Monday 29 November 2010

'The storyline does not match the facts' - ICG report

In a particularly frank report, the International Crisis Group says that US policy in Afghanistan is failing. "The storyline does not match facts on the ground", its argues, adding that "successive US administrations deserve much of the blame for this state of affairs".
Afghanistan : Exit vs Engagement says that a decade after US engagement began, Afghanistan is best understood as "a complex system of multi-layered fiefdoms, in which insurgents control parallel justice and security organs in many if not most rural areas, while Kabul's kleptocratic elites control the engines of graft and international contracts countrywide".
The policy of providing billions in international funds has simple cemented linkages between corrupt government officials and violent local commanders. "From the start the policy was untenable; selecting some of the most violent and corrupt people in the country, stoking them up with suitcases of cash and promises of more to come and then putting them in charge was never a recipe for stability, never mind institution building".
Mistakes included shifting resources from Kabul to Iraq immediately after the fall of the Taliban, the absence of policy coherence between Washington and NATO, as well as between US civilian and military officials, measuring inputs rather than outcomes and not taking seriously the task of reintegrating and reconciling former fighters.
The failure to encourage anything more than a rudimentary justice system has exacerbated problems, allowing insurgents to fill the vacuum.
However, ICG is against a rush to the exit. This would lead to the collapse of the Karzai government, Taliban control of most of the country and growing conflict in neighbouring countries, particularly Pakistan.
The report says that negotiations with the Taliban have little chance of success in the present climate and that the key is to improve security, justice and governance, although there are no quick fixes.

Leaked documents fail to impress

Once again, following the latest batch of leaked documents - this time official US diplomatic cables - released via approved newspapers on behalf of the Wikileaks site, I am forced to conclude that there is little to get excited about. The King of Saudi Arabia wants to bomb Iran? US diplomats spy on other diplomats? Iran gets missiles from North Korea? None of these stories would normally make the news list even on a quiet day. Perhaps they are saving the best stories for later.
In the meantime, Nicolas Sarkozy has a "thick-skinned and authoritarian personal style", Kim Jong-il is a "flabby old chap" and Dmitry Medvedev "plays Batman to Putin's Robin". It's all a bit like reading school reports. The Guardian has had 20 journalists working on this stuff for weeks and still there is nothing in their coverage that would rank as earth-shattering or even dramatic. Presumably if there was we would have heard something previously from the three million or so US citizens that have access to all this guff via the siprnet network where it is all stored.
Like the US Army combat reports that were previously leaked via Wikileaks, most of the reports here are of interest to geeks and academics only. Can you remember any of the stories connected to these previous leaks? Soldier Bradley Manning, who passed them all to Wikileaks, has a lot to answer for - in terms of hours wasted globally by mankind in reading less-than-fascinating speculations by bored diplomats. 
Of course it is occasionally interesting, diverting even, to read the stuff that the US intelligence agencies thought was so boring that they merely categorised as 'secret'. The colour of the wallpaper at the CIA headquarters in Langley is officially a secret. In fact out of the 250,000 documents leaked, only 4,330 are even in the category of Secret/Noforn, which means they should not be disclosed to foreign intelligence agencies. The rest are mostly unclassified or confidential.
If the rest of this material is of the same level of interest this will be one of the largest damp squibs in recent times. Compare this leak with the leak of UK Parliamentary expenses, for example. That led to the mass resignation of MPs, prosecutions and revelations of extraordinary details of the lives led by British lawmakers. The Wikileaks stuff is banal in comparison.

Saturday 27 November 2010

Wikileaks disclosures threaten diplomatic mayhem

What will be the effect of the imminent publication of three million documents by Wikileaks, some of which are likely to be diplomatic cables that will highlight internal US opinions on close allies and enemies alike? Already, the UK's D-Notice secretary, Air Vice-Marshal Andrew Vallance, has issued a warning to British news outlets requesting that they check with him before publishing anything. The D-Notice, which is a kind of official self-censorship request, has been published by blogger Guido Fawkes and can be found here.
Over the last 24 hours as Wikileaks prepares to publish, US diplomats at embassies around the world have been calling on their host governments to explain that the next few days could be difficult. In some cases the publication of sensitive cables may well have a lasting impact on international relations. Not since Soviet Russia's publication of diplomatic cables and agreements after the 1917 revolution or the publication of thousands of documents by the Iranian regime after they were reconstructed from shredded documents found in the US Embassy in 1979 has such light been cast on the inner diplomatic machinations of a major world power.
Whether this is a good thing or not is harder to judge. The modern state cannot function without secrecy, and there is no logical argument - except anarchism - for complete transparency. There is something about the Wikileaks project as presently constructed that smacks of adolescent anti-authoritarianism. And as for transparency, why does Wikileaks itself refuse to publish details of where it gets its income and how it spends it? Is it a journalistic fighter for truth or simply a money-making machine for its creator? You decide.

Friday 26 November 2010

Mullah riddle

Q: What's the difference between a fake mullah representing the Taliban leadership and a real one?
A: No idea.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

US Defense Dept paints picture of uneven progress

The fourth six-monthly report on Progess Towards Security and Stability in Afghanistan, submitted by the Pentagon to Congress this month, notes that progress across the country remains uneven, with modest gains in security, governance and development. It says signs of progress on security are evident in areas such as Central Helmand, but that governance and development lag behind these gains. Overall, 45 per cent of all violence and two-thirds of all IED attacks take place in the south of the country.
The report highlights the progress in the town of Marjah, which until the offensive launched during the summer was an insurgent command-and-control centre, a base for IED construction and a nexus for the narcotics industry. "Now the city is controlled by the Afghan Government", says the report. "Signs of progress in Marjah include voter registration, increased activity in local marketplaces and the reopening of schools that were closed for several years."
However, this rosy picture is somewhat contradicted by figures in the main body of the report. For example, Afghans' positive perceptions of security have declined since earlier this year, with the number of Afghans rating their security sitation as "bad" now the highest since the nationwide survey began in September 2008. The number of kinetic events, which included direct fire and IED attacks, has increased nearly 55 per cent over the previous quarter and 65 per cent compared to the third quarter of 2009. This rise, says the report, is due in part to the increase in Coalition forces and the increased tempo of operations. The large growth in direct fire attacks may be a result of a shortage of explosives for IEDs, a phenomenon noticed elsewhere.
IED attacks make up about a third of all attacks, but account for nearly 60 per cent of coalition and half of Afghan Security Force casualties.
The report states that growth in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) has been among Afghanistan's "most promising areas of progress", although improving the quality of the force "remains a serious challenge" and a potential shortage of trainers next year may threaten recent gains. The main problems are shortfalls of officers and NCOs, low literacy rates and lack of technical expertise. And while targets for recruiting soldiers were met ahead of schedule, recruiting police officers and keeping them continues to be a problem

Friday 12 November 2010

CIA drone campaign 'accurate and proportionate'

The most detailed database compiled so far on the accuracy of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan suggests that reports of the inaccuracy and disproportionality of civilian to military deaths are "grossly misleading", according to an article in the latest issue of the Jamestown Terrorism Monitor.
Written by three researchers at the University of Massachusetts, the article says that most of the critical reports have appeared in the Pakistani press and that they have impugned both the accuracy of the CIA drones strikes and over-estimated the number of civilian casualties.
The researchers compiled a database over the last year that draws extensively on Pakistani and Western newspaper reports of attacks, most of which are in the tribal territories along the border with Afghanistan. They only used cases where it was possible to compared multiple independent reports and always used low-end estimates for suspected militants slain. Where there was doubt, casualties were listed as 'unknown'.
According to the database, by 19 June 2010 there had been 144 confirmed CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, killing 1,372 people. Of those killed, only 68 (4.95%) were clearly identified as civilians, while 1,098 (80%) were reported to be militants or suspected militants. These included 50 high-value targets. The status of the remaining 206 deaths (15%) on the database could not be determined, so were assigned to the category 'unknown'.
The data also revealed that despite a substantial intensification of the Predator strikes starting in 2008 and accelerating through 2009 into 2010, and the broadening of target categories to include low level Pakistani Taliban, the ratio of suspected militant to civilian fatalities has remained steadily high and has gradually (if unevenly) improved.
The campaign's overall ratio of suspected militant to civilian fatalities appears to be substantially better than that of ground operations undertaken by the Pakistani Army.
The authors conclude that the CIA drone campaign is neither inefficient nor disproportionate in terms of civilian casualties. However, they note: "This conclusion does not, of course, resolve the ongoing debate over the use of Predator drones. Other objections are certainly being raised, perhaps most interestingly that their use may make going to war too easy, and thus result in a proliferation of armed conflict." The other question, not touched upon by the authors, is whether or not the drone campaign is legal under international law.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Afghanistan moving in right direction - survey

The Asia Foundation's Afghanistan in 2010: A survey of the Afghan People,  questioned more than 6,000 people this summer in all of Afghanistan's provinces and found that 47 per cent of them believed that the country was moving in the right direction - up from 38 per cent in 2008 and 42 per cent in 2009.
Insecurity remains the main reason for pessimism, cited by 44 per cent of respondents who say the country is moving in the wrong direction. Other reasons for pessimism include corruption, bad government and unemployment.
Over half of those questioned feared for their personal safety in their local area, with 17 per cent of respondents saying that they or someone in their family had been the victims of violence or crime in the past year. One in ten victims reported that this was due to the actions of militias and insurgents and about one in 16 said it was due to the actions of foreign forces.
Support for the government's approach for negotiation and reintegration of armed groups is significantly higher in 2010 than in 2009, with 83 per cent supporting government efforts to negotiate with armed insurgents, compared with 71 per cent in 2009. Support is highest in the east, south-east and north-west and lowest in the Central/Hazarajat region. Eighty-one percent agree that the government should provide assistance, jobs and housing to those who lay down arms and want to integrate.
The number of respondents who have sympathy with the insurgents has fallen from 56 per cent in 2009 to 40 per cent in 2010.
More Afghans say they are better off now than a year ago in terms of financial wellbeing, quality of food, availability of goods and employment opportunities. People are generally satisfied with the availability of schooling for children, the quality of drinking water and the ability to move safely in local areas. They are less satisfied with the availability of jobs and electricity.
There's plenty more facts and figures in this report and although opinion surveys are not always the way to understand what is happening in a society, this one is thorough and well thought out and because it is the fifth time it has taken place, it has a certain amount of credibility.

Monday 8 November 2010

Three exhibitions at Canada House in London

One of the pictures from Kandahar through Afghan Eyes
There's a few more days to see the Unsung Heroes of Afghanistan exhibition at Canada House in Trafalgar Square, London. The travelling exhibition, brought together by the Funder's Network for Afghan Women and the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee, profiles some of the Afghans who are working to make positive, lasting changes to their country.
Largely unknown in the West, these Afghans are working for human rights, gender equality, poverty relief, health, cultural revitalisation, education, a free press and an independent civil society. The exhibition is open from 10.00 to 18.00 until Thursday.
Also showing at the same venue is the exhibition, Kandahar through Afghan Eyes, a photographic display that captures the reality of life in Kandahar through the eyes of its young people.
A third exhibition at the same venue shows photos from rural Faryab in northern Afghanistan, as part of research project carried out by Jennifer McCarthy, a Canadian PhD student in the Department of Geography at King’s College London.
As Jennifer states: "They communicate the most important issues affecting their daily lives. They are at once inspiring and frightening in their honesty and intimacy and reframe what we think we know about life in Afghanistan."

Friday 5 November 2010

Taliban militants who function like criminal gangs

Example of a Taliban tax receipt 

In what must be regarded as one of the best, most informative reports written this year on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point  has published Gretchen Peters' superb report on Crime and Insurgency in the Tribal Areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Well researched and containing mounds of fascinating material, this report demonstrates that much of the insurgency in both these countries is primarily a criminal enterprise. This has been a theme pursued by this blog for some time, but Peters' report nails it to the ground, leaving little doubt in the reader's mind. According to Ms Peters:
"Within a realm of poor governance and widespread state corruption, anti-state actors engage in and protect organized crime — mainly smuggling, extortion and kidnapping — both to raise funds and also to spread fear and insecurity, thus slowing the pace of development and frustrating attempts to extend the rule of law and establish a sustainable licit economy. Militant groups on either side of the frontier function like a broad network of criminal gangs, not just in terms of the activities in which they engage, but also in the way they are organized, how funds flow through their command chains and how they interact—and sometimes fight—with each other."
She argues that the prevalence of crime offers possibilities to coalition forces, who can turn people against the insurgents by protecting them from the criminals. Growing numbers of local people, she says, are questioning the religious, political and ideological motives of the insurgents.
In Afghanistan, says Peters, the Quetta Shura of the Taliban increasingly behaves like a traditional drug cartel, seeking to maximise profits by processing opium into heroin. The organisation now demands that money earned from extortion and narcotics flows directly into central coffers instead of being controlled by district-level commanders.
The Haqqani network, based in the east of the country, raises much of its income from kidnapping or protecting smugglers or extortion. A third group, the Hezb-i-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, makes money by smuggling lootable resources such as timber and precious stones or antiquities.
In Pakistan, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has all the hallmarks of a powerful criminal empire, whose actions are threatening to damage the Afghan 'Taliban' brand name. Evidence of widespread criminality makes it hard to sustain Pakistani efforts to differentiate between 'good' and 'bad' Taliban.
Peters' report is full of examples showing how money is raised by the insurgent groups, including the huge amounts of money raised by 'taxing' trucks that bring supplies to the coalition forces in Afghanistan. These trucks routinely pay up to 40 per cent of the value of the consignment as tax to Taliban gunmen.
The gunmen themselves regularly fall out with each other over spoils, with dozens of fighters having been killed in fire-fights over who has the right to extort. Some of the material Peters references comes from the CTC's Harmony database which includes documents captured from Taliban fighters. These include correspondence showing commanders warning off rivals from carrying out extortions on their territory. Such extortion and 'taxing' is so widespread that in some areas the Taliban actually issues receipts so that traders are not fleeced more than once.
There is an old adage in reporting: Follow the money. In this case, as Peters shows so convincingly, it leads to a cesspit of crime - a million miles away from the stated goals of Islamic justice.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

Why Pakistan's anti-terror courts don't work

Pakistani journalist Huma Yusuf has produced a very helpful note  on Pakistan's anti-terrorism courts for the East-West Center, which shows some of the problems of bringing terrorism suspects to justice in that country.
For example, the 1997 Anti-Terrorism Act does not apply to residents of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, no matter where in Pakistan they are arrested. Instead, they must be dealt with under the Frontier Crimes Regulations, drawn up by the British in 1848 and designed to enforce collective responsibility. As Yusuf notes: "When suspected militants are repatriated to FATA, they often rejoin the insurgency."
Residents of the so-called "settled areas" are also not subject to national laws and often go free. The decision to send a terror suspect to the Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC), for example, is at the discretion of the officer who conducted the arrest.
Suspects who remain in detention are under the jurisdiction of joint investigation teams, including officials from the police and intelligence services. These teams rarely have access to the site of the arrest and have to rely on eyewitness accounts of military personnel. This means militants are frequently acquitted or serve only minor sentences.
Yusuf notes that according to a recent report by the Punjab Public Prosecution Department, suspected terrorists are freed when witnesses subject to intimidation refuse to testify. Between 1 January and 30 September 2010 proceedings were initiated in 1,324 cases registered under the ATA in the Punjab; in 306 cases the accused were freed when witnesses rescinded their testimonies; in 372 other cases the accused reached a compromise with prosecutors.
The court system is very inefficient, with more than 3,000 suspects remaining in makeshift detention camps awaiting trial.
The Anti-Terrorism Act itself violates certain basic rights, including the right to trial by jury with a full defence. Extra-judicial confessions recorded by security staff are admissible as evidence and suspects can be detained for up to 90 days without charge.  

Tuesday 2 November 2010

More trouble between the Brothers....

In yet another example of how crime and money are at the centre of much of the activity of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a notorious kidnapper and TTP commander, Adnan Afridi, was found dead with three bulletholes in his head in Rawalpindi on Monday.
As in the case of the Punjabi Taliban/Asian Tigers, who fell out and began killing each other after arguing over the division of ransom money, Afridi's story is less about Islam and more about money and crime.
Afridi, who came from the Wandgarai tribe of Bar Qambarkhel in Bara sub-division of Khyber Agency, was once a senior TTP commander and close aide of TTP leader Hakimullah Mahsud. He was in his late twenties and usually based in Darra Adamkhel, but had been in hiding for the past few weeks after falling out with the TTP leadership. He was expelled from Sadda in Kurram agency after killing some local TTP commanders in an attack on a vehicle. He had also been involved in a fierce gunfight with another prominent TTP commander, Mullah Toofan, in the Neka Ziarat area of central Kurram in July which resulted in 10 fighters being killed. Both sides in the dispute had used heavy weapons in the fighting.
Afridi was also involved in a feud with the Lashkar-i-Islam group in the Khyber region, having killed two of their commanders, Azam and Said Noor, in suicide attacks. The feud started when he refused to hand over three Sikhs he had kidnapped for ransom in March this year. One of the Sikhs was beheaded, while the other two were rescued in a Pakistan Army operation. In interviews he gave after being freed, one of the surviving Sikhs, 17-year-old Gurvinder Singh, said "All the bandits wanted was money. They were not religious men. We did not see any one of them offering prayers even once."
Some reports say that Afridi was also behind the August 2008 killing of Haji Namdar, chief of the Bara-based militant organisation Amr Bil Maroof wa Nahi Anil Munkir (Suppression of Vice and Promotion of Virtue Movement). Haji Namdar, who was a religious zealot but against attacks inside Pakistan, had forcibly rescued six Frontier Corps personnel captured by Afridi during an attack on a security checkpost in Ziarhai in 2008.
Haji Namdar had at first been lionised by the TTP, but was later accused of betraying the TTP after it tried to move into the Khyber agency that year. While at first supporting the TTP, who wanted to stage attacks on NATO convoys passing through the Khyber Pass to Kabul, he turned against them. The TTP has never been able to establish much of a foothold in the Khyber agency, where most tribesmen follow the moderate Barelvi school of Islam. It is thought that slain TTP leader Baitullah Mahsud sent Afridi to kill Haji Namdar in revenge for his alleged betrayal.
Afridi was last seen in the Shah Kas area of Jamrud tehsil in the Khyber agency, but moved on from there to Kohat after staying briefing in Bara in the last week of October. He had been staying with another TTP activist, Qudrat Khan, but only narrowly escaped when security forces arrived, killing Khan.
From there he was thought to have moved to the remote Tirah Valley, in the process cutting his long hair and trimming his beard. For some reason he decided to travel to Rawalpindi, where one of his many enemies caught up with him. Like many of his former brothers-in-arms, he seems to have spent more of his life killing fellow jihadis than anyone else.
This killing and others in recent weeks, including the apparent murder of one of Baitullah Mahsud's brothers, show that many of the militant islamist groups based along the border are beginning to break down and to destroy themselves. This process, exacerbated by the drone strikes that are killing many senior commanders and attrition by the Pakistan Army, is inevitable. Lacking the discipline of the Afghan Taliban and only motivated by the idea of plunder, these groups will eventually self-destruct.

Monday 1 November 2010

Talibs travel to Kabul for talks with Karzai

Maulvi Abdul Kabir during his arrest in Peshawar in February

Pakistani newspapers are reporting today that a delegation of mid-level Taliban leaders travelled to Kabul two weeks ago to meet Afghan president Hamid Karzai.
They say the Taliban leaders who met Karzai were Maulvi Abdul Kabir, the governor of eastern Nangarhar province during Taliban rule and head of the Taliban's Peshawar council until his arrest in February this year in Peshawar; his deputy governor in the Taliban regime, Sedre Azam; and Anwar-ul-Haq Mujahed, a militant leader from eastern Afghanistan credited with helping Osama bin Laden escape the US assault on Tora Bora in 2001.
Kabir is a senior member of the Zadran tribe, as are Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani and many of their supporters. Some reports suggest the meeting was an attempt to persuade Kabir to break with the Haqqanis and thus weaken their tribal support.
He is thought to have been a close aide and possible successor of Mullah Abdul Ghani Barodar, the Taliban No2 who was also captured earlier this year. As leader of the Peshawar shura of the Taliban, Kabir was responsible for liaison between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's faction of Hezb-i-Islami and the Pakistan Taliban.
The men were said to have been brought by helicopter from Peshawar in neighbouring Pakistan and driven into Kabul. Mujahed has been in Pakistani custody since June last year when he was picked up in a raid in Peshawar. Kabir is on the US most wanted list.
They spent two nights at a heavily fortified hotel in the Afghan capital before returning to Peshawar by helicopter, where Mujahed was placed again in custody.