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Archive for February 16th, 2009

The Taliban <3 the iPhone

An interesting piece reported by Al Jazeera English:

I could not believe my eyes. We had arrived to interview Mullah Zaif, the Taliban’s former ambassador to Pakistan who is now under virtual house-arrest on the outskirts of Kabul, when he walked into the room, sat down on the couch and pulled out an iPhone.

Zaif, when asked about the phone, replied, “I’m addicted. the internet is great on this, very fast.” The reporter added, “He proceeded to show myself and our film crew his favorite websites. I half expected him to log on and show us ‘Taliban Twitter’.”

Although the report was amusing, Al Jazeera noted a very serious undertone in the story:

The Taliban and other groups opposed to US military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have been incredibly quick to latch on to new technology and methods of communication. It has enabled them to wage their war in a sophisticated fashion, using not just guns and bombs, but messages and propaganda too.

[Image from Al Jazeera English]

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On Sunday, CBS News 60 Minutes featured a segment entitled, “The War in Pakistan” [click here to watch the video]. During the twelve-minute piece, correspondent Steve Kroft interviewed several notable figures, including Brookings’ Bruce Reidel, General Tariq Khan [the commander of Pakistan’s forces in the tribal territories], and President Asif Ali Zardari, and discussed the war that Pakistan faces within its borders – against Al Qaeda and Taliban-linked militants. According to CBS News, in the past year, militants have launched “more than 600 terrorist attacks inside the country, killing more than 2,000 people.”

picture-1[Sign in a Swat market banning women]

In the interview, Zardari acknowledged the militant presence in Pakistan, asserting, “They do have a presence in huge amounts of land in our side. Yes, that is the fact.” When Kroft asked how the Taliban managed to grow in influence in the Swat Valley, Zardari responded, “It’s been happening over time. And it’s happened out of denial. Everybody was in denial that they’re weak and they won’t be able to take over. That, they won’t be able to give us a challenge. And our forces weren’t increased. And therefore we have weaknesses. And they are taking advantage of that weakness.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the feature was the segment about Kroft’s visit to Bajaur, described as, “a district in the tribal territories that sits astride a major Taliban infiltration route and the scene of the Pakistani military’s biggest offensive ever against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.” Kroft spoke with Gen. Khan, who noted, “We considered Bajaur to be the center of gravity, from where the militants had access to Afghanistan.” The Army general said the military was surprised by the militants’ intensity and their numbers, noting, “The kind of tenacity. The need to hold onto ground. There were no surrenders. As much as people willing to die.”

picture-32[Steve Kroft entering one of the tunnels beneath the Taliban compound]

Khan took the CBS News crew to a former Taliban command post less than ten miles from the Afghanistan border. As shown in the segment, beneath the compound was an intricate set of tunnels, linked for more than a mile, [see image above]. According to CBS News, “The tunnels in the area not only were connected to underground rooms, but to other compounds, and were deep enough to withstand artillery fire. The tunnels took years to build, an indication of how long the Taliban were allowed to flourish in Bajaur.” When asked whether the military should have gone against the Taliban earlier, Gen. Khan acknowledged, “I think we should have nipped the evil in the bud. Much earlier. We dilly dallied, we hoped that it would go away…It didn’t work.” On whether the military was committed to fighting the Taliban now, he asserted, “They have to be dismantled. They have to be destroyed.”

Bruce Reidel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, was more cautious in his assessment of the Pakistani military’s offensive against the Taliban. He noted, “Unfortunately, almost all of them are not trained in counter-insurgency warfare. They’re trying to use the tactics that they would use against the Indian Army, armored warfare, against an enemy that is an unconventional force.” Most of the Army’s success, he added, has been along the main roads. ” Once you get off the main road, you get into rural villages, there’s very little lasting effectiveness.”

In his interview with Zardari, Kroft questioned the commitment of the military and the ISI to the campaign against the Taliban. When asked whether he had the full support of the army and the intelligence, Zardari answered, “If that wasn’t the case, then Islamabad would have fallen because obviously if the army doesn’t do its job, these men are not restricted.”

Reidel, though, noted that while the government perceives the campaign as Pakistan’s war, [Zardari] “has yet to convince most Pakistanis that it’s their war. The overwhelming majority of Pakistanis see this as America’s war, They haven’t bought into the notion that this is a threat to them yet.”

I am not certain I completely agree with the above assessment. In recent months, the number of terrorist attacks on Pakistan soil and the increased violence have swayed public opinion against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Many recognize that this is a very near threat. However, the government and the military’s ineffectiveness in handling the problem has complicated perceptions on this matter, which has been complicated further still by the rise of unmanned U.S. drone attacks on Pakistani soil. Therefore, although many Pakistanis do not support these militants, this does not mean they necessarily support the government instead. What results is a dangerous power vacuum, that can be swayed in favor of either side.

CBS News interviewed Khalid Khawaja, a former Pakistani intelligence officer and an influential Islamic firebrand [who is also a friend of Osama bin Laden], whose statements during the segment further illustrate this point. He told Kroft, “I don’t think that Zardari has any power…Zardari is only a puppet of United States here. He’s here only because the United States wanted him to be planted here.” On the subject of U.S. air strikes, he asserted, “If we do that in America, will you accept it? So if you feel it is wrong, we are also human being. We also feel that whatever you are doing, it is inhuman.”

The 60 Minutes segment was telling because it positioned the views of firebrands like Khawaja against those of political figures like Zardari and military brass like Gen. Khan. Although we are in a war where the sides should be clearly delineated, there are still a number of voices that cannot allow for a black-and-white depiction of this conflict.

In related news, the Taliban in Swat announced a 10-day ceasefire. However, the move came after “local officials signed a deal with a militant leader to enforce Islamic law in the district.” According to BBC News, “The agreement binds the provincial government to implement Sharia law in the Malakand division, which comprises Swat and its adjoining areas.” Dawn reported, “Analysts said the government had bowed its head before the militants in Swat by agreeing to amend the law of the land and enforcement of ‘self-styled’ Sharia of a militant organization like TNSM [Tehrik-e-Nifaz e Shariah-e-Mohammadi].”

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