Wednesday 29 February 2012

Killings destabilise Pakistan's northern areas

Gilgit crowds protest at Kohistan killings
In yet another sectarian attack on Shia pilgrims, 18 passengers were taken off four Gilgit-bound buses travelling along the Karakorum Highway in northern Pakistan by men dressed in Pakistan Army fatigues yesterday and shot to death on the side of the road. A breakaway faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility.
The killings are likely to cause great tension in the northern areas of Pakistan, which have been comparatively quiet in recent years. Earlier today there was a violent reaction to the killings in parts of Gilgit and Hunza Nagar, resulting in a curfew being imposed and schools and public buildings being closed. One man was shot dead in Gilgit.
The killers of the Shia pilgrims - who were returning from visiting Shia shrines in Iran - flagged the buses down near the town of Harban Nala, 130 miles north of Islamabad. They then climbed on board to examine identity papers before taking all the Shia men off the buses to shoot them one-by-one. Eight wounded survivors, including some women and children, were taken to the nearest hospitals, five hours drive away.
In a phone call to a news agency following the atrocity, a spokesman for the Jandullah faction of the Taliban claimed responsibility.
"They were Shias and our mujahedeen shot them dead one by one after bringing them down from a bus," said Ahmed Marwat, who described himself as a Jandullah commander. He said the killings were in revenge for the murder of two Sunnis in Gilgit a few days earlier.
Some of those killed outside Harban Nala
 A similar attack on Shia pilgrims occurred in Mustang in Balochistan last September. Then, 26 Shias from Quetta's Hazara minority were shot dead on a bus travelling to Iran. The attack was claimed by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
Update: The Asian Human Rights Commission, based in Hong Kong, says in a statement that it believes the killings at Harban Nala were carried out by members of the Pakistan Army. "It is inconceivable in this day and age of modern communications, when every person owns a cell phone that the killers were able to operate on their own without any fear that they would be stopped at a military check post. This can only mean that they were military personnel themselves." 
Yesterday Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the perpetrators of the massacre had been tracked down and would soon be shown to the public.

Monday 27 February 2012

Debate on drone casualties continues

The debate about the effectiveness or otherwise of the CIA's secret drone campaign in Pakistan continues. The latest salvo comes from an Associated Press investigation, carried out by an AP reporter who spoke to about 80 villagers at the sites of 10 attacks in North Waziristan - one of the main sanctuaries for militants fighting against the Karzai government and Coalition troops in neighbouring Afghanistan.
The survey found that 194 people were killed in the ten attacks, of whom at least 138 were militants, according to the villagers. The remaining 56 were either civilians or tribal police. Of these, 38 were killed in a single attack on 17 March 2011 - widely reckoned to have been a major mis-targetting.
If that strike - one of the worst civilian death tolls since the drone campaign began - is excluded, says AP, then nearly 90 per cent of people killed were militants, according to locals.
Neither the CIA nor the US government will provide any figures for deaths caused by a total of more than 300 drone strikes since 2004; but both generally deny that any civilians are killed. In response to criticism, defenders of the drone campaign point to the large number of senior militants killed in such strikes.
Nor is it easily possible to get accurate figures from the region, which is off-limits to foreign journalists. However, the numbers collected by AP were very close to figures given at the time of each strike by Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity. These same officials seldom break down the figures into civilians and militants.
The figures differ widely from those often bandied about in Pakistan, where the drone attacks are controversial, with some politicians claiming almost all victims are civilians.
They also differ from those produced by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism whose recent reports suggest somewhere between 70-80 per cent of all drone-related deaths in Pakistan are of militants. 
Last week, Reprieve, the human rights NGO, filed a complaint at the UN against the USA for the killing of innocent civilians in Pakistan in drone attacks. The complaint was filed on behalf of 18 civilians in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas who claim that relatives have been killed or wounded or property has been destroyed by missiles fired by drones.

Thursday 23 February 2012

Internal displacement rising in Afghanistan

Internal displacement of civilians is on the rise in Afghanistan, with more than 100,000 forced to leave their homes between January and June last year due to the spreading conflict in the country. 
So says Amnesty International in a new report, Feeling War, Finding Misery: the plight of the internally displaced in Afghanistan which says the total number of people living in camps within the country has reached half a million. The number of displaced persons has increased every years since at least 2008, with as many as 35,000 living in the slum areas of Kabul. Conditions are very poor, with nearly two dozen children under the age of five freezing to death in January 2012. 
Amnesty sets out a range of policies to deal with this growing problem, including a prohibition on forced evictions, access to primary schools for all children, provision of shelter, food, water and health care.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Suicide bomber blows up a peace agreement

Aftermath of the Parachinar bombing
What is now left of the peace deal signed last October between Sunni and Shia tribesmen in the strategically important Kurram Agency in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas? On 17 February a suicide bomber detonated his explosives in the Kurmi Bazaar in Kurram's main town Parachinar, near the Imambargah, killing more than 40 Shia worshippers.
The bombing was claimed by Fazal Saeed Haqqani, who runs the Tehreek-e-Taliban Islami, a sectarian breakaway faction of the TTP. Haqqani was quoted as saying: “We have targeted the Shia community of Parachinar because they were involved in activities against us,” adding, “We had warned the political administration previously not to side with Tooris (the local Shia tribe)... We caught a man yesterday who was planting a bomb at a petrol station owned by a Sunni. We did it in response.”
Part of the reason the peace agreement was signed - and backed by the Pakistan military - was that this part of Kurram is one of the main entry points for militants trying to get into Afghanistan from Pakistan. The ongoing sectarian conflict between the local Toori tribesmen, who are Shias, and Sunni tribesmen from surrounding tribes, made it difficult for fighters from the Haqqani Network to use this route into Afghanistan.
A truce was initially agreed last February and then a peace agreement was signed on 9 October last year by 25 elders from each side at a tribal jirga held in Parachinar under the auspices of political agent Shahuddin Shahab. With the recent bombing, events are back to square one.

Saturday 18 February 2012

Useful database of Afghan personalities

The most complete database of prominent Afghans and Afghan political groupings can be found on a very useful site called Who is Who in Afghanistan. The database contains information on just about any Afghan you need to know about, as well as more generic entries. For example, a very useful note on the Kandahar Tribal Council lists all the members, as well as giving a good breakdown of the local tribes and their prominent members. It also has entries for the Quetta Shura and its members, the 2011 Bonn Conference, the Haqqani network and many hundreds of other personalities.
There is also an interesting section called Sar-e-Chowk or Rumour-Intelligence, which contains some fascinating snippets. For example, this section says that Burhanuddin Rabbani's son Salahuddin, formerly Afghan Ambassador to Turkey, will be appointed to chair the High Peace Council as a replacement for his assassinated father. He has already been appointed as leader of the Jamiat-e-Islami.
Other rumours reported include one that suggests President Karzai will support Mustafa Zahir, grandson of the former King Mohammad Zahir Shah, in the next presidential election. Karzai himself, says the note, will get an honorary position that will allow him to continue his political activities in the Presidential Palace. This, of course, is assuming that the Taliban does not come back into power.
No information on who writes this or how it is funded although it is described as a "private, independent, non-profit database". Anyone wishing to contribute to the database can send material to

Friday 17 February 2012

Report on religious extremism in Pakistan

Pakistan's Jinnah Institute has produced an informative report on religiously motivated violence in Pakistan, with the aim of outlining and categorising the forms it takes. Extremism Watch: Mapping Conflict Trends in Pakistan 2010-2011 contains much useful data and highlights the links between religious fanatics and elements of the country's ruling elites.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Contractor deaths outnumber military for first time

All the following quotes come from Rod Nordland's interesting article, Risks of Afghan War shift from Soldiers to Contractors, published on 11 February by the New York Times.

"Last year, at least 430 employees of American contractors were reported killed in Afghanistan: 386 working for the Defense Department, 43 for the United States Agency for International Development and one for the State Department, according to data provided by the American Embassy in Kabul and publicly available in part from the United States Department of Labor."
By comparison, 418 American soldiers died in Afghanistan last year, according to Defense Department statistics compiled by, an independent organization that monitors war deaths."

"The biggest contractor in terms of war zone deaths is apparently the defense giant L-3 Communications. If L-3 were a country, it would have the third highest loss of life in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq; only the United States and Britain would exceed it in fatalities."

"Over the past 10 years, L-3 and its subsidiaries, including Titan Corporation and MPRI Inc., had at least 370 workers killed and 1,789 seriously wounded or injured through the end of 2011 in Iraq and Afghanistan, records show.
Other American companies with a high number of fatalities are Supreme Group, a catering company, with 241 dead through the end of 2011; Service Employees International, another catering company, with 125 dead; and security companies like DynCorps (101 dead), Aegis (86 dead) and Hart Group (63 dead). In all, according to Labor Department data, 64 American companies have lost more than seven employees each in the past 10 years."

"For every contractor who is killed, many more are seriously wounded. According to the Labor Department’s statistics, 1,777 American contractors in Afghanistan were injured or wounded seriously enough to miss more than four days of work last year."

Cost of Afghan intervention: $443 billion and rising

Non-US donors to Afghanistan
"Through the end of FY2011, the United States has provided over $67 billion in assistance to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, of which about $39 billion has been to equip and trainAfghan forces. During FY2001-FY2011, the Afghan intervention has cost about $443 billion, including all costs. For FY2012, about $16 billion in aid (including train and equip) is to be provided, in addition to about $90 billion for U.S. military operations there."
All this and more in a very informative Congressional Research Service report:  Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy, written by Kenneth Katzman and published last week.
Includes assessments of security policy for the next three years, detailed breakdowns of humanitarian, economic and military aid, an overview of 'the enemy', commentary on the Obama troop surge, regional relationships, residual issues and 26 very useful tables.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Taliban defence minister "died in Karachi gaol"

The Taliban yesterday confirmed that its former defence minister during the Islamic Emirate had died nearly two years ago in a Pakistani prison. Their website says that he was detained on 3 January 2007 by the Pakistani government in Balochistan, but that little was heard from him after that. Only in the last few days did his family receive news from Pakistan that he died in prison in Karachi due to "heart complications" on 5 March 2010.
In a statement the Taliban says: "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan considers the martyrdom of Shaheed Mullah Obaidullah Akhond a void for the entire Islamic Ummah and especially Afghanistan which cannot be compensated and vigorously demand from the Pakistani officials to give the complete and factual information of Al Haaj Mullah Obaidullah’s detention, illness and death to the Islamic Emirate. In this regard, we also hold the International Red Cross responsible as the news of the martyrdom of Al Haaj Mullah Obaidullah Akhond was received after a period of 2 years and also for not providing any type information about the concerned martyr and others to the families of these prisoners of Islamic Emirate who are held in Pakistan and we also demand that they fill this shortcoming in the future as it is their obligation."
It is clear from the statement that the Taliban itself was in ignorance of the fate of Mullah Obaidullah. He had recently been slated as a potential member of a negotiating team with the Karzai regime and his release by Pakistan was one of the preconditions the Taliban insisted upon before they would agree to negotiations. They are now demanding an inquiry into his death.
His death will come as a shock to many Taliban members. As one of the most senior Taliban figures and someone known to be very close to Mullah Omar, the intriguing question is whether or not Mullah Obaidullah was murdered under torture or died of natural causes in captivity. 
Was he seen by the Pakistanis as one of the old guard around Mullah Omar, whose outlook did not suit Pakistani interests any longer? Although he was one of those who began to reorganise the Taliban once it had fled into exile in Pakistan, it is possible that he favoured negotiations to end the conflict. He was close to Mullah Barodar, who was also arrested by the Pakistanis, some say because Barodar was also in favour of negotiations with the Karzai regime. If his death was natural why was it covered up by the Pakistanis for so long? Any more information would be appreciated.

Friday 10 February 2012

'Masterminds' republished in USA

The book I wrote with Yosri Fouda, Masterminds of Terror, has now been republished by our American publishers, Arcade, under the title Capture or Kill: The Pursuit of the 9/11 Masterminds and the Killing of Osama bin Laden. It contains a new chapter on the fate of all those within al-Qaeda who knew in advance of the plans to attack America, and the legal battle being fought by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and the other conspirators from their cells in Guantanamo. You can buy a copy here.

openDemocracy article on Saleem Shahzad

My latest article for openDemocracy, on the death of Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad, can be found here.

Landmark US hearings on Balochistan

On Wednesday the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing on Balochistan, Pakistan's restive province and, some say, a country denied its statehood. The committee heard detailed evidence of human rights abuses and hundreds of unexplained killings in the province - mostly attibuted to the Pakistan Army and the ISI, but some also carried out by Baloch nationalists - from Ali Dayan Hasan from Human Rights Watch and T Kumar  from Amnesty International. 
Several members of Congress from both sides of the political divide spoke in support of Balochi independence. Defence analyst Ralph Peters said it was an “incontrovertible fact” that Balochistan was an “occupied territory  which never willingly acceded to Pakistan and now does not wish to be a part of Pakistan".  "If a plebiscite or referendum is to be held tomorrow, it would vote to leave Pakistan," he said. Dr M Hossainbor, an American Baloch lawyer, said that Balochis were natural allies of the United States and that an independent Balochistan would offer naval bases to the UN Navy.
Christine Fair, an associate professor at Washington's Georgetown University and someone who is generally well informed about Pakistan, appears to have a blind spot when it comes to Balochistan. Her useful potted history of the province concludes by saying that the Baloch nationalists should put down their weapons. She adds: "the state needs to abandon its preferred militarised conflict resolution techniques in preference to engaging legitimate grievances...". By "preferred militarised conflict resolution techniques" is she referring to the mass murder of intellectuals in Balochistan that has been happening over the last two or three years undisturbed by any comments by US leaders, who continue to turn a blind eye? Come on Christine, you can do better than that!

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Keeping up contacts

The official investigation into the killing of Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad, predictably, was unable to pinpoint blame for the barbaric murder last May. But the report itself, not available online, contains some interesting material. Once section notes the mobile calls made by Saleem and lists the telephone numbers of some of his jihadist contacts. Amongst the numbers listed are those for the following militants, some of whom are now dead. Please feel free to contact any of those with whom you may wish to exchange the odd pleasantry or two:
Usman Punjabi of the Punjabi Taliban (dead): 928 311 876
Punjabi Taliban Markaz: 928 312 150/928 313 593
Abu Hafsa (al-Qaeda): 928 313 098
Al-Gamyat al-Islamiyah (Egyptians/al-Qaeda: 0300 828 5888
Shakib al-Turkestani and Jamal Ismail: 0300 854 2147
Afaf Fuad Mustafa Sala and Mustafa Salah: 0321 855 5511
Qari Ismail, associate of Ilyas Kashmiri in South Waziristan: 0323 933 2210

Tuesday 7 February 2012

New article in Emirates magazine

For those of you who read Arabic, here is the link to my latest article in Aafaq al-Mustaqbal, published by the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research. The article examines whether or not there is still a close relationship between al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban.

Monday 6 February 2012

Army officer: US public being misled on Afghan war

Here is the article published in the Armed Forces Journal, an official publication of the US Army, by Lt Col Daniel L Davis, a fervent Christian, who says that the American public is being told lies about what is happening in Afghanistan.
“How many more men must die in support of a mission that is not succeeding?“ Colonel Davis asks in his article entitled Truth, Lies and Afghanistan: How Military Leaders Have Let Us Down. “No one expects our leaders to always have a successful plan,” he says in the article. “But we do expect — and the men who do the living, fighting and dying deserve — to have our leaders tell us the truth about what’s going on.”
Without the approval of his superiors, Davis decided in January to take his complaints to Washington. He wrote two reports - one unclassified and the other classified - then briefed four members of Congress and their staff members, spoke to The New York Times, sent his reports to the Defense Department’s inspector general — before informing his chain of command that about he had done. Remarkably, the US Army has not decided to discipline Davis (so far), telling him that he would not face any 'adverse reaction'. One to be watched.

Hell and Back Again in running for an Oscar

Released in October last year, Danfung Dennis' documentary film about the war in Afghanistan, Hell and Back Again, has already garnered a fistful of awards, including Winner of the World Cinema Jury Prize Documentary at Sundance and the World Cinema Cinematography Award, also at Sundance, the Best Documentary Film at the Moscow International Film Festival and winner of the Harrell Award for Best Documentary at the Camden International Film Festival. It is also a nominee for Best Documentary at the 2012 Academy Awards.
Danfung Dennis shooting the film in Afghanistan
Michael Kamber in the New York Times said: "A tour de force...HELL AND BACK AGAIN stacks one astonishing shot atop the next: perfectly composed tracking sequences in the heat of battle; saturated moody low-light compositions in rainy North Carolina parking lots; gorgeous rich soundscapes".
More details on where to see it on the official website.

Afghan civilian conflict deaths continue to rise

Figures from the United Nations for the numbers of Afghan civilians killed and injured show that, in contrast to the figures issued by the US military, they rose for the fifth consecutive year in a row. Although not directly comparable, the UN figures show that 3,021 civilian deaths in 2011 compared with 2,790 in 2010 and 2,412 in 2009.
Over the past five years, the number of Afghan civilians killed in the armed conflict in Afghanistan has increased each year, with a total of 11,864 civilian lives claimed by the conflict since 2007.
In contrast, the figures issued a week ago by the US Congressional Research Service and listed below, give lower figures for civilian deaths in Afghanistan; between January and November 2011, the CRS says 2,262 Afghan civilians were killed and 3,032 were injured. The same figures showed that in the same period 239 members of the Afghan National Army were killed (239 wounded) and 522 police (483 wounded). All these figures were lower than for the previous two years at least.
However, the UN figures, which are generally regarded as more accurate, go on to show that anti-government elements (AGE) caused the most civilian deaths - around 2,332 (77 per cent of all civilian deaths and up 14 per cent on 2010). In addition 410 deaths were caused by pro-Government forces and a further 279 deaths could not be attributed to any particular party in the conflict.
The increase in the number of civilians killed by AGEs is due to the more frequent use of IEDs and of suicide bombers; 967 civilians died as a result of IEDs, which is a third of all civilian deaths; 450 people died as a result of suicide attacks, up 80 per cent on the previous year, even though the number of such attacks did not increase.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Pakistan aiding Taliban - can it be true?

The news that a secret NATO report, based on the interrogations of thousands of Taliban prisoners, claims that Pakistan's intelligence services are helping the Afghan Taliban is hardly surprising, although its other main conclusion - that the Taliban are set to retake control over the country - may be more controversial.
The classified report, drawn up by the US military at Bagram Airbase for top NATO officials in January, notes: "Pakistan's manipulation of the Taliban senior leadership continues unabatedly". It says that Pakistan is aware of the locations of senior Taliban leaders: "Senior Taliban representatives, such as Nasiruddin Haqqani, maintain residences in the immediate vicinity of ISI headquarters in Islamabad". It adds: "Senior Taliban leaders meet regularly with ISI personnel, who advise on strategy and relay any pertinent concerns of the government of Pakistan."
It also quotes a senior al-Qaeda detainee as saying: "Pakistan knows everything. They control everything. I can't piss on a tree in Kunar without them watching." He adds: "The Taliban are not Islam. The Taliban are Islamabad."
In its damning conclusion the report says that interest in the Taliban has been growing, even amongst members of the Afghan government, also adding that "Afghan civilians frequently prefer Taliban governance over the Afghan government, usually as a result of government corruption." 
The Taliban tactic is to reduce attacks in some areas and then initiate a comprehensive hearts-and-minds campaign. In areas were ISAF forces have withdrawn, Taliban influence has increased, often with little resistance from government forces, who have often sold weapons to the insurgents.
The leaking of the report to the BBC and The Times appears to have been designed to embarass Pakistan, whose foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, is currently in Kabul for talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The issue of whether or not the Taliban is growing in popularity is open to question. A report published by the Asia Foundation in November, Afghanistan in 2011: A survey of the Afghan People, found that support for the Taliban among Afghans has steadily declined in recent years. It found that 82 per cent of those surveyed back reconciliation and reintegration efforts with insurgent groups. The number of people who said they sympathized with the aims of the Taliban had dropped to 29 per cent compared to 40 per cent in 2010 and 56 per cent in 2009.
However, a lack of security was identified as the biggest problem in the country by 38 per cent of those polled, followed by unemployment and corruption. Seventy-one per cent of respondents said they feared travelling from one part of the country to another. Most of these problems can easily be placed at the door of the Karzai government and the Taliban can play upon its promises to restore order in the country. The survey was conducted among 6,348 adults in July 2010 in all of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, excluding some dangerous areas.

Slight fall in US Afghan combat casualties in 2011

The latest US Congressional Research Service report on military and civilian casualties in Afghanistan shows that from 7 October 2001 until 18 Jan 2012 a total of 1,864 American warfighters had been killed. Of these, 1,485 had been killed as a result of hostile actions, whilst another 379 died as a result of non-hostile actions. Non-hostile casualties are defined as casualties that are not directly attributable to hostile action or terrorist activity, such as those due to the elements, self-inflicted wounds or combat fatigue. 
Total US deaths in 2011 fell by almost a fifth compared to the previous year, although the numbers of wounded in action (WIA) fell only very slightly, to 5,159. The numbers of WIA more than doubled in 2010 compared to the previous year, a fact explained by the US troop surge.
A more detailed breakdown of the figures prepared by the Defense Manpower Data Center shows that of the non-hostile deaths, 232 were due to accidents, 41 to illness, 11 due to homicide, 74 were self-inflicted, with the rest undetermined or pending. Most of those who died as a result of hostile action were serving in the army or Marines.
Figures for other countries in the Coalition show that there have been a total of 974 deaths, of which 395 were British, 158 Canadian, 78 from France, 52 from Germany and 44 from Italy. Every Coalition country has lost at least one soldier KIA.
The number of Afghan civilians, police and military killed is less clear. Figures for civilians only began to be collected in 2007. Some figures come from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission  and Afghan Rights Monitor, whilst the CRS report now derives casualty figures of Afghan soldiers and police from the press accounts of the Reuters “Factbox: Security Developments in Afghanistan” series, the Pajhwok Afghan News agency, Daily Outlook Afghanistan from Kabul, and the AfPak Channel Daily Brief, most of which derive their figures from NATO or local Afghan officials.
Between January and November 2011, according to these figures, 2,262 Afghan civilians were killed and 3,032 were injured. In the same period 239 members of the Afghan National Army were killed (239 wounded) and 522 police (483 wounded). All these figures were lower than for the previous two years at least.