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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