Obama’s real failure: His reluctance to talk to the Taliban

Peter Beinart writes: There are three kinds of critiques of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. The first comes from the left, from commentators like Glenn Greenwald who claim Obama has embraced the architecture of George W. Bush’s war on terror: unlawful spying, unlawful detention, unlawful drone attacks, cozy relations with dictators. The second comes from the right, from hawks who believe Obama has appeased anti-American tyrants in Syria, Russia, and Iran, while retreating from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and thus weakening American credibility. The third, and least discussed, comes from foreign-policy professionals, including those within Obama’s administration. Ideologically, it’s harder to classify. These professionals argue that in his zeal to focus on domestic policy, and to avoid risky foreign-policy fights, the president simply hasn’t invested the time and political will to effectively wield American power.

One purveyor of this third critique is Obama’s former envoy to Syria, Robert Ford. When Republicans attack the administration’s Syria policy, they mostly focus on Obama’s decision to declare Syrian chemical weapons a “red line,” and then fail to act militarily when Bashar al-Assad crossed it, allegedly making America look weak. Ford’s critique is different. This week — in a public break with his former boss — he argued that by not aiding Syria’s rebels when they initially took up arms, before jihadists became a dominant force in the armed opposition, Obama squandered an opportunity to pressure Assad into a diplomatic deal. Unlike Republican politicians, who want to paint Obama as a wimp for not launching missile strikes in the country, Ford’s critique is that the president — in his desire to avoid getting sucked into a messy and risky civil war—proved too passive not only militarily, but diplomatically as well.

Ford’s criticism echoes one leveled by another former Obama State Department official, Vali Nasr, in his book The Dispensable Nation. In recent days, Republicans have flayed the White House for “negotiating with terrorists” in order to secure the Taliban’s release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. But Nasr, who worked under special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, maintains that Obama’s failure was to not negotiate with the Taliban enough. Like Ford, he thinks Obama’s main problem was not his refusal to stand up to America’s enemies, but his refusal to engage them the right way. [Continue reading...]

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Bergdahl must tell his own story

Sooner or later, mistrust of government can lead some Americans to some untenable and absurd positions.

Statements coming from the White House, the Pentagon and the Intelligence Community can never be taken at face value. I have no problem with that kind of skepticism. After all, officials all have political and institutional interests that they endeavor to protect; decisions are often made in haste; people with great power can be badly informed, short-sighted, and petty.

But in the growing hysteria surrounding the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the latest “bombshell” being devoured by those who never waver in their conviction that the government always lies, comes from a private spying outfit run by Duane R. (“Dewey”) Clarridge, a former CIA senior operations officer, who was on trial on seven counts of perjury and false statements in Iran-Contra before being pardoned by President George H.W. Bush.

“EXCLUSIVE: Bergdahl declared jihad in captivity, secret documents show,” shouts the headline at Fox News in a story based on claims coming from Clarridge’s firm, the Eclipse Group.

Amidst the voluminous praise that Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald have received for revealing the inner workings of the NSA, perhaps the most negative impact resulting from this is the fact that nowadays most people seem to think that secrets are concealed truths.

In reality, secrets are very often rumors, pieces of speculation, or information whose factual basis or significance has yet to be verified.

The findings made by Eclipse were no doubt recorded in secret documents, but at this point, it’s anyone’s guess how much truth those reports reveal.

The documents obtained by Fox News show that Eclipse developed and transmitted numerous status reports on the whereabouts of the errant American soldier, spanning a period from October 2009, roughly three months after Bergdahl reportedly walked off his base in Afghanistan and fell into custody of the Haqqani network, up through August 2012.

At one point — in late June 2010, after Bergdahl succeeded in one of his escape attempts — the Haqqani commanders constructed a special metal cage for him, and confined him to it. At other points, however, Bergdahl was reported to be happily playing soccer with the Haqqani fighters, taking part in AK-47 target practice and being permitted to carry a firearm of his own, laughing frequently and proclaiming “Salaam,” the Arabic word for “peace.”

Who knows whether this information came from reliable sources or whether Eclipse may at times have become entangled in some Haqqani psyops operations that purposefully wanted to feed the U.S. conflicting pictures of Bergdahl’s intentions and the conditions of his captivity.

The CIA once prized Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi as one of its most valuable informants — until, that is, he conducted a suicide attack on Camp Chapman in 2009.

“Personally I would like to be able to talk to the guy and ask him why did this,” says former Army Spc. Gerald Sutton, who served in Afghanistan with Bergdahl.

This is Bergdahl’s story and hopefully some day we’ll hear it from his own lips. In the meantime, the media will milk it for all its worth.

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Don’t come back to Afghanistan

The New York Times reports: The Taliban seem loose, almost offhand, on camera as they wait for the American Black Hawk to land. Two fighters walk their hostage, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, out to American troops, greeting their enemies eye to eye as they quickly shake hands. They wave as the Americans retreat back to the chopper.

In their viral video to the world on Wednesday, framing dramatic images of their transaction with the United States with music, commentary and context, the Taliban scored their biggest hit yet after years of effort to improve their publicity machine — one bent on portraying them as the legitimate government of Afghanistan in exile.

Within hours of the video’s release, the Taliban website where it was posted was overwhelmed with traffic and the page hosting it crashed, according to Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the insurgents. The video has since been uploaded in dozens of different versions on YouTube.

It is the product of a Taliban propaganda effort that has grown increasingly savvy.

In recent years, the Taliban have tried to score points by insisting that they, unlike their Pakistani militant counterparts, actively supported polio vaccinations. Two months ago, realizing that they had outraged the Afghan public with an attack by gunmen on the Serena Hotel in Kabul that left children among the dead, the Taliban issued their first public apology. And they suggested that they had purposefully held back on attacking civilians on election day in April, and that Afghans should trust the Taliban over a government being chosen by Western ways.

On Wednesday, several passages in the video went straight to the Taliban’s campaign for attention abroad and political heft at home.

One series of scenes focuses on the fruit of the Taliban’s deal with the United States: the five Taliban detainees who had been freed from the Guantánamo Bay prison camp are shown joyously embracing their comrades at the militants’ diplomatic post in Doha, Qatar.

That site — billed by the Taliban as the political office of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the name of the old Taliban government — sums up the heart of the Taliban’s political efforts. It was from there that the Taliban negotiated with American officials, through Qatari mediation, to finalize the detainee transfer deal. And it was there, from the moment of the post’s opening last summer, that the Taliban clearly showed their new bid for international attention, conducting television interviews, giving speeches, and even featuring a ribbon cutting in a news video with Qatari officials. [Continue reading...]

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Taliban warned U.S. that drones nearly killed Bergdahl

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Taliban warned the U.S. during prisoner-exchange negotiations that led to the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl that U.S. drone strikes had come close on several occasions to killing the soldier while he was in captivity, U.S. officials said.

U.S. intelligence agencies believe Sgt. Bergdahl was being held at the time in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where the Central Intelligence Agency carried out an estimated 27 drone strikes in 2013, according to the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank that tracks the drone program. The CIA hasn’t conducted any drone strikes in the tribal areas since Dec. 25, the foundation said. [Continue reading...]

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Bowe Bergdahl and negotiating with the Taliban

Fred Kaplan writes: My guess is that very few among us remembered — or had ever heard of — Bowe Bergdahl until his release made headlines this weekend. Still, the U.S. military cherishes this same principle (leave no soldier behind) [as does Israel], and his recovery is cause for satisfaction — but not much more than that.

One difference between this case and many others is that Bergdahl wandered off his base. He wasn’t abducted or captured while on patrol. Rather, on the night of June 30, 2009, he simply got up, took his compass and a few other supplies (though not his weapons), and walked away. It’s not clear why. (After he’s nursed back to health, an Army investigation will presumably find out.)

In a lengthy 2012 Rolling Stone article, Michael Hastings painted a picture of Bergdahl as a moralistic home-schooled adventurer, enticed by the romance of do-good soldiers (he tried to enlist in the French Foreign Legion), who studied Pashto, took the nation-building doctrine seriously, grew disillusioned with the Army’s mission and disgruntled by his own unit’s incompetence — and walked off into the mountains. On the other hand, Nathan Bradley Bethea, a retired Army captain who served in the same battalion, recalls Bergdahl — in the Daily Beast and a BBC interview — as a mentally unstable misfit who should never have been allowed to join the service.

Either way (and the two portraits aren’t mutually exclusive), Bethea is probably right that soldiers from Bergdahl’s own unit “died trying to track him down.” Not in some Saving Private Ryan–like search, but aircraft and drones were probably diverted from normal military tasks in the hunt for Pfc. Bergdahl, leaving several units unprotected in the process. (He has been promoted to sergeant, for service, during the years of his captivity.) Again, this is what servicemen and women do for comrades lost in harm’s way; it’s part of their mission, a vital aspect of military culture. But it’s a bit less noble, it feels more like a burden than a duty, when the lost soul got lost on his own free will, when he deserted his post and abandoned his fellow soldiers — whatever the reason.

And so, it felt a bit discordant when Secretary Hagel made a victory lap around Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, proclaiming, “This is a happy day, we got one of our own back.” And, though more understandable, it seemed a bit excessive, as well, when President Obama called it “a good day” while standing before the White House press corps alongside Bergdahl’s parents. (A low-profile photo-op might have been more appropriate.)

There are a couple more misconceptions in this saga. First, while Obama and his diplomats made the deal on their own (in line with his powers as commander-in-chief), it’s not true that he left Congress out of the picture. He briefed a small group of senators in January 2012, when a deal first seemed in the offing. Sen. John McCain reportedly threw a fit, objecting that the detainees to be released had killed American soldiers, but after talking with John Kerry (at the time, still a senator and a friend), came around to the idea. (This may be why McCain, though displeased with the detainees’ release, is not raising his usual hell in public appearances now.)

Second, it’s not the case — at least if things work out as planned — that the five detainees, some of whom were high-level Taliban officers in their younger days, will go back and rejoin the fight. The deal requires them to remain in Qatar for one year; after that, Americans and Qataris will continue to monitor them — though it’s not yet clear what that means; in the coming days, someone should clarify things.

There’s one more potential bit of good news. This whole exercise has demonstrated that the Taliban’s diplomatic office in Qatar does have genuine links to the Taliban high command. (A few years ago, when fledgling peace talks sputtered and then failed, many concluded that it was a freelance operation unworthy of attention.) And the fact that the exchange came off with clockwork precision (see the Wall Street Journal’s fascinating account of how it happened) suggests that deals with the Taliban are possible, and that a deal signed can be delivered. [Continue reading...]

The New York Times reports: The five were all high-level Taliban members, in their mid-to-late forties, with prominent political or military careers dating back before the American invasion. Counterterrorism experts described the men as effectively gray beards, and unlikely to go back to active fighting. But a concern held by some of those experts and many American officials, including some senior military officers, is that the men will give a boost to the Taliban and provide the leadership with proof of its cohesiveness.

The most important figure is Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, 47, a founding member of the Taliban and a confidant of Mullah Omar. He was the governor of Herat Province in western Afghanistan when the Taliban ruled, and is viewed by many officials in the Afghan government as a reasonable figure and possible interlocutor for future talks.

Mullah Mohammad Fazl, also known as Mullah Fazel Mazloom, was the deputy defense minister and commander of all Taliban troops in northern Afghanistan at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. A short, thickset man with a reputation for cruelty, he is accused by human rights organizations and his opponents of presiding over the massacres of Shiite and Tajik Sunni Muslims across parts of central and northern Afghanistan.

Trapped with thousands of his Taliban fighters in northern Afghanistan under the American bombing campaign in 2001, he surrendered to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, along with the Taliban governor of Balkh Province, Mullah Norullah Noori, who was also released Saturday.

The other two detainees, Abdul Haq Wasiq, the Taliban’s former deputy minister of intelligence, and Mohammad Nabi Omari, a former high-level Taliban security official, were both detained after reaching out to American officials after the invasion in an offer to help the new power in their country, officials said.

Though the released men have played no role in the renewed Taliban insurgency during their incarceration, many in the Taliban put a high premium on getting the five men back. That included members of the Haqqani militant network, who have claimed loyalty to Mullah Omar even though they carry out independent operations, and who were the people holding Sergeant Bergdahl.

“The Haqqanis will get kudos for being seen to deliver something for the movement,” said Michael Semple, an Afghanistan expert and former adviser to the European Union Mission in Kabul. “They can say, ‘We are Taliban, and we are integral to the movement.’ ”

On Sunday, Mullah Omar himself broke a long silence to hail the men’s return, saying it brought the insurgents “closer to the harbor of victory.” [Continue reading...]

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Anand Gopal: How to lose a war that wasn’t there

You might think that 12-and-a-half years after it began, Washington would have learned something useful about its war on terror, but no such luck. If you remember, back in the distant days just after 9/11 when that war was launched (or, in a sense, “lost”), the Bush administration was readying itself to take out not just Osama bin Laden and his relatively small al-Qaeda outfit but “terror” itself, that amorphous monster of the twenty-first century. They were planning to do so in somewhere between 60 and 83 countries and, as they liked to say, “drain the swamp” globally.

In reality, they launched an overblown war not so much “on” terror, but “of” terror, one that, in place after place, from Afghanistan to Somalia, Pakistan to parts of Africa, destabilized regions and laid the basis for a spreading jihadist movement. In so many cases, as at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, they fulfilled Osama bin Laden’s wildest fantasies, creating the sort of recruiting posters from hell for future jihadists that al-Qaeda was itself incapable of.

So many years later, they seem to be repeating the process in Yemen. They are now escalating a “successful” drone and special operations war against a group in that impoverished land that calls itself al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  The drones turn out to be pretty good at knocking off various figures in that movement, but they are in another sense like a godsend for it. In what are called “targeted killings,” but might better be termed (as Paul Woodward has) “speculative murders,” they repeatedly wipe out civilians, including women, children, and in one recent case, part of a wedding party. They are Washington’s calling card of death and as such they only ensure that more Yemenis will join or support AQAP.

The process of creating ever more enemies you must then kill started in Afghanistan in 2001, even if that remains news to most Americans. Now, TomDispatch regular Anand Gopal in his new book No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes offers a stunning history of how the U.S. fought its “war on terror” for almost a year in that country against — quite literally — ghosts. In the process, it resuscitated a Taliban movement that had ceased to exist and then found itself in a conflict it couldn’t win. It’s a story that’s never been told before, even if Washington’s second Afghan War makes no sense without it.

For many Americans, as Henry Ford so famously put it, history is bunk.  In this case, however, history turns out to be everything that matters, and the rest has proved to be bloody, painful, and costly bunk.  If you don’t believe me, read Gopal’s hidden history of the Afghan War at this website today and then get your hands on his book. Tom Engelhardt

How the U.S. created the Afghan war — and then lost it
The unreported story of how the Haqqani network became America’s greatest enemy
By Anand Gopal

It was a typical Kabul morning. Malik Ashgar Square was already bumper-to-bumper with Corolla taxis, green police jeeps, honking minivans, and angry motorcyclists. There were boys selling phone cards and men waving wads of cash for exchange, all weaving their way around the vehicles amid exhaust fumes. At the gate of the Lycée Esteqial, one of the country’s most prestigious schools, students were kicking around a soccer ball. At the Ministry of Education, a weathered old Soviet-style building opposite the school, a line of employees spilled out onto the street. I was crossing the square, heading for the ministry, when I saw the suicide attacker.

He had Scandinavian features. Dressed in blue jeans and a white t-shirt, and carrying a large backpack, he began firing indiscriminately at the ministry. From my vantage point, about 50 meters away, I couldn’t quite see his expression, but he did not seem hurried or panicked. I took cover behind a parked taxi. It wasn’t long before the traffic police had fled and the square had emptied of vehicles.

Twenty-eight people, mostly civilians, died in attacks at the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Justice, and elsewhere across the city that day in 2009. Afterward, U.S. authorities implicated the Haqqani Network, a shadowy outfit operating from Pakistan that had pioneered the use of multiple suicide bombers in headline-grabbing urban assaults. Unlike other Taliban groups, the Haqqanis’ approach to mayhem was worldly and sophisticated: they recruited Arabs, Pakistanis, even Europeans, and they were influenced by the latest in radical Islamist thought. Their leader, the septuagenarian warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, was something like Osama bin Laden and Al Capone rolled into one, as fiercely ideological as he was ruthlessly pragmatic.

And so many years later, his followers are still fighting.  Even with the U.S. withdrawing the bulk of its troops this year, up to 10,000 Special Operations forces, CIA paramilitaries, and their proxies will likely stay behind to battle the Haqqanis, the Taliban, and similar outfits in a war that seemingly has no end. With such entrenched enemies, the conflict today has an air of inevitability — but it could all have gone so differently.

[Read more...]

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Taliban negotiator under house arrest in UAE, says Afghanistan

Dawn reports: A leading Taliban peace negotiator has been placed under house arrest in the United Arab Emirates, officials said on Thursday, dealing a blow to President Hamid Karzai’s efforts to jump-start a nascent Afghan peace process before leaving office.

Agha Jan Mutassim, a finance minister during Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, has been missing for over a week, according to the Afghan government, disappearing after arranging a meeting in Dubai between Afghan and Taliban officials in February.

“Mutassim … one of the key Taliban leaders and who supported Afghan peace initiative, was put under house arrest in the UAE where he lived,” the Afghan High Peace Council, a body formed by Karzai to engage in peace talks with the Taliban, said on Thursday.

“The Afghan government has made requests to the UAE authorities to lift all the restrictions,” it said in a statement.

A Western security source in Kabul confirmed Mutassim had been put under house arrest, and that the UAE was considering deporting him to Afghanistan. [Continue reading...]

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How the U.S. and NATO helped sustain the Taliban

Quoting Shelley, Anatol Lieven writes:

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...]

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Polio strain in Syria originated in Pakistan, WHO confirms

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...]

See also, How the CIA and the Taliban undermined the global campaign to eradicate polio.

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Leader’s death plunges Pakistan Taliban into dangerous disarray

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...]

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Senior leader of insurgent Haqqani network killed in Islamabad

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...]

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Drone strike served CIA revenge, blocked Pakistan’s peace strategy

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...]

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Pakistan Taliban choose opponent of peace talks as new leader

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...]

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Angry Pakistan to assess U.S. ties after drone strike disrupts peace talks

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.

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U.S. has no interest in Pakistan’s ability to negotiate peace

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.”

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Pakistan Taliban rules out dialogue with government, branded as ‘U.S. slaves’

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.

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With latest drone strike, CIA may have sabotaged peace talks in Pakistan

“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.

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How the CIA and the Taliban undermined the global campaign to eradicate polio

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.”

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