Archive for March, 2009

Police arrest one of the gunmen of the Manawan Attack

Police arrest one of the gunmen of the Manawan Attack

On Tuesday, media outlets reported that Beitullah Mehsud, the head of the Tehreek-e-Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on the Manawan police academy in Punjab province, which killed at least 13 people, including at least eight recruits and instructors, and wounded more than 100. Mehsud reportedly told Reuters by telephone, “Yes, we have carried out this attack,” asserting that it was “in retaliation for the continued drone strikes by the U.S. in collaboration with Pakistan on our people.” According to BBC News, the TTP leader also claimed responsibility for two other recent deadly attacks – a suicide attack on a security convoy in Bannu on Monday and the attack on the Islamabad police station on March 25. He noted these attacks would continue “until the Pakistan government stops supporting the Americans.” Other media agencies reported the militant head also threatened to attack Washington, warning, “Very soon we will take revenge from America, not in Afghanistan but in Washington, which will amaze the entire world.”

Mehsud’s announcement seem to adhere to Interior Minister Rehman Malik‘s statements yesterday, when he said the perpetrators of the Manawan police academy attack had “rented an apartment in Lahore but came from Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas in the west.” According to GEO News, Malik noted the assailants had planned the attack in South Waziristan, and that one of the captured gunmen was an Afghan national. However, prior to Mehsud’s announcement today, the NY Times had reported, “It seemed just as likely that the attacks had been perpetrated by Punjabi militant groups, like Lashkar-e-Toiba, which was blamed for the attacks last year in Mumbai, India, or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a sectarian group that recruits in southern Punjab but in recent years moved to the tribal areas to train alongside Al Qaeda.” The LeT was also suspected in a hauntingly similar attack this month on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. Monday’s attack on the police academy was the second major attack in Punjab in a month. Both attacks aimed to highlight the powerlessness of the government and its security forces, although yesterday’s incident was “resolved” by paramilitary troops, who struck back quickly, surrounding the police academy and fiercely attacking the militants. The government called the resolution of the eight-hour siege a “relative success.”

After following the news yesterday and today, what ultimately disturbed me was not that the TTP claimed responsibility for the attack, but that there were so many potential perpetrators. Beitullah Mehsud’s announcement reminded us of how many groups are operating in Pakistan’s periphery, and how easily they can coordinate with one another. Although they may be separate organizations, the line between them has become increasingly blurred. In February 2009, the Long War Journal noted that there have been “numerous reports of joint operations between the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, Hizb-i-Islami, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami, and other terror groups.” And, although the Lashkar-e-Toiba [LeT] has historically had a more localized agenda [fighting in Kashmir], analysts after the Mumbai attacks noted the organization has evolved to become a greater, more overarching threat, one that has bought into the AQ vision. The Tehreek-e-Taliban meanwhile is a loose alliance of about 13 Islamist militant groups based near the Afghan border, with reported links to the Afghan Taliban. According to Reuters, “While some of the groups are fighting for implementation of a puritanical Taliban-like order, others are involved in criminal activities such as smuggling and kidnapping.” Mehsud is Pakistan’s most-wanted militant, and the U.S. has publicized a $5 million award for his arrest, [see CHUP’s past post on him].

What is frightening is that these groups are no longer confined to Pakistan’s tribal areas; in fact, that has been the reality for some time now. Their operations are bleeding into our country, they are threatening our citizens, and they aim to destabilize our state further. The recent political turmoil in Pakistan, [which may have eased [temporarily] today with the restoration of Shahbaz Sharif as Chief Minister of Punjab] only further exacerbated the power vacuum in the nation – ultimately making us more vulnerable to such attacks. By targeting relatively safe cities like Lahore, these organizations aim to entrench the perception that nowhere in Pakistan is safe. By targeting our police forces [besides the Manawan attack, there was also the Islamabad police station bombing and last week’s attack on a mosque near a tribal police checkpoint], they are not only highlighting the weaknesses in our security structure, but are intimidating members of these forces. The NY Times quoted one angry young recruit yesterday, who told the news agency, “I’m not joining the police…I love my life. No one wants to be here anymore. We’re taking off our uniforms and going home.”

Although it was an improvement that Pakistan’s elite forces were able to swoop in and prevail yesterday, [considering that during the Lahore attack, the assailants got away], the real victory will come when these incidents are not just quelled but actually prevented. Let’s hope that with one political crisis averted, that can now happen.

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AP Image, Paramilitary troops moving into Police Academy

AP Image, Paramilitary troops moving into Police Academy

Media outlets are reporting that a police training academy near Lahore was attacked by gunmen today, killing 8 and wounding many, although BBC News reported there has been “no official confirmation of the casualties.” GEO News reported, “According to sources, unknown attackers threw hand grenades at the Police Training School in Manawan after which exchange of firing began between the armed attackers and the police which still continues.” Dawn noted in its coverage that incident took place between 7 and 8 am Monday morning, [PST] when trainees were participating in their morning parade. The news agency cited eyewitnesses who estimated that “ten attackers carried out the attack, and at least eight explosions have been heard so far.” BBC added, “TV pictures apparently showed several police officers lying on the ground covered in blood.”

A police official told news agencies that elite troops have now been called to the scene. What’s really frightening is that gunmen can just walk into a training school and perpetrate such attacks. With Zardari just now lifting Governor rule in Punjab, will the vacuum of power lead to further chaos?

CHUP will continue to provide more information as further details come in.

UPDATE 1209 [EST]: GEO is reporting that the gunmen are firing kalashnikovs inside the training center, noting they walked into the academy and initiated the attack. A bomb blast was heard, which was followed by grenade launches. The firing that started after is still continuing. GEO is reporting 15 dead and 18 injured.

UPDATE 1215 [EST]: GEO is reporting that paramilitary forces [rangers] has now arrived on the scene. A security official told Reuters that 10 police officers had been killed and 50 people wounded.

UPDATE 715 [EST]: Media outlets report the police academy has been “retaken” by Pakistani security forces, although Dawn noted that official confirmations on the development have not yet been made. BBC News reported that television footage showed paramilitary troops celebrating on the roof of the compound. Dawn added, “Earlier, the Associated Press said four of the gunmen who attacked the academy in the Manawan area on Lahore’s outskirts were killed, while a fifth was in custody.” Government official Rao Iftikhar also stated earlier that about 11 of the gunmen remained holed up at the top floor of a building in the compound, and they were holding some 35 police hostage. The BBC reported that up to 40 people were killed, and 80 injured, “but the situation remains confused.”

UPDATE 735 [EST]: Bloomberg cited Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who stated, “We condemn the attack,” adding that the gunmen appear“well trained and equipped with automatic weapons and hand grenades.” [Other sources noted the gunmen were better trained than the police academy trainees!] Television reports cited witnesses who said the method of today’s raid was similar to the March 3 attack on a bus carrying Sri Lanka’s cricket team in Lahore.

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Image: NY Times

Image: NY Times/Reuters

President Obama unveiled his new Afghanistan strategy to reporters today, after a “careful policy review” led by Brookings Institution‘s Bruce Reidel. In his speech, Obama asserted the situation “is increasingly perilous,” and sought to answer the questions, “What is our purpose in Afghanistan?” and “Why do our men and women fight and still die there?” The President emphasized that Al Qaeda and its allies are in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the organization is still planning attacks on the United States from its safe haven in Pakistan. Ultimately, the President stated that his administration’s purpose is to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat AQ” in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and prevent its return to either country in the future.

At the same time, Obama promised neither to write a “blank check” nor to “blindly stay the course” if his risky new strategy does not achieve its ambitious goals. Instead, he affirmed that we cannot succeed with “bullets and bombs alone,” adding, “We stand for something different.” The President therefore called upon Congress to pass the bipartisan Kerry-Lugar bill, which would authorize $1.5 billion aid to Pakistan every year for the next five years, as well as a bill that would create “opportunity zones” for exports. According to CNN’s Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, this conditional aid would offer an incentive to the Pakistani government and military to crack down further on the militants. For Afghanistan, Obama announced the U.S. “will send 4,000 more troops to train Afghan security forces on top of the 17,000 extra combat troops that he already ordered to Afghanistan shortly after taking office.” The NY Times reported, “For now, Mr. Obama has decided not to send additional combat forces, they said, although military commanders at one point had requested a total of 30,000 more American troops. Even so, the strategy he endorsed on Friday effectively gives Mr. Obama full ownership of the war just as its violence is spilling back and forth across the border with Pakistan.”

Obama’s speech was based in rhetoric, and therefore wasn’t particularly groundbreaking, [actual benchmarks for both Afghanistan and Pakistan are slated to be released soon]. However, the newly elected U.S. president did consistently frame Al Qaeda and its allies’ goals as contrary to those of the Pakistani and Afghan people. Not only that, but he likened the needs and desires of Americans to those of Pakistanis, noting they all wanted an end to terror, access to basic services, and an opportunity to live their dreams within the the rule of law. “The single greatest threat to that future,” he added, “comes from Al Qaeda.” President Obama further asserted,

Nearly 3,000 of our people were killed on September 11, 2001, for doing nothing more than going about their daily lives. Al Qaeda and its allies have since killed thousands of people in many countries. Most of the blood on their hands is the blood of Muslims, who al Qaeda has killed and maimed in far greater number than any other people. That is the future that al Qaeda is offering to the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan — a future without hope or opportunity; a future without justice or peace.

The U.S. President also pledged to help Pakistan with its economic crisis and support its institutions. He also promised to help lessen tensions between India and Pakistan by engaging in “constructive diplomacy” with both nations. A trilateral dialogue among Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States, led by Sec. of State Hillary Clinton and Sec. of Defense Robert Gates will also be held regularly, and the United States will work to enhance intelligence sharing and military training along the Pak-Afghan border.

All in all, I liked President Obama’s speech. However, I am still cautious and skeptical. I appreciated how he addressed the Pakistani people [he obviously knows that the war against militancy can only be won if the Pakistani people support it], and asserted support for our economic crisis, as well as the importance of improving relations with India. His rhetoric demonstrated an understanding that Pakistan’s problems cannot be solved through military means alone. However, because the goal of disrupting, dismantling, and defeating Al Qaeda is so broad, I am anxious to learn what methods will be used to achieve that strategy. Will that involve more U.S. drone strikes with collateral damage, attacks that threaten to create more sympathizers for Taliban and AQ militants? Or will the Pakistani military and police be trained to take further ownership of the fight [to the U.S. liking]? The U.S. government has to begin redefining their approach to Pakistan. However, if these attacks continue, it may damage their ability to successfully undertake this new strategy.

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AFP Image, Body being carried from the blast scene

AFP Image, Body being carried from the blast scene

Breaking news today: Media outlets are reporting that 48 people were killed when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a mosque near the town of Jamrud in the Khyber agency in northwest Pakistan. Tariq Hayat, the top administration official in Khyber, told the AFP, “Forty-eight bodies have been pulled out of the debris and many others may still be trapped under the rubble…More than 70 people were wounded. There may be many more dead…The bomber was present inside the mosque and blew himself up when Friday prayers began.”

BBC News’ Barbara Plett reported that the mosque is near a tribal police checkpoint, “and was crowded with about 250 worshipers, including many police.” The news agency added, “Pakistan’s security officials have recently concentrated forces in the Khyber region, and especially the Jamrud area, to fight militants attacking convoys carrying supplies for the NATO forces in Afghanistan.”

The blast followed a string of attacks that have recently occurred in the country. On Monday, a police officer was killed in a suicide bombing at the gate of a police station in Islamabad, and yesterday, a suicide blast killed 11 people at a restaurant in the tribal region. CNN reported, “That attack was most likely part of the ongoing fighting between militants loyal to Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud and members of the Turkistan tribe.”

For a suicide bombing to occur at all is horrific, but to strike a mosque while people are praying is truly atrocious. GEO Television cited residents of the Jamrud area, who said “militants had earlier threatened to blow up the police post next to the mosque,” although there had been no immediate claim of responsibility after today’s attack. Hayat told GEO, “It’s surprising, those who claim that they are doing jihad and then carry out suicide attacks inside mosques during Friday prayers…They are infidels. They are enemies of Pakistan. They are enemies of Islam.” Al Jazeera’s correspondent Zeina Khodr, however, pointed to something different when she noted, “But the political agents are saying that, and I quote, ‘no Muslim could carry out such a crime  suggesting that foreign hands were responsible'”

CHUP will post more details on this story as they come in.

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Everyone Poops

My friend, who works for the Water & Sanitation Program at the World Bank, passed along a short animated film they just produced on sanitation issues [read: poop] in Pakistan. Aside from my joking title, [a throwback to the fantastic children’s book, Everyone Poops] sanitation issues are a very serious problem in the developing world, particularly in rural and slum areas. According to statistics released by the Joint Monitoring Program, 90% of Pakistan’s urban population use improved sanitation [i.e., a toilet or a pit latrine], while 4% use shared [a toilet in a community that’s shared]. Only 6% defecate in the open. In contrast, only 40% of the country’s rural population use improved sanitation, 5% use shared, and 10% use unimproved sanitation [i.e., a hole in the ground]. This means that 45% of Pakistan’s rural population defecate [poop] in the open.

The film below explains exactly why this issue is so important, particularly from a public health perspective. Open defecation free, a term used in the cartoon, refers to when 100% of a community/village/town do not use the bathroom outside, [the most ideal scenario is to use improved sanitation methods, but the basic standard is not defecating outside]. However, as an article about sanitation in a small town in Pakistan also noted, becoming open defecation free requires more than just building toilets – raising awareness is also key. As the animated film below shows, change can occur when communities are empowered to become involved in the process. That way, change is more permanent than transient, and sanitation issues are properly addressed in the long run.

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What Are They Really Thinking…

We all know a picture is worth a thousand words, but how often do you look at [candid] photos of our Pakistani politicians and wonder what they’re really thinking?

WordPress very conveniently added the “write your own caption” function recently, and I just couldn’t help myself. The photo is of PM Yousaf Raza Gilani and PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif at Tuesday’s reconciliation meeting in Raiwind [Image from Dawn]:

Nawaz thought bubble: Hai, look at Gilanis swoop. Even with my hair plugs I still cant achieve such an aerodynamic style.

Nawaz: Damn Gilani. Why won't my hair plugs swoop like that?

If you could write your own caption, what would it say?

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Happy Pakistan Day!

Image credit: Islamabad Metblogs

Image credit: Islamabad Metblogs

Pakistan has always been a focal point in the news media, but I feel like some pretty hefty stories and statements have surfaced in the last few days. Here are the ones I found most noteworthy:

  • David Kilcullen, U.S. CENTCOM adviser to Gen. David Petraeus warned, “The Pakistani state could collapse within six months if immediate steps are not taken to remedy the situation.” Kilcullen told the Washington Post Sunday, “Pakistan has 173 million people, 100 nuclear weapons, an army bigger than the US Army, and al-Qaeda headquarters sitting right there in the two-thirds of the country that the government doesn’t control.”
  • Pakistan was also raised in an interview with former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright on Friday’s Real Time with Bill Maher [click to 3:20 in the clip below]. She noted, “For me, Pakistan has everything that gives you an international migraine. It has nuclear weapons, corruption, poverty, extremism…[Bill Maher interjects: “Crazy Muslims”]…well it certainly has enough of those, and also a weak government…”
  • Dawn also reported that Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram suggested that Pakistan is “perilously close” to becoming a failed state and that its government is “pretty disfunctional today.”
  • Speaking of our government, an article in Friday’s Foreign Policy ranked President Asif Ali Zardari as the world’s fifth biggest loser [just to give some context, Bernie Madoff was number three and Josef Fritzl was first]. The FP’s David J. Rothkopf wrote, “Locked in a bitter struggle with opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, Zardari showed his weakness by capitulating to demands to reinstate Pakistan’s former Chief Justice per Sharif’s demands…He’s on the ropes, his opposition is gaining strength, and meanwhile fraught, dangerous, complex Pakistan is hardly being governed at all.”

Let me just note that none of these statements are very suprising or new. In fact, ever since Newsweek’s infamous cover story deemed Pakistan “The Most Dangerous Place on Earth“, similar labels have been thrown about, sometimes with gleeful abandon. However, maybe because it’s Pakistan Day, maybe because I read the aforementioned stories in quick succession, but I was left feeling especially indignant today. I often wonder if Pakistan would be as singled out by pundits and the media if it wasn’t such a strategic U.S. security issue. It is not that I don’t agree with several of the assertions, [in fact, I was quite amused reading the FP Zardari ranking] – I have acknowledged our weak governance issues, our economic problems, and the danger of rising extremism frequently on this blog.

However, there is a major difference between highlighting the negatives and focusing solely on the negatives. Pakistan is a nation that has many positives – and they pertain mostly to our people. In the past few years, our media has become increasingly influential – and for the most part sees themselves as a check on the establishment. And, despite how you may feel about its outcome, the Long March showed what a stronger civil society can help accomplish in Pakistan. Technology tools like Twitter, Facebook, and the overarching blogosphere have also created a new class of citizen journalists. As for me, I am constantly inspired by the people I have interviewed and the organizations I have spotlighted. What is both amazing and overwhelming is that I really never run out of positive figures or work to highlight. Pakistan is far from perfect, but amid the chaos there are still pockets of light that keep me optimistic. Happy Pakistan Day, everyone.

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