Balochistan: Pakistan’s other war

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American hostage shown in video could be in Baluchistan

The Associated Press reports: In the nearly five years that Levinson has been missing, the U.S. government has never had solid intelligence about what happened to him. Levinson had been retired from the FBI for years and was working as a private investigator when he traveled to the Iran in March 2007. His family has said an investigation into cigarette smuggling brought him to Kish, a resort island where Americans need no visa to visit.

The prevailing U.S. government theory had been that Levinson was arrested by Iranian intelligence officials to be interrogated and used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Washington. But as every lead fizzled and Iran repeatedly denied any involvement in his disappearance, many in the U.S. government believed Levinson was probably dead.

The surprise arrival of the video, followed by a series of photographs, quickly changed that view. But they did little to settle the question of his whereabouts. The video, in fact, contained tantalizing clues suggesting Levinson was not being held in Iran at all, but rather in Pakistan, hundreds of miles from where he disappeared. The photographs, which arrived a few months after the video, contained hints that Levinson might be in Afghanistan, according to several U.S. officials, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the sensitive case.

The video prompted Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to announce publicly in March that Levinson was alive, and she urged the Iranians to help find him. Though the legacy of the 1979 hostage standoff with Iran looms over all relations between the two countries, Clinton did not refer to Levinson as a hostage in March and she softened the U.S. rhetoric toward Tehran.

The video also helped initiate a series of discreet discussions between U.S. and Iranian officials, conversations that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in September were producing good results.

Not long after Clinton’s remarks, the Levinson family received a series of photos of Levinson dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit like the ones worn by detainees at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In these photos, Levinson’s hair and beard were much longer and he looked thinner.

In each photo, he wore a different sign hung around his neck. One read, “Why you can not help me.”

Investigators determined that the video was routed through an Internet address in Pakistan, suggesting that Levinson might be held there. Also, Pashtun wedding music played faintly in the background, officials said. The Pashtun people live primarily in Pakistan and Afghanistan, just over Iran’s eastern border.

The photos, however, traced back to a different Internet address, this one in Afghanistan.

Authorities don’t know whether those clues mean Levinson was being held in Balochistan – a rugged, arid region that spans parts of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan – or perhaps in the lawless tribal region along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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Pakistan’s secret dirty war

Declan Walsh reports:

The bodies surface quietly, like corks bobbing up in the dark. They come in twos and threes, a few times a week, dumped on desolate mountains or empty city roads, bearing the scars of great cruelty. Arms and legs are snapped; faces are bruised and swollen. Flesh is sliced with knives or punctured with drills; genitals are singed with electric prods. In some cases the bodies are unrecognisable, sprinkled with lime or chewed by wild animals. All have a gunshot wound in the head.

This gruesome parade of corpses has been surfacing in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province, since last July. Several human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have accounted for more than 100 bodies – lawyers, students, taxi drivers, farm workers. Most have been tortured. The last three were discovered on Sunday.

If you have not heard of this epic killing spree, though, don’t worry: neither have most Pakistanis. Newspaper reports from Balochistan are buried quietly on the inside pages, cloaked in euphemisms or, quite often, not published at all.

The forces of law and order also seem to be curiously indifferent to the plight of the dead men. Not a single person has been arrested or prosecuted; in fact, police investigators openly admit they are not even looking for anyone. The stunning lack of interest in Pakistan’s greatest murder mystery in decades becomes more understandable, however, when it emerges that the prime suspect is not some shady gang of sadistic serial killers, but the country’s powerful military and its unaccountable intelligence men.

This is Pakistan’s dirty little war. While foreign attention is focused on the Taliban, a deadly secondary conflict is bubbling in Balochistan, a sprawling, mineral-rich province along the western borders with Afghanistan and Iran. On one side is a scrappy coalition of guerrillas fighting for independence from Pakistan; on the other is a powerful army that seeks to quash their insurgency with maximum prejudice. The revolt, which has been rumbling for more than six years, is spiced by foreign interests and intrigues – US spy bases, Chinese business, vast underground reserves of copper, oil and gold.

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‘Disappeared’ Pakistanis — innocent and guilty alike — have fallen into a legal black hole

Without a single reference to President Obama’s drone war in Pakistan, extrajudicial detention of prisoners at Guantanamo, the torture of suspected terrorists, CIA-run secret prisons, rendition, presidential authorization to assassinate US citizens, or the United States’ long history of supporting governments that use their power to suppress political dissent by making their opponents “disappear,” the New York Times reports:

The Obama administration is expressing alarm over reports that thousands of political separatists and captured Taliban insurgents have disappeared into the hands of Pakistan’s police and security forces, and that some may have been tortured or killed.

The issue came up in a State Department report to Congress last month that urged Pakistan to address this and other human rights abuses. It threatens to become the latest source of friction in the often tense relationship between the wartime allies.

The concern is over a steady stream of accounts from human rights groups that Pakistan’s security services have rounded up thousands of people over the past decade, mainly in Baluchistan, a vast and restive province far from the fight with the Taliban, and are holding them incommunicado without charges. Some American officials think that the Pakistanis have used the pretext of war to imprison members of the Baluch nationalist opposition that has fought for generations to separate from Pakistan. Some of the so-called disappeared are guerrillas; others are civilians.

“Hundreds of cases are pending in the courts and remain unresolved,” said the Congressionally mandated report that the State Department sent to Capitol Hill on Nov. 23. A Congressional official provided a copy of the eight-page, unclassified document to The New York Times.

Separately, the report also described concerns that the Pakistani military had killed unarmed members of the Taliban, rather than put them on trial.

Two months ago, the United States took the unusual step of refusing to train or equip about a half-dozen Pakistani Army units that are believed to have killed unarmed prisoners and civilians during recent offensives against the Taliban. The most recent State Department report contains some of the administration’s most pointed language about accusations of such so-called extrajudicial killings. “The Pakistani government has made limited progress in advancing human rights and continues to face human rights challenges,” the State Department report concluded. “There continue to be gross violations of human rights by Pakistani security forces.”

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Obama wanted a surge, he’s getting a surge, and it feels good

Obama wanted a surge, he’s getting a surge, and it feels good

Mine might not be a headline the New York Times would choose, but that’s the story they tell under their flatly descriptive: “How Obama Came to Plan for ‘Surge’ in Afghanistan.”

The narrative reads like a script for NBC’s “West Wing” as it dramatises Obama’s deliberative process and that seems to have been the object of the exercise for this stellar team of reporters: paint a picture of presidential solemnity that will inspire confidence in how Obama makes decisions and thereby drum up a bit of good old-fashioned blind-faith in the presidency.

If there is no inescapable logic to the idea that a faster surge will enable a swifter withdrawal, then — the Times would have its readers believe — we shouldn’t worry our little heads about that because our fabulously diligent president has performed an operation of executive intelligence that renders all further consideration superfluous.

In a similar vein I’ll spare readers here the tedium of wading through a 4,660-word article and pick out some of the highlights. Actually, to my eye there is really only one point of substance:

Mr. Obama and his advisers … considered options for stepping up the pursuit of extremists in Pakistan’s border areas. He eventually approved a C.I.A. request to expand the areas where remotely piloted aircraft could strike, and other covert action. The trick would be getting Pakistani consent, which still has not been granted.

For “expand the areas” read: Baluchistan.

If getting Pakistani consent to open a new front in the war simply comes down to diplomatic finesse, then yes, you could call it a “trick” managing to get those instransigent Pakistanis to do the right thing.

In reality, it is merely the imperatives of fluent story-telling that compels the Times to glide over this important detail in the much larger and grimmer story of the war. Understanding why Baluchistan represents a red line that Pakistan refuses to abandon is something that Washington might grasp only when it’s too late.

The matter of most importance both for this administration and for the New York Times has less to do with people, places, history and geography, than it does with high-value words. Words like “surge”.

Obama wants to push in hard so he can pull out fast.

A three-month strategic review thus produced a choreographic solution:

The plan, called Option 2A, was presented to the president on Nov. 11. Mr. Obama complained that the bell curve would take 18 months to get all the troops in place.

He turned to General Petraeus and asked him how long it took to get the so-called surge troops he commanded in Iraq in 2007. That was six months.

“What I’m looking for is a surge,” Mr. Obama said. “This has to be a surge.”

That represented a contrast from when Mr. Obama, as a presidential candidate, staunchly opposed President Bush’s buildup in Iraq. But unlike Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama wanted from the start to speed up a withdrawal as well. The military was told to come up with a plan to send troops quickly and then begin bringing them home quickly.

On November 29, after winning the approval of all his immediate advisers, the president moved into action:

Mr. Obama then went to the Situation Room to call General McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry. The president made it clear that in the next assessment in December 2010 he would not contemplate more troops. “It will only be about the flexibility in how we draw down, not if we draw down,” he said.

Two days later, Mr. Obama flew to West Point to give his speech. After three months of agonizing review, he seemed surprisingly serene. “He was,” said one adviser, “totally at peace.”

Obama wanted a surge, he’s getting a surge, and it feels good — at least for now.

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Separatists, Islamists and Islamabad struggle for control of Pakistani Balochistan

Separatists, Islamists and Islamabad struggle for control of Pakistani Balochistan

To say that the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in October 2001 shook Pakistan to its core would be an understatement. Since then, the war in Afghanistan has spilled over into Pakistan on multiple levels. The escalating cycle of violence between Pakistani security forces and a patchwork of tribal militants, particularly the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and foreign fighters aligned with the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) is a case in point. Many observers of Pakistani affairs have used the deteriorating situation in the tribal agencies along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier as a bellwether of future trends in Pakistan. In this context, it is no surprise that events in Pakistan’s tribal areas seem to draw the most attention. Yet Pakistan’s Balochistan province is also beginning to draw interest as a center of Taliban and al-Qaeda activity.

Reports that the U.S. is seeking Pakistan’s approval for expanding its controversial drone campaign against targets in Balochistan – a clear red line for Pakistan – have raised serious concerns in Islamabad about Washington’s ultimate intentions (The News, [Islamabad], September 29). As the Obama administration escalates its military campaign in Afghanistan, Pakistani leaders have expressed deep concerns about the potential destabilization of Balochistan resulting from the intensified fighting expected in Afghanistan in the coming months (The Nation [Lahore], November 27). As if these concerns were not enough, Balochistan remains a hotbed of ethno-nationalist militancy, drug smuggling, and organized crime. Balochistan is also in the throes of a refugee crisis that has been largely ignored. The confluence of these trends – which indirectly or directly reinforce each other – is making an already dangerous situation worse with severe implications for Pakistan and the wider region. [continued...]

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