Wednesday 18 January 2012

Pak Taliban murders tribal journalist

In yet another act of barbarity, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan yesterday murdered the former president of the Mohmand Agency Press Club, Mukarram Khan Atif.
The senior reporter was shot three times in the head by two armed men whilst offering evening prayers in a mosque in Karkay village in the Shabqadar area of Charsadda, close to his residence. The Imam leading prayers was also injured in the attack. Mukarram had relocated to Charsadda from Mohmand recently after receiving threats from Taliban militants.
During a 15-year career he had worked for several media organisations, but was most recently employed as a correspondent for Pakistan's Dunya TV channel and as a stringer for Voice of America's Pashto-language Deewa Radio.
In a telephone call to journalists in Peshawar, TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan claimed responsibility for the murder. “We have been warning him to stop his propaganda against us in the foreign media. He did not include our version in his stories,” adding that several more journalists were on their hit list. It appears that the main reason he was killed was for working for an American-financed news organisation.
Atif's murder was strongly condemned by tribal journalists and by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. Tribal Union of Journalists president, Safdar Hayat Dawar, announced three days of mourning and a sit-in outside the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Governor's office in Peshawar. Information minister Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan and President Zardari also condemned the killing.
Pakistan is one of the most dangerous places in the world to operate as a journalist. According to Reporters without Borders, 10 journalists were killed last year as a result of their work. The website of the Tribal Union of Journalists lists ten of its members who have been killed since 2005.

Monday 16 January 2012

TTP leader Hakimullah reported dead - again

For at least the third time Pakistani sources are reporting that TTP leader Hakimullah Mahsud has been killed in a drone strike. The sources say he was one of six passengers in a vehicle that was destroyed in a CIA drone attack on 12 January, close to the village of Nawa Adda in the Datta Khel area of North Waziristan. Initially it was reported that the car's occupants were from Turkmenistan, but later reports placed Hakimullah amongst the dead.
If the story is true it is likely that the feared TTP leader was given up by other militants in the region. Over recent months the TTP has split into numerous factions over the issue of whether or not to continue attacks on Pakistan's army, police and on civilians. Hakimullah and his increasingly isolated group - under the influence of al-Qaeda - refused to stop such attacks, while many other factions, including that of his rival, Waliur Rahman from South Waziristan, were engaged in negotiations with the Army.
Last week, in a move that is likely to have further isolated Hakimullah and his supporters, his men murdered more than 20 members of the Frontier Constabulary in cold blood. They also exploded a bomb in a market place, killing and injuring large numbers of men, women and children.
Last night the TTP's official spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan denied that the TTP leader was dead, although less confidently than in the past: "There is no truth in reports about his death. However, he is a human being and can die any time. He is a holy warrior and we will wish him martyrdom.We will continue jihad if Hakimullah is alive or dead. There are so many lions in this jungle and one lion will replace another one to continue this noble mission.”

Friday 13 January 2012

Baloch rebels ambush and kill 14 FC men

Some of the hundreds of missing people in Balochistan
On Wednesday it was the turn of Balochistan nationalist fighters to have a go at Pakistan's Frontier Constabulary, which has lost large numbers of men in FATA in recent weeks. In a spectacular ambush in the Nawanu area of Balochistan close to the border with Iran, irregulars thought to be from the outlawed Balochistan Liberation Front killed 14 FC personnel, including their two officers.
The FC men, in two vehicles, were engaged in a mine-sweeping operation when they came under attack from rockets and heavy machine guns. The BLA 'samarchars' (freedom fighters) escaped with arms and ammunition from the dead soldiers. 
The attack comes against a background of unexplained killings of prominent Balochis and continuing detention of hundreds of opponents of Pakistani rule of the province. According to the International Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, there have been more than 200 extra-judicial killings of missing persons in Balochistan since July 2010. Bodies turn up regularly on the sides of roads, many of them with broken limbs, knife or drill wounds and usually a gunshot wound to the head. Pakistani politicians regularly promise improvements in human rights and increased autonomy in the region, but the Army and intelligence agencies have their own agenda.

Thursday 12 January 2012

Coup looks increasingly likely in Pakistan

A military coup in Pakistan looks increasingly likely after President Zardari left the country for a "medical check-up" in Dubai today, for the second time in a month.
At Army HQ in Rawalpindi, army chief General Kayani met with his top commanders to discuss the widening rift between the armed forces and the civilian government. While Kayani is thought to be reluctant to mount a coup, he may be happy to allow the Supreme Court to dismiss the government for failing to investigate a corruption case levelled against the President. The deadline on that matter is Monday. 

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Pak generals can't decide coup plan

Will they or won't they? It looks like the Pakistan Army and ISI can't quite make up their minds whether or not to overthrow the government of President Asif Ali Zardari. Yesterday prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani sacked the defence secretary - a civil servant - for "gross misconduct and illegal action" and replaced him with a bureaucrat closer to the PPP.
The sacked secretary, army loyalist Retired Lt. Gen. Naeem Khalid Lodhi, is said to have forwarded documents to the Supreme Court on behalf of army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and ISI chief Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha. These concerned the so-called Memogate scandal in which Gilani is alleged to have sent a memo that requested support from the Americans against a possible coup attempt by the Pakistan military.
Lodhi has been replaced by Cabinet Secretary Narghis Sethi, the first woman to hold such an appointment, which is usually given to a retired military figure.
The statements submitted to the court by the generals argued that the memo in question was part of a conspiracy against the Army.
Gilani added to the pressure on the Army by giving an interview to a Chinese newspaper which said that Kayani and Pasha had violated the constitution by sending documents directly to the court, without going via the government. This in turn provoked a furious reaction from the General Staff who issued a statement saying that Gilani's allegation was "very serious". It didn't help that Kayani was on an official visit to China when Gilani gave his interview.
The Army statement went on to say: "There can be no allegation more serious than what the Honourable Prime Minister has leveled against COAS and DG ISI and has unfortunately charged the officers for violation of the Constitution of the Country. This has very serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences for the Country."
As if things were not bad enough, the Supreme Court has also threatened to dismiss Gilani's government if he refuses to open a corruption case against President Zardari by next Monday.
The future of the government is clearly hanging by a thread, with both the Army and the Supreme Court unsure that a coup would be popular. However, nothing can be ruled out.
If a coup does take place, what's the odds that Imran Khan will be called on to give the generals a human face?

Monday 9 January 2012

TTP murders another ten FC soldiers

The bodies of another ten murdered members of Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Constabulary have been recovered from the Dabori area of Upper Orakzai Agency. The soldiers were captured in a raid by militants on a checkpoint in the region on 22 December, when 13 other FC soldiers were killed.
This is the second mass killing of FC personnel in a week. Last week the bodies of 15 FC soldiers were found in North Waziristan, near the border with Afghanistan. Those killings were claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, as were the most recent killings.
The bodies of the ten FC men were exchanged for ten bodies of TTP fighters killed by the army in Khyber several weeks ago.
The Pakistan Army seems to be impotent in the face of continuing humiliations inflicted on it by the TTP militants and their supporters. Despite months of helicopter attacks, artillery bombardments and bombing raids on Upper Orakzai, the region remains firmly under the control of militants.

Saturday 7 January 2012

Afghanistan coverage in US papers falls in 2011

Coverage of Afghanistan in American newspapers fell in 2011 compared to the previous year, according to a study from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Although coverage of international issues jumped by more than a third - due mainly to events connected to the Arab Spring - the percentage of articles written about Afghanistan fell from four per cent in 2010 to 1.9 per cent in 2011. Afghanistan fell from the fourth most covered issue to the sixth.
However, the biggest breaking news story of the year in the US was the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. That week, the story filled 69 per cent of all news stories studied in newspapers and online and time on television and radio news, making it the biggest weekly story for four years.
In terms of Blogs and Twitter, Afghanistan did not feature at all in the top ten stories, which were dominated by the Economy and Apple news on blogs and  news about Google and Twitter itself, on Twitter. The killing of bin Laden featued at the tenth biggest story on blogs, but did not feature on Twitter to any great degree.
The best international news coverage was offered by PBS Newshour, which offered a third more coverage than the media overall.

Friday 6 January 2012

More on the murder of 15 FC jawans by TTP

I have many good friends amongst Pakistan's journalist community. People who have taken great risks to report the news in a country where the ISI in particular considers it a grave insult to report anything that criticises their activities. Therefore I cannot blame working journalists for the Pakistan media's shocking response to the murder of 15 Frontier Constabulary jawans by the TTP two days ago (see below). 
To call the response muted would be a gross understatement. The deaths - each of the murdered men had dozens of bullet holes in his body and many had been mutilated - have been almost completely ignored by the main media in Pakistan. Most papers reported the story way down the page and by the day following the gruesome event, it was not even being mentioned by the major satellite news channels.
There have been no rallies condemning the killings, no statements from the major political parties and a deafening silence from the military itself.
This despite the fact that the TTP said these killings were 'revenge' for an army operation in Khyber, in which a prominent TTP commander and some of his men were killed. (A translation of their statement, published by Flashpoint Partners, can be found here.) “We will soon take revenge for other operations too", said TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Khan, effectively taunting the Pakistan Army. Does he not know that it is forbidden in Islam to kill prisoners? That mutilation is a crime against both his religion and against humanity? 
I could only find one newspaper - the Express Tribune - that had even printed the names of the dead men. For the record, they were: Lance Naik Nisar Gul, Ali Ameer Naib Subaidar, Shakeel Gul, Rajid Khan, Muhammad Arif, Khan Talab, Ajeem Khan, Amjid Ali, Tayyab, Riwayat, Uzair Ali, Sabit Khan, Shafiur Rehman, Bacha Khan and Bawar Khan. Eleven of the deceased men belonged to the Mallagori area of Khyber Agency while three were from Shabqadar and one from DI Khan. Lions led by donkeys, as someone once said.

Thursday 5 January 2012

Murders will not stop TTP-ISI deal

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan announced today that it has slaughtered all 15 members of the Frontier Constabulary that it captured from Mullazai Fort in Tank district, South Waziristan on 23 December. It had originally demanded the release of prisoners held by the Army in exchange for the soldiers. The bodies were dumped somewhere in North Waziristan, close to the border with Afghanistan.
You might have thought that such a monstrous crime would have some kind of impact on relations between the TTP and the military. After all, Pakistan and the US are still not on good terms after US forces accidentally killed 24 members of the Frontier Corps in a mix-up close to the border last month.
However, you would be wrong. In the schizophrenic world that is Pakistan, a secret dialogue between the TTP and the ISI is still in full swing and has entered a "decisive phase", according to reports.
"We have drawn the broader outlines for a possible accord. And what we're now working on are minor details," an intelligence official said.
"These are crucial times ...we have to be extremely careful. A slight miscalculation can harm us in a big way," the official told The Express Tribune. Presumably the murder of 15 soldiers is not enough to constitute "a slight miscalculation".
Clearly this was just a bit of 'tidying up' by the TTP. No need to let it get in the way of a deal.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Pak Taliban factions unite under pressure

According to reports coming from Pakistan, a new organisation called the Shura-e-Murakbah, made up of the remnants of what was once the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has been created in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
The factions include those TTP remnants led by Hakimullah Mahsud, the South Waziristan faction of the same organisation led by Waliur Rehman Mahsud, the Hafiz Gul Bahadar group, Mullah Nazir's group and the Haqqani Network.
Its five members, according to Dawn newspaper, are Maulvi Azmatullah (representing the Waliur Rehman faction), Maulvi Noor Saeed (Taliban commander in Barwan representing Hakimullah), Maulvi Saeedullah (Haqqani Network), Maulvi Sadar Hayat (Hafiz Gul Bahadar) and Hafeez Amir Hamza (Mullah Nazir Group).
The Shura-e-Murakbah, besides dedicating itself to fighting the US-led forces in Afghanistan, has also promised to end kidnappings and other criminal activities in tribal areas, stating: “All Mujahideen, local and foreigners, are informed that they should desist from killing and kidnapping for ransom innocent people and cooperate with this committee in curbing crimes. If any Mujahid is found involved in unjustified killings, crimes and other illegal activities he will be answerable to Shura-i-Murakbah and will be punished in accordance with the Shariah law,” a statement issued on Monday by the new organisation says. It is a promise that is unlikely to be honoured for very long if past history is any guide.
It is well-known that Hakimullah and Waliur Rehman loathe each other and that other factions are also deeply divided. This meeting and alleged agreement looks more like a last-ditch effort to prevent serious fighting breaking out amongst the various factions.
According to a report in the Long War Journal by Bill Roggio, the deal was brokered by al-Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al Libi, along with Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Mansour from Eastern Afghanistan. Mullah Muhammad Omar is said to have played an important role in pressuring the factions to come to an agreement - although in the past his pleas have fallen on deaf ears - most notably, when Hakimullah went ahead with the killing of Colonel Imam, despite pleas from Mullah Omar and other jihadi leaders.
Despite press reports to the contrary, the new shura has not agreed to stop attacking the Pakistani armed forces. A spokesman for the shura said it would target "Americans and their allies in Pakistan, as well as Afghanistan."
The timing of the formation of this new organisation is clearly significant and reflects in part the growing dissatisfaction amongst many tribal fighters with Hakimullah Mahsud's leadership of the TTP. He is increasingly isolated and detested for his cruelty and poor leadership.
However, it is also significant that its formation was announced just as the Afghan Taliban have reached a critical juncture in their discussions with the Karzai government. It cannot be a coincidence that the Afghan Taliban announced this week the opening of a representative office in Qatar.
Three points should be drawn from this news: first, that al-Qaeda is still an important player - and, more importantly, financier - of the various jihadi factions in Pakistan. That is why they are at the table; second, support by Mullah Omar for this unification move may have more to do with unfolding events in Afghanistan than with a concern for uniting the notoriously unruly Pashtun tribes in Pakistan; and third, don't put any money on this agreement holding up for any length of time.
One final point: Murakbah is an Islamic term that is usually used within the Sufi community. It is an Arabic word which means "to watch over", "to take care of", or "to keep an eye on". In the Sufi context it implies that with meditation, a person watches over or takes care of his spiritual heart (or soul), and acquires knowledge about it, its surroundings, and its creator. Thus Shura-e-Murakbah would mean something like 'the Oversight Committee'.