Thursday 28 June 2012

Drones-R-Us, now in every toyshop

Fascinating article by Chris Anderson in Wired's Danger Room 'How I accidentally kickstarted the drone boom', which makes the astonishing point that Chinese toy companies showing their wares at the Hobby Expo China in Beijing in May were selling drones with "the same capability as the military ones, sometimes for less than $1,000. These Chinese firms, in turn, are competing with even cheaper drones created by amateurs around the world, who share their designs for free in communities online. It’s safe to say that drones are the first technology in history where the toy industry and hobbyists are beating the military-industrial complex at its own game."
Although not allowed to operate commercially in the USA, the Federal Aviation Agency is planning to allow this to start in 2015.
Anderson says that the DIY Drones online community he founded in 2007 already has 26,000 members who fly drones they either assemble themselves or buy ready-to-fly. He estimates that 1,000 new personal drones take to the skies of America every month. Obviously these are not comparable with the military drones and cannot fire missiles, but in almost every other respect they are similar. Whatever you think about them, there is no turning back. Drones are now part of our society.

Friday 22 June 2012

Bucket of fries to go with that?

I enjoyed this pic from Kabul, tweeted by BBC reporter Bilal Sarwary (@bsarwary). But what's wrong with Kabuli pilaw?

Wednesday 20 June 2012

(Heavily redacted) CIA bin Laden documents published

OK, they're not all like the one above, but most are heavily redacted and I have yet to find anything interesting in the 100-plus CIA documents on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, dating from 1992-2004 and published by the National Security Archive, that has not already been published.

Disparity in official figures for civilian killed by drones

How many civilians in Pakistan have been killed in drone strikes? Leaving aside the question of who is a civilian and who is a combatant, there is an enormous disparity, as pointed out in an article by Justin Elliot of ProPublica - not least, in those given in off-the-record briefings by Obama Adminstration security officials.
Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal website, which bases its estimates on news reports, puts the number of civilian killed in Pakistan at 138, against 2,307 Islamist fighters. The New America Foundation states that, based on press reports, between 293 and 471 civilians have been killed in the 300-plus attacks since 2004. 
The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which draws on sources including researchers and lawyers in Pakistan, puts the number of civilians killed at between 482 and 832. The authors of the various estimates all emphasize that their counts are imperfect.
Elliot has used another indicator to analyse civilian casualties. He has compared the many claims made by Obama Administration officials about the number of civilian casualties. His research shows that a wide variety of figures have been given out - off the record, of course - over the last few years. These include "a handful", "zero", 60, 50, "about 30", "under 40", "at most a few dozen", "roughly 30" and so on.
US security officials - the CIA - claim they know the figures because they monitor phone and other conversations after a strike and they observe funerals and other events connected to the strikes. Sounds good, but with such a variation in figures, their case is undermined.
For some people even a single civilian death is one too many whilst for others the issue is that of proportionality - whether or not the number of civilians being killed is proportional to the military advantage anticipated. For those running the CIA drone campaign in Pakistan it seems that the only figures that matter are the number of senior al-Qaeda and other militants who are being killed.

Sunday 17 June 2012

Sick minds behind ban on polio campaign

Supporters of Hafiz Gul Bahadur - the leader of a Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan faction in North Waziristan - on Saturday handed out pamphlets in Miran Shah, the capital of North Waziristan, threatening anyone involved in an ongoing polio vaccination campaign in the troubled region. Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world were the polio virus is endemic.
An Urdu-language pamphlet entitled Mas’ul-o-Khadimul Mujahideen and handed out in the town said: "We announce a ban on polio vaccination campaign from today (Saturday)", and warned local residents that "violators will have no right to register a complaint if they are harmed".
The reason? "Chief of the Shura-e-Mujahideen, North Waziristan, Hafiz Gul Bahadur sahab, has decided in consultation with his shura (council) to impose a ban on polio vaccination unless drone strikes are stopped in Waziristan," the pamphlet said. A spokesman for the faction later said that the impact of the drone campaign was worse than the spread of polio.
It also added that another reason for the ban was fear of espionage, mentioning the case of Shakeel Afridi, the government doctor who was recently given a 33-year prison term after being arrested for helping the CIA track Osama bin Laden last year.
"The well-wishers (the US) spend billions of rupees on the polio vaccination campaign. They know that polio could affect only a few among hundreds of thousands of people. At the same time, the well-wishers (the US), with the help of their Pakistani slaves, are carrying out drone strikes. As a result, hundreds of our Waziristani innocent children, women and aged men have been martyred," the pamphlet said.
"That is why we have announced a ban on polio vaccinations," it added.
This must be the most original form of protest ever thought up. Allow your sons and daughters to be infected by a deadly disease that will handicap them for life as a protest against drone strikes! How will the people of North Waziristan ever be able to thank Hafiz Gul Bahadur enough?

Saturday 16 June 2012

Interview with Rosbalt

For those of you who read Russian, here is a link to a further interview I gave to Rosbalt, this one on the leaking of details about the al-Qaeda infiltrator who gained details of a new, almost undetectable underpants bomb.

Frontline discussion on the Afghan National Army

I will be chairing a discussion at the Frontline Club in London next Thursday 21 June on 'Can the Afghan National Army prevent civil war?' There will be a great panel for the discussion, including Horia Mosadiq, Afghanistan researcher at Amnesty International; Brigadier James Chiswell CBE MC, MOD Head of Overseas Operations; Dawood Azami, visiting scholar and award winning broadcast journalist working for the BBC World Service in London; Jonathan SteeleGuardian columnist, roving foreign correspondent and author of Ghosts of Afghanistan; and Leo Tomlin, Cabinet Office Deputy Director Asia and Russia, and former Deputy Head of Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team.
More details can be found here.  Hope you can make it.

Friday 15 June 2012

Pics taken with mobile phones in Kabul

Four years ago I recommended to DFID a competition/exhibition in Afghanistan based on photos taken with mobile phones. At long last someone - not DFID - has gone ahead and organised one. Well done, Institut Francais in Kabul! Its exhibition, Stolen Moments, featuring pictures taken by Sulyman Qardash, Sultana Lodin and Orzala Nemat, runs from 16 June - 9 July.

Dressed to Kill

The jacket KSM wants to wear in court
The five men now in front of a military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay accused of planning the 9/11 attacks are unhappy with their clothing options during the court hearings. They have submitted a  motion - reference AE038A - asking to wear the clothing of their choice during commission proceedings. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed says he wishes to wear a camouflage field jacket and matching turban.  Walid Bin Attash also wants a camo jacket, along with a head scarf and shalwar kameez.  Mustafa al-Hawsawi says he wants to wear an orange jumpsuit whilst Ramzi Binalshibh, had asked to wear a “tan colored kameez, a tan vest, a traditional Afghan hat and a scarf to be used to fashion a turban.” Ali Abdul Aziz Ali wants to wear a cap and black vest.
Defense attorneys say that when Guantanamo officials disallowed these  choices before the May arraignment, they were exceeding their authority. The defendants say that it has not yet been proved beyond all reasonable doubt that they are not lawful combatants under the laws of war and until that point they should be allowed to dress as they choose. They have formally presented their complaints to the military commission and the matter will be decided in August. 

Bribery scandal in Pakistan grows and grows

The scandal now erupting in Pakistan around property tycoon Malik Riaz Hussain and his relationship with Arsalan Iftikhar, son of the chief justice, threatens a meltdown within Pakistan's ruling elite.
Hussain himself has said that Iftikhar accepted Rs400 million ($3.6 million) from him to ensure that his controversial property deals in the 45,000-acre Bahria Town development, one of the largest in south Asia, received favourable treatment in the many court cases now being raised against him.
It seems that much of the land on which Bahria Town is built was not acquired legally and that a plethora of senior army officers, civil servants and lawyers are on Hussain's payroll. In the latest development, Aaj TV has published a list of 19 senior journalists who, it alleges, were bribed by Hussain. The list  gives details of the bribes, which include large amounts of cash, houses and cars. The publication of the list has sent shockwaves through Pakistan's media.
Hussain's rise has been phenomenal. In the 1980s he was a small-time contractor, whilst today he is regarded as the 12th richest man in Pakistan, much of it on the back of profits made through Bahria Town. Reports say that with the help of the Defence Housing Authority, Hussain grabbed RS62 billion worth of land in one deal and then grabbed land in the area of the Dadhocha Dam and resold it several times under different names. More than 110,000 civilians, 41,000 serving and retired military officers and others were cheated out of 165,000 kanals of land, it is alleged.
Hussain - whose frankness knows no bounds - says he bribed Arsalan Iftikhar by, amongst other things,  financing trips to London and Monte Carlo (including casinos) in 2010 and 2011 so that he could gain influence over judges hearing land claims against him. He has admitted that he paid for holidays for Arsalan worth $163,000 and that he can prove it because he kept the receipts for hotels, car rental and other expenses. The costs covered included a stay at the luxury Hotel De Paris in Monte Carlo, a very expensive apartment on Park Lane and the use of a luxury Range Rover to ferry Iftikhar's family around London in style. Arsalan says, modestly, he repaid  $47,000 of the money. Hussain says the rest of the $3.6m was given to Mr Arsalan in cash, and that he has video footage to prove it.
Despite these claims, the Supreme Court has decided to take no action against Hussain, saying it should be dealt with by a lower court. The judges said that as Hussain had admitted he got no relief as a result of his payments, they cannot take any further action. 
We thus have the remarkable situation where the briber, Hussain, has gone to court because he says he paid money over to Arsalan to influence certain decisions, but is complaining because the money was taken, but the courts did not back him.
Since these initial allegations, Hussain himself has suggested that Pakistan's chief justice himself is involved in the case. Speaking of the Supreme Court yesterday he said: “This court is being controlled by the don Dr Arsalan and the entire court is under his influence,”  adding “Arsalan has influence on his father and other judges. He is the don of all the judiciary”.
When told that his statements would offend the judges of the Supreme Court and he could be held in contempt, Hussain said he had documentary evidence that instructions were sent to give pre-decided judgments. “I know how instructions are sent. I have documentary evidence how instructions are sent. I will soon present this.”
As if this scandal was not enough, Rehman Malik has had his membership of the Senate suspended on the grounds that he has dual British-Pakistani nationality. This means he is no longer interior minister, but has had to revert to his old title of advisor to the prime minister on interior matters. Several other members of provincial assemblies have also had their membership suspended over dual nationality issues. Also suspended from Parliament is Farahnaz Ispahani, media advisor to the president, on the grounds of his joint US-Pakistani nationality.
Where all this will lead is anyone's guess. One thing is sure: more dramatic revelations of bribery and corruption within Pakistan's elite will be made public in the next few days.

Friday 8 June 2012

Landay poems - one of the treasures of Afghanistan

Interesting article  on the website of the Pulitzer Center in Kabul about the continuing popularity of Landai (or landay) - two-line poems written in Pashto by women and mostly aimed at teasing men.
The article mentions the Mirman Baheer, or Ladies' Literary Society, which has around 100 members in the city and possibly another 300 members across the country.
According to the article: "They often rail against the bondage of forced marriage with wry, anatomical humor. An ageing, ineffectual husband is frequently described as a “little horror.” This is from Gulmakai, a 22-year-old woman in Gereshk, Helmand Province:
Making love to an old man is like
Making love to a limp cornstalk blackened by fungus.

“I know this is true,” she announced. “My father married me to an old man when I was 15.” She said she made up poems all the time, as she cooked and cleaned the house."

I first came across Landay in the wonderful little book Landay: Anonymous Pashto Couplets, published in Kabul in 1979 by the International Center for Pashto Studies and translated into Dari by the renowned Afghan scholar AR Benawa and into English by S. Shpoon.
Here are three Landay from that publication:
I can easily kill my lover;
I smile at others while he is watching

My love was a nomad who struck camp;
I salute the empty ground.

Curse on your journey!
You departed whilst I was sleeping.

These endlessly amusing couplets are one of the great treasures of Afghanistan. I really hope that someone out there will begin to collect them and preserve them for future generations.

PS Thanks to Alex.

Thursday 7 June 2012

Confused NCTC report on terrorism

The publication of the 2011 US National Counterterrorism Center Report on Terrorism is a major non-event. The report makes no distinction between different kinds of terror attacks, lumping together the actions of groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Tehreek-e-Taliban in Pakistan, al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Shabaab in Somalia, plus various long-running insurgencies in Asia, Africa and South America. Nor does it appear to distinguish between attacks mounted against civilian targets and those mounted against military or paramilitary targets. As a result, it produces a porridge of statistics that are, in the end, meaningless.
The introduction to the report states: "In compiling the figures of terrorist incidents that are included in the Country Reports on Terrorism and the NTCT Report on Terrorism, NCTC uses the definition of terrorism found in Title 22, which provides that terrorism is 'premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents'.”
If you then turn to the back of the report (p19 onwards) where it lists major terror events that resulted in 10 or more fatalities, you find the following events listed for January 2011:
AQAP was the likely perpetrator of a complex attack in Yemen involving IEDs, rocket-propelled grenades (RPG), and small arms against a military convoy and government response vehicles;
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for a VBIED attack against a police station;
and for February 2011:
VBIEDs were detonated at police stations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, killing dozens. A VBIED was detonated at a police training facility in Somalia, in which scores of trainees were killed or wounded;
For August:
In India, a group of over 100 armed assailants probably affiliated with the CPI-Maoist group fired upon several military or paramilitary patrols, killing a dozen people.
There are dozens of similar examples in the report. By the NCTC's own definition, these are not "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets". Even if civilians are killed in such attacks, they still don't meet the definition given. Why, therefore, are they included in the statistics?

Drone warfare - the case against

In a week when drone attacks are once again in the news, the release of a new book on the subject is worthy of comment. Medea Benjamin's Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control (£11 from OR Books as print-on-demand, ISBN 978-1-935928-81-2 or £7 e-book ISBN 978-1-935928-82-9) is a comprehensive statement of the case against the growing use of unmanned aerial 'precision' strikes.
Benjamin herself is co-founder of the women's peace movement, CODEPINK and says she wrote the book "to wake a sleeping public lulled into thinking that drones are good, that targeted killings are making us safer." 
In the book's foreword writer Barbara Ehrenreich compares the debate over drone warfare to a similar debate that took place nearly 3,000 years ago as set out in the verses of Homer's Illiad, where the Greeks derided Paris and the Trojans for their reliance on bows and arrows, saying that real men were not afraid of hand-to-hand combat and that only cowards attacked from a distance, hidden behind rocks and trees. Similar debates greeted the development of artillery and tanks and other forms of warfare, such as the use of gas in the First World War.
Benjamin recounts a visit to Peshawar in north-west Pakistan in 2002 where she met a young refugee girl whose family had been killed in Kabul by an American bombing raid. She says that despite all the talk of smart bombs and laser-guided missiles, she quickly realised that hi-tech wars were never going to be more humane than conventional war. She dedicated herself to getting compensation for civilian victims of American bombing and out of that grew the CODEPINK organisation.
As the Obama Administration eagerly embraced the drone strategy begun by President Bush, Benjamin and her colleagues became more and more concerned: "Members of the US peace community watched in horror as these snipers in the sky started spreading from Afghanistan and Iraq to Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines and Libya. Instead of stopping the scourge of war, under Nobel Peace Prize winner President Obama the military was simply shifting tactics from boots on the ground to assassins in the air."
Her book provides a detailed account of the development of drone warfare over the past decade and presents the case against their military use. It also highlights and warns against their growing use for domestic surveillance.
That having been said, it is hard to see how drones can be uninvented. They are seen as a godsend by the military, allowing for strikes in remote regions that could never be mounted by conventional forces. Every day there is a new technical development and there will soon be a drone for every eventuality. Every major military power in the world is now engaged in equipping itself with drones. Whether this tidal wave of new technology can be stopped is very doubtful indeed. The Greeks, after all, couldn't stop the spread of bows and arrows.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

al-Libi last of Bagram escapees

The Bagram escapees in their orange jumpsuits
If it is confirmed that Abu Yahya al-Libi was killed in a CIA drone strike in North Waziristan earlier this week, it will be the final chapter in one of the most embarrassing events of the Afghan War.
al-Libi was the only one of the four prisoners who escaped from the Bagram Detention Center on 11 July 2005 who still remained at large. The escape has entered the annals of jihadi history as a major humiliation for the US forces in Afghanistan and helped to give al-Libi his exalted status within al-Qaeda. al-Libi was not thought to have been much of an organiser or thinker, but was important to al-Qaeda because he had had religious training and his prison escape engendered awe and admiration amongst the recruits he met and cultivated whilst living in Pakistan's tribal areas.
The Bagram escape was notorious because even to this day it remains unexplained. How did the men open the door of their shared prison cell? Where did they obtain the blue overalls they changed into? How did they find their way out of the compound, over the wall and into a waiting vehicle? Who were their accomplices? Initially a US guard was suspected of complicity, but no-one has ever been charged.
The four ex-prisoners in a video issued after their escape
All four of those who escaped were dangerous terrorists, awaiting transfer to Guantanamo Bay. They escaped under the noses of their American guards and disappeared into the night. Before long, videos extolling the exploits of the four men were circulating in jihadi chatrooms and internet forums.
The three others who escaped from Bagram were Muhammad Jafar Jamal al-Qahtani, Omar al-Faruq and Abu Abdullah al-Shami.
al-Qahtani, a Saudi said by some to have been responsible for maintaining al-Qaeda's operational support structure in Afghanistan and also leader of the escapees, was allegedly recaptured by US forces in a safe house near Khost airport, eastern Afghanistan, in November 2006, although this has never been officially confirmed. His present whereabouts are unknown.
Omar al-Faruq, an Iraqi citizen brought up in Kuwait, was a long-term al-Qaeda operative, sent to south-east Asia in 1998 to organise support for the organisation and to liaise with the Jemaah Islamiyah organisation. Captured in Indonesia in the summer of 2002, he was later handed over to the US Army in Afghanistan. al-Faruq was eventually killed in a shoot-out with British troops in the Iraqi port city of Basrah in September 2006, having only been in the country for a few weeks.
Abu Abdallah al-Shami was a Syrian who was originally captured by US forces in Khost province in 2003. He was killed in an airstrike in July 2008 in Afghanistan's Paktika province, where he led Arab, Pakistani, Uzbek and Chechen forces.