The Afghans fighting Assad’s war

Der Spiegel reports: His war only lasted from one dawn to the next. When the sun rose for the second time over the Syrian city of Aleppo, Murad, a farmer from Afghanistan, was still cowering on the second floor of the house he was supposed to defend to the death. That, at least, is what his Iranian officer had ordered him to do.

How, though, did he get to this war-torn city far away from his village in the mountains of Afghanistan? All he had wanted was an Iranian residence permit, he says. But at the end of his trip, he found himself fighting as a mercenary in the Syrian civil war on the side of the Bashar Assad regime.

On that morning in Aleppo, Murad didn’t know how many from his unit were still alive, nor did he know where he was or who he was fighting against. His four magazines had been empty for hours. When a violent explosion caused the house he was in to collapse, he found himself thinking about his daughters, he says. “I screamed and thought I was suffocating. And then, everything around me was quiet.”

Men arrived and pulled Murad, who was still screaming, out of the rubble. He was lucky, even if he didn’t see it that way at first. “I thought they would kill me immediately. But they bandaged me up and took me to their quarters. There was someone there who spoke a bit of Persian and he told me I didn’t need to be afraid.”

That was seven months ago. Since then, Murad and another Afghan have been sitting in a makeshift prison belonging to the al-Shamiya Front, one of Aleppo’s larger rebel formations. They are being held in a neon-lit basement, next to a roaring generator. The walls are crumbling, a product of the myriad explosions that have shaken the city. In addition to Afghans, Pakistanis and Iranians have also been taken prisoner by other rebel groups, all of them fighting on the front lines. [Continue reading…]

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Ann Jones: Citizen’s revolt in Afghanistan

Soon after 9/11, Ann Jones went to Afghanistan to help in whatever way she could, “embedding” with civilians who had been battered by the rigors of that war-torn land.  Out of that experience, especially dealing with the crises of women, she wrote a powerful and moving book, Kabul in Winter. In 2010, she borrowed a flak jacket, put on her combat boots, and settled into a U.S. military outpost in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border to see what life was like for American soldiers.  (“Being outside the wire had filled me with sorrow as I watched earnest, heavily armed and armored boys try to win over white-bearded Afghans — men of extraordinary dignity — who have seen all this before and know the outcome.”) 

The following year, she returned again to Afghanistan, this time focused not on the “collateral damage” to Afghans from our endless war there, but on the true costs of such a war to Americans.  In a country that has never stopped talking about its “wounded warriors,” she alone, and not some young, hot-shot reporter from a major media outlet, followed American war wounded off the grim battlefields of that never-ending war all the way home.  She started at the trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base, then travelled with often desperately wounded Americans via C-17 to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and afterward on to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  Finally, she visited traumatized and wounded veterans back in their homes.  The book she wrote from this, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story, is a one-of-a-kind odyssey on the up-close-and-personal costs of our global war on terror.  (“As I followed the sad trail of damaged veterans to write my new book, I came to see how much they and their families have suffered, like Afghans, from the delusions of this nation’s leaders — many running counter to international law — and of other influential Americans, in and out of the military, more powerful and less accountable than themselves.”)

On her latest trip to Afghanistan, she re-embedded with those who have born the brunt of and bear the deepest scars from the American war there: civilians, especially women, in a society that, after 35 years of Cold War combat, brutal civil war, and Washington’s war on terror, all involving religious and political extremism that should chill the soul, couldn’t be under more pressure.  The U.S. has, of course, sunk many billions of dollars into the promised “reconstruction” of the country, a process of failed nation-building that turned out to also be deeply corrupt.  Many more billions went into the kind of military-building that, across the Greater Middle East, has proven just as unsuccessful. 

With U.S. (and NATO) forces being reduced there, the American-built Afghan security forces are already suffering unsustainable casualties and may one day go the way of the American-built Iraqi Army in 2014.  With the war in Afghanistan going badly, the much-vaunted American “withdrawal” from the country has recently turned into a kind of dance in place, while a constitutionally challenged government in Kabul struggles seven months after coming into office to take control. More than 13 years after the U.S. “liberated” Afghanistan, that country’s main claim to fame may be that it’s become the narco capital of the globe.

Back in the streets of the Afghan capital, Jones now reports that its civilians, facing the nightmarish murder of a young woman, may be taking things heroically into their own hands.  She describes the stirrings of what might someday be thought of as an “Afghan Spring.” Of course, given the disastrous pushback against the various Arab Springs, that in itself is a daunting thought.  Still, hope has been in short supply in twenty-first-century Afghanistan, so consider this a potentially remarkable development. Tom Engelhardt

“Farkhunda is our sister”
A “martyr,” a murder, and the making of a new Afghanistan?
By Ann Jones

I went to Kabul, Afghanistan, in March to see old friends.  By chance, I arrived the day after a woman had been beaten to death and burned by a mob of young men.  The world would soon come to know her name: Farkhunda.  The name means “auspicious” or “jubilant.”  She was killed in the very heart of the Afghan capital, at a popular shrine, the burial place of an unnamed ghazi, a warrior martyred for Islam. Years ago, I worked only a few doors away.  I knew the neighborhood well as a crossroads for travelers and traders, a market street beside the Kabul River, busy with peddlers, beggars, drug addicts, thieves, and pigeons.  It was always a dodgy neighborhood. Now, it had become a crime scene.

In April, at the end of the traditional 40-day period of mourning for the dead woman, that crime scene became the stage for a reenactment of the murder by a group of citizens calling themselves the Committee for Justice for Farkhunda, which was pressing the government to arrest and punish the killers.  Shortly after the performance, the office of the attorney general announced formal chargesagainst 49 men: 30 suspected participants in the woman’s murder and 19 police officers accused of failing to try to stop it.  On May 2nd, a trial began at the Primary Court, carried live on Afghan television. Farkhunda is now dead and buried, but her story has had staying power.  It seems to mark the rise of something not seen in Afghanistan for a very long time: the power of people to renounce violence and peacefully reclaim themselves.  This makes it worth recalling just how events unfolded and what messages they might hold for Americans, in particular, who have been fighting so fruitlessly in Afghanistan for 13-plus years.

[Read more…]

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Afghan novelist: ‘We live in a vacuum, lacking heroes and ideals’

Mujib Mashal writes: Four large clocks tick out of sync, puncturing the silence of his Soviet-built apartment. A half-burned candle sits next to a stack of books. A small television is covered in soot.

This is where Rahnaward Zaryab, Afghanistan’s most celebrated novelist, locks himself up for weeks at a time, lost in bottles of smuggled vodka and old memories of Kabul, a capital city long transformed by war and money.

“We live in a vacuum, lacking heroes and ideals,” Mr. Zaryab reads from his latest manuscript, handwritten on the back of used paper. The smoke from his Pine cigarette, a harsh South Korean brand, clings to yellowed walls. “The heroes lie in dust, the ideals are ridiculed.”

The product of a rare period of peace and tolerance in Afghan history, Mr. Zaryab’s work first flourished in the 1970s, before the country was unraveled by invasion and civil war. Afghanistan still had a vibrant music and theater scene, and writers had a broad readership that stretched beyond just the political elite.

“I would receive letters from girls that would smell of perfume when you opened them,” Mr. Zaryab, who is 70, remembered fondly.

Mr. Zaryab’s stories are informed by his readings of Western philosophy and literature, the writer Homaira Qaderi said. He was educated on scholarships in New Zealand and Britain. But his heroes are indigenous and modest, delicately questioning the dogma and superstitions of a conservative society.

“He is the first writer to focus on the structure of stories, with the eye of someone well read,” Ms. Qaderi said. “We call him the father of new storytelling in Afghanistan.”

But after he became the standard-bearer for Afghan literature, Mr. Zaryab was forced to watch as Kabul, the muse he idealized as a city of music and chivalry in most of his 17 books, fell into rubble and chaos.

Some of the chaos has eased over the past decade, but that has caused him even more pain. He loathes how Kabul has been rebuilt: on a foundation of American cash and foreign values, paving over Afghan culture.

“Money, money, money,” he said, cringing. “Everyone is urged to make money, in any way they can. Art, culture and literature have been forgotten completely.” [Continue reading…]

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Afghanistan’s defining fight: Technocrats vs. strongmen

The Washington Post reports: A massive portrait of a middle-aged man towers over the Ferris wheel and giant mushrooms at an amusement park here. At night, the image is bathed in an ethereal light, visible from a quarter-mile away.

His admirers call him “Ustad,” or “Teacher.” His critics call him the King.

Atta-Mohammad-NoorFor more than a decade, Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of Balkh province, has controlled this northern region with an iron hand, imbued with the authority of the freedom fighter he was and the ultra-rich businessman he has become. Guns, militias and guile, as well as his ability to provide security, have made him one of the country’s most formidable strongmen.

To many war-weary Afghans, former warlords such as Noor — who are accused of human rights abuses yet rule with impunity — have to be marginalized for the nation to move into a new era. To their supporters, these former warlords remain a bulwark against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and, possibly, the Islamic State, more vital than ever as the U.S. military mission edges to a close.

“If Ustad Atta is ever replaced as governor, there will be chaos here, and it will spread to other provinces,” declared Haji Abdul Wahab, a close friend who manages the park, which Noor built. “He’s got a special place in the hearts of Afghan people.”

Noor’s rise and endurance is a legacy of America’s longest war and an emblem of a fresh contest for influence. It pits the aspirations of Western-educated technocrats keen to transform Afghanistan against conservative ethnic and tribal strongmen determined to preserve the status quo. That struggle is becoming the definitive battle for the future of every aspect of the country’s affairs — from forming a new cabinet to tackling rampant corruption to engaging in peace talks with the Taliban. [Continue reading…]

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Anand Gopal: How to create an Afghan Blackwater

The other day, as I was reading through the New York Times, I came upon this headline: “Powerful Afghan Police Chief Killed in Kabul.” His name was Matiullah Khan.  He had once been “an illiterate highway patrol commander” in an obscure southern province of Afghanistan and was taken out in a “targeted suicide bombing” on the streets of the capital — and I realized that I knew him!  Since I’ve never been within a few thousand miles of Kabul, I certainly didn’t know him in the normal sense. I had, you might say, edited Matiullah Khan. He was one of a crop of new warlords who rose to wealth and power by hitching their ambitions to the American war and the U.S. military personnel sent to their country to fight it.  Khan, in particular, made staggering sums by essentially setting up an “Afghan Blackwater,” a hire-a-gun — in fact, so many guns — protection agency for American convoys delivering supplies to far-flung U.S. bases and outposts in southern Afghanistan.

He became the protector and benefactor of a remarkable Afghan woman who is a key character in Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, which I edited and published in the American Empire Project series I co-run for Metropolitan Books. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Gopal covered the Afghan War for years in a way no other Western journalist did. He spent time with crucial allies of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and with a Taliban commander, with warlords and American Special Ops guys, politicians and housewives. He traveled rural Afghanistan as few American reporters were capable of doing.  In the process, he made a discovery that was startling indeed and has yet to really sink in here.

In a nutshell, in 2001, the invading Americans put al-Qaeda to flight and crushed the Taliban.  From most of its top leadership to its foot soldiers, the Talibs were almost uniformly prepared, even eager, to put down their weapons, go back to their villages, and be left in peace. In other words, it was all over. There was just one problem. The Americans, on Washington’s mission to win the Global War on Terror, just couldn’t stop fighting. In their inability to grasp the situation, they essentially forced the Taliban back onto the battlefield and so created an insurgency and a war that they couldn’t win.

Reaction to Gopal’s book, published last April, was at first muted. That’s not so surprising, given that the news it brought to the table wasn’t exactly going to be a popular message here. In recent months, however, it’s gained real traction: the positive reviews began coming in; Rory Stewart made it his book of the year pick at the New Statesman (“Anand Gopal has produced the best piece of investigative journalism to come out of Afghanistan in the past 12 years”); it was a National Book Award finalist and is a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award For Excellence in Journalism. Most strikingly, it just received the prestigious Ridenhour Book Prize for 2015. (“Through a blend of intrepid reporting and clear-eyed — even beautiful prose — we see and can begin to truly understand the violence and tragedy of our longest war.”)

So today, with thanks to Metropolitan Books, I thought I would give you a taste of a work of reportage that turns the American narrative about the Afghan War on its head. Here, from No Good Men Among the Living, is what it felt like when the war that rural Afghans thought was over just wouldn’t end, when the Americans couldn’t stop shooting and that new crop of Afghan warlords began using Washington’s war on terror for their own ends. The toll in wrecked lives, including most recently that of Matiullah Khan, is now 13 years old and unending. Tom Engelhardt

The real Afghan war
How an American fantasy conflict created disaster in Afghanistan
By Anand Gopal

[This essay is taken from chapter five of Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes and appears at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of Metropolitan Books.]

The sky clotted gray and the winds gusted cold as the men crowded into an old roadside gas station. It was daybreak in Band-i-Timor, early December 2001, and hundreds of turbaned farmers sat pensively, weighing the choice before them. They had once been the backbone of the Taliban’s support; the movement had arisen not far from here, and many had sent their sons to fight on the front lines. But in 2000, Mullah Omar had decreed opium cultivation to be un-Islamic, and whip-wielding police saw to it that production was halted almost overnight. Band-i-Timor had been poppy country for as long as anyone could remember, but now the fields lay fallow and children were going hungry. With the Taliban’s days numbered after the U.S. invasion, the mood was ripe for a change. But could they trust the Americans? Or Hamid Karzai?

[Read more…]

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Dilip Hiro: Afghanistan’s China card

In June 2014, as he was preparing to send 300 U.S. military advisers back to Iraq, President Obama hailed the American counterterror campaign in Yemen — Special Operations advisers (and CIA operatives) on the ground, drones in the air — as a “model” for what he hoped to do against the Islamic State. In September, as Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post wrote, President Obama “cited his Yemen strategy as a template for confronting jihadist threats in other places, including Iraq and Syria.” He was still making reference to its “success” this January when discussing what had become Iraq War 3.0.

Last week, however, with al-Qaeda militants taking a nearby town, Washington withdrew its final 100 Special Operations advisers in Yemen from a southern air base where U.S. drones had been stationed and halted all military operations in the country. By then, the U.S. embassy in Sana’a, the capital, had been shuttered for a month. Meanwhile $500 million in U.S. weaponry had reportedly gone missing in that country and might be in the hands of almost anyone, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the local branch of the terror franchise. That group had only grown stronger under years of American drone strikes.

Iranian-backed Houthi rebels now control the north of the country, including Sana’a, and recently seized its third largest city and headed south toward the port of Aden. Yemen seems at the edge of civil war and backers of the Islamic State may even have a foothold there. Strikes from U.S. drones based in Saudi Arabia, among other places, will undoubtedly continue, though assumedly with even less on-the-ground intelligence from Yemeni sources. In sum, as with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the intervention in Libya, hopes in Washington that once were so high have been dashed. This is, by now, a commonplace experience:  the early moments of any U.S. military campaign seem so successful — and then, with the passage of time, the verdict comes in: another failure for the twenty-first-century American way of war.

Today, TomDispatch regular Dilip Hiro considers one of those failed efforts — in Afghanistan, where the planet’s former “sole superpower” now seems to be losing out not only to local Taliban militants, whose strength has been on the upswing, but to the power it may fear most: an economically rising China. In these years, from the Middle East to Africa, that country has had an uncanny ability to sweep up the imperial spoils, especially local energy resources, without sending a soldier into battle. Now, it seems, China may be in the process of doing just that in Afghanistan.

On this subject and the associated contest between Pakistan and India for influence in Afghanistan, Hiro, whom Jeremy Scahill has called “the quintessential non-aligned journalist… the master chronicler of some of history’s most epic battles,” knows a thing or two. His monumental new book, The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry Between India and Pakistan, is the first definitive history of one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. With a desperate Obama administration struggling over just how many U.S. military personnel to leave in Afghanistan for how endlessly and fruitlessly long, it makes sense to put Washington’s perspective aside for a moment and try to get a bead on what’s really happening in South Asia and Afghanistan through a different lens. Tom Engelhardt

The Great Game in Afghanistan (twenty-first-century update)
And the U.S. is losing out
By Dilip Hiro

Call it an irony, if you will, but as the Obama administration struggles to slow down or halt its scheduled withdrawal from Afghanistan, newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is performing a withdrawal operation of his own. He seems to be in the process of trying to sideline the country’s major patron of the last 13 years — and as happened in Iraq after the American invasion and occupation there, Chinese resource companies are again picking up the pieces.

[Read more…]

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Afghan militia leaders, empowered by U.S. to fight Taliban, inspire fear in villages

The New York Times reports: Rahimullah used to be a farmer — just a “normal person living an ordinary life,” as he put it. Then he formed his own militia last year and found himself swept up in America’s exit strategy from Afghanistan.

With about 20 men loyal to him, Rahimullah, 56, soon discovered a patron in the United States Special Forces, who provided everything he needed: rifles, ammunition, cash, even sandbags for a guard post in Aghu Jan, a remote village in Ghazni Province.

Then the Americans pulled out, leaving Rahimullah behind as the local strongman, and as his village’s only defense against a Taliban takeover.

“We are shivering with fear,” said one resident, Abdul Ahad. Then he explained: He and his neighbors did not fear the Taliban nearly as much as they did their protectors, Rahimullah’s militiamen, who have turned to kidnappings and extortion. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS fighters kill Taliban commander

Pajhwok: The administrative chief for Charkh district in central Logar province on Monday said Islamic State (IS) militants had killed a Taliban commander and ordered residents to stop watching TV programmes.

Khalilullah Kamal told Pajhwok Afghan News the Taliban commander was killed in an early morning clash between the two groups in the main district bazaar.

He said the masked gunmen, wearing black clothes, gunned down Abdul Ghani and wounded his three bodyguards. The Taliban have not yet spoken about the incident.

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A conversation with Adam Curtis

Jon Ronson writes: I’ve known Adam Curtis for nearly 20 years. We’re friends. We see movies together, and once even went to Romania on a mini-break to attend an auction of Nicolae Ceausescu’s belongings. But it would be wrong to characterise our friendship as frivolous. Most of the time when we’re together I’m just intensely cross-questioning him about some new book idea I have.

Sometimes Adam will say something that seems baffling and wrong at the time, but makes perfect sense a few years later. I could give you lots of examples, but here’s one: I’m about to publish a book – So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – about how social media is evolving into a cold and conservative place, a giant echo chamber where what we believe is constantly reinforced by people who believe the same thing, and when people step out of line in the smallest ways we destroy them. Adam was warning me about Twitter’s propensity to turn this way six years ago, when it was still a Garden of Eden. Sometimes talking to Adam feels like finding the results of some horse race of the future, where the long-shot horse wins.

I suppose it’s no surprise that Adam would notice this stuff about social media so early on. It’s what his films are almost always about – power and social control. However, people don’t only enjoy them for the subject matter, but for how they look, too – his wonderful, strange use of archive.

His new film, Bitter Lake, is his most experimental yet. And I think it’s his best. It’s still journalism: it’s about our relationship with Afghanistan, and how we don’t know what to do, and so we just repeat the mistakes of the past. But he’s allowed his use of archive to blossom crazily. Fifty percent of the film has no commentary. Instead, he’s created this dreamlike, fantastical collage from historical footage and raw, unedited news footage. Sometimes it’s just a shot of a man walking down a road in some Afghan town, and you don’t know why he’s chosen it, and then something happens and you think, ‘Ah!’ (Or, more often, ‘Oh God.’) It might be something small and odd. Or it might be something huge and terrible.

Nightmarish things happen in Bitter Lake. There are shots of people dying. It’s a film that could never be on TV. It’s too disturbing. And it’s too long as well – nearly two and a half hours. And so he’s putting it straight onto BBC iPlayer. I think, with this film, he’s invented a whole new way of telling a nonfiction story.

VICE asked the two of us to have an email conversation about his work. We started just before Christmas, and carried on until after the New Year. [Continue reading…]

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Unruly factions hurt Taliban’s bid to capture Afghan hearts, and territory

The New York Times reports: A series of kidnappings and robberies struck northern Helmand Province this summer, paralyzing residents and embarrassing the Taliban leaders who controlled the area.

Responding to growing complaints, the Taliban leadership based in Pakistan ordered a hunt to find the criminals, but soon discovered an inconvenient truth: Their own people were behind the banditry, earning thousands of dollars in ransoms every month. Within a matter of days, the culprits had been captured and executed, including two notorious fighters known as Pickax and Shovel.

Though the episode went largely unnoticed outside the Taliban stronghold, it highlights a question that is on the minds of many: More than 13 years after the war here started, who exactly are the Taliban? Are they the bandits responsible for the abduction and killings of numerous villagers? Or are they the disciplined leaders who hanged the fighters who had taken to criminal tyranny?

Increasingly, it appears, they are both. [Continue reading…]

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Kabul was eerie and dangerous under the Taliban. It feels that way again

Pamela Constable reports: Many winters ago, I stood in a vast, empty intersection of central Kabul. The only sounds were the jingle of passing horse carts and the ticking spokes of old bicycles. There were no other Westerners on the streets, and all eyes were upon me. Despite being wrapped in many layers of modest clothing, I felt naked.

Much has changed in the Afghan capital since those haunted days under Taliban rule. Bombed-out ruins have been replaced by multi-story apartment buildings and ornate mansions. The populace has quintupled and traffic jams are constant. Cellphone and computer shops with picture windows line the streets, and beauty parlor signs feature women with pouting lips and geisha makeup.

But this winter, even as a frequent foreign visitor to Kabul, dressed modestly and with my head covered, I feel naked once again. Almost every Westerner I once knew here has left the country for good, their missions suspended or shut down, and several of my longtime Afghan acquaintances and colleagues have fled abroad and sought asylum. [Continue reading…]

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Jim Gant: ‘Lawrence of Afghanistan’

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ISIS targets Afghanistan just as the U.S. quits

The Daily Beast reports: Few sayings of the Prophet Mohammed have a stronger hold on the imagination of the world’s jihadists than his prophecy about the flags: “If you see the black banners coming from Khorasan, join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice,” he is supposed to have admonished the faithful. “No power will be able to stop them and they will finally reach Baitul Maqdisi”—Jerusalem— “where they will erect flags.”

And where was this magical land of Khorasan, whence the conquerors would come? Think Afghanistan and pieces of all the countries that surround it, including and especially Iran.

For the great ideologues of modern jihadist terror, Ayman al Zawahiri of al Qaeda and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi of the so-called Islamic State, the strategic and symbolic importance of Khorasan is huge, and there are already signs that they are competing for control there. Some factions of both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and some members of al Qaeda in the area have pledged allegiance to Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Zawahiri’s most elite group of operatives, meanwhile, has become known as the Khorasan Group.

As terrorists compete for prestige and authority, they are under attack by the governments of the region. To make their mark on the minds of potential followers, they carry out ever more desperate and horrifying acts, like the slaughter of children at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, earlier this week.

A central figure in these dangerous wider developments is a soft-spoken scholar, journalist and poet, Sheikh Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, who spent more than three years as a prisoner of the Americans at Guantanamo, then found himself imprisoned again by the Pakistanis. News reports in the region recently named his as the Islamic State-appointed governor or wali of Khorasan. [Continue reading…]

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Jihadi groups killed more than 5,000 people in November

The Guardian reports: Jihadi groups killed more than 5,000 people last month, with Iraq topping the league table of deaths, followed by Nigeria, Afghanistan and Syria.

In 664 incidents recorded in November by the BBC World Service and researched jointly with King’s College London, the overall death toll was 5,042, or an average of 168 deaths per day and nearly twice the number of people who were killed in the 11 September 2001 attacks on America.

After Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Syria, Yemen was fifth in the deadly league table, tying with Somalia, with 37 incidents each.

The data, shared with the Guardian, provides a unique insight into the human cost, intensity, scale and geographical distribution of a phenomenon that has captured headlines and driven political and security agendas across the world. [Continue reading…]

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Afghanistan: The making of a narco state

Matthieu Aikins reports: Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan is named for the wide river that runs through its provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, a low-slung city of shrubby roundabouts and glass-fronted market blocks. When I visited in April, there was an expectant atmosphere, like that of a whaling town waiting for the big ships to come in. In the bazaars, the shops were filled with dry goods, farming machinery and motorcycles. The teahouses, where a man could spend the night on the carpet for the price of his dinner, were packed with migrant laborers, or nishtgar, drawn from across the southern provinces, some coming from as far afield as Iran and Pakistan. The schools were empty; in war-torn districts, police and Taliban alike had put aside their arms. It was harvest time.

Across the province, hundreds of thousands of people were taking part in the largest opium harvest in Afghanistan’s history. With a record 224,000 hectares under cultivation this year, the country produced an estimated 6,400 tons of opium, or around 90 percent of the world’s supply. The drug is entwined with the highest levels of the Afghan government and the economy in a way that makes the cocaine business in Escobar-era Colombia look like a sideshow. The share of cocaine trafficking and production in Colombia’s GDP peaked at six percent in the late 1980s; in Afghanistan today, according to U.N. estimates, the opium industry accounts for 15 percent of the economy, a figure that is set to rise as the West withdraws. “Whatever the term narco state means, if there is a country to which it applies, it is Afghanistan,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies illicit economies in conflict zones. “It is unprecedented in history.”

Even more shocking is the fact that the Afghan narcotics trade has gotten undeniably worse since the U.S.-led invasion: The country produces twice as much opium as it did in 2000. How did all those poppy fields flower under the nose of one of the biggest international military and development missions of our time? The answer lies partly in the deeply cynical bargains struck by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai in his bid to consolidate power, and partly in the way the U.S. military ignored the corruption of its allies in taking on the Taliban. It’s the story of how, in pursuit of the War on Terror, we lost the War on Drugs in Afghanistan by allying with many of the same people who turned the country into the world’s biggest source of heroin. [Continue reading…]

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Pakistani Taliban squeezed by Afghan revolt, U.S. drone strikes

Reuters reports: Pakistani Taliban militants holed up in Afghanistan are being squeezed by U.S. drone strikes and a revolt against them, a trend that could disrupt the insurgents’ capability to strike in Pakistan.

For years, Pakistani Taliban commanders fighting the Pakistani state have been hiding in remote areas of east Afghanistan, plotting attacks and recruiting.

But in recent weeks, officials say the insurgency has been weakened by a spate strikes by U.S. drones and a rebellion by tribesmen in Afghanistan’s Kunar province.

The Pakistani and Afghan Taliban are allied and share the goal of toppling their respective governments and setting up an Islamist state across the region.

Their presence on both sides of the border has been a bone of contention between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the two trading accusations of sheltering insurgents.

But the ascent to power of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has raised hopes for more cooperation in tackling the insurgency.

Four Pakistani Taliban commanders told Reuters drone strikes and tension with tribesmen had forced them to move from small Afghan towns to mountainous border areas. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS ‘outbidding’ al Qaeda in South Asia

Karl Kaltenthaler writes: The landscape of violent extremist Islamism is changing in Asia. Al-Qaida, once a growing and potent threat, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is now a shadow of its former self.

In the late 1990s, al-Qaida co-ran Afghanistan with the Taliban. It also had a strong presence in Pakistan and close ties with many of that country’s myriad jihadi groups. Now al-Qaida’s core group is down to a few dozen members. Security operations against the group in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere have cut its numbers and operational capacity substantially. The organization is fighting for survival in Pakistan, its last real refuge in Asia.

The same cannot be said of the Islamic State group. The militant group, which has had spectacular success in Syria and Iraq, is now making inroads in many parts of Asia, but particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan. [Continue reading…]

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Afghanistan quietly lifts ban on nighttime raids

The New York Times reports: The government of the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, has quietly lifted the ban on night raids by special forces troops that his predecessor had imposed.

Afghan National Army Special Forces units are planning to resume the raids in 2015, and in some cases the raids will include members of American Special Operations units in an advisory role, according to Afghan military officials as well as officials with the American-led military coalition.

That news comes after published accounts of an order by President Obama to allow the American military to continue some limited combat operations in 2015. That order allows for the sort of air support necessary for successful night raids. [Continue reading…]

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