Afghan villagers in the north of the country, around Kunduz, have been forming their own militias. They say this is required to protect them against Taliban attacks since the Afghan Army and international forces are not able to do so. This is a very busy week for me, so, unfortunately, I’m not able to go into detail into these reports.
Meanwhile, talks have taken place between the Afghan government and insurgents.
According to a report by Amir Mir, published in Pakistan’s The News, US drone strikes have mostly missed targeted al-Qaeda leaders. The study covers a period between 14 January 2006 and 8 April 2009.
Out of 60 Predator strikes, 10 hit their intended target, killing 14 members of al-Qaeda in addition to 687 civilian deaths. According to these calculations, from the total number of deaths only about 2% of them were al-Qaeda.
This is a terrible track record and explains the fear, anger, and opposition from Pakistani citizens to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. The US seems to be crippled by poor intelligence on legitimate targets but seems to follow through with attacks despite the poor intelligence. A significant portion of this intelligence is believed to be provided by local tribes people who are given cash rewards for this information.
I have not yet been able to find official calculations by the US military. This may not be available since the use of drones in Pakistan is classified and officials generally only speak of their overall tactical impact under condition of anonymity. A look at official statements immediately following a strike then retractions by US officials sometimes months later is enough to make my head spin with confusion. It’s not uncommon for claims to be made that al-Qaeda targets were killed only to be retracted or reduced in number and sometimes civilian casualties admitted after strong pressure and evidence contradicting these reports.
The militants in Pakistan have responded to US intelligence gathering from locals by kidnapping, torturing, and murdering people they accuse of spying for the US.
You can read the full article and breakdown of numbers here.
An article in McClatchy, by Jonathan S. Landay, reviews the issue from a slightly different perspective. The article quotes a US intelligence official saying:
The UAV strikes have had two unintended consequences.
First, al Qaida and the Taliban have used our use of unmanned aircraft in their propaganda to portray Americans as cowards who are afraid to face their enemies and risk death. In their culture, and in the context of what they portray as a war between Western religions and Islam, that can be a powerful argument,
Second and not surprisingly,” he continued, “rather than sit around in the (tribal region) waiting for the next strike, some of the jihadis have moved into Pakistan proper, into Karachi and even into Punjab, where we can’t target them and where they’re in a better position to attack the Pakistani government.
Other military and intelligence officials that were interviewed expressed concern that “the strikes by the missile-firing drones are a recruiting boon for extremists because of the unintended civilian casualties that have prompted widespread anger against the U.S.”
The war in Afghanistan has become the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, sometimes termed the Afpak war by the US administration. This expansion into Pakistan reveals much about the nature of the war in the region, is a response to the origin story of the Taliban, and reflects the practice of the rights of the dominant international subjects to intervene throughout the world in the name of global order.
The current US administration, under president Barack Obama, has refocused its attention on Central and South Asia after its predecessor had shifted the greater part of its international policy resources to the war in Iraq. President Obama has increasingly articulated a US and NATO policy that has been a growing reality since the tail end of the US presidential election campaign: de-emphasis on Iraq and emphasis and resurgence of international political-military activity in and around Afghanistan.
In this regard, the US will in the short term be sending some 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and it will be sending a great number more civilian experts to train and handle Afghan bureaucrats and politicians.
Taliban Sans Frontiere
The Taliban’s presence is today strongest in southern Afghanistan and north western Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North-West Frontier Province (read my article on the Taliban presence in FATA for more information). These areas constitute the majority of the Pashtun people’s territories. The Taliban has its roots in Pashtun culture. Almost all Taliban leaders are of Pashtun origin, and they are currently the primary power bloc within these highly tribal influenced people. In fact the Taliban’s rules and codes, as they enforce them in territories they effectively govern, are a synthesis of a particular Sunni school of religious conduct (originally from India’s Deobandi school) and the Pashtun tribal rules known as Pashtunwali.
According to an article by Marc Ambinder, published by the Atlantic, US president Barack Obama will likely support a senate bill to provide funds to Pakistan tied to that country’s efforts against Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents.
These reports are coming from US government insiders prior to president Obama’s formal release of his Afghanistan and Pakistan policy.
Such aid will likely be used to pressure Pakistan’s government to reduce it’s long-standing and often covert cooperation with the Taliban. This method is not new, and was carried out quite under both presidents Bush and Clinton. The Pakistani government, at that time under the leadership of Pervez Musharraf, proved adept at playing both sides, receiving money from the U.S. and using its military and secret intelligence to support Taliban assets it had cultivated over many years.
Pakistan had previously used its ties to the Taliban to exert influence within Afghanistan, such as undermining the Northern Alliance (which had greater understanding with Iran), establishing trade routes and smuggling rings, keeping Indian influence to a minimum in Afghanistan, and using Taliban allied training grounds and people as fighters against India in Kashmir in order to avoid the full fallout from a formal government directed attack.
According to the Atlantic article, president Obama plans to send “4,000 additional troops … tasked with training Afghan soldiers and the national police; the administration hopes to have more than 130,000 [Afghan] soldiers and 82,000 [Afghan] police officers trained by 2011.”
The Nation has an informative article on the use of Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, by Israel in the latest major assault on the Gaza Strip. Israel is a leader in the development of drone technology, modifying U.S. designs as it has done with many of its other military hardware.
The AFP reports that Iran has attended a meeting at NATO headquarters, the first time direct talks were held between these two groups since the Iranian revolution some 30 years ago. According to a chief NATO spokesman, “the Iranians are interested in possible cooperation on Afghanistan.” AFP reports that Iran is interested in mitigating the smuggling of drugs from Afghanistan into Iran.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that between 1.5 and 2 million Afghan refugees reside in Iran. Iran is keen on reducing the numbers of these refugees and reducing the flow of new refugees. Also, Iran has had quite bad relations with the Taliban. The Sunni Taliban sees Iran’s Shia government as apostate and relations between the two are anywhere between strained to hostile.
In 2001, Iran proved supportive of the US invasion of Afghanistan and, importantly, was instrumental in convincing its allies in the Northern Alliance to work with the US.
Juan Cole reports on an Al-Zaman article claiming “that Iranian speaker of the House Ali Larijani is on a secret mission in Iraq to mediate between the Islamic Mission (Da’wa) Party of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his sometime coalition partner, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). The two parties are seeking to form coalitions in several southern Shiite provincial councils, and Iran is said impatient for the deal to be concluded.”
The lead-up to Iran’s June presidential elections has been somewhat tumultuous for all candidates involved, including current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He faced stiff resistance, and finally parliamentary defeat of his budget plans in March. Despite this body blow, EurasiaNet reports that president Ahmadinejad remains the front runner in the race. Ahmadinejad’s power base is heavily tied to his alliance with the military, counter to traditional politics in the Islamic Republic of Iran. His past and current election campaigns indicate greater military influence over Iranian politics, undermining some of the power of clerics and their financiers (the bazaaris).
First published at Rabble.ca:
Today, masked gunmen executed an attack in Pakistan’s second largest city, Lahore. Reports indicate that fourteen heavily armed gunmen were involved, attacking a bus convoy carrying Sri Lanka’s cricket team to the local stadium for the day’s game. The attackers are said to have descended on the scene from four different locations, and were armed with at least one rocket launcher, several grenades, and AK47s. Reports are a little confused about the length of the firefight, lasting anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes.
The driver of one of the buses was killed and some team members were injured.
This attack follows weeks after a cease fire was called between the central government and the Taliban insurgents in the country’s north west region after the government had OKed legislation formalizing the religious foundation of Sharia law in that region as a prerequisite to peace.
Today’s attack is outside the region in which the Pakistani military was fighting militants, and is sign of a disturbing trend toward commando attacks within the heart of Pakistan’s economic and administrative centres.
In a country in which cricket is the top sport, this attack was designed to show just how unstable is the country and that militants are strong. It worked on these fronts. Pakistan’s role in international cricket is dead for some time now, and the world is made deadly aware of the spreading chaos and loss of government authority in that country.
In a report published today, Tariq Ali, states that greater instability and violence will be a result of the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan as insurgents unify in opposition to it. The surge cannot possibly provide enough personnel to protect all regions of Afghanistan let alone protect the borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
If the cease fire holds between Pakistan and insurgents in its north west, then these fighters can focus greater effort into attacks within Afghanistan. This year’s fighting has not yet really started. Fighting in Afghanistan drops to a relative trickle in winter months as mountain passages become congested with snow and many roads difficult or impossible to cross.
Pakistan’s government has lost face, the population grown more contemptuous of it, and militants more hostile after a recent revelation by Senator Dianne Feinstein that U.S. drone attacks carried out in Pakistan are being directed from and launched from bases within Pakistan. This means that the local government and military are in collusion with U.S. decision-makers. Drone attacks have been highly unpopular within Pakistan, seen by the people as a breach of their sovereignty, intrusion of war into their neighbourhoods, and cause of civilian deaths. The revelation also reinforces many Pakistani people’s beliefs that the civilian government is a stooge of the U.S., adding to its unpopularity and growing inability to command the respect required to govern.
The government’s unpopularity has further been increased by President Zardari’s refusal to live up to a campaign promise, to reintroduce an independent judiciary that was disempowered under the late stages of Musharraf’s rule. President Zardari has dismissed the Punjab province’s government and is now in direct control of the country’s most populous province. Tariq Ali writes that this move took place after the province’s “chief minister apparently refused to accept a bribe in the shape of a lucrative business deal in return for abandoning the fight to restore the chief justice fired by the military leader over a year ago.”
The US is talking with Pakistan over the planned troop ‘surge’ in Afghanistan doubling the number of US soldiers. The war in Afghanistan is no longer just that, it’s also a war in western Pakistan. Coordination of efforts between the US and Pakistan are important in the success of military (and non-military) efforts to mitigate or defeat the insurgency. The Pakistani paper, DAWN, has a little more on this.
One of Pakistan’s concerns is US military action within its borders. Pakistan’s fear here is that the US will continue to strike into that country without warning the government, essentially a violation of their borders and sovereignty. This has been a blow against the government’s legitimacy, fueling anger within Pakistanis not only against the US but also against a government that has done nothing, or perhaps is incapable of defending the country’s sovereign integrity. Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Thursday commented on the use of US drone attacks in Pakistan, “when there is a drone attack that unites them again, the tribes and the militants… This thing is counterproductive for Pakistan and the Pakistan military.” You can read more at The News.
Afghanistan’s Presidential elections have been pushed back to 20 August. This is three months behind the schedule outlined in the constitution. Officially, the delay is due to lack of security and sparse funds. Unofficially, the current President, Hamid Karzai, is likely buying himself some time to maneuver into a better political position leading up to the election. He has become quite unpopular, mocked as the ‘mayor of Kabul’ by Afghans, and it also seems that the new US administration does not favour his staying in power. President Karzai has failed to extend the government’s authority over much of the country, nor has he succeeded in building a broad based consensus among Afghanistan’s people. The authority of the central government under President Karzai rests on the shoulders of Western funds, Western weapons, and Western military power. The Afghan National Army has not even attempted to act independently from US and NATO handlers and is generally seen as incapable of fighting effectively.
All the while, many Afghans are struggling for the basics of life essentials: food, water, and medical treatment.
Under these circumstances it’s not hard to imagine why President Karzai would be unpopular. Any people would want an independent national leadership to take charge of a bad situation. Similarly, the Pashtun based Taliban is popular enough in southern Afghanistan to continuously extend its reach. Contrasted against President Karzai’s ineffective government, the Taliban appear quite independent, and themselves capable enough to fight against a modern Western army without the conspicuous need for billions of dollars in foreign funds and training. It doesn’t look good therefore that the central government isn’t as capable.
A Callous Strategy Continues to Kill Innocents In Afghanistan While Pakistan Fights For The Minds Of Its People
Many US and NATO victories encapsulate defeat within them. Earlier this month, the US military claimed to have killed 32 Taliban fighters in an operation it has presented as a success in counter-insurgency.
The New York Times covers the story after interviews with the wounded in hospital:
But the two young men who lay wincing in a hospital ward here told a different story a few days later, one backed up by the pro-American provincial governor and a central government delegation.
They agreed that 13 civilians had been killed and 9 wounded when American commandos broke down doors and unleashed dogs without warning on Jan. 7 in the hunt for a known insurgent in Masamut, in Laghman Province in eastern Afghanistan. The residents were so enraged that they threatened to march on the American military base here.
Another US raid, this one on Friday, has sparked local demonstrations. Locals are angry at civilian casualties from the raid. “The raid killed at least 16 villagers, including 2 women and 3 children, according to a statement from President Hamid Karzai.”
The CBC reports that “two caches of weapons and roadside bomb-making materials were also destroyed by coalition troops, apparently because they were too unstable to transport to a secure location. The resulting blasts may have killed civilians, according to the deputy governor of Laghman province, Hadayut Qalanderzai.”
This is unfortunately a too common occurrence. US led missions often claim significant victories after ground or air raids in which they present a figure for Taliban dead in a battle but refute claims of any civilians injured or killed. Later investigations by the UN and human rights groups too often discover evidence (and at times record visual evidence) of civilians such as children and women killed in the same fight. The US spokespeople then fall into what has become an ignoble dance of denial sometimes followed by late acceptance of the civilian dead. Afghans can’t help but feel that this communicates little regard for the death of their neighbours, and loved ones. Anger is growing, among the people and government of Afghanistan. Not only are apologies often not forthcoming but the strategy that results in such innocent deaths persists without serious review. It’s not surprising then that there would be little sympathy for or assistance for international troops fighting in Afghanistan when these same troops appear to be competing with the Taliban over who has killed more civilians in their mission for control of the country. In fighting over territory and in the quest to bag as many enemy dead the very people who inhabit the land seem forgotten and their deaths and hardships are reduced to a consequence or collateral of ongoing war. It then follows that the Taliban or US blames the other for instigating a war that has forced them to kill civilians in what each considers a justified mission against a nemesis. The fact remains that civilians continue to die in great numbers at the hands of both parties.
The Taliban in Pakistan continues a campaign of killings of people they claim to be US spies operating near the border with Afghanistan. Likely these executions have multiple facets. They instill fear within the local population so that they desist from resistance against the Taliban, some may well be political deaths of opponents who had no direct ties to US institutions, and others may well be spies. The US does have cash rewards for informants in Pakistan. The latest Taliban execution took place in North Waziristan. The murdered body was found dumped in the mountains.
The fighting between insurgents and the local security forces has become focused on schools. Girls’ schools and state schools are being attacked by the Taliban while the Pakistani military has now taken to securing the educational centres. From UPI:
Suspected Taliban militants blew up a school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, bringing to 183 the number of area schools destroyed in six months, officials said.
Also Monday, local newspapers printed the list of 50 government officials and tribal elders whom radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah threatened to kill if they did not appear before him for opposing the Taliban, CNN reported.
The FATA and NWFP regions of Pakistan have chronically suffered from a lack of education. This has been an effective tool in the hands of Islamist groups who increasingly tend to provide the most readily available form of schooling. This deficiency in education began during the inception of Pakistan, the central government never taking it upon itself to provide adequate social services, economic development, or even equal civic rights to the people of those territories.
The FATA has a 17% literacy rate, 3% for women. The national average is 56%. It seems clear that Islamist militants wish to maintain this trend and monopolize general education to their benefit.
One civilian killed, eight injured after a suicide bombing in eastern Afghanistan, according to a provincial official.