, urging his supporters to vote for Hamid Karzai.

Afghans who are being driven towards insurgency

Yet another report that appears to challenge the military orthodoxy that dominates decision making in Afghanistan. Thomas Ruttig, co-director of Afghan Analysts Network (AAN), has just published The Other Side: Dimensions of the Afghan Insurgency: Causes, Actors andApproaches to ‘Talks’ which offers a detailed analysis of the Afghan insurgency.
The Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) says it is a non-profit, independent policy research organisation that aims to bring together the knowledge, experience and drive of a large number of experts to better inform policy and to increase the understanding of Afghan realities.
Ruttig notes the complexity of the insurgency, pointing out that it is made up of seven separate armed components. Four of these comprise the Taliban, which is made up of the Kandahari mainstream, the Haqqani and Mansur families and the Tora Bora front in eastern Afghanistan based on the remnants of Heb-e Islami (Khales). While there are differences, they all bear allegiance to Mullah Omar.
In addition, there are two other armed insurgent organisations, Hezb-e Islami Afghanistan led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and small Salafi Islamist groups operating in Eastern Afghanistan.
The seventh and final segment, much more recent, is a cluster of former mujahidin groups that feel alienated from the post 2001 political process and that have adopted a Taliban-like modus operandi, but who act independently of each other. "These organisations and groups do not consider Mullah Omar as their leader", says Ruttig. "In the field, however, they occasionally cooperate and coordinate with local Taliban. This includes joint 0perations, the use of the Taliban ‘label’ by other groups (e.g. on , ‘nightletters’, used to threaten the population or individuals) and unwritten, mutual non-aggression agreements".
Ruttig notes that while the Taliban is still a predominantly Pashtun movement, its appeal amongst non-Pashtun groups is increasing. This, he says, is due to a deepening sense of occupation and enormous growing anger about the behaviour of foreign forces ,which has already brought groups closer to the insurgency that earlier had supported international engagement in Afghanistan. "If this trend continues and ideologically different elements feel compelled to join, the insurgency has the potential to develop beyond ethnic boundaries and religious differences into an even broader Afghan nationalist movement."
Faced with a growing and heterogeneous insurgency, says Ruttig, it is necessary to develop differentiated political approaches to achieve stability. Pure counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency techniques will not succeed. He advocates developing multi-layered contacts (‘talks’) with different elements of the insurgency in order to differentiate between the motivations, aims and demands of its different components.
However, a ‘talks’ approach must be embedded in a broader ‘reconciliation’ strategy. The Afghan state itself is part of the problem and therefore cannot play a significant role in initiating either the short-term peace talks or long-term reconciliation. Instead, the best facilitator of ‘talks’ would be the UN in close cooperation with either a group of its Islamic member-states or the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
At the same time, the international community should focus on supporting pro-reform
and pro-democracy forces who are needed as stabilisers within Afghan society following the likely inclusion of additional Islamist forces as the result of a possible political accommodation.

Monday 13 July 2009

The risks of military entanglement in the South

As British and American forces battle against the Taliban in the southern province of Helmand, it is worth considering, even if only for a moment, whether or not they are fighting in the right place.
I don't say this lightly, as many soldiers have already died and it is in no way a criticism of their bravery to point out that they may have died for little palpable gain.
Last month Gilles Dorronsoro, a French scholar working with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, published The Taliban's Winning Strategy in Afghanistan , which argues that military forces have little chance of making gains in the South and should therefore concentrate on holding and consolidating the North of the country. He says that while all military eyes have been on Helmand, the Taliban has been extending its influence in the North.
Dorronsoro makes the point that the Taliban, which he describes as "a revolutionary movement, deeply opposed to the Afghan tribal system and focused on the rebuilding of the Islamic Emirate", has been under-estimated - a point that has often been made in this blog.
"They have made clever use of ethnic tensions, the rejection of foreign forces by the Afghan people, and the lack of local administration to gain support in the population. In so doing the Taliban have achieved their objectives in the South and East of the country, isolating the Coalition, marginalizing the local Afghan administration, and establishing a parallel administration (mainly to dispense Sharia justice and collect taxes)", he says.
Moreover, he notes, in recent months, a more professional Taliban has succeeded in making significant inroads by recruiting from non-Pashtun communities.
Dorronsoro argues that the current Coalition strategy of focusing its reinforcements in the South (Helmand and Kandahar) is risky to say the least. The lack of local Afghan institutions there will require a long term presence and therefore a need for even more reinforcements in the coming year.
Meanwhile, he says, the pace of Taliban progress in other provinces far outstrips the ability of the Coalition to stabilize the South. The Coalition should change the priorities of its current strategy, shifting resources to stop and reverse the Taliban’s progress in the North, while reinforcing and safeguarding the Kabul region or risk losing control of the entire country.
He makes some very pertinent points about the US strategy of killing Taliban commanders.
"Ironically, the International Coalition is unwittingly helping the Taliban maintain its cohesion by killing those commanders in the field most capable of opposing the central shura. Prime examples are Mullah Akhtar Osmani, killed in December 2006, Mullah Berader in August 2007, and Mullah Dadullah in May 2007. Evidence of the resilient character of the Taliban’s structure is the fact that the International Coalition’s killing of major leaders and its battlefield victories have not reversed the Taliban’s momentum."
The Taliban, says Dorronsoro, has created a sophisticated communications apparatus that "routinely outperforms the coalition in the contest to dominate public perceptions of the war in Afghanistan.” He says they build on the growing discontent of Afghans through a relatively sophisticated propaganda apparatus, which employs radio, video, and night letters to devastating effect. Videos, made in as-Sahab, the Taliban’s media center in Quetta, Pakistan, are readily available. This is certainly accurate, as I can attest myself. Last summer I came across Taliban videos being circulated by mobile phone around Kabul.
Backing up research by the Afghan organisation Cooperation for Peace and Unity (see my previous blogs on their research), Dorronsoro says that the main driver of the insurgency is not the political programme of the Islamist radicals, but local conflicts (many of which have an ethnic component) that have been allowed to flourish through government inaction, incompetence and corruption.
There is much to recommend Dorronsoro's analysis. Unfortunately, it would appear that battle lines have been drawn and that a re-emphasis on the North would now look like a defeat. We are reminded of one of the oldest laws of warfare - know your enemy.

Friday 10 July 2009

Presidential horse trading Part 2.

More on the deals being made by President Karzai to ensure that he wins in next month's presidential election. When the list of 41 candidates was released by the Independent Electoral Commission of Afghanistan last month, several names were not included, having been disqualified.
Amongst them was Akbar Bai, who comes from the Turcoman minority. Readers of this blog will remember that In February last year Bai and members of his family were the victims of a vicious assault by Uzbek warlord General Abdur Rashid Dostum, during which he was attacked with a bottle, according to former US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke (see my posting of 4 December 2008).
The attack took place because Bai had the temerity to break with Dostum's Junbish-e-Milli party and set up the Turcoman Council in opposition to his former ally.
It was this incident that was the final straw for the US in deciding Dostum had to leave the country. When, a few months later, Dostum ordered the bulldozing of an official war crimes site to hide evidence of his murderous actions in the wake of the Taliban's fall, he was finally flown out to Turkey, allegedly for medical treatment.
Now we know that President Karzai has been courting his favour in order to win Uzbek votes during the election (see story below). Part of the deal may also have been to ensure Akbar Bai did not stand as a presidential candidate. Bai was allegedly disqualified from standing because he had served time for drug offences in a US prison. However, he is indignant. “If there was a protest or complaint against us, they should have informed us earlier and given us an opportunity to defend ourselves, “said Akbar Bai.
He claimed that the president had ordered the electoral commission to exclude him, a charge the body has denied. But the charge is backed by Afghan political analyst Wahid Muzhda. “The decisions on the candidates were not impartial,” he says. “It seems that some kind of compromise has taken place,” said Muzhda. “This violates the commission's independence.”
And there are other signs that the President has been doing deals. This week President Karzai pardoned five heroin smugglers, one of whom is a relative of Deen Mohammad, the man who heads his campaign for re-election.
His relative was jailed for more than a decade in 2007 for smuggling more than 100 kg of heroin. But Deen Mohammad belongs to a powerful family from eastern Afghanistan. One of his brothers served as a deputy for Karzai before he was assassinated in 2002.
Karzai's spokesman, Siyamak Herawi, said the president had ordered the release of the five men some months ago and said it had no link with the election or Deen Mohammad's job.
"The tribal chiefs had sought their release and the president ... acquitted them," Herawi said.
Herawi said more than 3,000 people have been tried or imprisoned over drugs in Afghanistan in recent years, but he admitted the pardons were the first ordered by Karzai.
A further deal by Karzai concerns his running mate for vice president. In defiance of international pressure, Karzai appointed Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a commander in the militant group Jamiat-e-Islami during the country's civil war 20 years ago, as one of his two vice-presidential running mate.
A 2005 report from Human Rights Watch called Blood-stained Hands found "credible and consistent evidence of widespread and systematic human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law" were committed by Jamiat commanders, including Mr Fahim. He has been accused of murdering prisoners of war during the mujahideen government in the 1990s and has been linked to kidnap gangs operating in Kabul.
Mr Karzai was "insulting the country" with the choice, the New York-based group said recently.
Mr Karzai's other running mate is one of his current vice-presidents, Mohammed Karim Khalili, a Shia leader and former mujahideen commander.
As for the rest of the candidates, few are in a position to challenge the incumbent. When the Electoral Commission announced the list of 41 contenders, Azizullah Lodin, head of the commission, complained that many of them should not have been on the ballot paper at all:
"There are people among the candidates that even if you are not a psychiatrist you would say take them to the Ali Abad hospital," he said, referring to a Kabul mental hospital. He added, "The law says a candidate must have a good reputation, has not committed actions against Islam and national issues. A number of candidate are famous for committing actions against national interests.
"I personally feel ashamed that when I ask someone are you literate, and he says no. I ask if he has a professional background, and he says no. I ask if he was a mullah in a mosque, and he says no. And now he comes and registers himself and he wants to be president of Afghanistan. This is really shameful," Lodin told reporters.
(A list of candidates is available on the Electoral Commission website, but I have yet to find a list in English. If anyone has found one, please send me a copy.)
No-one wants to discredit these elections, which will be held against the background of a major insurgency and during which many people will die - both soldiers and civilians. But something needs to happen to politics in Afghanistan to make sure that they do not die in vain and that Afghans get a government they can believe in.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

Karzai's deal with the Hazaras and Uzbeks

As the Afghanistan Presidential election approaches, it is worth noting some of the deals that President Hamid Karzai is cutting to try to keep his position. The most significant so far involves the Hazaras and Uzbeks, who between them make up around 20 per cent of the electorate.
In early June the Wahdat-Junbish Alliance, representing the main Hazara and Uzbek political organisations and led by Haji Muhammad Muhaqiq and General Abdul Rashid Dostum, announced they would be supporting Karzai for the presidency.
The alliance between Hizb-e-Wahdat and Junbish-e-Milli came about after Muhaqiq visited General Dostum in Turkey in May. Dostum was dismissed as chief of the Army staff and forced to leave the country at the end of last year after it was clear that he would face war crimes charges. Under American pressure, the Turks took him under their wing, and they have clearly been working very hard since then to rehabilitate him.
In exchange for the Hazara and Uzbek votes, Karzai has apparently promised a substantial package of reforms that is little more than a political bribe.
The proposed reforms include:
* that Jaghoor and Behsood, two Hazara districts in Ghazni and Maidan, should be declared provinces;
* that the second vice president should be a Hazara. Karzai has already selected Mr Khalili as his VP;
* that Hazara representation be officially declared as 25per cent and Uzbek 15 per cent;
* that Wahdat should receive five cabinet portfolios and Junbish should receive four;
* that a highway be built from Kabul to Herat through Bamiyan and Daikundi;
* that the issue of Kuchi grazing rights - a source of conflict with Hazaras - should be resolved permanently;
* that the state should promote the Turko-Mongol language and culture;
* Perhaps most controversially, that General Dostum should be re-appointed as chief of the Army staff. This has now occurred, although Dostum remains in Turkey, allegedly undergoing medical treatment. On a visit to Afghanistan in June, the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said Dostum would soon be returning home.
Whether or not one likes the way politics plays out in Afghanistan, the Hazaras and Uzbeks are certainly supporting the new alliance. Earlier this week they held a massive joint rally outside the Hazrat Ali shrine in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. An estimated 70,000 people took part in what was the largest political demonstration ever held in the city. They heard their political leaders urge them to vote for Karzai. Whether Karzai can deliver on his promises remains to be seen.

Tuesday 7 July 2009

UK military spend in Afghanistan up 36% in a year

The UK government's announcement today of a Defence Review can hardly have come as a surprise to anyone who had read the House of Commons Defence Committee's scrutiny of the Defence Estimates for the military budget for 2009-10, covering both Iraq and Afghanistan, published a week ago.
That report showed that the total amount requested this year by the MoD is £39.7bn, of which £3.495bn will be spent in Afghanistan. This latter figure represents an increase of 36.6 per cent on last year. (In Iraq, in contrast, defence costs have decreased by 55.2 per cent as troops have been withdrawn.) Overall costs for operations in both countries added together show a slight decline by 3.2 per cent.
The committee berates the government for the late delivery of the Estimates this year, saying that they have barely had time to look at them properly and asking for an explanation. "We expect the Government in its response to this Report to set out the reason for the delays and the actions it intends to take in future years to ensure such delays do not happen again", they say.
A Memorandum from the MoD explains the increase in costs thus:
"Operations in Afghanistan include the additional security costs required for the local elections, and the costs of around 200 personnel providing counter improvised explosive device (IED) expertise. Capital costs for Afghanistan include Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) such as further force protection (e.g. tactical support vehicles and surveillance equipment), and ongoing further modifications to military equipment for use in the operational environment (e.g. further adaptations to Tornado aircraft and Lynx and Merlin helicopters). UORs by their very nature reveal a capability gap in a specific operational environment and are therefore sensitive. We therefore cannot provide precise details. There is also an additional capital provision for increased airfield and associated support infrastructure in Afghanistan.
The report helpfully provides a table showing UK defence expenditure in Afghanistan for the last five years. As the figures below show, spending has risen dramatically - by about a billion pounds a year over the last two years:
2005-6: £199m
2006-7: £738m
2007-8: £1,482m
2008-9: £2,559m
2009-10 (est): £3,495m

The large increases in costs in Afghanistan, combined with extra government spending because of the financial crisis, means that defence spending faces a cut of 10-15 percent over the period 2010-16, or about £6bn a year according to one analyst. Writing in Future Defence Review, published by the Royal United Services Institute, analyst Malcolm Chalmers makes the point that much of this saving may have to come from operations in Afghanistan. He continues:
"It is still entirely possible that, at some stage during this period, the conditions for a useful UK (or indeed US) combat presence will no longer exist, and an honourable transition to a support role will become possible. At the margins, increasing financial stringency at home may give UK leaders a further reason to restrain the continuing costs of the operation (in both human and financial terms), while also seeking solutions that allow such an exit to take place. This pressure will increase to the extent that the Treasury insists on the MoD funding part of the additional operational cost from its own core budget. But it will be developments within Afghanistan itself (including the success of Taliban reconciliation efforts and the strengthening of local security forces), together with strategic decisions taken in Washington DC, that will be the most important drivers of UK withdrawal."
It is clear that from next year onwards the British government will be under enormous pressure to reduce its spending in Afghanistan. It will not be long before signs of this - possibly in terms of greater support for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban - become apparent.
Today the Ministry of Defence announced a Defence Review to identify where savings can be made. Work is to begin immediately on the consultation process and the results will be published in a Green Paper early next year with the review to be launched after the general election.
In a written statement to the Commons Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth said the review would be designed “to ensure that we develop and maintain Armed Forces appropriate to the challenges we face and the aims we set ourselves as a nation”.

Wednesday 1 July 2009

Who's tweeting on Afghanistan?

Who's tweeting on or from Afghanistan? I had a quick look this morning and came up with the following list. Some I already follow, others look interesting: artafghanistan has 94 followers; afghanbuddies (73); AfghanistanNews ((16,757); US forces in Afghanistan usfora (4386); Afghanistandocu (1284); Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan RAWA77 (152); British Army MediaOps (1811); AfghanNews (3982); USEmbassyKabul (449). Any more suggestions?

Beanz Meanz Mung

I had to laugh at the Guardian story this morning about the British Army's discovery of 1.3 tonnes of 'opium poppy seed' in Helmand during Operation Panther's Claw. Having laid on press coverage and trumpeted their success to the world's media, suddenly the story began to look decidedly shaky. Guardian reporter John Boone submitted some of the 'poppy seeds' to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation in Kabul, only to be told they were in fact mung beans, a common food staple in the region introduced around 10 years ago. How anyone confused mung beans with poppy seed (you know, the tiny black ones you get on your bread rolls) is beyond me, but then again there's nowt so blind as those that don't want to see.
This debacle came only days after the British announced they were not going to change their opium eradication policy in Afghanistan, despite the fact that the Obama Adminstration has decided to abandon a similar policy as unworkable.
(PS The picture shows Mung beans).