A foreign face beloved by Afghans from all sides

December 25, 2008

John F. Burns in International Herald Tribune:

Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Alberto Cairo, right, heads the orthopedic rehabilitation program of the International Committee of the Red Cross, a job dedicated to helping disabled Afghans live normally again by equipping them with artificial legs and arms. Photo: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Kabul: History has fostered a notion here that all foreign occupations of Afghanistan are ultimately doomed.

There was the catastrophic retreat of a British expeditionary force in 1842. Nearly 150 years later came the Soviet troop withdrawal of 1989. Now, with the Taliban pressing in on this city and dominating the countryside, there are fears that this occupation, too, will eventually fail.

But whatever the outcome, Afghans of all ethnic and political stripes, even the Taliban, seem likely to count Alberto Cairo as one foreigner who left the country better than he found it.

Cairo, once a debonair lawyer in his native Turin, Italy, is almost certainly the most celebrated Western relief official in Afghanistan, at least among Afghans. To the generation who have been beneficiaries of his relief work for the International Committee of the Red Cross, he is known simply as “Mr. Alberto,” a man apart among the 15,000 foreigners who live and work in this city.

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Why Kashmir holds the key

December 16, 2008

Resolving the Kashmir dispute would help Pakistan to end its support for Islamist separatists implicated in the Mumbai attacks. Muzamil Jaleel in the Guardian:

So the key question is: why is it impossible for Pakistan to hand over Lashkar founder and Jamat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Mohammad Sayeed to New Delhi when it did not hesitate to arrest Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and other key al-Qaida operatives for the Americans?

In a word, Kashmir. The Kashmir dispute is at the core of Pakistan’s very existence. Unlike Afghanistan, Kashmir has traditionally been a major influence on Pakistan’s domestic as well as foreign policy. While Pakistan did launch a crackdown after the attack on the Indian parliament, it continued to insist that this shift did not mean abandoning its support for separatists in Kashmir.

There is another important aspect to this contradiction, which has more to do with ideological and demographic differences between the Taliban and Lashkar movement. The Taliban, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, is primarily based on the Deobandi school of thought, while Lashkar is Salafi. While Deobandis in Pakistan seek the establishment of an Islamic state and support a jihad against the establishment, Salafis do not support rebellion against the government in a Muslim country and rather advocate reform to turn the ruling elite into “Muslims at heart”.

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In the lair of the Taliban

December 8, 2008

They were ousted in 2001, yet across Afghanistan the Taliban are steadily regaining control. The writer Nir Rosen ventured into their heartland – and lived to tell the tale. From the Sunday Times:

talibanOn the outskirts of the capital we are stopped at a checkpoint manned by the Afghan National Army. The soldiers are suspicious of my foreign accent. My Afghan companions, Shafiq and Ibrahim, convince them that I am only a journalist. As we drive away, Ibrahim laughs. The soldiers thought I was a suicide bomber. Ibrahim did not tell them that he and Shafiq are mid-level Taliban commanders escorting me deep into Ghazni.

Until recently, Ghazni, like much of central Afghanistan, was considered reasonably safe. But now the province, 100 miles south of Kabul, has fallen to the Taliban. Foreigners who venture there often wind up kidnapped or killed. In defiance of the central government, the Taliban governor in the province issues separate ID cards and passports for the Taliban regime, or the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

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The Pakistan test

November 24, 2008

Nicholas D. Kristof in the New York Times:

Barack Obama’s most difficult international test in the next year will very likely be here in Pakistan. A country with 170 million people and up to 60 nuclear weapons may be collapsing.

Reporting in Pakistan is scarier than it has ever been. The major city of Peshawar is now controlled in part by the Taliban, and this month alone in the area an American aid worker was shot dead, an Iranian diplomat kidnapped, a Japanese journalist shot and American humvees stolen from a NATO convoy to Afghanistan.

I’ve been coming to Pakistan for 26 years, ever since I hid on the tops of buses to sneak into tribal areas as a backpacking university student, and I’ve never found Pakistanis so gloomy. Some worry that militants, nurtured by illiteracy and a failed education system, will overrun the country or that the nation will break apart. I’m not quite that pessimistic, but it’s very likely that the next major terror attack in the West is being planned by extremists here in Pakistan.

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Ringed by foes, Pakistanis fear the US, too

November 23, 2008

There is an increasing belief among some Pakistanis that what the U.S. really wants is the breakup of Pakistan. Jane Perlez from Islamabad in the New York Times:

Above are sections of maps that opriginally accompanied a speculative June 2006 article by Ralph Peters in Armed Forces Journal that has concerned pakistanis.

A controversial imaging of borders: Above are sections of maps that opriginally accompanied a speculative June 2006 article by Ralph Peters in Armed Forces Journal that has concerned pakistanis.

A redrawn map of South Asia has been making the rounds among Pakistani elites. It shows their country truncated, reduced to an elongated sliver of land with the big bulk of India to the east, and an enlarged Afghanistan to the west.

That the map was first circulated as a theoretical exercise in some American neoconservative circles matters little here. It has fueled a belief among Pakistanis, including members of the armed forces, that what the United States really wants is the breakup of Pakistan, the only Muslim country with nuclear arms.

“One of the biggest fears of the Pakistani military planners is the collaboration between India and Afghanistan to destroy Pakistan,” said a senior Pakistani government official involved in strategic planning, who insisted on anonymity as per diplomatic custom. “Some people feel the United States is colluding in this.”

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Pakistan’s hidden war

October 23, 2008

War has come to the world’s only Muslim nuclear state. Not just terrorist bombs, but pitched battles bringing refugees down from the mountains and even into Afghanistan. In a powerful dispatch, Andrew Buncombe and Omar Waraich report on the conflict which has left 200,000 people caught between the Pakistani Army, the Taliban and the tribal warlords. From The Independent:

Supporters of Maulana Fazlullah, a hardline cleric who began an uprising against the Pakistani government, in Charbagh, a Taliban stronghold on the Afghan border. Reuters

Supporters of Maulana Fazlullah, a hardline cleric who began an uprising against the Pakistani government, in Charbagh, a Taliban stronghold on the Afghan border. Reuters / The Independent

There was a loud, sharp sound followed by flames and a massive blast of wind that threw the boy 20 yards. He said it felt as if he had fallen off the mountain. When he pulled himself to his feet, dazed and battered, he found nine members of his family dead and his mother badly wounded. All fell victim to an artillery shell fired by the Pakistani army fighting Taliban fighters in the country’s mountainous borders. As soon as the boy’s remaining family were able, they fled with the rest of his village. Two months on, 12-year-old Ikram Ullah sits with thousands of others in a wretched, fly-ridden refugee camp, his face streaked with dirt and tears as he tells his story and wonders what will happen to him. “Life here,” he says, crouching in the dust among rows of canvas tents, “is filled with sadness and grief.”

Ikram is far from alone. Up to 200,000 desperate people have fled their villages and the fighting. Some 20,000 refugees have even crossed the border into Afghanistan. As the Pakistan army bends to pressure from the US to step up its confrontation with Taliban militants in the semi-autonomous tribal areas of Pakistan, the fallout for the civilian population worsens. Every day, their lives are threatened by the pounding jets that sweep into the valleys on bombing and strafing runs and by the clattering helicopter gunships that the Pakistani military uses to spearhead assaults. The people in the dust are the so-called “collateral damage” of Pakistan’s own war on terror.

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Murdered by Taleban

October 19, 2008

Lieutenant-Colonel Malalai Kakar, Afghanistan’s highest-ranking woman police officer, was praised for her toughness but was murdered by the Taleban. Her obituary in The Times:

Kakar, just over 5ft tall, became a revered figure in Kandahar after dispatching three assassins in a shoot-out

Kakar became a revered figure in Kandahar after killing three assassins in a shoot-out

Kakar was the first woman to become a police detective in the ultraconservative Kandahar – a dangerous place for any police officer let alone a woman. Kandahar, the birthplace of Taleban extremism, is the largest city in southern Afghanistan and its surrounding province of the same name has a population of about 900,000.

Kakar rose through the ranks to become the country’s most prominent policewoman as the head of the crimes against women department of the Kandahar police, leading a team of nearly a dozen policewomen. Her main roles were to sort out family disputes, protect women from domestic violence and run the women’s prison.

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Afghanistan: A country locked in a spiral of doom

October 14, 2008

Christina Lamb has been reporting from Afghanistan for 20 years. Here she offers a chilling frontline analysis of why we cannot beat the Taliban. In The Sunday Times:

There is something sinister about the Chinook helicopter, like a giant, dark insect bearing down from the skies to disgorge battle-weary soldiers amid clouds of hot dust. When I think about war, whether it be ones I have reported in Iraq or Afghanistan or seen in Vietnam movies such as Apocalypse Now, the soundtrack in my head is always that of the throbbing blades coming closer and closer.

Last week I sat perched inside a Chinook flying over Helmand, trussed up in flak jacket and helmet, squashed between some Royal Marines arriving for a six-month tour. Unable to talk over the loud rotors, some had earphones attached to iPods. Others, like me, had to make do with yellow military-issue earplugs and spent the journey watching the gunner scour the parched land below through the open back.

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Women who took on the Taliban – and lost

October 3, 2008

Three years ago, Kim Sengupta of The Independent interviewed five women who wanted to build a new Afghanistan. Today, three are dead and a fourth has fled.

Safia Amajan, who fought for education for women. Murdered in Kandahar. AFP / The Independent

Safia Amajan, who fought for education for women. Murdered in Kandahar. AFP / The Independent

In the case of Malalai Kakar, the most prominent policewoman in Afghanistan, an additional “crime” which sealed her fate was that she was a determined and effective campaigner for women’s rights. Commander Kakar, 40, knew her work made her a Taliban target. She led a unit of 10 policewomen specialising in domestic violence cases. She was uncompromising with suspected abusers, men who in the past had relied on male police officers to turn a blind eye.

“I’ve been accused of being rough with husbands who beat up their wives” she said. “But I’m angry, we try to apply the law in the right way and the constitution is supposed to protect women’s rights.”

Kakar liked to cook breakfast for her husband and six children before going to work, she told me. She would spend a long time saying her farewell because, she said, she could never be sure what would happen. Her 15-year-old son was with her when she was killed last weekend. She carried a pistol under the burqa she wore to work, so as not to be recognised, before changing into uniform. But she had no chance to defend herself, or him, against the two motorcycle assassins.

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Zardari is even more afraid than Musharraf

September 28, 2008

In The Spectator, Stephen Schwartz and Irfan Al-Alawi say the Marriott bomb in Islamabad shows how weak the new Pakistani President is in the face of the Talebanised sectors of this failing state:

The Pakistani Taleban could not wage war across the border were it not for the long-standing infiltration of the Pakistani army and ISI by jihadists. For years, the Pakistani-Indian conflict over Kashmir was the pretext for ignoring this. Similarly, rivalry with India served as the justification for Mr Zardari’s predecessor, General Pervez Musharraf, to protect Abdul Qadeer Khan, the alleged rogue physicist who we now know helped provide nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea. Zardari’s rival and occasional partner, Nawaz Sharif, a recent resident of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, continues his historic alignment with the jihadists.

Zardari insists that his government can handle the situation without foreign involvement. Such arguments are simply more rhetoric. They cover a policy of accommodation with the Taleban invaders, best exemplified when the Pakistani army fired at US helicopters on 21 September, the day after the Marriott atrocity. A week before, Pakistani forces were officially ordered to shoot at American troops if the latter crossed the barely defined Afghan border.

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The Long Road to Chaos in Pakistan

By Dexter Filkins, who has covered the Afghanistan and Iraq wars for The New York Times:

Tyler Hicks / NYTimes

Gun market: Near the Khyber Pass is Peshawar, the administrative center for the tribal areas where the Taliban regroups and rearms. Photo: Tyler Hicks / NYTimes

It was more than a decade ago that Pakistan’s leaders began nurturing the Taliban and their brethren to help advance the country’s regional interests. Now they are finding that their home-schooled militants have grown too strong to control. No longer content to just cross into Afghanistan to kill American soldiers, the militants have begun to challenge the government itself. “The Pakistanis are truly concerned about their whole country unraveling,” said a Western military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the matter is sensitive.

That is a horrifying prospect, especially for Pakistan’s fledgling civilian government, its first since 1999. The country has a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons. The tribal areas, which harbor thousands of Taliban militants, are also believed to contain Al Qaeda’s senior leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri.

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A female Afghan MP on challenges of her work

September 11, 2008

Dr Roshanak Wardak is an unmarried female MP in the Afghan parliament. She tells Jason Burke about the challenges and compromises she faces in her work. In The Guardian:

The Afghan MP Dr Roshanak Wardak.

The Afghan MP Dr Roshanak Wardak.

No one could say that Dr Roshanak Wardak has an easy life. The 46-year-old MP commutes for two hours a day from her home in Sayyatabad, 55 miles south of Kabul, to the new parliament buildings to the west of the Afghan capital.

Sometimes the road is too risky even for her to drive. Given its proximity to Kabul that is a fairly good indication of how far security has deteriorated in the east of Afghanistan in recent months. To the south of Sayyatabad the road continues on another 200 miles to Kandahar. Under the Taliban, I regularly drove down it – all 18 hours of bone-jarring discomfort – in local taxis.

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Right at the Edge

September 6, 2008

The Taliban and Al Qaeda have established a haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan border. This is where the war on terror wil be fought – and possibly lost. Dexter Filkins in the New York Times Magazine:

Late in the afternoon of June 10, during a firefight with Taliban militants along the Afghan-Pakistani border, American soldiers called in airstrikes to beat back the attack. The firefight was taking place right on the border itself, known in military jargon as the “zero line.” Afghanistan was on one side, and the remote Pakistani region known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, was on the other. The stretch of border was guarded by three Pakistani military posts.

The American bombers did the job, and then some. By the time the fighting ended, the Taliban militants had slipped away, the American unit was safe and 11 Pakistani border guards lay dead. The airstrikes on the Pakistani positions sparked a diplomatic row between the two allies: Pakistan called the incident “unprovoked and cowardly”; American officials regretted what they called a tragic mistake. But even after a joint inquiry by the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan, it remained unclear why American soldiers had reached the point of calling in airstrikes on soldiers from Pakistan, a critical ally in the war in Afghanistan and the campaign against terrorism.

The mystery, at least part of it, was solved in July by four residents of Suran Dara, a Pakistani village a few hundred yards from the site of the fight. According to two of these villagers, whom I interviewed together with a local reporter, the Americans started calling in airstrikes on the Pakistanis after the latter started shooting at the Americans.

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Pakistan’s westward drift

September 5, 2008

Pervez Hoodbhoy in Himal:

For three decades, deep tectonic forces have been silently tearing Pakistan away from the Subcontinent and driving it towards the Arabian Peninsula. This continental drift is not geophysical but cultural, driven by a belief that Pakistan must exchange its Southasian identity for an Arab-Muslim one. Grain by grain, the desert sands of Saudi Arabia are replacing the alluvium that had nurtured Muslim culture in the Indian Subcontinent for over a thousand years. A stern, unyielding version of Islam – Wahhabism – is replacing the kinder, gentler Islam of the Sufis and saints.

This drift is by design. Twenty-five years ago, the Pakistani state pushed Islam onto its people. Prayers in government departments were deemed compulsory; floggings were carried out publicly; punishments were meted out to those who did not fast during Ramadan; selection for academic posts required that the candidates demonstrate knowledge of Islamic teachings, and the jihad was emphasised as essential for every Muslim. Today, such government intervention is no longer needed due to the spontaneous groundswell of Islamic zeal. The notion of an Islamic state – as yet in some amorphous and diffused form – is more popular than ever before, as people look desperately for miracles to rescue a failing state. Across the country, there has been a spectacular increase in the power and prestige of the clerics, attendance in mosques, home prayer meetings (dars and zikr), observance of special religious festivals, and fasting during Ramadan.

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Long live democracy until the next dictator

August 23, 2008

What does the future hold for Pakistan? Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc, spins four different political scenarios which could hold the key to a stable democracy. From Tehelka:

“Ma’am, are you happy with this decision?” was what the makeup woman at the GEO television channel asked me on President Pervez Musharraf’s resignation. The uncertainty in her voice brought home to me the fact that there was no consensus on the future of the country now that the greatest challenge to democracy, as official voices from Islamabad claimed, was gone. She did not even belong to the chattering classes of Islamabad – she was just an ordinary women asking a simple question, answering which in today’s Pakistan is a sobering experience.

Since Musharraf took over in October 1999, he had been claiming that he had turned the country around. In his resignation speech on August 18, he claimed that the economy was in good shape, showing a seven percent GDP growth rate, Pakistan has been declared part of the Next-11 states to show signs of rapid development, and was now taken seriously by international players. His development indicators were the increase in the number of mobile phones, cars and motorcycles. Yet, people were out on the streets distributing sweets and dancing at his departure. Ironically, in 1999 the same people had welcomed the ouster of the Nawaz Sharif regime by Musharraf.

Is something wrong with Pakistanis? Can they not make up their minds about whether they like a military dictatorship or democracy? Are Pakistanis not capable of handling democracy?

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After Musharraf, U.S. Struggles to Find New Pakistan Ally Against Taliban

In the New York Times, Jane Perlez analyses the situation in Pakistan:

With Mr. Musharraf out of power, recent visitors to the United States Embassy here say American officials have been at a loss – one used the word “struggling” – to figure out who America should throw its weight behind.

On Friday, the country’s biggest party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, said it was nominating its leader, Asif Ali Zardari, for president, a post he may end up winning in an electoral college vote scheduled for Sept. 6.

That could make Mr. Zardari America’s default ally, though the next president’s full range of powers, and his commitment and ability to fight the Taliban insurgency, as Washington would like, are far from clear.

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Flower power

August 19, 2008

The more the US and Britain spend on combating drugs in Afghanistan, the more the heroin flows out. What hope have they of winning the war while poppy profits fund the Taliban and taint every level of government? Declan Walsh in The Guardian:

Haji Juma Khan leads something of a charmed existence. A towering tribesman from Afghanistan’s border badlands, Khan uses the title “Haji” because he has completed the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam’s holiest shrine. But piety is not his sole concern: he is also one of about 20 men who run Afghanistan’s £2bn heroin trade. Business is good. Last year the country’s fields of pretty pink poppies produced a record harvest, sending drug production soaring to new heights, funding the Taliban and thrusting Afghanistan into ever greater chaos. And despite the best efforts of western counter-narcotics specialists – who have spent six years and more than £1.7bn in fighting the heroin trade – Khan is free as a bird.

His empire is centred on Baramcha, a scruffy town in the Chagai Hills on the Pakistani border. Khan, an ethnic Baluch, seized control of this parched area in the dying days of Taliban rule in late 2001 and turned it into a bustling hub of smuggling and gun running. It is dotted with heroin labs: rough shacks where turbaned men, tutored by imported chemists from Iran and elsewhere, use chemicals and vats of boiling water to refine bars of sticky brown opium into bags of powdery white or brown heroin. The drug departs on convoys of high-speed jeeps, bristling with weaponry, that dash across the desert towards the Iranian border. It is then sold to criminal gangs who push the heroin to its end customers: addicts in Europe and Russia.

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Insurgency’s scars line Afghanistan’s main road

August 14, 2008

A highway that was once the showpiece of the United States reconstruction effort is now a dangerous gantlet of mines and attacks. From The New York Times:

Saydebad, Afghanistan: Not far from here, just off the highway that was once the showpiece of the United States reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, three American soldiers and their Afghan interpreter were ambushed and killed seven weeks ago.

The soldiers – two of them members of the National Guard from New York – died as their vehicles were hit by mines and rocket-propelled grenades. At least one was dragged off and chopped to pieces, according to Afghan and Western officials. The body was so badly mutilated that at first the military announced that it had found the remains of two men, not one, in a nearby field.

The attack, on June 26, was notable not only for its brutality, but also because it came amid a series of spectacular insurgent attacks along the road that have highlighted the precariousness of the international effort to secure Afghanistan six years after the United States intervened to drive off the Taliban government.

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Voices from the most dangerous nation on earth

August 11, 2008

Adrienne Hyat at 3quarksdaily:

Since my recent return from a lengthy stay in Pakistan, I’ve been asked numerous times about my safety while I was there. My standard reply is something like, “It was a tumultuous year–and I could have done without all the headlines–even encountered a few anxious moments–but for the most part I felt pretty safe and welcome.” But that reply often is met with puzzled and doubtful looks. It’s difficult to convince people that there is another side to the place that has been called, “the most dangerous nation on earth.”

To those with first hand knowledge, the reality on the ground is in sharp contrast to the image the media presents:

Father Daniel Suply, 75, is a missionary priest with the Roman Catholic order of Belgian Capuchans. He has resided in Pakistan for nearly 45 years. When asked about his safety, Father Suply spontaneously replies, “I feel absolutely safe.”

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Where’s the money?

August 10, 2008

Benazir Bhutto’s widower is accusing President Musharraf of siphoning off millions from aid intended to support war on terror. Christina Lamb reports from Islamabad in The Sunday Times:

Asif Ali Zardari

Asif Ali Zardari

The embattled president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, has been dealt his latest and most serious blow with the accusation from the leader of the ruling party that he misappropriated hundreds of millions of dollars of American aid given for supporting the war on terror.

Asif Ali Zardari, who took over the Pakistan People’s party (PPP) after his wife Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December last year, made the charge in an interview with The Sunday Times.

He also detailed for the first time Musharraf’s attempts to sabotage his government which, he says, forced him to take the drastic step of demanding his impeachment.

“Our grand old Musharraf has not been passing on all the $1 billion [£520m] a year that the Americans have been giving for the armed forces,” he claimed. “The army has been getting $250m-$300m reimbursement for what they do, but where’s the rest?

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Voices of victims

August 9, 2008

In The New York Times, a review of “My Guantanamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me,” by Mahvish Rukhsana Khan:

Mahvish Rukhsana Khan

Mahvish Rukhsana Khan

In 2005, while a law student at the University of Miami, Mahvish Rukhsana Khan decided to volunteer as an interpreter for Afghan detainees at Guantánamo Bay. The American daughter of Afghan immigrants (her parents are Johns Hopkins-educated physicians), Khan thought it unfair that the detainees could not understand their lawyers, who did not speak Pashto, and although she didn’t know whether they were guilty, she believed they were entitled to prove their innocence.

But after more than three dozen visits to the Guantánamo prison camp, Khan writes, “I came to believe that many, perhaps even most” of the detainees were “innocent men who’d been swept up by mistake.” A number of the men she met insisted they had been sold to the United States by bounty hunters, after the American military dropped leaflets across Afghanistan promising up to $25,000, or nearly 100 times the annual per capita income, to anyone who would turn in members of the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

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Death threat for editor in Pakistan over Islamic cartoon

July 26, 2008

Daily Times editor Najam Sethi‘s anti-Taliban position alientates ultraconversatives. From The Times:

A newspaper editor has received death threats from militant groups for publishing a cartoon of a radical woman Islamic leader encouraging her pupils to wage holy war.

Najam Sethi, chief editor of the Daily Times, one of Pakistan’s most respected English language newspapers and its sister paper Daily Aaj Kal, now moves under heavy security after ultra-conservative Islamic elements warned him of serious consequences if he did not repent. His house in Lahore is now guarded by six army commandos.

The threats were provoked by the publication of a cartoon in Aaj Kal depicting Umme Hassan, principal of a radical women’s madrassa, in a veil “educating” female students to wage jihad and embrace martyrdom.

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Spy games

July 25, 2008

The CIA and its partner in Islamabad, the ISI, are trapped in a very complicated marriage. From The New York Times:

Pakistan’s new army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, (with Pervez Musharraf, left) used to run the ISI.

Washington: As they complete their training at “The Farm,” the Central Intelligence Agency’s base in the Virginia tidewater, young agency recruits are taught a lesson they are expected never to forget during assignments overseas: there is no such thing as a friendly intelligence service.

Foreign spy services, even those of America’s closest allies, will try to manipulate you. So you had better learn how to manipulate them back.

But most CIA veterans agree that no relationship between the spy agency and a foreign intelligence service is quite as byzantine, or as maddening, as that between the CIA and Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.

[Photo: Pakistan’s new army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, (with Pervez Musharraf, left) used to run the ISI.]

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How Pakistan marble helps Taliban stay in business

July 14, 2008

The takeover of the Ziarat quarry has enabled the Taliban to turn themselves into a self-sustaining fighting force. From The New York Times:

ZIARAT, Pakistan – The mountain of white marble shines with such brilliance in the sun it looks like snow. For four years, the quarry beneath it lay dormant, its riches captive to tribal squabbles and government ineptitude in this corner of Pakistan’s tribal areas.

But in April, the Taliban appeared and imposed a firm hand. They settled the feud between the tribes, demanded a fat fee up front and a tax on every truck that ferried the treasure from the quarry. Since then, Mir Zaman, a contractor from the Masaud subtribe, which was picked by the Taliban to run the quarry, has watched contentedly as his trucks roll out of the quarry with colossal boulders bound for refining in nearby towns.

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Reporting in a danger zone

From The New York Times:

Peshawar, Pakistan: The first sign of trouble came when a bearded young man shouted at us and pointed angrily at the small camera bag we had with us.

He and three other men were the first Taliban we had encountered during our stay in the tribal area of Mohmand. It was Thursday, July 3. We were just about to leave a marble quarry in a taxi with a local tribesman who had shown us how the quarry had been reopened by the Taliban and was generating new income for them.

The quarry is in an area where the Taliban exert significant control.

The men let us go, but our relief did not last long. About 10 minutes later, we were stopped again, by another group of Taliban. The group forced us to drive with them deeper into Mohmand, away from the road that would have taken us back to safety in Peshawar.

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Back in Kabul, never at peace

July 6, 2008

Photographer Tyler Hicks navigates the Afghan capital with his camera. From the New York Times:

My first trip to Kabul was in 2001. I arrived as Northern Alliance soldiers were fighting Taliban gunmen in and around the Afghan capital. Those who resisted were killed, and those captured were more likely to be executed than taken prisoner. There was a power vacuum in Kabul, a brief moment when one set of rulers fled and the next had not yet taken over. This can be a liberating time for a photographer. There were no clear rules, no central authority that might restrict you from taking pictures. I’ve returned to Afghanistan nearly every year since then.

[Photo: Refugees have streamed into Kabul, and many become beggars, like this woman caring for her sick son.Tyler Hicks / NYTimes]

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Frontier years give might to ex-guerrilla’s words

July 5, 2008

Ahmed Rashid is a prolific chronicler of Afghanistan, Central Asia and his homeland of Pakistan, places that Western writers have often found difficult to gain access to. Jane Perlez from Lahore in The New York Times:

Fresh out of Cambridge University in the late 1960s, and steeped in the era’s favorites – Marx, Mao and Che – Ahmed Rashid took off for the hills of Baluchistan, a dry, tough patch of western Pakistan. He stayed for 10 years.

He was a guerrilla fighter and political organizer, and with a couple of like-minded Pakistani pals, led peasants seeking autonomy against the Pakistani Army. He emerged, after bouts of hepatitis, malaria and lost teeth, not exactly disillusioned but defeated, he recalled recently from the comfort of his study overlooking a garden of palms.

Yet the experience became the launching pad for his real career as a prolific chronicler of Afghanistan, Central Asia and his homeland of Pakistan, places that Western writers have often found difficult to gain access to, let alone comprehend in their full depth and complexity.

[Photo: Ahmed Rashid at his residence in Lahore, Pakistan. / NYTimes]

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Three months as Taliban prisoner

June 29, 2008

The documentary maker Sean Langan tells Peter Beaumont about the three-month ordeal that saw him kidnapped and threatened with death in tribal Pakistan. From The Guardian:

It was the moment documentary film-maker Sean Langan believed he was about to die.

After being held captive on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border by a group allied to the Taliban for three months, he was travelling to the place where, he had been told, he would finally be released.

The driver pulled over in the darkness of early morning for what his captors said was a toilet stop.

As a door opened, Langan could see, in the side mirror, one of the men accompanying him walking around the car and removing a pistol from the waistband of his trousers.

Told that his fixer was already dead, he waited for the shot. “It is the way I thought it was going to happen,” he said. “Shot on a road like that. Somewhere remote.”

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Old-line Taliban commander is face of rising Afghan threat

June 17, 2008

An attack has revealed the way former mujahedeen leaders, like Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani, combine forces with foreign terrorist groups. From International Herald Tribune:

Kabul: The attack was little reported at the time. A suicide bombing on March 3 killed two NATO soldiers and two Afghan civilians and wounded 19 others in an American military base.

It was only weeks later, when Taliban militants put out a propaganda DVD, that the implications of the attack became clear. The DVD shows a huge explosion, with shock waves rippling out far beyond the base. As a thick cloud of dust rises, the face of Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani, a Taliban commander who presents one of the biggest threats to NATO and United States forces, appears. He taunts his opponents and derides rumors of his demise.

“Now as you see I am still alive,” he says.

The deadly attack was also devastating for what it showed about the persistence of the Afghan insurgency and the way former mujahedeen leaders, like Maulavi Haqqani, combined tactics and forces with Al Qaeda and other foreign terrorist groups.

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The 14-year-old Afghan suicide bomber

June 10, 2008

A teenager caught on a lethal mission reveals how he was groomed to kill British troops. In The Independent, Kim Sengupta reports from Kabul:

The surroundings were grim and forbidding, a notorious jail run by Afghanistan’s feared security service for those taken prisoner in the bloody war with the Taliban.

Among the inmates: Shakirullah Yasin Ali; a small, frail boy, just 14 years old, arrested as he prepared to carry out a suicide bombing against British and American targets. “If I had succeeded, I would be dead now, I realise that,” he said in a soft, nervous voice.

“But those who were instructing me said that if I believed in serving God it was my duty to fight against the foreigners. They said God would protect me when the time came.”

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Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani: A mandate against Musharraf

May 6, 2008

Pakistan’s newly-elected prime minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani talks about his plans for the country and his priorities. Ron Moreau in Newsweek:

The United States has said that if Pakistan cannot control the border then it will take unilateral actions. And there have been reports of U.S. Predator aircraft striking inside Pakistan without Islamabad ‘ s consent. Is this happening and, if so, will it continue?
We believe in democracy and the rule of law, and we want respect for the sovereignty of the country. Since I have been the chief executive, these [unilateral attacks] have never happened, and they will never happen again. We are capable ourselves.

Can you work with President Musharraf, whose regime threw you in jail for five years?
My having been in jail has nothing to do with my position today. The Pakistan Peoples Party believes in peace and reconciliation. We don’t want to fight for non-issues. I’m not bitter at all.

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Turkish schools offer Pakistan a gentler Islam

May 4, 2008

Turkish educators are offering an alternative approach to religious schools that could reduce extremists’ influence. Sabrina Tavernise reports from Karachi in The New York Times:

Praying in Pakistan has not been easy for Mesut Kacmaz, a Muslim teacher from Turkey.

He tried the mosque near his house, but it had Israeli and Danish flags painted on the floor for people to step on. The mosque near where he works warned him never to return wearing a tie. Pakistanis everywhere assume he is not Muslim because he has no beard.

“Kill, fight, shoot,” Mr. Kacmaz said. “This is a misinterpretation of Islam.”

But that view is common in Pakistan, a frontier land for the future of Islam, where schools, nourished by Saudi and American money dating back to the 1980s, have spread Islamic radicalism through the poorest parts of society. With a literacy rate of just 50 percent and a public school system near collapse, the country is particularly vulnerable.

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The boy who took Karzai’s bullet

May 4, 2008

A child of 10 was one of three civilians who died during a botched Taliban attack on the Afghan President. Peter Beaumont reports from Kabul in The Observor, UK:

Syed Ali was playing on the roof of his mud-brick house when the killers came for Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai last week. Karzai survived the attack on Kabul’s broad parade ground. Ten-year-old Syed Ali, a kilometre away watching his mother cleaning almond shells to supplement the family’s winter fuel, died, with two others, when he was hit by a stray bullet.

Amid the furore of how a plot – apparently known of in advance – could have come so close to killing Karzai, the death of Syed Ali has all but been forgotten. An official from the President’s office came to see the family and said he would come again. When I met the family, they were still waiting for his return.

His mother can barely speak; two days of crying has reduced her voice to a croak.

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Drugs for guns

April 30, 2008

How the Afghan heroin trade is fuelling the Taliban insurgency. In The Independent, UK, Jerome Starkey reports from Kunduz:

The heroin flooding Britain’s streets is threatening the lives of UK troops in Afghanistan, an Independent investigation can reveal.

Russian gangsters who smuggle drugs into Britain are buying cheap heroin from Afghanistan and paying for it with guns. Smugglers told The Independent how Russian arms dealers meet Taliban drug lords at a bazaar near the old Afghan-Soviet border, deep in Tajikistan’s desert. The bazaar exists solely to trade Afghan drugs for Russian guns – and sometimes a bit of sex on the side.

The drugs are destined for Britain’s streets. The guns go straight to the Taliban front line.

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A changing war

April 30, 2008

The conflict in Afghanistan may become more like the one in Iraq, says The Economist

THE Mujahideen Day parade in Kabul, at the weekend, was supposed to show Afghanistan’s new, Western-trained, armed forces coming of age. President Hamid Karzai, other Afghan politicians and a jumble of diplomats packed a podium to review the troops. Then, just as a 21-gun salute began, what sounded like celebratory firecrackers crackled from a shabby hotel some 400m away. As six lightly armed Taliban fighters took pot shots the dignitaries and military men panicked, shedding bits of ceremonial uniform as they scrambled for safety.

Casualties were not as serious as they might have been: the gunmen managed to kill three and wound 11 but failed to touch their main target, Mr Karzai. Even so, they scored a significant propaganda victory. Television pictures of the furore broadcast at home and abroad confirmed that Afghanistan’s capital is within reach of the Islamist fighters. “We can attack anywhere we want to”, boasted a Taliban spokesman after the attacks. This was the second big strike in Kabul this year. In January a three-man Taliban suicide squad blasted its way into the lobby and spa of a luxury hotel in the city, killing eight staff and guests.

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American envoy to UN may run against Karzai after quitting post

April 12, 2008

Kim Sengupta in The Independent, UK:

Zalmay Khalilzad, the American envoy to the United Nations and an influential figure in the Bush administration, may run against Hamid Karzai for the Afghan presidency after resigning from his post.

Mr Khalilzad, who is Afghan-born, fuelled recurring reports of his political ambitions by appearing on television in Kabul to announce that he is to leave his job and wants to be “at the service of the Afghan people”.

Although Mr Khalilzad, who holds US citizenship, added: “I have said earlier that I am not a candidate for any position in Afghanistan,” his decision to step down from the prestigious UN job has been widely regarded as clearing the way for a run at the Afghan leadership, with President Karzai facing serious and mounting internal and international criticism.

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De-mining Afghanistan

April 2, 2008

From The Globe And Mail:

Kandahar, Afghanistan: Noor Ahmad has one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. For 18 years, he’s prodded the earth centimetre by centimetre to rid his country of land mines, a scourge that has become more numerous in the time he’s been working. He’s seen an anti-personnel mine blow up in front of him and still bears the scars where his body wasn’t shielded by protective gear.

He presses on in spite of the dangers, working in the hot sun on the weekend to help clear the perimeter of a bombed-out weapons factory east of Kandahar, because he considers it “a kind of jihad.”

“If you protect the life of one person, then you will be rewarded as if you have protected all the world,” Mr. Ahmed said, citing a verse from the Koran.

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Who’s left in Afghanistan?

March 26, 2008

Foreign Policy looks at whose militaries are doing what in Afghanistan.

The Top Five:

United States
Troops currently in Afghanistan: 29,000
Fatalities: 419 (includes deaths in Pakistan and Uzbekistan)

Britain
Troops currently in Afghanistan: 7,800
Fatalities: 89 (includes civilians from the Ministry of Defense)

Germany
Troops currently in Afghanistan: 3,210
Fatalities: 26

Italy
Troops currently in Afghanistan: 2,880
Fatalities: 12

Canada
Troops currently in Afghanistan: 2,500
Fatalities: 81

The Bottom Five:

Singapore
Troops currently in Afghanistan: 2
Fatalities: 0

Austria
Troops currently in Afghanistan: 2, sometimes 3
Fatalities: 0

Ireland
Troops currently in Afghanistan: 7
Fatalities: 0

Luxembourg
Troops currently in Afghanistan: 9
Fatalities: 0

Iceland
Troops currently in Afghanistan: 13 (Iceland has no military, so these are actually civilians that report to the Icelandic Crisis Response Unit)
Fatalities: 0

For details on what each country’s troops are doing in Afghanistan, click here:


In Afghanistan, a woman ‘pop idol’ angers traditionalists

March 14, 2008

Jason Straziuso from Kabul in The Independent, UK:

In a first for post-Taliban Afghanistan, a woman from the conservative Pashtun belt is one of the top three contenders in the country’s version of Pop Idol. Conservatives decry the fact that an Afghan woman has found success singing on television, but Lima Sahar brushes off her critics, saying there can be no progress without upsetting the status quo. “No pain, no gain,” she said yesterday.

Afghanistan’s cleric’s council has protested to President Hamid Karzai over Afghan Star and Indian dramas shown on Tolo TV, the country’s most popular station. Ali Ahmad Jebra-ali, a council member, said: “In the situation we have in Afghanistan right now, we don’t need a woman singer. We don’t need Afghan Star. We are in need of a good economy, good education. If Lima Sahar wins Afghan Star, how can she help the poor? This is not the way to help the Afghan people.”

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The Princes in Afghanistan

March 3, 2008

Now that his younger brother, Prince Harry is safely back home, is it Prince Williams’ turn to do his bit for God, granny and country and head off to Afghanistan? The Sun claims that the second in line to the British throne is, in fact, off to serve, at his own request, in a frontline position aboard a Royal Navy warship. The paper claims to know the exact details of where and when Prince William will be sent, but is withholding this information in the interest ‘to protect him and his fellow comrades’.

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Read The Sun story here

Meanwhile, Sami Yousafzai and Stryker McGuire in Newsweek report that the Taliban in Afghanistan knew all along that they had English royalty in their midst.

Despite the british government’s concerted effort to preserve the secret, a veteran Taliban field officer claims he was scarcely surprised by the disclosure that Prince Harry was serving with Britain’s troops in southern Afghanistan. Fearing that insurgents would specifically target Cornet Wales (the prince’s military title) and his fellow soldiers if his presence in the battle zone were publicly revealed, the top British brass did everything possible to prevent leaks about his deployment on Dec. 14 to Helmand province. But talking to newsweek via satellite phone from that region last week, deputy commander Mullah Abdul Karim recalled getting an urgent message from Taliban intelligence in late December or early January that “an important chicken” had joined British troops in his area of operations. Karim promptly sent his men hunting for the prince. “He is our special enemy,” says Karim. “Our first option was to capture him as a prisoner, and the second, to kill him.”

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And, finally, not everybody’s impressed with Prince Harry’s ‘stunt’ to serve in Afghanistan which proves that royal lives are worth more than ordinary ones, writes Marina Hyde in The Guardian

On the one hand, it was nice to see Prince Harry in a British army uniform, as opposed to one of Hitler’s. It’s a little bit like Pokemon, really. I’m hoping he’ll give us a highly collectible Hutu warrior snap soon. Gotta catch ‘em all! On the other, is there anyone over Pokemon-playing age who believes it was really worth it? The sheer number of man-hours and money lavished on allowing one young man to experience job satisfaction is mind-boggling. It has to be the most fatuous use of Ministry of Defence resources since Geoff Hoon.

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Let’s play some Buzkashi

March 1, 2008

From Passport, a blog by the editors of Foreign Policy

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Afghans play Buzkashi during a weekly game February 29, 2008 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Buzkashi, or ‘goat dragging’, is played with two teams of horsemen competing to throw a beheaded 30 kg calf, goat or sheep into a scoring circle. The Afghan national sport which was outlawed during the Taliban regime is played from late October to March every year. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)


The girl who grew up as a boy

February 27, 2008

Arti Pandey in International Herald Tribune:

I was greeted by a high school graduate dressed in men’s salwar-kameez and vest when I arrived at the school in Afghanistan’s Northern province of Faryab last July.

“You thought I was boy, didn’t you? Because I dress like boy and walk like boy – yes?” The short hair and men’s clothing contradicted a girlish voice. “I always dress like boy. People think I am boy, but I am girl. But I don’t like to be girl.”

This was my introduction to Azaada Khan, the girl who grew up as a boy under the omniscient eye of the Taliban.

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A bloody stalemate in Afghanistan

February 26, 2008

Elizabeth Rubin in The New York Times Magazine.

afghanistan.jpg

We tumbled out of two Black Hawks onto a shrub-dusted mountainside. It was a windy, cold October evening. A half-moon illuminated the tall pines and peaks. Through night-vision goggles the soldiers and landscape glowed in a blurry green-and-white static. Just across the valley, lights flickered from a few homes nestled in the terraced farmlands of Yaka China, a notorious village in the Korengal River valley in Afghanistan’s northeastern province of Kunar. Yaka China was just a few villages south and around a bend in the river from the Americans’ small mountain outposts, but the area’s reputation among the soldiers was mythic. It was a known safe haven for insurgents. American troops have tended to avoid the place since a nasty fight a year or so earlier. And as Halloween approached, the soldiers I was with, under the command of 26-year-old Capt. Dan Kearney, were predicting their own Yaka China doom. [Photo: Specialist Carl Vandenberge, right, and Staff Sgt. Kevin Rice, left, are assisted as they walk to a medevac helicopter after being shot by insurgents in the ambush.]

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Chronicle of a kidnapping

February 16, 2008

For the Taliban in Afghanistan, ransom is easy money writes Carol Grisanti in NBC’s World Blog 

Ishaqzai was anxious to tell her story.

“The Taliban kidnapped my 21-year-old son Mustafa,” she said. “They demanded a ransom of $200,000 or else they said they would kill him,” she told NBC News. “Then they ordered me to give up my job.”

Ishaqzai, 36, is the mother of seven and, as a member of the Afghan parliament, one of the few female politicians in this male-dominated society. She is a prominent figure and well-known in the Afghan capital.

News of the kidnapping recently surfaced and had become a hot conversation topic in Kabul. 

NBC News went to visit Ishaqzai at her home in an upscale Kabul neighborhood. The family lives well, at least by Afghan standards. An antique red Bokhara carpet covered the entire length of the living room in their fourth-floor apartment.  It was bitter cold outside, but it had finally stopped snowing, and it was warm inside thanks to a gas heater.

A houseboy brought tea and Ishaqzai began to tell her story.

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Love is tough in Afghanistan

February 16, 2008

KABUL: Five young Afghan women slipped out to lunch in an upmarket Kabul eatery on Valentine’s Day, each wearing a red scarf in a wink to the day of love — a difficult pursuit in Afghanistan.

“It was fun. We also bought a cake,” said one of them, a 26-year-old employee of an international nongovernment organisation who asked to be called Jamila to hide her identity. The red scarves were a sign known only to this group of friends whose brush with foreigners introduced them to Valentine’s Day — an event largely unknown in Afghanistan, where love outside of marriage is taboo.

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In Pakistan, Islam needs democracy

February 16, 2008

Waleed Ziad, an economic consultant and an associate at the Truman National Security Project, in the New York Times:

While it’s good news that secular moderates are expected to dominate Pakistan’s parliamentary elections on Monday, nobody here (in Karachi) thinks the voting will spell the end of militant extremism. Democratic leaders have a poor track record in battling militants and offer no convincing remedies. Pakistan’s military will continue to manage the war against the Taliban and its Qaeda allies, while President Pervez Musharraf will remain America’s primary partner. The only long-term solution may lie in the hands of an overlooked natural ally in the war on terrorism: the Pakistani people.

This may come as a surprise to Americans, but the Wahhabist religion professed by the militants is more foreign to most Pakistanis than Karachi’s 21 KFCs. This is true even of the tribal North-West Frontier Province – after all, a 23-foot-tall Buddha that was severely damaged last fall by the Taliban there had stood serenely for a thousand years amid an orthodox Muslim population.

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Baitullah Mehsud: The hidden hand

February 16, 2008

In the February issue of Newsline, Rahimullah Yusufzai profiles Baitullah Mehsud (or Masood), the man the Pakistani authorities say ordered the killing of Benazir Bhutto. Reports from Pakistan say Mehsud has denied his outfit was involved in the assassination.

baitullah-mehsud.jpgThough he is the most powerful military commander of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud remains a shadowy figure with a larger-than-life reputation. One reason for his being largely unknown is his refusal to grant media interviews or be photographed. It appears he is following in the footsteps of his leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, founder of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, whose refusal to be photographed, as a matter of policy and due to Islamic reasons, has helped him evade capture.

Mehsud has given a few radio interviews, but that was a while ago when his February 2005 peace agreement with the Pakistan government was still intact and he wasn’t considered such a big threat. However, lately the Pakistani authorities have blamed him for most of the suicide bombings taking place in the country.

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Benazir’s words of warning

February 15, 2008

In the Washington Post, Pamela Constable says Benazir Bhutto’s book, Islam, Democracy and the West is ‘uncharacteristically blunt’, calling for the rescue of Islam from fanatics, bigots and the forces of dictatorship

benazir-book-cover1.jpg  Harper. 328 pp. $27.95

There are some things only the dead can get away with saying, and some deaths speak more powerfully than anything the living can write. This book, finished just before its author was assassinated in Pakistan in December, sends out an urgent warning to her fellow Muslims and to Western democratic powers — a warning one hopes may now find greater resonance with both audiences.

Benazir Bhutto, the elegant former Pakistani prime minister, hoped to return democratic rule to her native country and knew she stood a good chance of being killed in the process. She was rushing to complete “Reconciliation” when she was slain at a political rally, her death transforming this manifesto into a cry from the grave to save her faith, her homeland and East-West relations from looming catastrophe.

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Pakistan needs more than just an election

February 14, 2008

In The Spectator, Stephen Schwartz writes that in this failing state, the ballot box is also a tinderbox. Even if Monday’s elections do go ahead, Pakistan might well end up in a worse state than before: exporting terror, spawning confrontation and at war with itself:

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The most important country in the world right now faces the most dangerous election in recent times. The country is Pakistan, not America, and the elections for parliament take place this coming Monday. Policy experts speak of ‘failed states’, and Pakistan is just about as close to failure as it is possible for a state to be. That’s one reason the world will be watching on Monday. Another and more immediate reason for interest is the assassination at the end of last year of Benazir Bhutto, twice the country’s prime minister and the secularist leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

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Pre-election poll puts Bhutto party in the lead

February 11, 2008

An Associated Press report in International Herald Tribune:

The party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto is Pakistan’s most popular, while groups aligned with its president lag far behind, according to a survey released ahead of next week’s crucial elections. The survey, conducted last month for the U.S.-based Terror Free Tomorrow organization and released over the weekend, is the first since Bhutto was killed in a bomb and gun attack in December.

The survey also found that sympathy for al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and the Taliban has dropped sharply among Pakistanis.

Terror Free Tomorrow, which is based in Washington, D.C., is a not-for-profit organization that says it seeks to reduce support for international terrorism. Its bipartisan advisory board includes Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain.

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Pakistan’s mixed record on anti-terrorism

February 9, 2008

Bernard Gwertzman interviews Ashley J. Tellis, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on CFR.org:

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Ashley  J. Tellis, a leading expert on South Asia who has served in the National Security Council and State Department as a senior adviser, expects a coalition government of the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) party, which backs President Musharraf, to emerge from the February 18 elections. He also says Pakistan has a mixed record on anti-terrorism and still tolerates Taliban elements that operate from Pakistani territory into Afghanistan.

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A reporter’s story: How Pakistan kicked me out

February 4, 2008

American journalist Nicholas Schmidle was kicked out of Pakistan by the Musharraf government. He tells his story in The Washington Post.

The police came for me on a cold, rainy Tuesday night last month. They stood in front of my home in Islamabad, four men with hoods pulled over their heads in the driving rain. The senior officer, a tall, clean-shaven man, and I recognized one another from recent protests and demonstrations. Awkwardly, almost apologetically, he handed me a notice ordering my immediate expulsion from Pakistan. Rain spilled off a nearby awning and fell loudly into puddles.I asked, somewhat obtusely, what this meant. “I am here to take you to the airport,” the officer shrugged. “Tonight.”

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Let Sayed Kambakhsh live

February 1, 2008

Indrajit Hazra in Hindustan Times.

Afghanistan will be judged by the way it treats one man this time there’s no Taliban to blame. The death sentence handed out to 23-year-old Afghan journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh on January 22 in a primary court in the province of Balkh has the support of Himachal Pradesh University alumnus, champion of liberalism and enemy of the Taliban, President Hamid Karzai himself. On October 22, 2007, Kambakhsh was arrested for downloading and keeping an article from the internet that spoke about what the Koran has to say about women. Picked up by the authorities in Mazar-e-Sharif, the student of journalism and contributor to Jahan-e-Naw was tried behind closed doors, without a lawyer to defend him and was found guilty of blasphemy and “disseminating defamatory comments about Islam”.

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