Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’

FP Image: Lalala, Friends Forever...

Yesterday, investigative reporter/author Bob Woodward‘s Obama’s Wars made its highly anticipated debut in bookstores. The book highlights more of what many of us already knew – that the government is deeply divided over the current Afghanistan policy (cough, Stanley McChrystal‘s interview with Rolling Stone). According to a book review by the New York Times,

Although the internal divisions described have become public, the book suggests that they were even more intense and disparate than previously known and offers new details. [Vice President] Mr. Biden called [Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan] Mr. Holbrookethe most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met,” although he “may be the right guy for the job.” A variety of administration officials expressed scorn for James L. Jones, the retired Marine general who is national security adviser, while he referred to some of the president’s other aides as “the water bugs” or “the Politburo.”

But perhaps the more startling revelation – or at least the one that is garnering news headlines this week – is the allegation that the CIA is running a 3,000-strong Afghan army to carry out clandestine operations in not only Afghanistan, but also across the border in Pakistan. According to the Washington Post review,

The CIA created, controls and pays for a clandestine 3,000-man paramilitary army of local Afghans, known as Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams. Woodward describes these teams as elite, well-trained units that conduct highly sensitive covert operations into Pakistan as part of a stepped-up campaign against Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban havens there.

In the words of Scooby Doo, Ruh roh.

NPR‘s JJ Sutherland, also struck by this revelation, further confirmed the existence of these Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams with two anonymous U.S. officials. And Reuters, in its blog Now or Never, noted that U.S. officials not only confirmed their existence, they “bragged about it.” CNN quoted one official as saying, “You’re talking about one of the finest Afghan fighting forces, which has made major contributions to security and stability.”

We have heard time and time again that the key to stability in Afghanistan lies in Pakistan. And so far, the U.S. has preferred drones in the air versus boots on the ground, walking a tenuous tightrope above Pakistan’s sovereignty. Drones have obviously been immensely unpopular, and reports indicate that the CIA has conducted 20 drone strikes in September alone, “the most ever in a single month and more than twice its monthly average.” [For more on drone strikes, see New America Foundation’s comprehensive coverage and map].

The recent rise of drone strikes illustrates the U.S.’s frustration with Pakistan, and have resulted in increasing efforts to take matters into their own hands. Media outlets reported that NATO helicopters launched three attacks in Pakistani territory this past Friday. According to Al Jazeera, “Sergeant Matt Summers, an ISAF spokesman, confirmed on Sunday that the helicopters had crossed into Pakistan in pursuit of fighters. He did not say which countries’ forces were involved, but the United States is the only coalition member that uses Apaches.” Not surprisingly, the Pakistani government responded with a “very angry” statement threatening to “consider response options” unless ISAF took “corrective measures.” [Insert Team America Hans Blitz reference here.]

The recent revelation in Woodward’s book is yet another sign of this more aggressive approach towards Pakistan, but it holds very problematic ramifications. First, training local Afghans to fight across the border in Pakistan is not only a challenge to national sovereignty, it also bears an uncanny resemblance to the U.S. covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Danger Room’s Spencer Ackerman noted,

…that same history also shows that the U.S. can’t control those proxy forces. Splits within the mujahideen after the Soviet withdrawal (and the end of CIA cash) led to Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s, which paved the way for the rise of the Taliban. One of those CIA-sponsored fighters was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, now a key U.S. adversary in Afghanistan. And during the 2001 push to Kabul, a Northern Alliance military commander, Abdul Rashid Dostum, killed hundreds and maybe even thousands of Taliban prisoners. He was on the CIA’s payroll at the time.

Moreover, as Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin noted, Woodward’s book “sheds new light on the Obama administration’s vast outreach to the Pakistani civilian government led by President Asif Ali Zardari,” considering its war effort contingent on the success and survival of this government. This, to me, is why this U.S. aggressive security policy is so problematic – on one hand, the administration has a vested interest in the survival of Zardari’s government. On the other hand, these security-related decisions that ultimately challenge Pakistani sovereignty and fan the flames of anti-American sentiment only further undermine this civilian regime.

Regardless of the Pakistani government’s “very angry” statements following helicopter attacks and repeated drone strikes, the public sees the state as complicit in this U.S. policy, or, at the very least, too weak to truly challenge this strategy. In a country suffering from a recent flood disaster, a weakened economy, and political volatility, such policies ultimately breed further instability and rumors of regime change. The U.S. has often said the stability of Afghanistan lies in Pakistan. But that statement goes both ways.

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"I'm not yo friend, buddy!" "I'm not yo buddy, guy!"

On Wednesday, news agencies reported that General David Petraeus, the new U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, is pushing to designate top leaders from the Haqqani Network as “terrorists.” According to the NY Times, “…Petraeus introduced the idea of blacklisting the group…late last week in discussions with President Obama’s senior advisers on Pakistan and Afghanistan.” The idea was first publicized by Senator Carl Levin on Tuesday, who just returned from Pakistan and Afghanistan. During a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, Levin stated,

As a matter of fact, I think we have to include on the list other threats to the Afghan mission. We have to have, I believe, we should have on our list the headquarters of the Haqqani network. We know where they are. We know where that headquarters is… I don’t think they should be off-limits to those strikes. They directly threaten the Afghan mission.

Levin went on to add that he would pursue legislative action to ensure the Haqqani network was on the U.S. terror list, calling them “the greatest threat” to stability in Afghanistan, even more so than Taliban militants crossing the border into the country from Pakistan.

So what could this inevitably mean? Ding ding ding! More drone strikes and more pressure on Pakistan. Levin emphasized, “Can more be done? It has to be done by Pakistan, unless it is going to be done with drone attacks on their headquarters. More needs to be done by Pakistan. They have not gone into that area in North Waziristan where the Haqqanis are.”

The pressure on Pakistan to go into North Waziristan isn’t new; in fact, both the U.S. and Pakistan have been back-and-forth on this issue for months now. However, if Washington decides to rebrand [the top leaders of] the Haqqani network as “terrorists,” it does send a very clear message, especially amid reports that Pakistan’s military/ISI have begun trying “to seed a rapprochement between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Haqqani network,” (COAS Gen. Kayani has denied facilitating secret meetings between the two parties). The message – the U.S. may support Kabul’s Taliban reconciliation program, but leaders of the Haqqani network will not be included in this arrangement.

This may lead to interesting ramifications for Pakistan’s strategic depth ambitions, an effort to hedge India‘s influence in Afghanistan. The less-than-ambivalent term “terrorist” not only shifts the tone from Washington, it also leaves little breathing room for Pakistan. Terrorist/Terrorism labels aren’t light designations in this post-9/11 era, and it will be interesting to see how Pakistan responds. If the military doesn’t go into North Waziristan, will that lead Washington to feel more “justified” in increasing drone strikes in the region? (For coverage of the legal justification of drone strikes, see here.)

Watching these developments play out are akin to a complex chess game. Whose move is it next?

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"Gary Faulkner. He's so hot right now."

This piece, entitled, “The American Bin Laden Hunter” was first published on Foreign Policy‘s AfPak Channel:

Step aside, Jason Statham. There’s a new action hero in town.

Pakistani authorities detained Gary Faulkner, a 52-year old American man who has reportedly been searching for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden since September 11, 2001. Faulkner, who was found about nine miles short of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border Sunday, was allegedly trying to enter Nuristan, a province in Afghanistan.

Muhammad Jaffar Khan, the police chief of Chitral, in northwest Pakistan, told reporters, “[Faulkner] told the investigating officer he was going to Afghanistan to get Osama. At first we thought he was mentally deranged.” However, after seeing that the American was armed with a pistol, dagger, sword, Christian literature, and night-vision goggles, police realized “he was serious.”

So serious, in fact, that he initially resisted arrest, threatened to fire on police, and later told interrogators he was going to Nuristan “to decapitate Osama bin Laden.” According to Khan, when asked whether he felt he had a chance in capturing bin Laden, Faulkner answered, “God is with me, and I am confident I will be successful in killing him.”

Faulkner, a construction worker from California, previously visited Pakistan seven times, and this was his third trip to Chitral. According to police officials, he arrived in Chitral on June 2 “as a tourist,” checked into a hotel, and was given a security escort before disappearing.

The story of Gary Faulkner is both bizarre and fascinating. First, what if he had avoided police capture and crossed into Afghanistan? What would be the implications if Faulkner had actually caught and killed the al-Qaeda leader? Perhaps Pakistani authorities will be so impressed with Faulkner’s dedication that they will unleash him into the tribal wild, keeping their fingers crossed for an end to the ever-annoying “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden” question. For now though, the American has been detained for questioning in Peshawar, leaving us to only ponder potential future scenarios:

Potential scenario #1: Faulkner signs a contract with Fox for a new reality competition show tentatively titled, “Who Wants to be a (25) Millionaire?” Faulkner, the host of the reality series, leads young wannabe Faulkner-ites into Pakistan/Afghanistan, where they compete to capture bin Laden, armed only with spoons and baby powder. The winner receives $25 million and title of Top Bin Laden Hunter.

Potential scenario #2: Sylvester Stallone, famous monotone actor and director, replaces former it-boy Jason Statham with Gary Faulkner as a cast member on his upcoming film, The Expendables, about a team of mercenaries on a mission to South America to overthrow a dictator. When asked by reporters why he chose to switch Statham for Faulkner, Stallone answers (in monotone), “Faulkner. He’s so hot right now.”

Potential scenario #3: CNBC releases this headline on its news ticker, “Gary Faulkner merchandise sales single handedly push consumer confidence up, markets rally as a result.” This merchandise includes (but is not limited to) Gary Faulkner night vision goggles, Gary Faulkner autographed swords and daggers, and t-shirts that say, “I went to Pakistan to hunt Bin Laden and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.”

Potential scenario #4: The Norwegian Nobel Committee awards the Peace Prize to Gary Faulkner “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen the one-man hunt for bin Laden.” The pundit-sphere debates over how yet another American wins the award without actually achieving anything.

Potential scenario #5: Chuck Norris jokes that became Jack Bauer jokes are now replaced with Gary Faulkner jokes. For example: Gary Faulkner destroyed the periodic table, because Gary Faulkner only recognizes the element of surprise.

Note: Potential scenario No. 5 is fast becoming a reality.

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Image from Reuters/CSM

In a news exclusive Wednesday, the Christian Science Monitor reported that Pakistan has arrested “nearly half of the Afghanistan Taliban’s leadership in recent days.” Pakistan intelligence officials told the Monitor that 7 of the 15 members of the Quetta Shura are now in Pakistani custody, four more individuals than has been reported in the news so far. “This is the first confirmation of the wider scale of the Pakistan crackdown on the Taliban leadership, something the U.S. has sought,” the Monitor noted.

The arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Karachi February 6, the Afghan Taliban’s second-in-command, garnered much news coverage, as did the more recent capture of Maulvi Abdul Kabir, a prominent commander in charge of insurgent operations in eastern Afghanistan, and Mullah Muhammad Younis. According to the Monitor, though, Pakistan has also arrested other Afghan Taliban militants from the Quetta Shura, including Mullah Abdul Qayoum Zakir, who oversees the movement’s military affairs, Mullah Muhammad Hassan, Mullah Ahmed Jan Akhunzada, and Mullah Abdul Raouf.

This development is significant because it points to a wider crackdown by the Pakistani military on the Afghan Taliban. Yesterday, Spencer Ackerman over at the Washington Independent quoted Defense Secretary Robert Gates saying,

I would say that what we are seeing is the importance of operations, on both sides of the border, and a manifestation of real progress, on the Pakistani side, of dealing with the threats that I’ve talked about; whether they’re the Pakistan Taliban, the Afghan Taliban or al Qaeda, that they all work together, and the success of one is success of the rest. So I think that the recent events have been another positive indication of the Pakistanis’ commitment to stabilizing this border area.

There has been increasing debate over these recent arrests, and whether it truly represents increased U.S.-Pakistan cooperation. In a Foreign Policy piece entitled, “Three Huge Ways Pakistan Still Isn’t Cooperating,” David Kenner wrote after the capture of Baradar,

The most optimistic explanation is that the ISI thinks the Afghan Taliban has become a threat to its interests in Pakistan, and has decided to move against the group. But  [Teresita] Schaffer also floated another, less cheerful, possibility: Baradar, as suggested by this Newsweek profile, is more open to negotiations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai‘s government than some of the Taliban hierarchy’s hard-line members. The ISI could have arrested him in a bid to thwart negotiations meant to assimilate the Afghan Taliban back into Afghanistan’s political fold, which would likely cost Pakistan its influence as the group’s patron. In other words, given the information available to the public, the Pakistanis could have arrested Baradar with the hopes of halting Taliban attacks against NATO forces in Afghanistan — or they could have arrested him in an attempt to continue those attacks.

The Christian Science Monitor offers a somewhat similar explanation for the sudden shift, noting the aforementioned crackdown may to be related to efforts by some Taliban leaders to “explore talks with Western and Afghan authorities independently of Pakistan.” The Monitor cited a UN official, who added, “Pakistan wants a seat at the table [at the negotiations]. They don’t want the Taliban to act independently.”

Arif Rafiq, over at the Pakistan Policy blog, (via Five Rupees), further noted, “And equally important, as Afghans have engaged in a multitude of secret peace talks in the region, the Pakistan Army would like to ensure that it, to the exclusion of India, is part of the glue that holds together any power sharing arrangement in Kabul.  In other words, it doesn’t want the Afghans to make their own peace and shut Pakistan out of the process.  If Pakistan were excluded, then what was the trouble of the past eight years for?”

Ultimately, the increased arrests by the Pakistani military do represent a shift in greater U.S.-Pakistan intelligence sharing and cooperation. However, it would be naive to suggest that this was done to further American aims and strategic objectives. Quite the contrary. It’s to ensure Pakistan’s interests in the region are protected. The Army went against the Pakistani Taliban because its militants were attacking the state and harming Pakistani civilians. While the perceived crackdown on the Afghan Taliban is garnering similar results, the motivation and desired end are quite different.

At the end of the day, should Washington care about these motivations if it means Pakistan cooperates?

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Mujahideen in 1984
Mujahideen Fighters in Afghanistan, 1984.

As the war in Afghanistan continues, so does the purported regional chess game between India and Pakistan. Below, Tariq Tufail, from Karachi, presents his views on Pakistan’s evolving policy in Afghanistan:

A huge shift in the U.S. Afghanistan policy is reportedly taking place.  The London conference and the meeting in Turkey indicate that some degree of reconciliation and an integration of the Taliban into the mainstream in Afghanistan will be attempted in the next 18 months. To support this effort, donors have already pledged about $500 million. When these events unfold, they will have a great effect on Afghanistan and the region, comparable to the Soviet withdrawal, the fall of the Najibullah Government and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

What are the ramifications for Pakistani security and foreign policy? Unfortunately, I think this policy shift comes at an inconvenient time for Pakistan, when the Pakistani public and armed forces have not completely renounced the use of Islamist proxies to achieve our diplomatic objectives. In this context, there is a great danger that Pakistan will commit foreign policy and security blunders.

First, a background:

Pakistan’s perception of its security is India-centric. To this effect, Pakistan has always sought “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. Though the definition is vague (and probably dreamed up by our generals who have given us similar disastrous “strategies” in the past), the prevalent theory is that a friendly and pliable Afghan government will provide the landmass and the population in any future conflict with India. Furthermore, a Pro-Pakistan (and by implication anti-India) tilt in Afghanistan will protect Pakistan from:

(i) a two-pronged front against India
(ii) Pashtun nationalism endangering both the Durrand line and our territorial integrity

While the pursuit of “strategic depth” by itself is neither unethical nor dangerous, the method by which we had pursued it until the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan has endangered our security and threatened the very existence of Pakistan.

The training of Afghan fighters for the Soviet Jihad, the infrastructure of madrassas, gun culture and drug running, have severely destabilized our tribal areas and FATA. The extremist interpretation of Islam, which provided the ideological foundation for the mujahideen, on the one hand prevented economic and social development, and on the other served as a magnet for undesirables all over the world (it was in this environment that Osama Bin Laden found refuge in Afghanistan). While it was immoral and unethical to foist this culture on the Afghans, it was also inevitable for these same extremist ideologies, gun and drug cultures  to spill on to the Pakistani side of the border, endangering our own population.

In addition to utilizing the various terrorist organizations and militants to create a pliant Afghan government, Pakistan also has had a history of using such groups against India. The hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814 and its diversion to Afghanistan in order to free people of (Pakistani) Punjab origin (among them Omar Sheikh Sayeed, implicated in the killing of Daniel Pearl, and Maulana Mazood Azhar, the Amir of Jaish-e-Mohammed, implicated in assasination attempts on Gen. Musharraf) is a significant example. (Before the readers of this article protest that Pakistan had nothing to do with the Taliban, the role of Pakistani armed forces and intelligence agents in the training and nurturing of Taliban is undeniable and one can refer to the Kunduz “Airlift of Evil” also covered in “Descent into Chaos” by Ahmed Rashid.)

Fast forwarding to the future:

It is inevitable that Pakistan will play a central role in the reconciliation between the Taliban and ISAF in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s leverage arises from:

(i) the possible sheltering of the top leadership of the Taliban (including Mullah Omar, and members of the “Quetta Shura“),  as well as our influence with other figures like Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatiyar,
(ii) the role of Pakistani armed forces in preventing Taliban movement from Afghanistan into Pakistan to carry out cross-border attacks and,
(iii) Our indispensability for logistic routes and supply of NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The way we use this leverage will determine whether our security will be strengthened in the long term or whether we slip into another spiral of instability, several orders of magnitude worse than what we have today.

Is there a danger in reverting to Pre-9/11 status and why is it a bad idea?

COAS Kayani has indicated that Pakistan’s primary security threat is India and “strategic depth” is still being sought in Afghanistan. In addition, there is a widespread school of thought in Pakistan that the current violence and instability in the country is the result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Therefore, taking these factors into account, it is clear that the establishment finds it very attractive to revert to a pre-9/11 status – where the Taliban is supported and nurtured by the ISI and armed forces, a pliant Taliban-supported government is installed in Afghanistan with the associated medieval interpretation of Islam, and the various Afghan forces are used for leverage against India in Kashmir. In fact, this possibility has rattled India, which until a few weeks back had refused talks with Pakistan until concrete progress was made in the Mumbai case, but now is pushing for dialogue.

The prevalent sentiment that a Pre-9/11 scenario will put Pakistan on the driver’s seat in Afghanistan, India and the rest of the world, was further enforced by our foreign minister, who declared, “India had blinked on talks” and “Pakistan has held its ground.” Pakistan’s foreign minister even reneged on the progress made so far on Track-II diplomacy with India on Kashmir under the Musharraf regime. In addition, Jamaat-ud-Dawah and other “Punjabi Taliban” groups who were laying low after Mumbai, surfaced and held a rally in Muzaffarabad on Feb 5, promising, among other things, to “spread Jihad in other parts of India beyond Kashmir.” All this before talks had even begun with India. In one sense, they can be viewed as pre-talks sabre rattling, and in another sense, it can be viewed as the establishment’s desire to return to a Pre-9/11, Pre-Mumbai status quo, which may be advantageous in the short-term.

However, this line of thinking is a huge fallacy due to two reasons:
1. Proxy warfare didn’t work in Kashmir

Pakistan has to wake up to the fact that Kashmir’s “jihad” has been a spectacular failure. After sparking many wars, sending in many Jihadis, sponsoring numerous resolutions in various international fora, we are nowhere near wrestling control of Kashmir. Direct military action supported by the Mujahideen is unlikely to work. The Kargil war was a spectacular defeat–despite recent attempts to spin it as a success–Nawaz Sharif to his credit made a face-saving exit after the sudden trip to the U.S. to meet President Clinton. If anything Kargil has indicated that future wars over Kashmir will invite international wrath as well as destabilize our politics.

India has held democratic elections and thinned out their military presence in Kashmir and the number of violent incidents have gone down year after year since 2002. Even when Pakistan’s leverage on the Mujahideen was the strongest, (in the 90’s),  and India’s economy was simultaneously the weakest with a balance of payment crisis, India demonstrated that it could hold on to Kashmir. Instead of  harming India, armed jihad against India has destabilized the Pakistani population, killed and maimed Kashmiris, reduced our international standing, de-legitimized the Kashmir cause and is unlikely to yield any result in the changed international attitude towards terrorism. Moreover, China‘s wariness about the Mujahideen given the problem it faces in Xinjiang (recall that China did not support Pakistan during Kargil), the increasing economic gap between India and Pakistan (which will soon translate into a gap in defense and diplomatic capabilities) and the concomitant hardening of Indian public opinion as they flex their national strength further reduce any possibility of success.

2. With great power comes great responsibility

Secondly, if Pakistan is co-opted to hammer out a solution in Afghanistan by using our influence on the Taliban, the international community will shift responsibility to us . If another 9/11-like attack occurs by elements sheltered by the Taliban,  Pakistan will subsequently be blamed or asked to “do more”. Given the ideological leanings of the Taliban, as well as their involvement in the gun culture and violence, it is inevitable that Afghanistan will once again become a magnet for undesirable elements. Who in their right mind would want to be responsible for the actions of such elements?

Policing the behavior of Taliban, while simultaneously facing the threat of economic and military retaliation from the West for their bad behavior is an unenviable proposition.

So unpalatable as it might be, we should recognize the changed international scenario, the harm that we are causing to our population and go for a radical rethink of our Afghan policy and strategy. 

The contribution is the sole opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the opinion of CHUP. If you would like to contribute a piece to CHUP, please email Kalsoom at changinguppakistan[at]gmail[dot]com. Pieces should be no longer than 800 words please. For past contributions, click here.

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Reuters: A peace sign. Irony.

Reuters: A peace sign. Irony.

The United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime came out with an interesting report this week, which found that Afghanistan-grown poppies fuel a $65 billion heroin and opium market that feeds 15 million addicts. The paper, entitled, Addiction, Crime & InsurgencyThe Transnational Threat of Afghanistan’s Opium, reported that the country “produces 92 percent of the world’s opium, a thick paste from poppy used to make heroin, and the equivalent of 3,500 tons of opium is trafficked out of Afghanistan every year.” Two-thirds of this amount is turned into heroin, while the rest is trafficked as opium.

Some other interesting statistics – most of this heroin is trafficked out of Afghanistan through Pakistan (40%). According to the report, Most of the Afghan borders with Pakistan are wide open, enabling low-risk smuggling back and forth across the Durand Line, especially in Balochistan. Almost no drugs are seized in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) although thousands of tons transit the region.” UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa told reporters, “The Afghanistan/Pakistan border region has turned into the world’s largest free-trade zone in anything and everything that is illicit — drugs of course, but also weapons, bomb-making equipment, chemical precursors, drug money, even people and migrants.”

While none of this is very surprising – Afghanistan’s opium production and trade is infamous at this point – it was interesting to learn that “the value of heroin also increases with each border crossing – from about $3 a gram in Kabul to up to $100 on the streets in London, Milan or Moscow.” Moreover, Europe accounts for 19 percent opiate consumption, while Russia and Iran use 15 percent each. Given that opium is the major source of revenue for the Afghan Taliban, looks like Anna Moscow and Hans Berlin’s drug habits are helping fund militants. It’s not just those pesky “Islamic charities.” Problematic.

The report also noted, “Since 2005, there has been a conspicuous increase in the number of security incidents in Afghanistan in parallel with the sharp rise in opium production. The nexus of drugs, crime, and insurgency has become stronger, also spilling over into neighboring countries, particularly Pakistan.” From 2005-2008, the Afghan Taliban has made $450-600 million from taxing opium cultivation and trade. While the Pakistani military believes the Pakistan Taliban receive about $200 million from Afghan drug money, opium is not the militant organization’s only source of revenue.

Shahan Mufti over at Global Post cited Aftab Ahmed Sherpao, who noted the Pakistan Taliban follow a rule in which they “live off the land,” generating funds via a diverse range of sources, such as kidnapping ransoms, collecting donations from local people (though doing so with AK47’s probably dilutes the thrill of giving back – just a thought) and the sale of counterfeit cigarettes, which is said to make up 20 percent of their funds according to the Center for Public Integrity. Moreover, the Taliban in Pakistan are constantly coming up with new revenue streams. Mufti noted, “The environmental protection agencies in Pakistan are blaming the “timber mafia” — illegal loggers — for funding the militancy.”

Using Rehman Malik‘s all-time favorite metaphor, (I can just see him clapping with glee) then if the Taliban are “injured snakes,” food still allows it to survive, to regenerate. Traditionally, insurgent groups tend to have one major source of revenue that fuels their activities – such as the cocaine trade for FARC in Colombia, and, as mentioned earlier, the poppy cultivation and trade for the Afghan Taliban. What is challenging is that the Pakistani Taliban doesn’t necessarily follow the traditional pattern and has been relatively innovative in garnering revenue. In order starve the “snake,” then we have to be as innovative in our solutions, going beyond charging people guilty of terror financing under the Anti-Terrorism Act, [as Rehman Malik announced  Thursday] and actually getting to the root of the problem.

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AP Image: Qari Zainuddin with his bodyguards earlier this month

AP Image: Qari Zainuddin with his bodyguards earlier this month

On Tuesday, media outlets reported that Taliban commander Qari Zainuddin was shot dead in Dera Ismail Khan. According to the NY Times, “The initial investigation indicated that the gunman was a guard named Gulbadin Mehsud who was thought to have been loyal to Mr. Zainuddin.” Dawn, in its coverage, noted the attacker entered the compound after morning prayers “and opened indiscriminate fire when they were asleep, killing Zainuddin on the spot.” The alleged attacker escaped after the attack, which also wounded another guard.

News agencies primarily framed the incident in light of Tehreek-e-Taliban head Baitullah Mehsud, noting Zainuddin was considered his “chief rival.” Al Jazeera quoted one of Zainuddin’s aides, Baz Mohammed, who vowed to avenge his death, asserting, “It was definitely Baitullah’s man who infiltrated our ranks, and he has done his job.” Earlier this month, Zainuddin reportedly criticized Mehsud following an attack on a mosque that killed 33 people. He told the Associated Press, “Whatever Baitullah Mehsud and his associates are doing in the name of Islam is not a jihad, and in fact it is rioting and terrorism…Islam stands for peace, not for terrorism.”

The purported rivalry between Mehsud and Zainuddin is interesting and goes much deeper than last month’s statement. Zainuddin, also a member of the Mehsud tribe, split from the Tehreek-e-Taliban nine months ago, according to the UK’s Daily Telegraph. The NY Times reported that he had formed an alliance with Turkestan Bhaitani, an older Taliban fighter who had switched sides to ally with the government, [although the Pakistani military ‘officially’ denies supporting either Zainuddin or Bhaitani].

According to the Daily Times, Zainuddin was also the self-appointed successor of his cousin Abdullah Mehsud, a top Taliban commander best known for masterminding the October 2004 kidnapping of two Chinese engineers in Pakistan. He was killed in 2007 when security forces raided his hideout in Balochistan. After his death, Baitullah Mehsud emerged as the leading Taliban commander in the region, [the power base is located in South Waziristan], but sources note a splinter group claiming to be the successors of Abdullah [as well as the “real” Taliban] also formed at this time.

In fact, noted both the Daily Times and the Long War Journal, Zainuddin used posters with images of Abdullah Mehsud as well as pamphlets vilifying Baitullah Mehsud in order to recruit followers. The Daily Times cited one pamphlet distributed in Tank and South Waziristan on March 16, which said, “Baitullah Mehsud is not involved in jihad because Islam does not allow suicide attacks, which his group is perpetrating…Our doors are open to all those who have suffered injustice at the hands of Baitullah. We also warn people against keeping contacts with Baitullah or facilitating him in prolonging his rule.”

This past month, reported the NY Times, both Zainuddin and Bhaitani organized a tribal jirga with as many as 100 elders of the Mehsud tribe in the town of Tank in an effort to rally further opposition to Baitullah Mehsud. And, although Zainuddin said he commanded around 3,000 fighters, there is also no confirmation of these claims, [in fact, the Long War Journal suggests he had inflated the number to portray a greater influence and capability than was actually the case].

Here’s what we do know: 1. Zainuddin’s assassination Tuesday signified an escalation in the rivalry and the long-standing tit-for-tat murder campaign between Baitullah Mehsud and fraction groups. Dawn reported a successor has already been appointed to replace Zainuddin. However, although Baz Mohammed indicated the murder would strengthen “their resolve to wage war against Baitullah,” other news sources indicate it may instead intimidate others from joining the anti-Mehsud group.

According to the Guardian, as he came to power, Baitullah had in fact “demonstrated his utter ruthlessness by killing hundreds of the Mehsud tribe’s traditional elders…who might have led resistance.” McClatchy News spoke to around a dozen Mehsud chiefs in separate meetings. One tribal chief told the news agency, “Not since the time of Alexander the Great have the Mehsud people suffered such slavery…We want to stand with Zainuddin but we don’t trust the government. Three times in the past, they have made deals with Baitullah Mehsud…We are scared that the generals will make up with him again.”

2. Although the Pakistani military officially denies this, most sources report the rise of these anti-Mehsud groups has been part of the state’s strategy to isolate Baitullah Mehsud and his supporters, particularly since “Many believe that Mehsud can be defeated only by a member of his own clan,” noted McClatchy.

This information is problematic, to say the least. Just because Zainuddin and Bhaitani said their fighters would remain neutral against any government offensive against Mehsud’s network does not mean their own motives are clean and rosy. In fact, in an interview with McClatchy News this month, Zainuddin noted he diverged with Baitullah on two fundamental points: the use of suicide bombing and attacks on Pakistan, since, as he noted, “Islam doesn’t give permission to fight against a Muslim country.” However, the late commander had also pledged to send his forces into Afghanistan once Mehsud is vanquished to expel international forces. He told McClatchy, “The whole Muslim world should come together because all infidels have come together against Islam. Whether it is Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnya, Muslims must protect ourselves…The problem is that we cannot go to Afghanistan these days because we have had to deal with Baitullah.”

So ultimately,  in an effort to defeat a short-term but dangerous enemy, we are once again breeding further militancy, a phenomenon that will undoubtedly haunt us [and the West] in the long-run. While I understand the military may have to resort to such measures to create fissures in the militant network, the ramifications and the true benefits of such a strategy must be further weighed. In our effort to take back our country, we need to be aware of whose hands we are placing our future.

As Pakistan prepares to launch its offensive into South Waziristan and resolutely target Baitullah Mehsud, it is abundantly clear that this conflict is not black-and-white, a fact I tried to make clear in my above analysis. It is made increasingly more complex amid news of continuing U.S. drone strikes. Late Tuesday, media outlets reported that 45 people were killed in an alleged drone attack in South Waziristan. According to the NY Times, “If the reports are indeed accurate and if the attack was carried out by a drone, the strike could be the deadliest since the United States began using the aircraft” in Pakistan’s tribal areas, a fact sure to exacerbate anti-American sentiment in the region.

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If you insist, I might hug. No really.

If you insist, I might hug. No really.

On Thursday, Pakistani PM Yousaf Raza Gilani announced to the nation that the army was being called into Swat, “to restore the honor and dignity of our homeland.” He asserted in his nationally televised address, “We will destroy those elements who have destroyed the peace of our people and our nation.” According to the Washington Post, Gilani’s speech “signaled the final collapse of a fragile peace accord between the government and Taliban forces in the Swat region.” The address, a day of fierce air bombardment against militant positions, also marked the beginning of a ground offensive similar to the one already underway in neighboring Dir and Buner districts, where the army claims to have killed more than 200 militants in the past two weeks, reported the Guardian. In the wake of the address, army sources announced that a curfew from 8pm to 6am had been imposed in Swat to prevent Taliban fighters from escaping as wave after wave of attack helicopters and artillery shells pounded suspected militant hideouts.

The announcement occurred as the trilateral talks between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States came to an end in Washington D.C. yesterday. President Zardari further echoed Gilani’s sentiment at a joint news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar, where he stressed Pakistan’s commitment to defeating terrorism. When asked how long the operation in Pakistan would continue, Zardari responded ambiguously, “The operation will go on till the situation returns to normal.” He added, “There’s a realization in the world that it’s a regional problem, a worldwide problem. It is not an Afghan or a Tora Bora problem. It is not a problem secluded in the mountains of Pakhtoonkhwa…This realization brings strength to the fight.”

Although U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke said the main aim of the trilateral meetings were to develop “real cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan because without that cooperation success is not achievable,” the current offensive in Pakistan seemed to be the most pressing issue highlighted by officials and the media. In fact, noted the NY Times, “The timing of Mr. Gilani’s address was hardly an accident. He made it a day after Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, met with President Obama in Washington. American officials have expressed alarm that the Taliban militants are threatening the integrity of the Pakistani state. Mr. Zardari has asked Mr. Obama for more military and economic aid, and Mr. Obama has indicated that he intends to oblige him.”

“Oblige him” is a little easier said than done, though. Although Senator Kerry expressed “hope” that the U.S. Senate and House “would be able to overcome the differences between their bills for providing assistance to Pakistan,” BBC News reported that many lawmakers in Congress are wary of giving a “blank check” to Pakistan. BBC’s Mark Urban reported, “They [lawmakers] want ‘conditionality,’ linking the flow of dollars to Pakistani cooperation on everything from fighting the Taliban, to reining in the ISI, securing nuclear weapons and gaining access to AQ Khan.” Holbrooke, in response to these demands, said the administration “did not believe in conditionality but accepted that benchmarks are required to measure Pakistan’s performance.”

In my effort to understand this issue further, I spoke to Shuja Nawaz, the author of Crossed Swords and director of the Atlantic Council‘s South Asia Center. Although Pakistan does not want “upfront conditions,” he noted that it is understood among the Pakistanis that there have to be financial conditions. However, the indicators or benchmarks noted by Holbrooke must be an effort carried out by the Pakistanis. The government needs to “get their act together” like they did prior to the April Tokyo Conference, where international donors pledged more than $5 billion to help stabilize Pakistan. According to Shuja Nawaz, Pakistan’s finance minister Shaukat Tarin put together “an impressive framework” to show how the aid will be distributed and spent in Pakistan. A similar framework and effort must be made in order to garner much-needed U.S. aid and assistance.

In her testimony this week before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Christine Fair, a senior political scientist with RAND Corporation, also discussed this issue, advising:

It is essential that these processes and benchmarks be developed in concert with the Pakistani government. Both the United States and Pakistan must agree on how progress will be assessed and how remediation will be addressed. Pakistan must be a partner in achieving these objectives rather than an adversary being forced to acquiesce.

If Congress does approve the aid package for Pakistan, which will increase its civilian aid package to $1.5 billion annually, it is extremely important to know where that money is going so that aid can be more effective. There must be more accountability and responsibility, both on our part and the United States. Ultimately, we need more bang for our buck. In my conversation with Shuja Nawaz yesterday, he noted that USAID is appropriately named “because the aid seems to stay in the U.S.” He used U.S. aid to Afghanistan as an example, noting that only 10 cents of the dollar is actually spent on the Afghan people. Chris Fair, in her testimony, noted, “USAID’s business model relies heavily on layers of contractors to deliver services, something that likely results in much of the funding returning to the United States, suboptimal outcomes, and greater Pakistani and American disappointment with the quality and quantity of benefits delivered to Pakistani citizens.”

In my past interview with Samia Altaf, a public health physician who previously worked with USAID in Pakistan [and is penning a book on U.S. aid implementation], she noted, “It often comes down to program design and implementation strategies. Many of the donor supported programs are not designed with Pakistan’s context in mind. Also there is not much attention given to serious evaluations of mistakes and poor results. Nobody…asks why the program failed to deliver results.”

Although Pakistan drastically needs aid, not just for its military efforts but more importantly for education and development, we also need to learn how to help ourselves. According to Chris Fair, U.S. legislation, while providing military and economic assistance, must also enable Pakistan to “increase its ability to raise domestic revenue through tax reform and any commitment to collect taxes that are due.” Although this scenario is highly unlikely in the immediate future, in the long-term Pakistan’s capacity must be increased so that we are not as fiercely dependent on foreign aid.

For now, as the military offensive continues and the subsequent humanitarian crisis worsens, foreign assistance is increasingly needed. Let’s hope that this time, especially given the intensifying debate, we will actually see the benefits of this funding.

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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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Pakistan: Another Cambodia?

I watched an interesting news segment on CNN today. Anchor Rick Sanchez spoke to the news agency’s Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr about the shift of U.S. troops from Iraq to Afghanistan due to the increasingly deteriorating security situation. According to Starr, the U.S. will add an additional 15,000 U.S. troops [to the current 30,000 already on the ground] within the next several months. The conversation soon became a discussion on whether Afghanistan will become President Barack Obama’s Vietnam, [also see Newsweek’s related article this week]. Starr promptly asserted something we’ve all been hearing for some time now – that the solution to Afghanistan lies in Pakistan. However, she added, the catchword that has been going around Washington is Cambodia, i.e., if Afghanistan is Obama’s Vietnam, will Pakistan act as Cambodia in the scenario? [Image from Newsweek article]

Let’s provide some background – Vietnam in a simplified nutshell, if you will. The Vietnam War was fought from 1959 to 1975 in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The conflict involved the communist North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (NLF) versus the United States forces and the South Vietnamese army. The Viet Cong was the South Vietnamese guerilla force that [with the support of the North Vietnamese] fought against U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. According to PBS,

Because of Cambodia’s proximity to Vietnam, the Vietcong army set up bases there. Although Cambodia remained neutral during the war, the presence of these bases caused American military forces to bomb the country heavily, launching secret bombing campaigns beginning in 1969. MSN Encarta estimates that the amount of bombs dropped on Cambodia during the war exceeded the amount dropped on Europe during World War II.

It is by no means a perfect analogy – for one, the U.S. is using a more “pin-prick” approach in targeting Al Qaeda and Taliban militants [versus the continuous bombing of Cambodia], not to mention the fact that Pakistan has a vested stake in this war. However, there is a haunting parallel that is telling of the current situation. As the United States continued its air strikes on Cambodia in the early 1970s, the Khmer Rouge [the Communist party that eventually took control of the country in 1975] grew in popular support and recruits. In fact, according to PBS, their army grew to some 50,000 soldiers in 1972, “many of whom joined to retaliate for the U.S. bombings.”  Ben Kiernan [a Yale University historian] and Taylor Owen used a combination of satellite mapping, Cambodian peasant testimony, and recently unclassified data to argue for this correlation, asserting, “Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began.”

Using Cambodia and Pakistan in the same sentence is not only disconcerting, it’s downright frightening. AQ and Taliban militants may be hiding out in Pakistan’s tribal areas – but bombing these targets without any matched counterinsurgency efforts could illicit the same response we saw for the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s – and that is something that none of us want to see happen.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the Oscar-nominated film Frost/Nixon [which I highly recommend], about the famous series of interviews between British talk show host David Frost and former President Richard Nixon. When quizzed about the bombings in Cambodia, Nixon exclaimed,

Whenever I have had my doubts I remembered the construction worker in Philadelphia because he came up to me and he said ‘Sir I got only one criticism of that Cambodia thing; if you’d gone in earlier you might have captured the gun that killed my boy three months ago’. So you’re asking me do I regret going into Cambodia?… No, I don’t. You know what, I wish I’d gone in sooner. And harder!

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