Wednesday 25 July 2012

Pakistan's bloody TTP factions fight it out

Maulana Ashraf Ali Marwat, the bloodthirsty Tehreek-e-Taliban commander who was responsible for bombing a volleyball match in which more than 100 people died in January 2010 has been shot dead in South Waziristan, according to reports.
Marwat helped to plan the attack in Shah Hasankhel village (his home village!) in which a truck loaded with explosives was detonated at the packed tournament in Northwestern Lakki Marwat district. He was also suspected of planning the murder of renowned scholar and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) leader Muhammad Azeem Khan Begokhel and of Marwat Peace Jirga chief Moulana Mohsin Shah in May 2012.
The Express Tribune reports that 'Commander Ali', as he was known, was buried in a village close to Miranshah. No-one has claimed responsibility for killing him, but he had plenty of enemies. “Not many people participated in the funeral” explained a local TTP commander, suggesting that Marwat may have lost support from the group prior to his murder. In the recent past his main activities were bombing schools and threatening and extorting locals.
Meanwhile, it seems to be rivalry and killing as usual in FATA. Hakimullah Mahsud's TTP fighters have threatened to attack the Wana-based Maulvi Nazir group in South Waziristan, following the murder last week of Wali Mohammad Wazir. Wali Muhammad was the younger brother of Nek Mohammad Wazir, a former commander who was the first person to die in a US drone strike, back in 2004.
Local Wazir tribesmen had forced Wali Mohammad and his mainly foreign (Uzbek) supporters to leave the area in early 2008 after many complaints about their behaviour. Wali Mohammad survived by moving to North Waziristan, where he received protection from the Hakimullah Mahsud faction of the TTP. Following negotiations with Maulvi Nazir a few months ago, Wali Mohammad was allowed to return to South Waziristan. However, it seems he brought Uzbek and Tajik militants back with him and it was this that prompted Maulvi Nazir to have him killed.
Meanwhile in Orakzai agency on Sunday a suicide bomber detonated a truck bomb in the compound of TTP Commander Mullah Nabi, killing around a dozen people and wounding 20. Prime suspect is Mullah Toofan. His target, Mullah Nabi, survived.  Who needs enemies when you have comrades in the TTP?

Motasim removed from UN Sanctions list

Interesting to see that Agha Jan Motasim, the prominent former member of the Quetta Shura leadership of the Taliban, has been removed from the UN Sanctions list in recent days.
Now in Turkey, where he is receiving medical treatment following an August 2010 attempted assassination in Karachi, Motasim is a son-in-law of Taliban emir Mullah Mohammad Omar and a former finance minister for the Taliban. 
Support for negotiations - Motasim
 He headed the Quetta Shura until late 2009 when he was allegedly tried and found guilty by the Taliban of maintaining unauthorised contacts with Western diplomats and embezzlement. He was deposed by Abdul Ghani Baradar, who, together with Motasim, was later arrested by the Pakistan military. What lay behind this was the fact that Motasim was prepared to consider negotiations to end the war in Afghanistan, whilst Baradar was more reticent.
Both men were released last year following pressure from the United States and soon after Motasim was shot several times in Karachi by members of the Taliban. He then turned up in Turkey and in May gave an interview to Newsweek in which he set out his political stall.
The UN Sanctions list is presently undergoing a review. It is a key demand of the Taliban that its members should be removed from the list.

The Afghan engineer who builds drones

Drones are inextricably linked to Afghanistan and Pakistan, so it is rather wonderful to see an article about an Afghan who has developed his own fleet of pilotless aircraft.
Afghanistan Today has published the story of Zemaray Helalee, an engineer who for a day job runs the electricity supply in Nimroz Province in the south-west of the country. Mr Helalee has used scrap metal, wood and rubber, old clothing, pushchair wheels and chainsaw engines to build his fleet of six aircraft.
Mr Helalee with one of his prototypes
“My only goal in building these planes was to fulfil my childhood dreams,” says the 35-year-old electrical engineer, who was first inspired many years ago when his father, an aviation engineer, took him round Kabul airport. “I have always wanted to build planes myself and fly them without pilots.”
His most advanced drone to date uses a 150cc engine, weighs 50 kilos and can fly for 20 minutes, but he has already built a propeller-driven monoplane using a 350cc BMW engine at a total cost of around $6,000. His first test-flight will be in two months time.

Thursday 19 July 2012

Najam Sethi under threat

More on Najam Sethi, one of the greatest of Pakistan's journalists, in an article by Jon Boone in today's edition of The Guardian. Boone reveals that Sethi is in fear of his life and seldom leaves his Lahore home, which is protected by armed guards and from where he now broadcasts his Geo TV chat show. He has been threatened many times and, says Boone, "high-level government officials warned Sethi his name had been circulated on a hit list. A kidnapping plot, he was told, had been hatched involving two militant groups with links to the ISI."
I wrote about Sethi a few days ago in an article about a group of young Punjabis who, in the 1970s, fought alongside the Baluchis in a guerrilla war against the Pakistan military. Anyone who wants to find out what it takes to defend democratic values in Pakistan should read his biography on his website.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Semple's Mawlawi "mentally insane"

Not surprisingly, the Taliban has rejected the anti-Osama bin Laden comments made by a senior Taliban figure in an interview with Michael Semple (see below) last week: "Before everything else, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan categorically refutes this interview and deems it as nothing more than a shameful propaganda ploy of the deceitful flailing enemy. We have repeatedly demonstrated to our enemies for the past decade that the Mujahideen can do what could have never been imagined", says an article on their website under the name of their official spokesman. 
They don't hold back: "Sometimes they introduce a vegetable seller as a high ranking official of Islamic Emirate and try to solve the Afghan issue with him and sometimes an anonymous ‘Mawlawi’ as its important member and then publish such nonsense....the international media, in order to maintain in journalistic reputation, should avoid publishing such silliness of the mentally insane." 
Let's not go into the issue of reputations....

Saturday 14 July 2012

Women heroes of Afghanistan and Pakistan

Farida Afridi - murdered for supporting women's rights in FATA
Lot of coverage yesterday for the shocking killing of Hanifa Safi in Laghman. Safi, a tireless campaigner for women's rights, was killed by a magnetic bomb attached to her car which blew up in Laghman, to the north-east of Kabul, also injuring her husband and daughter. She was the provincial head of the Afghan ministry of women's affairs.
The killing of another prominent woman activist, in neighbouring Pakistan, received much less coverage. Farida Afridi was killed a week ago, shot dead in cold blood as she drove from her home in Hyatabad, Peshawar to Jamrud in Khyber Agency, early in the morning.
Farida Afridi was executive director of the human rights organisation Sawera, which was working in FATA to improve the position of women in the region. This is a dangerous area in which to advocate human rights. Last year Zarteef Khan Afridi, who worked for the Pakistan Human Rights Commission was also shot dead by militants in Jamrud.
Farida Afridi had received many threats in recent months, telling her to stop her work as a human rights activist. She was shot dead by two men riding a motorbike in exactly the same way as Zarteef. She set up Sawera - the Society for Appraisal of Women Empowerment in Rural Areas - with her sister Noorzia in what is one of the most conservative and patriarchal regions of Pakistan. The organisation was part-funded by Community Appraisal and Motivation Programme (CAMP) and the German Embassy.  According to Sawera's first report, published in June, they had begun training women from Khyber Agency in conflict resolution. 
Sawera seminar in Khyber Agency
They also conducted a seminar on the Frontier Crime Regulations and held hujras with community and religious elders on women and children's rights. 
We should also salute this very brave woman.

Wednesday 11 July 2012

al-Qaeda a 'plague' - Taliban commander

The Taliban cannot win an outright victory in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda is a "plague sent down to us from the heavens" according to an interview with a senior Taliban figure conducted by Michael Semple in this week's edition of the New Statesman.
In extracts from the interview published in today's Guardian, the unnamed commander says "To tell the truth, I was relieved at the death of Osama [bin Laden]. Through his policies, he destroyed Afghanistan. If he really believed in jihad he should have gone to Saudi Arabia and done jihad there, rather than wrecking our country."
Interestingly, this echoes the statement I reported yesterday (see below) in which the Taliban appear to have 'de-invited' Arab fighters from Afghanistan.
Semple, an Irishman who lived in Afghanistan and Pakistan for over 25 years and who now teaches at Harvard, is a highly respected commentator on Afghanistan. In his New Statesman article he says he has known the unnamed Taliban commander for many years and knows just how well he is connected to the most senior level of the Taliban leadership.
All the indications suggest that the Taliban is approaching the forthcoming discussions in Qatar in a positive frame of mind. The sentiments quoted in Semple's article and the recent official Taliban statement on Arabs appear to be confidence-building measures to emphasise that they are willing to negotiate. Let's hope that the US emissaries approach the discussions with the same sense of purpose.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Arabs no longer welcome?

Interesting official statement issued by the Taliban yesterday, not least because of the imminent resumption of negotiations in Qatar between them and the American authorities. Although poorly translated,'Arab Movements and their effects on the World, Region and Afghanistan' notes the events of the Arab Spring and the fall of dictators across the Middle East. It says that the repercussions of these momentous events will also be felt in Afghanistan because one of the main reasons Arabs travelled to the country was because they were not safe in their own lands. With the changed conditions, "Now they will return back to their respective countries", says the statement.
A slightly cryptic final sentence suggests that the Taliban no longer feels it has a duty to shelter Arabs because they are not in danger at home: "Now the spiteful propaganda of the enemy has nothing to do the realities to say there are Arab Mujahedeen fighting inside Afghanistan and these Mujahedeen will continue to utilize Afghanistan and the region as their stronghold; because they do not need to come any more to Afghanistan (sic)." I take this to mean that the Taliban does not think Arab fighters wills stay in Afghanistan and that it supports their leaving. Anyone got a better translation?

Security for civilians at all-time low - report

Security for civilians in Afghanistan is worse now than at any time since the 2001 military intervention, according to a report published by the International Crisis Committee. Afghanistan: The Perilous Road Ahead says that the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) has tripled since 2007 - from 128,801 in 2007 to 447,547 in 2011 - whilst the number of civilian deaths in 2011 increased for the fifth year in a row.
Last year also marked a ten-year high for asylum bids by Afghans, as the number of Afghan refugees who returned home dropped to a record low. Most of Afghanistan's 30.4 million people continue to live in poverty, despite the huge amounts of military and civil aid from the international community.
An IRC survey of 450 internally displaced families living in 'informal settlements' in Kabul, Herat and Kandahar indicates that while conflict is the primary reason for displacement, unemployment and under-employment are also key factors. Natural disasters, such as last year's drought, add to the problems.
The IRC report calls for a shift in responsibility for the delivery of basic services from aid organisations to the Afghan government. However, it recognises that there are serious barriers to such a strategy, including security outside major urban areas, weak links between national, provincial and district offices and lack of security and employee payment systems, thus making it difficult to manage government employees. Whilst criticising some aid initiatives, it praises the National Solidarity Program for successfully delivering aid throughout the country.

Wednesday 4 July 2012

The Punjabis who fought for Balochistan

Ahmed Rashid, former guerrilla fighter in Balochistan

An interesting item on the Baloch Hal website - which is banned in Pakistan - on the respected author Ahmed Rashid, to coincide with the publication of his new book Pakistan on the Brink.
Writer Malik Siraj Akbar notes that Rashid - under the pseudonym Shabaz - was the subject of a chapter in Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples, V S Naipaul's book about Islam in non-Arab lands.
According to Naipaul's account, set out in the chapter 'Guerrilla', Shabaz (ie Ahmed Rashid) was one of a group of five young Punjabi teenagers from wealthy backgrounds who went to London to college, but inspired by leftist ideas of revolution, abandoned their studies in 1971 to become guerrilla fighters in Balochistan. They adopted Balochi names, learned the local language and joined the Baloch fighters in their armed insurrection against the Pakistani army.
The young men, known as the London Group, weren't just tourists. They stayed for some years fighting in the Marri mountains and at least one of their number, Dilip Dass, was murdered by Pakistan's security forces.
Three years ago, Malik Siraj Akbar conducted an amazing interview with one of the survivors of the group, Asad Rehman, son of a former chief justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court. The interview, which can be found here, and which explains in some detail the role of Ahmed Rashid as a guerrilla in Balochistan, is remarkable for shining a light onto a little known period in Balochistan's - and Pakistan's - modern history.
Of the surviving members of the London Group:
Asad Rahman lives in Lahore and is currently director of programmes at the Sungi Foundation, a humanitarian and development NGO;
Rashid Rahman, his brother, is editor of the Lahore-based Daily Times;
Ahmed Rashid became an internationally acclaimed journalist with the publication of his books Taliban and Descent into Chaos;
Najam Sethi brought out Pakistan's first independent English weekly, The Friday Times, as well as founding the Daily Times, which he edited for eight years. He was awarded the Gold Pen of Freedom Award by the World Association of Newspapers in 2009;
Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur lives in Hyderabad and writes about Balochistan and other subjects for many Pakistani publications;
The body of Dilip Dass was never found.

Remind me - who are we fighting again?

Not quite so buddy-buddy
Rajiv Chandrasekaran's book, Little America: the War within the War for Afghanistan, is published in Britain tomorrow. It highlights the internal conflicts between the British and the American military over strategy in Helmand Province in 2009-2010 when the two army commands fell out with each other in spectacular fashion over how to deal with a resurgent Taliban. I have little doubt that in the years to come the British military campaign in Helmand will be seen as one of its least successful since the end of the Second World War.
A couple of points caught my eye in the extracts published today in the Guardian:
First, was the reaction of shock from US marine commander Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson when he was sent to the British-controlled section of Helmand:
"He abhorred the establishment of front lines that they (the British - ed.) did not cross, and he recoiled when he saw how Afghan soldiers were segregated in camps on British bases. He advocated genuine partnership, not a vestigial colonial attitude toward the natives, and that meant eating and living together. What riled him the most, however, was the British reconstruction team. The team's members had their own views about which parts of the province merited military attention, and those did not always mesh with Nicholson's."
Second, was the reaction of Nicholson's officers to the "frequent parties and social events" that occurred in the British Reconstruction Team's offices in Lashkar Gah. "It wasn't as wild as the US embassy in Kabul, but Nicholson's officers were nevertheless incredulous when they learned that the office had held an alcohol-sodden "Lash Vegas Pimps and Hos" bash while the marines were struggling to pacify Marja." Anyone got any pics?

Monday 2 July 2012

Hitting the Taliban where it hurts - in the pocket

There are said to be upwards of 25,000 Taliban fighters active in Afghanistan at present, all of whom need arms, ammunition, food and cash for their families. Add to that the cost of logistical operations, pay-offs, support for the families of dead fighters and you are looking at a substantial annual budget. Even assuming $5 a day to look after a single fighter - a low estimate - that alone comes to more than $46 million a year, before including operational and equipment costs.
Where does all the money come from and how can such huge amounts of cash be moved around the country? There are two major sources - donations from supporters in Afghanistan and abroad, especially the Gulf; and the income from opium, which is 'taxed' by the Taliban. 
We can probably add kidnapping, bankrobbery and various other criminal endeavours to the list - as well as the money extorted from trucking companies transporting military equipment for the Coalition forces - but these are small amounts compared to the opium income.
As for the logistics of moving the cash around, some answers are provided in an announcement from the US Department of the Treasury, which, together with the UN,  last week designated two hawala businesses and their owners for donating money and providing services to the Taliban.
The Haji Khairullah Haji Sattar Money Exchange (HKHS) and Roshan Money Exchange (RMX), operated by brothers Haji Abdul Sattar Barakzai and Haji Khairullah Barakzai, run a network of hawala traditional money transfer businesses, with offices in several Afghan cities, and in Quetta in Baluchistan, Peshawar, Karachi and Lahore in Pakistan and Iran and Dubai.
According to the US Treasury, Haji Sattar has donated thousands of dollars  to the Taliban and transferred funds via his hawala. He and his brother also collected money from Afghan businessmen and transferred it to the Taliban.
Haji Khairullah was a hawaladar for the Taliban senior leadership and also gave them donations. The statement notes:
"As of 2011, HKHS was a preferred method for Taliban leadership to transfer money to Taliban commanders in Afghanistan.  In late 2011, the HKHS branch in Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province, Afghanistan was used to send money to the Taliban shadow governor for Helmand Province.  In mid-2011, a Taliban commander used an HKHS branch in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region to fund fighters and operations in Afghanistan. After the Taliban deposited a significant amount of cash monthly with this HKHS branch, Taliban commanders could access the funds from any HKHS branch.  Taliban personnel used HKHS in 2010 to transfer money to hawalas in Afghanistan, where operational commanders could access the funds.  As of late 2009, the manager of the HKHS branch in Lashkar Gah oversaw the movement of Taliban funds through HKHS."
So it seems that the HKHS money exchange office in Lashkar Gah, the centre of British operations in Helmand, was also the centre of Taliban finance in the region. The same was true of the RMX branch: 
"In 2011, a Taliban sub-commander transferred tens of thousands of dollars to a Taliban commander through the RMX branch in Lashkar Gah. The Taliban also sent funds to the RMX branch in Lashkar Gah for distribution to Taliban commanders in 2010.  Also in 2010, a Taliban member used RMX to send tens of thousands of dollars to Helmand Province and Herat Province, Afghanistan, on behalf of the Taliban shadow governor of Helmand Province."
RMX was also central to the opium taxation business: "As of 2011, Taliban officials, including the shadow governor of Helmand Province, transferred hundreds of thousands of dollars from an RMX branch in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region to hawalas in Afghanistan for the purchase of narcotics on behalf of Taliban officials.  Also in 2011, a Taliban official directed Taliban commanders in Helmand Province to transfer opium proceeds through RMX."
The Barakzai brothers are unlikely to be too bothered by the US Treasury action, which merely blocks any property they have in the United States and prevents US citizens from engaging in transactions with them. The UN sanctions are a different matter and will hit the business hard. This is a serious blow to the Taliban and will force them to use couriers and other less reliable methods to collect and deliver large amounts of money.