I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
A number of writers have preceded me in quoting Shelley’s Ozymandias to evoke the huge US and NATO bases planted since 2001 in Afghanistan. The comparison is irresistible, but not necessarily apt. Even if only the head and legs were left, bits of Ozymandias’s statue had still presumably survived for three thousand years or so, which is a pretty good record as these things go. Few US or NATO officials, by contrast, seem to be planning seriously much beyond the next three years.
In Kabul, the changes wrought by the West’s twelve-year Afghan adventure have a certain solidity, at least to the point where the banks and office buildings would make for reasonably imposing and long-lasting ruins. Even some more intelligent members of the Taliban seem to recognize that the Afghan capital, a city of some five million people, is no longer the rubble-filled and shrunken city that they ruled in 2001; that the modern educated classes have grown to the point where they cannot be subjected to the moral code of a madrassa in a Pashtun mountain village; and that if a future Afghan government including the Taliban wants the help of these people — those who do not depart following the West’s withdrawal — in ruling and developing Afghanistan, it will have to grant them some freedom.
In the southern Pashtun province of Helmand, however, the atmosphere is very different. The presence of the Taliban is much more palpable both from conversations and the watchfulness of the Western forces. The veil of progress brought by the West is also a great deal thinner. During a recent trip with NATO officials, I was kept within the fortified perimeters of the US and British forces and the Afghan government centers—an indication of the current level of concern about the Taliban.
Visiting US and NATO bases there, I found that the images that came to mind were not Ozymandian images of long-fallen imperial grandeur, but rather those of science fiction: of Ray Bradbury’s human and Martian species meeting under an enormous, indifferent sky amidst the vast and utterly strange landscape of Mars. In an even gloomier mood, I thought of the Strugatsky brothers’ dystopian novel Roadside Picnic, on which Tarkovsky’s film Stalker was based. The premise is that aliens dropped by briefly on earth for some reason of their own, leaving behind a weirdly transformed landscape littered with discarded alien objects. In fact, seen from the air at night, Helmand’s huge Western military installations — Camp Leatherneck, the US Marine base, and the adjacent Camp Bastion, the main British base — look like a giant spaceship, a great blob of blazing lights amid a dark sea of desert. At the height of the Western occupation, the camps used more electricity than the rest of the province put together. Every drop of fuel for the generators had to be shipped in through Pakistan, along with every drop of mineral water and every bite of food consumed by the troops.
And if you want to move from science fiction to Alice in Wonderland, ask yourself this: how has it been possible to bring all that stuff in by road through areas of Pakistan controlled largely by the Pakistani Taliban, allied to the Afghan Taliban — areas from which Pakistani Taliban have launched innumerable attacks on Pakistani forces? Why have there been so few attacks, and those few (to judge by circumstantial evidence) only when the Pakistani military wants to send a message to Washington? The answer appears to be that the Taliban tax these NATO convoys as they tax all other trade in the region: Obtaining tax revenues from mineral water, fruit juice, hamburgers, and other NATO necessities that do them no harm at all is, it turns out, far more advantageous than interrupting our supply routes. In other words, all these years NATO has actually been subsidizing the Taliban’s war effort. [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: Polio that has crippled at least 13 children in Syria has been confirmed as being caused by a strain of the virus that originated in Pakistan and is spreading across the Middle East, the World Health Organization said.
Genetic sequencing shows the strain found in Syrian children in Deir al-Zor, where an outbreak was detected last month, is linked to the strain of Pakistani origin found in sewage in Egypt, Israel and Palestinian territories in the past year.
“Genetic sequencing indicates that the isolated viruses are most closely linked to virus detected in environmental samples in Egypt in December 2012 (which in turn had been linked to wild poliovirus circulating in Pakistan),” the United Nations agency said in a statement on Monday.
Closely related strains of the wild poliovirus of Pakistani origin have also been detected in sewage samples in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip since February 2013, it said.
Polio virus has been confirmed in 13 of 22 children who became paralyzed in the northern Syrian province of Deir al-Zor. Investigations continue into the other nine cases. It is Syria’s first polio outbreak since 1999.
No children in Egypt, Israel or the Palestinian territories have been hit by polio thanks to high immunization rates and a strong response to the alert, WHO spokeswoman Sona Bari said.
Polio virus is endemic in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria despite a 25-year-old campaign to eradicate the disease, which can paralyze a child in hours.
Islamist fighters from countries including Pakistan are among groups battling to oust President Bashar al-Assad, leading to speculation that they brought the virus into the country. [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: The killing of one of Pakistan’s most wanted Islamic militants in a U.S. drone strike has exposed centuries-old rivalries within the group he led, the Pakistani Taliban, making the insurgency ever more unpredictable and probably more violent.
Hakimullah Mehsud’s death this month has set off a power struggle within the outfit’s ranks, which could further unnerve a region already on tenterhooks with most U.S.-led troops pulling out of neighboring Afghanistan in 2014.
When a tribal council declared Mullah Fazlullah as the new leader of the Pakistani Taliban last week, several furious commanders from a rival clan stood up and left.
“When Fazlullah’s name was announced, they … walked out saying, ‘The Taliban’s command is doomed’,” said one commander who attended the November 7 ‘shura’ meeting in South Waziristan, a lawless Pakistani tribal region on the Afghan border.
Others at the shura declared loyalty to the hardline new leader and stayed on to map out a plan to avenge Hakimullah’s death through a new campaign of bombings and shootings.
“This is the start of our fight with the Pakistan government, an American puppet,” the Taliban official said.
“Those who forced the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan are capable of breaking up Pakistan,” he added, alluding to senior commanders whose rite of passage into war started with the rebellion against Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s. [Continue reading...]
The Guardian reports: A senior leader of the Haqqani network, one of the most feared insurgent groups fighting western forces in Afghanistan, was gunned town in mysterious circumstances on the outskirts of Pakistan’s capital city on Sunday evening, Taliban and official sources have confirmed.
Nasiruddin Haqqani died in a hail of bullets fired by unknown assailants as he bought bread in a shopping area just a few miles from the heart of Pakistan’s government.
His body was later taken away for burial in the lawless border region of North Waziristan, apparently without the knowledge of authorities.
An Islamabad police spokesman said he was unaware of either the shooting or the removal of his body, despite extensive local media coverage.
Critics of Pakistan have long claimed it tolerates the Haqqani network, or even gives it some level of official support. Islamabad does not regard the organisation as a threat to its own security and believes it may even be a useful ally in its fraught relations with Afghanistan. Intelligence officials in Miran Shah, the capital of North Waziristan, said Haqqani’s body arrived at in tribal agency at 3pm on Monday and around 25 people took part in his funeral prayers before he was buried at an unknown location. [Continue reading...]
Gareth Porter reports: After a drone strike had reportedly killed Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud Nov. 1, the spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council declared that, if true, it would be “a serious loss” for the terrorist organisation.
That reaction accurately reflected the Central Intelligence Agency’s argument for the strike. But the back story of the episode is how President Barack Obama supported the parochial interests of the CIA in the drone war over the Pakistani government’s effort to try a new political approach to that country’s terrorism crisis.
The failure of both drone strikes and Pakistani military operations in the FATA tribal areas to stem the tide of terrorism had led to a decision by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to try a political dialogue with the Taliban.
But the drone strike that killed Mehsud stopped the peace talks before they could begin.
Pakistani Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan immediately denounced the drone strike that killed Mehsud as “a conspiracy to sabotage the peace talks.” He charged that the United States had “scuttled” the initiative “on the eve, 18 hours before a formal delegation of respected ulema [Islamic clerics] was to fly to Miranshah and hand over this formal invitation.” [Continue reading...]
Al Jazeera reports: Maulana Fazlullah, the new Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader, is a ruthless fighter who is vehemently anti-state and unamenable to peace talks.
Fazlullah was elected as TTP commander by a consultative council of the group on November 7, almost a week after Hakimullah Mehsud, the group’s former leader, was killed by a US drone in the tribal area of North Waziristan.
He is the first commander of the group not to come from the Mehsud tribe in Pakistan’s tribal areas, hailing instead from the northwestern valley of Swat, where he waged a bloody war against the Pakistani state from 2007 to 2009.
As chief of the local chapter of the TTP in Swat, Fazlullah drove civil and military authorities out of the area in 2007, before finally signing a peace agreement with the government in 2009.
The agreement, dubbed the “Nizam-e-Adl” (system of justice), granted the TTP virtual control over Swat and implemented their interpretation of Sharia law, in exchange for the cessation of hostilities.
It soon disintegrated, however, when Fazlullah’s men attempted to expand their sphere of control to neighbouring Buner district.
As a result, Pakistani forces moved into Swat for the second time in two years, resulting in hundreds of deaths and millions of civilians displaced. Fazlullah was finally driven out of the valley by September 2009, with several of his top commanders captured.
But while the government and civilians rebuilt lives in the valley, Fazlullah continued to conduct operations in Swat remotely, from neighbouring Dir district and, as many locals tell Al Jazeera, the Afghan border provinces of Kunar and Nuristan.
From his base, Fazlullah ordered the targeted killings of elders who led peace committees against the Taliban, as well as rights activists. Among the dozens of people the Taliban killed or attempted to kill during this time was Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl activist who rose to global prominence following the attempt on her life. [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: Pakistan is to review its relationship with the United States, the prime minister’s office said on Sunday, following the killing of the Pakistani Taliban leader in a U.S. drone strike.
But a top-level meeting to examine relations, scheduled for Sunday, was postponed at the last minute without explanation.
Some politicians have demanded that U.S. military supply lines into Afghanistan be blocked in response.
“It is clear that the U.S. is against peace and does not want terrorism to subside. Now, we only have one agenda: to stop NATO supplies going through (the northern province of) Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” Asad Qaiser, the speaker of the provincial assembly, told Reuters.
BBC News reports: The US has responded to accusations from Pakistan that a drone strike that killed Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud had destroyed the country’s nascent peace process.
A state department official said talks with the Taliban were an internal matter for Pakistan.
The statement insisted Pakistan and the US had a “shared strategic interest in ending extremist violence”.
It also said it could still not confirm that Mehsud had been killed on Friday.
Pakistan has summoned the US ambassador to protest over Friday’s drone strike that killed Mehsud.
The country’s foreign minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, said the strike on the local Taliban leader “is not just the killing of one person, it’s the death of all peace efforts.”
It came a day before a Pakistani delegation had been due to fly to North Waziristan to meet Mehsud.
Mr Nisar accused the United States of “scuttling” efforts to begin peace talks, and said “every aspect” of Pakistan’s co-operation with Washington would be reviewed.
Information Minister Pervez Rashid said: “The US has tried to attack the peace talks with this drone but we will not let them fail.”
The US state department spokesman said: “The issue of whether to negotiate with TTP is an internal matter for Pakistan, and we refer you to the government of Pakistan for further details.”
Geo TV reports: The proscribed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has ruled out the possibility of holding a dialogue with the Pakistan government, saying talks with the ‘US slaves’ were no longer possible, Geo News reported Sunday.
“The (Pakistan) government has given us the present of Hakimullah Mehsud’s dead body,” said Shahidullah Shahid, spokesman of the banned TTP, in a media statement which has come amid optimistic statements from the Pakistan government regarding the fate of the proposed peace talks.
Shahidullah Shaid said the selection of the TTP’s successor will be made in the next couple of days.
“The death of the [Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan] leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, is a signal achievement for the covert CIA program at a time when drones themselves have come under criticism from human rights groups and other critics in Pakistan and the United States over the issue of civilian casualties.”
Thus declares a lead editorial in the New York Times. But wait a minute — this isn’t an editorial. It purports to be a news report. “Signal achievement” is not exactly the language of unbiased reporting.
Only a week ago the Times editorial board, echoing Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, was challenging the argument that drone strikes can be supported because of their “surgical precision.” Times reporters seem to regard the death of Mehsud as a vindication for the CIA, rebuffing its critics. Needless to say, 24 hours after the attack we have absolutely no way of knowing whether any civilians were killed.
What we do know however, is that the “collateral damage” from this particular drone strike may extend far beyond Waziristan.
The Times reporters say:
Hunted by American drones, Mr. Mehsud adopted a low profile in recent months and was rarely seen in the news media. But in a BBC interview that was broadcast in October, he vowed to continue his campaign of violence. He was aware that the C.I.A. was seeking to kill him, he said, adding: “Don’t be afraid. We all have to die someday.”
Yet for the BBC journalist who interviewed him, Mehsud’s observation about mortality was an incidental detail. The news which the BBC highlighted and the New York Times seems to dismiss, was that Mehsud said the Taliban were ready for peace talks.
Asked about the possibility of peace talks with the government, Mehsud said: “We believe in serious talks but the government has taken no steps to approach us. The government needs to sit with us, then we will present our conditions.”
Mehsud said he was not prepared to discuss conditions through the media.
“The proper way to do it is that if the government appoints a formal team, and they sit with us, and we discuss our respective positions.”
Leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud: “The government needs to sit with us, then we will present our conditions”
Mehsud said he would guarantee the security of any government negotiators.
He said that for any ceasefire to be credible “it is important that drone strikes are stopped”.
The CIA however, has less interest in supporting conditions for peace in Pakistan than it has in retaliating for the 2009 suicide attack on Camp Chapman in which seven were CIA personnel were killed.
Moreover, having been transformed from an intelligence gathering organization into a paramilitary force specializing in drone strikes, the perpetuation of violence in Pakistan would seem to serve the CIA’s interests.
Mehsud’s death not only undermines the chances for the Taliban and the Pakistan government to engage in serious talks but it diminishes the ability of a loosely affiliated group of militants to be able to speak with one voice.
Mehsud’s replacement, Khan Said ‘Sajna’, was chosen in a shura (council) today, but out of 60 members Sanja only had the support of 43. Several senior Taliban commanders are opposed to his promotion.
In the standard rhetoric of counterterrorism, the Taliban have been dealt a major blow — as though men like Hakimullah Mehsud are irreplaceable. The more predictable outcome is that the Taliban’s enemies will understand less about its leadership and those who might be willing to enter negotiations will be outflanked by those who favor more violence.
The Pakistan government insists that it will move forward with peace talks, but with whom they intend to engage in dialogue seems unclear.
The New York Times, July 2012: Did the killing of Osama bin Laden have an unintended victim: the global drive to eradicate polio?
In Pakistan, where polio has never been eliminated, the C.I.A.’s decision to send a vaccination team into the Bin Laden compound to gather information and DNA samples clearly hurt the national polio drive. The question is: How badly?
After the ruse by Dr. Shakil Afridi was revealed by a British newspaper a year ago, angry villagers, especially in the lawless tribal areas on the Afghan border, chased off legitimate vaccinators, accusing them of being spies.
And then, late last month, Taliban commanders in two districts banned polio vaccination teams, saying they could not operate until the United States ended its drone strikes. One cited Dr. Afridi, who is serving a 33-year sentence imposed by a tribal court, as an example of how the C.I.A. could use the campaign to cover espionage.
“It was a setback, no doubt,” conceded Dr. Elias Durry, the World Health Organization’s polio coordinator for Pakistan. “But unless it spreads or is a very longtime affair, the program is not going to be seriously affected.”
Reuters, October 18, 2013: A Taliban ban on vaccination is exacerbating a serious polio outbreak in Pakistan, threatening to derail dramatic progress made this year towards wiping out the disease worldwide, health officials say.
Health teams in Pakistan have been attacked repeatedly since the Taliban denounced vaccines as a Western plot to sterilize Muslims and imposed bans on inoculation in June 2012.
In North Waziristan, a region near the Afghan border that has been cordoned off by the Taliban, dozens of children, many under the age of two, have been crippled by the viral disease in the past six months.
And there is evidence in tests conducted on sewage samples in some of the country’s major cities that the polio virus is starting to spread beyond these isolated pockets and could soon spark fresh polio outbreaks in more densely populated areas.
“We have entered a phase that we were all worried about and were afraid might happen,” Elias Durry, head of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) in Pakistan, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
“The risk is that as long as the virus is still circulating, and as long as we have no means of reaching these children and immunizing them to interrupt virus transmission, it could jeopardize everything that has been done so far – not only in Pakistan, but also in the region and around the globe.”
Kamila Shamsie writes: Malala Yousafzai says she’s lost herself. “In Swat [district], I studied in the same school for 10 years and there I was just considered to be Malala. Here I’m famous, here people think of me as the girl who was shot by the Taliban. The real Malala is gone somewhere, and I can’t find her.”
We are sitting in a boardroom on the seventh floor of the new Birmingham library, the glass walls allowing us a view of a city draped in mist, a sharp contrast to the “paradise” of Swat, with its tall mountains and clear rivers which Malala recalls wistfully. It should be desperately sad but the world’s most famous 16-year-old makes it difficult for you to feel sorry for her. In part, it is because she is so poised, in a way that suggests an enviable self-assurance rather than an overconstructed persona. But more than that, it is to do with how much of her conversation is punctuated by laughter.
The laughter takes many forms: self-deprecating when I ask her why she thinks the Taliban feel threatened by her; delighted when she talks of Skyping her best friend, Muniba, to get the latest gossip from her old school; wry when she recalls a Taliban commander’s advice that she return to Pakistan and enter a madrassa; giggly when she talks about her favourite cricketers (“Shahid Afridi, of course, and I also like Shane Watson”). And it’s at its most full-throated when she is teasing her father, who is present for part of our interview. It happens during a conversation about her mother: “She loves my father,” Malala says. Then, lowering her voice, she adds: “They had a love marriage.” Her father, involved in making tea for Malala and me, looks up. “Hmmm? Are you sure?” he says, mock-stern. “Learn from your parents!” Malala says to me, and bursts into laughter.
Learning from her parents is something Malala knows a great deal about. Her mother was never formally educated and an awareness of the constraints this placed on her life have made her a great supporter of Malala and her father in their campaign against the Taliban’s attempts to stop female education. One of the more moving details in I Am Malala, the memoir Malala has written with the journalist Christina Lamb, is that her mother was due to start learning to read and write on the day Malala was shot – 9 October 2012. When I suggest that Malala’s campaign for female education may have played a role in encouraging her mother, she says: “That might be.” But she is much happier giving credit to her mother’s determined character, and the example provided by her father, Ziauddin, who long ago set up a school where girls could study as well as boys, in a part of the world where the gender gap in education is vast.
It is hard to refrain from asking Ziauddin Yousafzai the “do you wish you hadn’t …?” question about his daughter, whose passion for reform clearly owes a lot to the desire to emulate her education-activist father. But it’s a cruel question, and unfair, too, given my own inability to work out what constitutes responsible parenting in a world where girls are told that the safest way to live is to stay away from school, and preferably disappear entirely.
It is perhaps because of criticism levelled at her father that Malala mentions more than once in her book that no one believed the Taliban would target a schoolgirl, even if that schoolgirl had been speaking and writing against the Taliban’s ban on female education since the age of 12. If any member of the family was believed to be in danger, it was Ziauddin Yousafzai, as much a part of the campaign as his daughter. And it was the daughter who urged the father to keep on when he suggested they both “go into hibernation” after receiving particularly worrisome threats. The most interesting detail to emerge about Ziauddin from his daughter’s book is his own early flirtation with militancy. He was only 12 years old when Sufi Mohammad, who would later be a leading figure among the extremists in Swat, came to his village to recruit young boys to join the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Although Ziauddin was too young to fight then, within a few years he was preparing to become a jihadi, and praying for martyrdom. He later came to recognise what he experienced as brainwashing – and was saved from it by his questioning mind and the influence of his future brother-in-law, a secular nationalist.
The information about her father’s semi-brainwashing forms an interesting backdrop to Malala’s comments when I ask if she ever wonders about the man who tried to kill her on her way back from school that day in October last year, and why his hands were shaking as he held the gun – a detail she has picked up from the girls in the school bus with her at the time; she herself has no memory of the shooting. There is no trace of rancour in her voice when she says: “He was young, in his 20s … he was quite young, we may call him a boy. And it’s hard to have a gun and kill people. Maybe that’s why his hand was shaking. Maybe he didn’t know if he could do it. But people are brainwashed. That’s why they do things like suicide attacks and killing people. I can’t imagine it – that boy who shot me, I can’t imagine hurting him even with a needle. I believe in peace. I believe in mercy.” [Continue reading...]