Event Notice: "Out of the Mountains" book discussion with Dr. David Kilcullen, TODAY, 12:15-1:45PM (NAF).
Amanullah Aman, the head of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) in Kunduz province, was shot and killed early Wednesday morning as he headed to work in Kunduz City (AP, BBC, Pajhwok, Reuters, RFE/RL). Aman was the first commission member to be assassinated since the IEC began its work in May. Within an hour of the attack, Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, issued a tweet claiming responsibility for the shooting (NYT). Aman's death came one day after he told Reuters that deteriorating security across the country was threatening next year's presidential election.
Five men were arrested in Helmand province on Tuesday in connection with the recent murder of Lt. Negar, the most senior female police officer in the province, but no additional details were given (CSM, RFE/RL). Negar's death came just two months after her predecessor, Lt. Islam Bibi, was also gunned down and highlights the dangers faced by Afghan women in high-profile public roles. As a New York Times report suggested on Tuesday, however, these dangers can come from both inside and outside of the police force (NYT). That report cited an unpublished U.N. study that said close to 70 percent of female Afghan police officers have been subjected to sexual harassment or violence at the hands of their male colleagues.
More than 180 prisoners at the central jail in Farah province have been on a hunger strike since Thursday and at least 25 of them have sewed their lips shut to protest the lack of investigations into their cases (Pajhwok). According to Abdul Basir Khairkhwa, a provincial council chief, all of the striking detainees are political prisoners who believe that presidential decrees reducing jail terms have not been applied to their cases. Khairkhwa said that the decrees did not include political prisoners, but he added that the provincial government is investigating the issue. Deputy Governor Mohammad Younas Rassouli added that a joint delegation of the Supreme Court and the General Directorate of Prisons was expected to arrive in Farah to negotiate with the protesting inmates but provided no further information.
At least five Pakistani citizens were killed and three were injured in Balochistan on Wednesday when Afghan security officials allegedly opened fire near the Qamar Din Karez border area (Dawn, ET). An unnamed district official blamed the Afghan security forces, while another said the cause of the shootings could not be ascertained. Neither the Afghan nor the Pakistani foreign ministries have commented on the incident.
In the ongoing battle for Karachi, Sindh Rangers and police personnel killed three alleged terrorists on Wednesday and arrested 29 additional suspects during targeted operations across the city (Dawn). Nadeem Hashmi, a former Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) politician, was also freed from prison on Tuesday and cleared of all charges related to last week's killing of two Karachi policemen (Dawn). The security operations are designed to restore law and order to Pakistan's financial capital after weeks of increasing violence from criminal, political, and terrorist organizations.
The Sindh Assembly in Karachi unanimously passed a witness protection bill on Wednesday that will allow witnesses to wear masks, change their voices and appearances, and testify by video conference feeds in order to protect their identities (ET). The law also provides for the relocation of witnesses. Dr. Sikandar Mandhor, the provincial minister for parliamentary affairs, said the law was created in light of increased terrorist activities in the province, as well as to protect witnesses in criminal proceedings. It is the first such law of its kind in the country.
While on a state visit to Turkey, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif confirmed his intent to release Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the former deputy commander of the Afghan Taliban, but said he would not finalize the details until after he returns to Pakistan on Thursday (Pajhwok, Reuters). Kabul has long pushed for Baradar's release, seeing him as a potential linchpin in getting the Afghan Taliban back to the negotiating table. Sharif's comments came a day after Sartaj Aziz, his foreign affairs advisor, said that Baradar would likely be released this week but provided no details about where or to whom that release would occur.
An app for that
In Lahore, Pakistan's "heritage capital," a burgeoning technology sector is producing mobile apps for industry giants like Google and Samsung (CNN). Technology incubators like Dr. Umar Saif's Plan 9 have developed apps that inform emergency services about car crashes, enables paralyzed individuals to work on a computer with an optic mouse, and allows an individual taking a group photo to place himself in it. In describing Lahore's growing tech boom, Saif said: "The geography, the political situation, the security situation is becoming totally irrelevant in a country like Pakistan."
-- Bailey Cahall and David Sterman
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
In preparation for next April's presidential and provincial elections, Afghan President Hamid Karzai appointed the five members of the Independent Election Complaints Commission on Monday but promptly faced criticism from opposition politicians who said the posts went to key allies (Pajhwok). Many view the 2014 ballot as a key test of Afghanistan's nascent democracy, especially as coalition combat troops prepare to withdraw at the end of the year, and some are concerned the appointments could undermine the vote. Aimal Faizi, Karzai's spokesman, denied these accusations and said that all of the commissioners were independently "appointed in full accordance with the law and all relevant legal mechanisms" (Reuters). Bonus read: "Of Afghan football and politics," Omar Samad (AfPak).
Karzai faced additional criticism on Tuesday from Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, who said that Afghanistan's progress on human rights and women's rights was endangered by all of the focus being placed on the politics of next year's election (AFP, Pajhwok, RFE/RL). Speaking at the end of her two-day visit to the country, Pillay added that she had received no assurances from Karzai that "he would reverse his decision to pack the country's human rights commission with political appointees" (NYT). Pillay was particularly concerned about the inclusion of a former Taliban mullah, a politician with the fundamentalist Jamiat-i-Islami party, and a police general on the commission, none of whom were on a proposed member list created by civic and human rights groups.
Sartaj Aziz, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's advisor on foreign affairs, told reporters with Agence France Presse on Monday that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, an imprisoned senior Taliban commander, "will be released this week, possibly in a day or two" (AFP, Pajhwok). Kabul has long pushed for Baradar's release as the former second-in-command is seen as a potential linchpin in getting the Afghan Taliban back to the negotiating table. Aziz, however, tempered those hopes by adding that Baradar would not be handed over to the Afghan government. Instead, "it is at his discretion, whether he chooses to live [in Pakistan] or anywhere of his own choice." Baradar has not yet expressed where he would like to go once he is released.
Speaking to Turkish Interior Minister Muammer Güler and other senior security officials in Ankara on Tuesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said that he would seek help and guidance from Turkey to effectively end terrorism back home (Dawn). He said that Pakistan would learn from Turkish police successes and expressed hope that it would implement a new counterterrorism strategy with Turkish cooperation. For his part, Güler said Turkey would help Pakistan control cyber crimes and tackle the radicalization occurring in the country.
Later on Tuesday, Sharif received the "Medal of Democracy," Turkey's highest civil award, from Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, his Turkish counterpart (ET). It is not entirely clear why Sharif was given the award but he referenced his "humble contribution to furthering our fraternal relations" and a commitment to "exploring new vistas for cooperation between our two countries" in his acceptance speech. The award came during Sharif's three-day visit to Turkey, his first since becoming prime minister in June.
The Pakistani delegation's trip to Turkey began on Monday when representatives from Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan signed a deal related to the CASA-1000 electricity project (Dawn, RFE/RL). The project, which aims to export electricity from hydropower stations in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan, is designed to foster better ties between the Central and South Asian countries, and provide Afghan and Pakistani citizens with inexpensive and uninterrupted power. Under the terms of the agreement, Afghanistan will receive around 300 megawatts of electricity annually and Pakistan will get nearly 1,000 megawatts.
Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by Taliban fighters last October for championing girls' education, was awarded Amnesty International's highest honor on Tuesday, becoming one of the group's 2013 Ambassadors of Conscience (AFP, Pajhwok, RFE/RL). Yousafzai will share the award with American singer and human rights activist Harry Belafonte. The award, which recognizes "individuals who have promoted and enhanced the cause of human rights through their life and by example," will be presented to the pair by U2 frontman Bono.
To protect and score
Fresh off of their victory in the South Asian Football Federation Championship game last week, two members of the Afghan national football team announced on Sunday that they would be joining the Afghan National Police (Pajhwok). At an award ceremony for the team, Hashmatullah Barakzai and Rafi Barakzai revealed their intentions and said they were joining the force voluntarily "due to their innate flair for the job and their desire to serve the people." Acting Interior Minister Mohammad Omar Daudzai added that the men could start as soon as Monday and the other members of the team said they would act as police ambassadors.
-- Bailey Cahall and David Sterman
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
The Afghan national football (soccer) team's spectacular South Asian championship win last week crystalized Afghan patriotic feelings and rallied the country together in a celebratory joy unseen in decades. With a renewed sense of optimism, Afghans are now eager to see their political leaders score a win in next year's presidential and provincial elections as well.
As the critical three-week long candidate registration period kicked off Monday, apathy is slowly giving way to curiosity mixed with concern to see that the presidential elections are held on time, according to basic tenants of fairness and transparency, and involve fresh thinking.
Registration and Support for elections
Compared to the botched 2009 elections, the conditions and candidate criteria set for next April's poll are more stringent. Nominees have to submit at least 100,000 eligible voter card endorsements from more than 22 of the country's 34 provinces, and deposit close to $18,000 with the Independent Election Commission.
Overall, more than 1.2 million new voters have been registered so far (of whom at least 28% are women), and that number is expected to double by the end of the registration period in October. This is in addition to more than 12 million who are known to be holding old voter cards, some of which are known to be counterfeit.
A new survey conducted in five provinces and released this week shows that depending on security conditions, popular enthusiasm for taking part in the elections stands at 79 percent, and overwhelmingly Afghans consider elections as the most credible system for choosing the country's leadership. The survey also reveals that only six percent are in favor of a religious figure re-establishing an "emirate," while just eight percent support a consensus system determined by holding a Loya Jirga, or grand assembly.
As the registration process continues, all eyes will be on the front-runners that might emerge over the next three weeks. Then, the focus will shift to the electoral ticket formations, each composed of a trio (the presidential contender and two vice presidential running mates), before the five-months long campaign starts in earnest.
Afghans are not certain whether a credible team that is less beholden to ethnic and patronage configurations, and more to aptitude and integrity, could emerge in the weeks ahead. Credibility is not only reflected in the inclusive nature of a ticket, but also in its ability to connect to the electorate and offer a program containing fixes to the country's numerous challenges.
Given the level of political intrigue surrounding team-building and the partially dubious management of the electoral process, the questions preoccupying many Afghans today are whether a competent and committed team will emerge before the winter campaign season kicks off, and whether it will be able to overcome the intrusive nature of political forces who favor business-as-usual.
While coalition-building is seen as a positive development -- even if not fully inclusive -- three recent events have raised eyebrows and questions about the veracity of the process ahead: 1) the less-than transparent manner in which 15 candidates (five of whom were appointed by Karzai on Monday) were initially selected for seats on the all-important Election Complaints Commission after a civil society nominee was stonewalled; 2) the sudden dismissal of five high-ranking Ministry of Interior officials by a new acting minister, who had himself until recently expressed a desire to run for the country's top job; and 3) President Hamid Karzai's meaningful hint during a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a regional conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan last week when he pointed to Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul as a future candidate, thereby reaffirming his favorite choice.
Emerging contestants and electability
While Rassoul is viewed as the most benign of all potential candidates, other political actors will not only question Karzai's remarks, but will also have to scramble to re-align themselves because of the financial and patronage networks that will be put in place to back the president's choice.
Meanwhile, a list of potential candidates who may enter the fray is emerging, and they represent four types of contenders:
There is no doubt that ethnicity and regionalism are still elementary factors in Afghan politics, besides access to financial and patronage assets, but based on lessons-learned from the past half century of turbulence, there is also an emerging public view, especially among the intelligentsia and youth, that the country needs to be run by individuals and teams who possess the following qualities and skills, in relative terms:
Since perceptions may differ about presidential aspirants, the role of running mates will be crucial in the elections. Every contender today is seeking to recruit the heavyweights from among a handful of individuals who can boost their chances of winning, either as owners of voter banks, or as financiers, or both.
Coalitions of convenience?
Whereas political parties are still in their infancy and political platforms have yet to mature, contestants have resorted to unprecedented levels of discourse -- both private and public -- and traditional coalition building. The most notable group so far is the Electoral Alliance, made up of political strongmen -- predominantly from non-Pashtun regions of the country -- that have played a role in the ups-and-downs Afghanistan has experienced since the 1980s. This amalgam has considerable political heft but might crumble under its own weight if its members do not agree on a single ticket or expand their reach by joining hands with smaller Pashtun-led opposition groups.
These coalitions represent the dissatisfied and sidelined lobbies that have come together as a result of Karzai's brinkmanship over the last decade, while other alliances are emerging, mostly on the Pashtun side, from a hodge-podge of technocrats, former mujahedeen, and even royalists. These groupings are susceptible to pressure from both ends and will need to decide soon whether they will side with the status quo or offer the electorate a new alternative by coming to terms with other groupings such as the Electoral Alliance. However, Karzai may also opt to break all opposition alliances one more time, either through political recruitment or divide-and-rule tactics.
From specter of fraud to hope
Aside from the threat of violence from the Taliban, the most catastrophic scenario for the Afghan political class and the 79 percent of Afghans who are eager to participate in legitimate elections is the specter of fraud similar to what experienced in 2009.
Despite numerous public assurances from Karzai that he is committed to a relatively fair and transparent election, and that he will not allow interference by national and local authorities in the process, there are serious concerns that the ruling clique is not prepared to submit to the people's will and may be tempted to subvert the process.
If that happens, history will blame Karzai for what comes next.
Karzai understands that his legacy and immunity rest on the manner in which the elections are held. Therefore he should aim to be the defender of the country's democratic values, and refuse to allow anyone to dash the hopes of millions of Afghans who, with much hope, bravery and enthusiasm, first voted him into office in 2004.
That is what is expected of a national team leader, as Afghanistan's prized footballers so successfully demonstrated last week.
Omar Samad is a Senior Central Asia Fellow at New America Foundation, the President of Silkroad Consulting, and a former Afghan Ambassador to France and Canada.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
Editor's Note: MANHUNT, the HBO film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, won best documentary at the Primetime Emmys on Sunday night. It was based on Peter Bergen's book of the same name.
At least 27 Afghan miners were killed and 22 were wounded in Samangan province on Saturday when the coal mine they were working in collapsed (AFP, BBC, NYT, Pajhwok, Reuters, VOA). Akram Behzad, the Ruyi Du Ab district police chief, told reporters that all of the trapped miners had been rescued (Reuters). Though an investigation into the cave in at the Abkhorak mine is currently underway, many reports cited the "dangerously primitive" working conditions that exist in most of the country's mines.
Lt. Negar, Helmand province's highest-ranking female police officer, died early Monday morning, succumbing to wounds she sustained on Sunday when unknown gunmen shot her as she walked in front of her house in Lashkar Gah (AP, NYT, Pajhwok, Reuters, RFE/RL, VOA). No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, though a spokesman for the provincial governor blamed "enemies of Afghanistan," a phrase that often refers to the Afghan Taliban (BBC). Negar's murder comes about two months after her predecessor, Lt. Islam Bibi, was shot and killed in almost identical circumstances.
Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission announced on Monday the beginning of the candidate registration process for next year's presidential and provincial elections (AP, Pajhwok, RFE/RL). Noor Mohammad Noor, a commission spokesman, said that 29 likely presidential candidates received information kits about the election and another 1126 kits have been given to provincial candidates, including to 100 women. The registration process will continue until October 6 and a final list of candidates will be revealed on November 7. While there are currently no registered candidates or clear favorites for April's elections, speculation abounds; Zalmai Rassoul, Afghanistan's foreign minister, and Abdullah Abdullah, an opposition leader who ran against current President Hamid Karzai in 2009, are just two of the potential candidates (AP).
In an interview with Pakistan's Geo TV, Mullah Muhammad Hasan Rahmani, a close aide to the Afghan Taliban's Mullah Mohammad Omar, said on Monday that women would not be confined to their homes or deprived of their right to education, signaling a major policy shift for the group (Pajhwok). Rahmani said that the Taliban's shura council was discussing the structure of Afghanistan's future government and, "keeping in mind the wishes of the people," would not overturn the protections women have achieved over the past several years. He added that the Taliban could not talk to Karzai while coalition troops were in the country but would work with the government to determine a way forward once the troops left. Bonus read: "Pakistani 'Father of Taliban' keeps watch over loyal disciples," Maria Golovnina and Sheree Sardar (Reuters).
Maj. Gen. Sanaullah Khan Niazi, the commander of troops in the Swat Valley, and two other soldiers were killed in the Upper Dir district of Khyber Paktunkhwa province on Sunday when the vehicle they were traveling in struck a roadside bomb (BBC, Dawn, NYT, Reuters, RFE/RL). The men were returning from inspecting the army's border posts in the province when the blast occurred. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which came one day after the provincial government announced a phased withdrawal of army troops from Swat (Dawn, Dawn). While Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said that "such cowardly acts" would not harm the morale of the Pakistani armed forces, the attack will likely have some impact on the government's proposed peace talks with the militant group (VOA).
In Karachi on Saturday, unidentified gunmen shot and killed Mumtaz Shah, a local police officer, while he was driving to work in the Malir Cant area (RFE/RL). Shah's killing comes as the Sindh Rangers, a provincial paramilitary organization, work to restore order to the city, which has been plagued by increased violence in recent weeks. While the government-endorsed crackdown was initially "hailed as a life-saving operation," it ran into trouble when police arrested Nadeem Hashmi, a senior leader with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (RFE/RL). Opposition to the operation is now growing within the city's political parties and many residents say the efforts are hopeless.
Just outside of Karachi, at least nine NATO oil tankers were destroyed on Sunday when an explosion in one caused the others to catch fire (AFP, RFE/RL). Ahmad Nawaz Cheema, a senior police official, said that no one was killed or wounded in the incident as the drivers were eating at a nearby hotel. Cheema said it was not immediately clear what caused the blast, though authorities are investigating.
Best Foreign Language Film?
The Pakistani Academy Selection Committee submitted Zinda Bhaag for Oscar consideration in the Foreign Language Film Award category on Monday, the first Pakistani film to be put forward in more than 50 years (AFP). One of three films to be submitted to the committee for consideration, Zinda Bhaag was the "overwhelming" favorite. It hits Pakistani cinemas on September 20 and is described as "a comedy-thriller about three young men trying to escape the drudgery of their everyday lives."
-- Bailey Cahall
Wonk Watch: "The next Congo: Regional Competition for Influence in Afghanistan in the Wake of NATO Withdrawal," Antonio Giustozzi (Afghanistan Regional Forum).
Day of unrest
At least three members of the Afghan security forces were killed and dozens of people were wounded in Herat province on Friday when Taliban militants launched an attack near the U.S. consulate (BBC, NYT, Pajhwok, Reuters, RFE/RL, VOA). Gen. Rahmatullah Safi, the provincial police chief, said the attack began early Friday morning when suicide bombers detonated car bombs outside of the compound and militants opened fire on the security forces guarding the consulate (AP). According to Safi, at least seven of the attackers were killed. Marie Harf, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said all U.S. personnel at the mission were safe and that American forces had secured the site. Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, confirmed that the group was behind the attack.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Kyrgyz counterpart, Almazbek Atambayev, met in Bishkek on Thursday to discuss increasing trade ties between the two countries (Pajhwok). The meeting came a day before the 13th meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional group that granted Afghanistan observer status earlier this year. One of the specific projects they discussed would be a railroad linking China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. Karzai is also expected to meet with his Russian, Chinese, and Iranian counterparts to discuss regional cooperation on terrorism and other security issues (RFE/RL). Bonus read: "SCO Looks to Find Its Way on Afghanistan," Abubakar Siddique (RFE/RL).
Nearly 500 women gathered in Jawzjan province on Thursday to voice their interest in participating in next April's presidential and provincial elections, and share concerns that cultural restrictions are keeping them from taking part in the Independent Election Commission's (IEC's) voter registration campaign (Pajhwok). At the meeting in Shiberghan City, the provincial capital, participants said that though the IEC was doing what it could to ensure greater female participation in the vote, women in rural and remote areas are being prevented from visiting registration centers. The meeting in Jawzjan occurred one day after Mohammad Yousaf Nuristani, the head of the IEC, told Afghan lawmakers that the registration campaign would be extended by a month-and-a-half so they could open more centers and address some of these concerns (Pajhwok).
In an audio message posted online one day after the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called on his followers to strike the United States domestically, using any opportunity they could to "bleed" America financially (AP, Reuters). Zawahiri, who is widely believed to be living in Pakistan, added that the United States is not a "mythical power" and could be defeated "on its own soil" by small attacks or a "big strike." The Associated Press reported that while the message's authenticity could not be independently verified, it was posted on a militant website commonly used by al-Qaeda.
At least nine NATO oil tankers were torched in Balochistan on Friday when unidentified motorcyclists opened fire on the 15-truck convoy (Dawn, ET). According to Yousaf Reiki, a local police official, the attack occurred at a rest stop in the region's Kalat district and at least one driver was killed. There was no immediate claim of responsibility but the Pakistani Taliban has carried out similar attacks in the past to disrupt the flow of supplies to coalition troops in Afghanistan. The attack comes as the Pentagon prepares to ramp up its withdrawal of more than 24,000 vehicles and 20,000 shipping containers of gear in advance of next year's December 2014 departure of coalition combat troops (Reuters).
As members of the Pakistani Taliban continue to discuss how to respond to the government's invitation to begin peace talks, reports emerged on Thursday that Hakimullah Mehsud, the group's leader, is chairing the meetings (AFP). Shahidullah Shahid, a Taliban spokesman, told reporters: "We are discussing the overall situations and the government's offer. We will soon inform the media about our decisions." Unidentified Taliban commanders said they are taking the government's offer seriously and renewed calls to stop all military operations against Taliban fighters, halt U.S. drone strikes in the country, release all Taliban prisoners, and compensate the families of those who have been killed - a possible indication of the group's terms for negotiating.
In the New York Times on Friday, London correspondent Declan Walsh profiles Altaf Hussain, the self-exiled leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and notes that his grip on power is beginning to slip (NYT). Walsh notes that Hussain's "London home and offices have been raided, and that the police have opened new investigations into accusations of money laundering and inciting violence in Pakistan." Hussain is also a person of interest in the murder investigation of Imran Farooq, a former MQM member who was stabbed near his home in London in 2010. However, with the security situation in Karachi as tenuous as it is, Walsh cites Farzana Shaikh, a Pakistani scholar, who said the Pakistani government would likely appeal any British action because "the fear of Karachi going up in flames is so great that no government can take that risk, as long as Altaf Hussain is alive."
After a decade of relative quiet, the disputed Kashmir region is also emerging as a potential powder keg as Indian and Pakistani troops have been shelling each other regularly for the last several weeks (Post). The rising tensions are forcing hundreds of villagers to flee the area, and many are concerned things will only get worse as coalition forces withdraw from Afghanistan. Local residents, police officers, and military personnel note that militant activity in the area has also increased -- graffiti has appeared that reads "Welcome Taliban" -- suggesting that as the conflict in Afghanistan begins to wind down, militant groups are turning their attention to Kashmir.
After nearly a decade of serving up comfort food to coalition GIs in the form of KFC, T.G.I Fridays, Tim Horton's, and more, the boardwalk at Kandahar Airfield is closing down (McClatchy). Beginning next month, the shops and businesses that surround a small soccer field and running track at the largest NATO base in Afghanistan will start shutting their doors. Base officials said that most of the buildings will be torn down, but the walkway and sports facilities will remain a little longer. U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. John Dolan, the base commander said the closings were a natural evolution as the coalition draws down forces across the country but added that "the boardwalk is a part of [Kandahar Airfield's] identity and exists as a cornerstone in the collective memory of the men and who have served here since it was built."
-- Bailey Cahall
Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images
The Rack: "Drone Wars," Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland (TWQ).
Just days after the Pakistani government endorsed holding peace talks with the militant groups operating in the country, the army and the Pakistani Taliban exchanged prisoners on Wednesday in an confidence-building measure, intelligence officials and militant commanders said (AP, ET, RFE/RL). The exchange, which took place in the Shawal area of South Waziristan, included six militants and two soldiers from the paramilitary Frontier Corps. The military's public affairs office denied that the swap had taken place, but intelligence officials confirmed the releases to multiple news outlets.
While the released Pakistani militants were immediately taken to North Waziristan, the Afghan Taliban told reporters on Wednesday that the seven prisoners who were released by Pakistan on Saturday have yet to return home to their families (ET). Janan Mosazai, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry, said on Sunday that none of the freed Taliban fighters had been handed over to the Afghan embassy in Islamabad or to any of the country's consulates, making it unclear where exactly they are.
Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry, a spokesman for Pakistan's Foreign Office, told reporters on Thursday that the government will be raising the issue of U.S. drone strikes on Pakistani territory at the United Nations (Dawn, ET). While he did not elaborate on the details of that case, Chaudhry said there was no secret agreement between Pakistan and the United States regarding the drone strikes, and that the government has no idea where the weapons platforms are being flown from. The statement followed earlier comments by Amb. Zamir Akran, the Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations in Geneva, who said the strikes violated international laws, as well as Pakistan's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The Anti-Terrorism Court in Karachi on Thursday ordered a week-long physical remand for Nadim Hashmi, a former Muttahida Qaumi Movement lawmaker who was arrested on Tuesday in connection with the deaths of two policemen (Dawn, ET). Hashmi's arrest came as the Sindh Rangers, a provincial paramilitary group, began launching targeted security operations to restore law and order in the city, which has recently been wracked by violence. These operations led to the arrests of 34 other people on Wednesday, many of whom belong to banned outfits and political parties, and are involved in extortion and other criminal activities (ET).
Clear and hold
A piece in the New York Times on Thursday details the difficulty Afghan security forces are having clearing and holding Helmand province's Sangin district, widely considered the most critical battlefield in the country (NYT). The report notes that more Afghan forces have died in Sangin than in almost any other district in the country, the local Nolay Base takes direct fire from the Taliban almost every day, and many of the soldiers stationed there refuse to conduct missions because the environment is "too dangerous." According to local residents and Afghan officials, Taliban fighters have cleared out several local villages, displacing nearly 1,000 people and overrunning several security checkpoints in the last week alone - a troubling sign as coalition forces prepare to withdraw at the end of next year.
A week after the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released an audit criticizing the U.S. Agency for International Development for providing millions of dollars in aid to the Afghan Ministry of Public Health, an organization that has been repeatedly cited for fraud and abuse, government officials have begun publicly airing their grievances about the watchdog agency (NYT). Over the last year, John F. Sopko, who runs the SIGAR office, and his team have aggressively documented waste and mismanagement in Afghanistan, including a $34 million military headquarters that will never be used. While Sopko's supporters say the SIGAR audits are on target, his detractors say the reports are sometimes inaccurate, highlight problems they are already correcting, and undermine U.S. efforts to build stronger civilian institutions in Afghanistan.
A day after James Cunningham, the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, was summoned to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office to explain recent comments by Amb. James Dobbins, the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the U.S. embassy in Kabul released a statement saying: "Ambassador Dobbins was not attempting to define the conflict in Afghanistan, nor to suggest that the United States is involved in a civil war" (Pajhwok). The controversial comments came during a recent interview Dobbins gave to the Voice of America, where he said: "There already is, of course, a civil war in Afghanistan." Afghan officials responded angrily to the term, which the embassy said was used in a "standard academic" context and was intended to reflect the fact that "terrorists continue to murder civilians, including women and children."
Afghanistan's soccer team made history on Wednesday when it defeated India 2-0 to win the South Asian Football Federation championship and bring home the country's first soccer trophy (Dawn, Pajhwok, RFE/RL). The result triggered widespread celebrations across the country, with fans cheering, blowing horns, firing guns into the air, and waving Afghan flags throughout the night (AFP, AP, Pajhwok). After being greeted at the Kabul International Airport by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the team headed to Ghazi Stadium, once the site of Taliban executions, where they were met by thousands of ecstatic fans (Pajhwok).
-- Bailey Cahall
TARIQ MAHMOOD/AFP/Getty Images
Sartaj Aziz, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's advisor on foreign affairs, told the Reuters news agency on Tuesday that Pakistan will release Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, an imprisoned senior Taliban commander, within the month (AFP, BBC, Dawn, Guardian, NYT, Post, Reuters, VOA). Aziz's announcement came a day after Pakistani political and military officials released a statement saying they would pursue peace talks with the militant groups operating within the country, and several days after seven Taliban fighters were released from Pakistani custody. Baradar, who was captured in Karachi in 2010, is seen as a potential linchpin in getting the Afghan Taliban back to the negotiating table and Kabul has long pushed for his release (RFE/RL). Afghan officials responded cautiously to the news of Baradar's impending release as specific details, including the date and condition of his release - whether into Pakistani territory or Afghan custody - were not given (Pajhwok).
Pakistan's Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, also told reporters on Tuesday that the government had finalized a framework outlining the process for beginning a dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups in the country (ET). While Khan did not provide further details of the framework, officials familiar with the government's plan told Pakistan's Express Tribune newspaper that it would entail five to six stages. According to them, a dialogue between government officials and militant fighters would only begin after a preparatory committee is formed, mediators are chosen, militant input is given, and a venue for the talks is identified.
The Pakistani Taliban welcomed the government's announcement of peace talks on Monday and is currently holding a meeting of the central shura council to create a formal response to the overture (Dawn). As for Baradar's release, Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said: "We hope that his imprisonment is over" (AJE).
Nadeem Hashmi, a former provincial legislator with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), was arrested in Karachi late Tuesday night, prompting a violent response from the city's residents and a subsequent shutdown of parts of the city (Dawn, ET). While Hashmi was arrested for suspected involvement in the murders of two policemen in Karachi, Altaf Hussain, the MQM party chief, alleged that it was a punishment for the group's demands that the city's administration be turned over to the army. Karachi has been rocked by violent incidents for weeks and the Sindh Rangers, a provincial paramilitary force, is launching a number of security operations to restore law and order to the megacity.
Female officers needed
Oxfam, an international aid agency, released a new report on Tuesday calling on the Afghan government and international community to better "recruit, train, retain, and protect Afghan female police officers" (Oxfam). According to Oxfam, women make up less than 1% of Afghanistan's police force, making it hard for women in the conservative country to seek justice for violent crimes. And the women who do join the force often face sexual harassment and violence from their male counterparts. Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, admitted that there were problems involving women in the police force but said the government was determined to recruit more female officers (AFP). He said the government plans to double the number of female officers from 2,200 to more than 4,000 in time for next April's presidential and provincial elections.
The need for more Afghan officers in general was made clearer on Tuesday when the U.N. released a report stating that cannabis production in Afghanistan actually rose in 2012, despite the eradication efforts of Uruzgan province (Guardian, Pajhwok). Concerned that profits from farming the drug were financing the Taliban, officials in Uruzgan launched a fierce eradication campaign in 2012, reducing the amount of farmland used to grow the cannabis plants by a fifth; but a bumper crop meant that the drug's actual production grew. While cannabis production is still dwarfed by Afghanistan's opium trade, 1,400 tons of commercial cannabis resin were produced in 2012, bringing in nearly $65 million.
The U.S. State Department revealed on Wednesday that informal negotiations between U.S. and Afghan officials regarding the text of the Bilateral Security Agreement have been moved to Kabul (Pajhwok). Afghan President Hamid Karzai suspended formal negotiations over the agreement, which will determine the size and scope of the U.S. force that remains in the country once the NATO combat mission ends next December, after the opening of the Taliban's political office in Doha in June.
James Cunningham, the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, is one of the U.S. officials now leading the talks but his job is being complicated by remarks Amb. James Dobbins, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, made in a recent interview to Voice of America. Dobbins stated that: "There already is, of course, a civil war in Afghanistan." Afghan officials have lashed out against the comments and Cunningham was summoned to the Afghan presidency on Wednesday (AP, Pajhwok). The outcome of that meeting is not yet known.
At least 18 militants were killed in Afghanistan's Helmand province on Tuesday during an operation in the Bustanzo area of Sangin (Pajhwok). According to Mohammad Lal Ahmadi, a provincial official, two Taliban commanders - Mullah NImatullah and Mullah Jan - were arrested and 70 heavy and light weapons were seized during the incident. In the Musa Kala district of the province, four Afghan civilians were killed and eight were injured when their vehicle struck a landmine (BBC, Pajhwok).
The first painted portrait of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by Taliban fighters last October for championing girls' education, went on display Wednesday at London's National Portrait Gallery (AFP, RFE/RL). Painted by Jonathan Yeo, one of the country's leading artists, it shows Yousafzai doing her homework. It will be on display until January 2014, when it will be sold to raise money for the 16-year-old's education campaign. In describing the painting, Yeo said: "Hopefully [it] reflects the slight paradox of representing someone with enormous power and wisdom yet vulnerability and youth at the same time."
-- Bailey Cahall
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
Wonk Watch: "Jihadist Terrorism: A Threat Assessment," Peter Bergen, Bruce Hoffman, Michael Hurley, and Errol Southers (BPC).
Pakistani peace talks
Pakistan's political and military leadership gathered in Islamabad on Monday to discuss the country's national security strategy and endorsed conducting negotiations with the different militant groups operating in Pakistan (Bloomberg, Dawn, ET, Pajhwok, RFE/RL). The closed-door All Party Conference was attended by representatives from all of the major political parties; Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the army chief; and Lt. Gen. Zaheer ul-Islam, the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. Releasing a joint statement after the meeting, the participants announced that they had given Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif permission to "initiate dialogue with all stakeholders" and authorized it to "take all necessary steps, including development of an appropriate mechanism and identification of interlocutors." But while it is clear there is a political consensus for talks, the success of the resolution is unclear as little information was given on how such talks would work in practice and "what issues the government might be willing to negotiate" (ET, NYT).
For its part, the Pakistani Taliban replied positively but cautiously to the conference resolution (ET). Shahidullah Shahid, a Taliban spokesman, said: "We welcome the unanimous resolution passed by the APC and will be positive in our response." The group's Political Commission member and former spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, agreed that the "unanimous stance of all the stakeholders in today's APC Statement is a positive sign," but called on the government to offer a "road-map for the talks."
Three members of an anti-Taliban militia were beheaded and three were abducted by militants on Monday in the Bara section of the Khyber tribal region (AP). According to Iqbal Khan, a local government administrator, dozens of militants took part in the Bara attack, but further details were not available. There have been no claims of responsibility and government authorities are investigating which militant group was involved.
At least seven people died and 17 others were wounded in Afghanistan's Ghazni province on Tuesday when the bus they were traveling in hit a roadside bomb (AP, Pajhwok). According to Sahib Khan, the Maqur district chief, the Kabul-bound bus struck the bomb after taking a detour to avoid one that was being defused by NATO troops. The violence continued in Logar province when a suicide bomber drove his explosives-laden vehicle into a military installation, killing four Afghan National Army troops, and in Helmand province where a motorcycle bomb was detonated near a passing police vehicle, wounding five children in the area (Pajhwok, Pajhwok). Of the three attacks, the Afghan Taliban only claimed responsibility for the one in Logar; the perpetrators of the other two remain unknown.
Afghan police officers arrested two militants on Monday in connection with last week's murder of Sushmita Banerjee, an Indian writer whose memoir about her escape from the Taliban in 1995 was made into a Bollywood movie (NYT, Pajhwok). Banerjee was abducted from her home in Paktika province on Thursday and her body was found in a local madrasa on Friday. Dawlat Khan Zadran, the provincial police chief, told reporters that the two suspects - Mohammad Yaqub and Mohammad Asif - confessed to being a part of the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network and said that they had killed Banerjee for installing Internet connections in her house, though there were other reports that the men had been ordered to kill Banerjee because the movie was "an insult to the Taliban" (RFE/RL).
In a ceremony at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, D.C. on Monday, the United States returned an ancient Roman wine pitcher and five gold artifacts to the country's diplomatic representatives, the fourth such handover of stolen goods since 2005 (Pajhwok). The items were seized at the Newark International Airport in March 2011 by officers with the U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement agency after they discovered the items were "going to be delivered to a New York business suspected of dealing in looted cultural property" (RFE/RL).
Wither on the vine?
As Afghanistan's security forces prepare for the withdrawal of coalition troops at the end of next year, the country's farmers are also preparing for the transition of agricultural programs from U.S. to Afghan hands. The Washington Post's Pamela Constable looks at the efforts of the U.S. Agency for International Development to help small Afghan farmers turn local crops - wheat, grapes, and nuts - into high-value exports (Post). While the grape program has been relatively successful, there are concerns that future participants will not be as willing to take the requisite financial risks for the promise of long-term gain. That said, trellised grapes net farmers nearly three times more than opium poppies, making growing the fruit much more lucrative than the drug trade.
-- Bailey Cahall
TARIQ MAHMOOD/AFP/Getty Images
On Sunday, September 8, 2013, Asif Ali Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) stepped down as the president of Pakistan. Many will write about this historic day as it represents the first time a democratically elected president completed a five-year term, followed by a peaceful transition to another democratically elected government. Most of Pakistan's leaders have been removed from office in coups d'état or have been forced to resign. Zardari is the only one to leave office with a formal lunch hosted by his political rivals.
Although Zardari's tenure in office was characterized by judicial activism and media opposition that often bordered on hatred, it will be remembered for its tolerance of that criticism. Since Pakistan's independence 66 years ago, its politics have been intensely polarized. Opponents of the subsequent governments have been routinely jailed and even killed after being labeled "enemies of the state." Zardari, however, chose to take the criticism, preferring the noise of a fledgling democracy to the enforced silence of superficial stability.
Polarization in Pakistan has not ended but it has diminished, at least among the major electable national leaders and parties. Much of what it took to achieve this historic moment is publicly known, but there are many stressful and difficult moments known to just a few. Perhaps one day the entirety of the struggle to deliver democracy and strengthen Pakistan's parliamentary roots will become public knowledge.
What most people do know is that since the February 2008 parliamentary election, and especially after the resignation of former president and military strongman Pervez Musharraf, there has been a powerful lobby in Pakistan hankering for the "good old days" when the reins of authority were held solely by the country's powerful generals, bureaucrats, and judges, who were assisted by powerful media barons and urban industrialists.
When Zardari took office, many politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, and citizens had very little idea of who he was. The picture painted by the country's intelligence agencies and the permanent establishment thrived in a nation obsessed by rumors and hungry for conspiracy theories.
Pakistan's urban elite have often been more comfortable with military rule and historically, elected leaders have been denigrated as incompetent and corrupt. It was not always easy to muddy and blacken the image of democratic leader Benazir Bhutto, especially on the international stage or with her party members, who stood by her like a rock. But it was very easy to scapegoat Zardari, the businessman-consort of the leading pro-democracy politician. He was accused of many things over the past two and a half decades without any charge ever being proved in any court. Anyone who has spent time in political life knows well that once your public image has been defined for you, it is often impossible to change that image.
As such, Zardari took little interest in restoring his personal image once he became president. He did not care that analysts and journalists tied to Pakistan's establishment described him as an "accidental president" and repeated unproved past allegations against him. Instead, his focus was to redress the imbalance in Pakistan's power structure.
Unelected presidents and military dictators had, in the past, accumulated power in that office at the expense of Pakistan's parliament and its provincial governments, the constituting units of the Pakistani federation. Zardari worked with the various parties in parliament to shape amendments that restored the constitution to its original form. Because of his efforts, Pakistan can now be a functional parliamentary democracy and a proper federation, with real authority in the hands of its provinces.
Hardline opponents constantly claimed that Zardari and the PPP government, led by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, would be gone in three months. This was then consistently repeated by the sages on Pakistani cable television and by print columnists. The entire effort was to destabilize the government itself, but it didn't work. Instead, it undermined the effectiveness of the government and deferred tough economic decisions.
The relentless pressure from many quarters, including the Supreme Court of Pakistan, eventually resulted in Gilani's removal over a contempt of court charge, something unheard of in any democracy. This judicial activism and the discretionary use of the court's Suo Moto powers paralyzed the executive branch of government. PPP cabinet ministers and administrative heads of government departments and agencies spent a lot more time answering frivolous petitions in court than they did in their offices governing the country. But with the May 2013 elections, which resulted in a new government led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, the question of the PPP government's performance is now history.
Zardari's legacy will instead be the strengthening of the democratic process. Out of office, he can now work on rebuilding the PPP so that the party can seek a mandate from the people during the next election to actually govern and deliver -- something it was not allowed to do last time.
While Pakistan's constitution bars the outgoing president from running for elective office for two years, Zardari is not prohibited from generating ideas and direction for his party. Hopefully, he will reform the party by bringing in new blood not associated with allegations of corruption and inefficiency. The PPP remains a mass political party that needs to be rejuvenated to make the case for a liberal, tolerant, pluralist and fair Pakistan. Zardari's son, Bilawal Bhutto, who is co-leader of the party, has already spoken of that need publicly on social media.
If the democratic environment, free of excessive polarization, which Zardari sought to create in the last five years, lasts for the next five, there will be room for Pakistani politicians to debate the country's fundamental issues: terrorism, international isolation and economic reform.
Farahnaz Ispahani is a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., and a former Pakistan Peoples Party member of Pakistan's parliament.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
The Rack: "The Limits of Counterinsurgency Doctrine in Afghanistan: The Other Side of COIN," Karl W. Eikenberry (Foreign Affairs).
At least 16 Afghans were killed in the Watapur district of Kunar province on Saturday by a coalition airstrike targeting militants in the mountainous region, but conflicting reports have emerged about the nature of the strike, as well as the casualties (NYT, RFE/RL, VOA). Abdul Habib Sayed Khaili, the provincial police chief, told reporters that the strike hit a pickup truck carrying six militants and nine civilians, and said that some local residents claimed it was a drone strike (AP). But statements from Shujaul Mulk Jalala, Kunar's provincial governor, and Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, put the civilian death toll at 12 (Pajhwok). A statement released by Afghan President Hamid Karzai but the death toll at 16 and only that women and children were among the victims (Reuters). NATO spokeswomen 1st Lt. AnnMarie Annicelli confirmed that coalition forces had carried out a "precision strike" that killed 10 "enemy combatants," but did not comment on whether the strike came from a drone or other air platform. Annicelli added that they had received no reports of civilian deaths in the strike but were still investigating the matter.
Hundreds of Afghans gathered outside the Iranian Consulate in Herat province on Saturday to protest against visa delays, and at least one person was killed and three were wounded when the police guarding the diplomatic mission opened fire on the crowd (RFE/RL). A police spokesman said the protestors had tried to storm the consulate and then threw stones at the police when they tried to stop them. Abdul Rahim, one of those protesting outside the facility, told reporters from Pajhwok Afghan News that it was their fourth consecutive day of visiting the consulate in an attempt to obtain the travel documents they had reportedly paid 20,000 Afghanis for (Pajhwok).
In Wardak province, at least four agents with Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security were killed and more than 150 civilians were injured when a car bomb exploded outside the intelligence agency's headquarters in Maidan Shahr, and between three and six insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles tried to breach the building (BBC, NYT, RFE/RL). Provincial spokesman Attaullah Khogyani said that the insurgents were killed before they could access the facility. The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the attack (Pajhwok).
Afghanistan and Pakistan released at least 18 Taliban prisoners over the weekend, but received no guarantees that they wouldn't rejoin the ongoing insurgencies in each country (NYT). On Saturday, Afghan officials confirmed that they had exchanged 11 Taliban prisoners -- five fighters and six family members -- for the release of Fariba Ahmadi Kakar, a female parliamentarian who had been kidnapped by militants last month (AJE, AP, BBC, RFE/RL). Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, confirmed that Kakar had been released (Pajhwok). Pakistan's foreign ministry issued a statement on Saturday saying that they had released seven Taliban prisoners to facilitate the peace process, but they did not release Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a former top Taliban commander (AFP, BBC, Pajhwok, Post, Reuters, VOA). Afghan officials have long sought Baradar's release as they see him as crucial to restarting stalled reconciliation efforts.
Pakistani officials told the local Express Tribune on Sunday that Islamabad, Kabul, and Washington have been in talks for months about moving Baradar to either Saudi Arabia or Turkey (ET). Karzai has recently called for the Afghan Taliban's political office in Doha, Qatar - an office many believe Baradar persuaded the group to setup - to be moved to either of these countries.
Asif Ali Zardari stepped down from his position as Pakistan's president on Sunday, becoming the first democratically elected president in the country's history to complete his full five-year term (AP, BBC, Dawn, ET, NYT). As many reports noted, Zardari departed from the office with a guard of honor from Pakistan's armed forces, a "stark contrast to the exits of previous leaders, who were ousted, forced into exile, arrested, or even hanged" (RFE/RL). Mamnoon Hussain, a textile businessman associated with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, will be sworn in as Zardari's successor on Monday (BBC, Dawn, RFE/RL).
In its September/October "Vice" issue, Foreign Policy magazine features a report on Karachi's role in the global trade of methamphetamine and deems it "the most dangerous megacity in the world" (ET, FP). The piece, written by Taimur Khan, a correspondent for Abu Dhabi's National newspaper, comes after weeks of fighting within the city and recent security operations by the Sindh Rangers, a provincial paramilitary organization, to restore law and order. Khan notes that "Gangs tied to political parties have long operated in the poorer parts of the city, running extortion rings and land-grab schemes" and that "Pitched firefights that go on for days between gangs, or between gangs and the police, are not uncommon."
Pakistani clerics gathered across the country on Saturday to celebrate the 39th anniversary of the passing of the Second Amendment, which declared Ahmadis to be non-Muslims, and called for further persecution of the Islamic group (ET). The speakers of the conferences said that Ahmadis were enemies of Pakistan, demanded that they be barred from government or military positions, and even encouraged a social and economic boycott of Ahmadi shops. Ahmadis are considered non-Muslims by the more mainstream Muslim sects for believing that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadiyya faith, was a prophet.
One million mark
Noor Mohammad Noor, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, announced on Saturday that nearly one million people have obtained voter registration cards for next year's presidential and provincial elections (Pajhwok). The total represents a fourth of the eligible voters who will be given the identification cards in advance of April's vote, and includes more than 700,000 male voters and 260,000 female voters. Noor added that, with the exception of seven districts where there are security concerns, the registration campaign was going well.
Update: The Justice Project Pakistan, whose Bagram Prisoner Campaign was featured in our brief on Friday, will be holding a related event at Washington, D.C.'s Fridge Gallery (516 8th Street SE) on Thursday, September 12, from 6:00-9:00 pm. The event will feature photographs from the campaign's collection, a wine reception, and a brief discussion of the JPP's new report, Closing Bagram - The Other Guantanamo: Repatriating Pakistani citizens from U.S. detention in Afghanistan.
-- Bailey Cahall
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
This project was made possible by support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Name: Omara Khan Massoudi
Omara Khan Massoudi is the Director of Afghanistan's National Museum, guarding its treasures in various positions for more than four decades, and is the reason it has been brought back to life. He is an elegant man and old-fashioned in his habits, but his gentle air belies a ferocity with which he has fought to preserve the country's archeological history, keeping the museum doors open even when there was no roof over head, no visitors in the halls, and hardly any artifacts in the display cases.
The museum has a grandeur about it, and its well-tended grounds evoke the garden city Kabul once was. But this is a recent development. The museum sits next to Tapa-e Scud -- Scud Hill -- so named for the missiles that were placed there and then left behind by the Soviets, and which helped turn the area into a strategic one for any army trying to control the city. The mujahedeen also paid special attention to this place, going up and down the main road firing all kinds of artillery, leaving roofs collapsed and walls freckled with rounds of various caliber. In this part of the city, buildings survived decades of war but barely, and the collapsed domes of the once-opulent Darulaman palace -- visible from every front-facing window in the museum -- speak powerfully to the condition of a country whose rich cultural heritage is still visible, but in skeleton form.
The following are the words of Omara Khan Massoudi, as told to Jeffrey E. Stern.
In 1973, when I graduated from Kabul University I find a job as a teacher. For four years I was teaching history and geography. When the period of revolution came in Afghanistan in 1978, it was a little bit difficult how to teach the young people. At my school, they were really intelligent students, they studied too much, but after the period of revolution, unfortunately, slowly slowly their attention to the learning was day-by-day getting weaker. Especially these young people, these young students, when they had relations with political parties, sometimes they didn't come to their classes.
That was difficult for me so I took that decision to change my job. At that time I was 24 years old, 25 years old. I come to the Ministry of Information and Culture, for four months I did my job over there, then there was a position here at the national museum. The museum staff gave me some training, day-by-day my interest was too much, I stayed here, and worked. And continued up to now.
Maybe you know that in 1987 or 1988, when the Soviets left Afghanistan, we Afghan people, we predicted that the Communist party will have to transfer the power to the mujahedeen. Everybody predicted that. Sometimes in the non-developed country, when political changes is coming, sometime there is political gap also. And I think it was the museum people's responsibility to safeguard all the artifacts which were here. In my opinion, the cultural property, the -- how to say, can I use "capital of nation"? -- these artifacts not only belongs to us. We keep these things, but really, they belong to the people all over the world.
So we thought about if the situation is getting a worse, what should we do? How to protect artifacts here?
As you know this museum is located around 10 km far away from the center of the city. So we predicted that if something happens one place -- if there was fighting -- maybe the second or third places will be safe. We shared this idea with our minister at that time, he kindly accepted, he said: "This is good idea," and he shared it with the president. He also accepted. He ordered that "any place the museum people say, I will give order to them, so they can shift the artifacts where they want."
So for safeguarding all these artifacts, we shifted to two places and decided to not give any information to anyone that we shifted these important pieces.
In the end of 1992, the situation in Kabul got worse; day-by-day the civil war started between different groups of mujahedeen. First, the artifacts that remained in this present building were looted too much. I remember, when this museum was looted, nearly 70 percent of our artifacts, they looted from this museum.
Some journalist asked about the Bactrian treasure because not a single piece of gold had come out on the black market: "Many artifacts come to the black market, but there is not a single piece of Bactrian treasure. Where is it?" We had shifted all of it, all the golden coins, golden pieces; we shifted from this museum to a vault. But we didn't give any information. "We don't know where is it," we said; "Is it here, or there?" We keep silent our mouths.
Some newspaper wrote some article about these pieces. I remember one article in Le Monde newspaper in Paris, they write that the Soviet Union forces shipped all the Bactrian treasure to Moscow. It was not true! It was wrong! But we didn't write the answer for that.
During the Taliban, at first they pay attention. Not only to the museum, but the ancient site, and historical monuments also. They protected them, they paid attention, especially they pay attention how to stop the illegal excavation. I remember, I was a member of a delegation that went to an ancient site which was, by illegal excavation, it was being looted. We got the artifacts which were over there, we got them shifted from there to here at the museum.
But unfortunately, in the beginning of 2001, the Taliban changed their mind. They destroyed all these pieces.
When international forces came, the museum was in very bad condition. It had been looted, it had took fire, believe me there was no windows, there was no roof, there was not even doors in front of the storage.
Day by day, we went on with the rebuilding; I contact the U.S. embassy, the director of planning department, and we had a meeting with the cultural attaché of U.S. embassy here in Kabul. He promised to pay around $100,000 for reconstruction of this building. I was too much happy. We started from zero point, but day-by-day, day-by-day, the reconstruction went on.
In September 2004 we had an opening ceremony, our president Karzai came and attended with some cabinet members. Then slowly we are moving, up to now, you can see this museum is open for the public always, there are tourists coming to this museum.
But, we had a lot of serious problems. The remaining pieces, all of them, needed urgent treatment, they needed cleaning. For years, by the leaking of water, they were damaged; some of them were in very bad condition. Believe me, there was nothing. There was no table, there was no desk, there was no chair for my staff to sit on. Our restoration department was too weak. This current building doesn't have some necessary things which is much important for museums all over the world. Like security signals, we don't have. Also we don't have heating system, we don't have humidity control system. We don't have fire barricade system here in this building, the lighting system is not good. The building is also too small, it's not big enough for a national museum.
We have some serious problems, but I believe we can solve them. Not very soon, but day-by-day we'll be able to solve these problems. We want to have a new building. We'll have technical x-ray machine, now it's too difficult to physically check the ladies, the women, the kids. This is not a polite way, but what to do? The situation in Afghanistan is like this.
I'm optimistic that foreign countries will take part to support this. I hope we will have these things in the future. But all these serious problems I mentioned, it will be solved in the new building.
I think usually I am a gentleman that is optimistic. We have to always think positive things. I hope this will be not a dangerous year for us, that we will have a good election, that we will have a good government, and also that foreigner countries will support Afghanistan. If this is the case, I'm optimistic. Our people must tire from this long war. Three decades war, in my opinion, it is too long. And also, it is too boring for our people. Even all the people, the ISAF and NATO people, they know that very well. I hope that they will support Afghanistan in future also. The peace will come. I'm not afraid too much that the civil war will again start. This is our responsibility, the Afghan nation is responsible. We have to be careful, we have to not go back to 1990s. What happened to this country, what happened in Kabul, this old experience, we have to not repeat it.
We have to learn some things from the history.
Edited by Jeffrey E. Stern.
Jeffrey E. Stern -- www.JeffreyEstern.com -- is a writer and development worker whose reporting from Afghanistan, Kashmir, and elsewhere has been published by The Atlantic, The New Republic, Esquire, Time, newsweek.com/The Daily Beast, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Jeffrey E Stern/Author Photo
Sushmita Banerjee, an Indian woman who married an Afghan man and wrote a popular memoir about life under the Taliban, was shot and killed by militants early Thursday morning in an Islamic religious school in Paktika province (BBC, RFE/RL). According to Dawlat Khan Zadran, the provincial police chief, Banerjee was abducted from her home shortly after midnight by masked men who then took her to the Al Jihad madrasa in the village of Sarrai Kala, where she was shot 25 times. While Zadran said the police are not yet sure why she was killed, Banerjee was sentenced to death by the Taliban 18 years ago for refusing to wear a burqa in public. However, Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, denied the group's involvement in Banerjee's death, saying that they didn't kill people without first holding a trial (NYT). Rajeev Shukla, the Indian Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs, condemned Banerjee's killing and said the matter would be addressed with the Afghan government (Pajhwok).
In its latest audit, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) criticizes the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for its multi-million dollar contracts with the Afghan Ministry of Public Health, an organization that has been repeatedly cited for fraud and abuse (Fox). According to the Center for Public Integrity, SIGAR has previously warned USAID that "the aid was at risk of being misused or stolen through corruption," and recommends in the new report, released earlier this week, that no further funding be provided "until program costs are validated as legitimate" (CPI, Post). USAID officials rejected the SIGAR's criticism of the $236 million Partnership Contracts for Health program, and said that the report only cited the risk of misspending, not its actual occurrence.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force released a statement on Friday saying that a coalition soldier had died in an insurgent attack in eastern Afghanistan but did not give further details on the exact location of the incident or the nationality of the victim (Pajhwok). Afghanistan's Pajhwok news service reports, however, that U.S. soldiers are predominantly serving in the country's eastern provinces, and that 96 have died this year.
At least six suspected militants, including a senior commander of the Haqqani network, were killed and three were injured in North Waziristan on Friday when a pair of missiles fired from a U.S. drone struck a compound near the Afghan border (AP, BBC, Dawn, ET, NYT, Reuters, RFE/RL, VOA). According to multiple reports, the strike was directed at a house in the village of Dargah Mandi in the Ghulam Khan section of the tribal region. Pakistani authorities said Mullah Sangeen Zadran, a Haqqani commander, was among those killed, but the identities of the other victims were not released (Dawn, ET). It was the second drone strike to hit Pakistan in less than a week.
Sardar Syed Lal Darwaish, a local leader for the Awami National Party, was shot and killed by unknown gunmen in Karachi on Friday as incidents of violence continued to rock the city (Dawn, ET). The attack came just days after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan said the Sindh Rangers, a provincial paramilitary force, would conduct operations to restore law and order in the city, which has seen a spate of attacks in recent weeks.
Sharif and Khan also reviewed the arrangements on Friday for a multi-party conference to be held next Tuesday, September 9, that will focus on the country's new draft counterterrorism strategy, as well as the security situation in Karachi (Dawn, ET). Both men are trying to ensure that all political parties are represented at the meeting, which will also look at whether the government should seek dialogue with the various militant groups operating in the country or if it should use military force to curb terrorism.
The other Guantanamo
The Justice Project Pakistan, a non-profit human rights law firm based in Lahore, launched its Bagram Prisoner Campaign on Wednesday, a multimedia effort seeking to bring attention to the nearly 40 Pakistani citizens who remain incarcerated at Afghanistan's Bagram prison (JPP). In addition to releasing a new report, Closing Bagram - The Other Guantanamo: Repatriating Pakistani citizens from U.S. detention in Afghanistan, the organization has also worked with photojournalist Asim Rafiqui to create a collection of portraits and first person testimony from released prisoners and their families. The photo exhibit, which is on display at Pakistan's National Art Gallery, is designed to highlight "how many lives are being damaged, and how many futures are at stake" (Dawn).
-- Bailey Cahall
SEBASTIAN D'SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
It is past time to shed the illusion that talks with the Afghan Taliban can result in a grand bargain that somehow resolves the Afghan conflict. The belief that there is, after all, nothing to lose in trying to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table is misguided. Three years of continuing American attempts to get talks going have had consequences that are anything but benign. These efforts have diverted attention from needed domestic reforms; undermined confidence in the critical economic, political, and security transitions underway with the departure of U.S. and other NATO forces; and harmed prospects for a viable Afghan state after 2014.
The damage accruing from mostly wishful thinking about reaching a comprehensive settlement with the insurgents is widely evident. It has planted doubts about American intentions and further strained Washington's testy relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai and his close advisors have interpreted American diplomatic initiatives as deliberately sidelining the Kabul government's participation in negotiations. Fears that the United States and Pakistan are working in tandem to strike a deal with the Taliban that would divide up Afghanistan have also worsened Kabul's already acrimonious relations with Islamabad. The Karzai government's own peace initiatives have also intensified differences with Pakistan, which is accused of blocking Taliban participation in talks. Karzai's recent visit with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, while cordial, is unlikely to end those suspicions.
But the most destructive fallout from the ill-founded prospect of a negotiated peace with the insurgency has been its effect on the Afghan people, only a minor fraction of who support the Taliban's return. The possibility that the Taliban might once again wield power has exacerbated ethnic tensions within Afghanistan. In particular, the country's northerners detect what they believe to be a Pakistani solution that cedes the south and east to the Taliban, who are then thought certain to make a bid for power over the entire country.
Overall, the possibility of a Taliban return to power has spread confusion among Afghans and intensified hedging strategies beyond those already occasioned by the withdrawal of foreign forces. Local and foreign economic investment has dried up, and the flight of human and physical capital has accelerated. Afghans in the provinces and districts, many ambivalent in their loyalties, have greater reason to distance themselves from Kabul. While Afghan leaders keep pursuing a political outcome, the country's security forces are being asked to take greater risks against the insurgency.
The allure of a political settlement in Afghanistan for the United States and others is, perhaps, understandable. With an outright military victory against the Taliban unlikely in the foreseeable future and an insurgency that faces great difficulty in overrunning the country, it is tempting to conclude that both sides are ready for a negotiated peace. A power-sharing agreement would presumably avoid further conflict and the high probability of a protracted civil war. Talks hold out the promise that with the Taliban and its allies joining a political process, a stable, inclusive Afghan government could emerge. Necessary compromises might shift the country in a more conservative religious direction, but an agreement, it would be hoped, could preserve the core of the Afghan constitution and protect the social and economic gains of the last 12 years. Certainly the Afghan people are anxious to see an end to 35 years of almost continuous warfare.
For departing coalition forces, a political solution would avoid testing the ability of the Afghan security forces to fend off the insurgency. By fostering an agreement, the United States and its allies could be absolved of the criticism that they will desert the Afghan people. Despite all they have failed to accomplish, these countries could say that the years of military involvement were justified by having laid the groundwork for a durable peace.
Afghanistan's neighbors also see the attractions of a political outcome as they all fear the uncertainties of a civil war that might follow the withdrawal of foreign troops. None would welcome an outright Taliban military victory that might spill extremist ideas and militants across their borders. Even Pakistan recognizes the possible gains from a political accord, albeit one that promotes its interests. Although it firmly backed Taliban efforts to wrest full power in Afghanistan until 2001, that was before Pakistan had to contend with a radical Islamic insurgency of its own.
Yet all of the various back channels employed by the United States to get the Taliban to start negotiating have only revealed that they have no strong incentive to stop fighting. The more tireless the U.S. efforts to get a peace process going, the seemingly more convinced the insurgents are of American desperation, and the more they believe their current strategies are working. While those in the West may doubt that there is a military solution, the insurgents apparently still believe in one.
Supposedly among an increasingly divided Taliban leadership there are those who favor holding peace talks, but even these alleged pragmatists offer little hope for serious negotiations. Privately they have made it clear that their side will not agree to a ceasefire and disarming, or accede to many of the basic principles of the constitution. The Taliban have shown no interest in negotiating directly with the Karzai government, and it is doubtful that they would accept the presence of any foreign military personnel in the country post 2014. The Taliban representatives who opened a political office in Doha proved to be mainly interested in winning the release of the group's prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and in gaining legitimacy for the insurgency.
It is high time that the United States and its partners stop believing that there exists a shortcut to ending the Afghan conflict and a clear path for a graceful exit. The United States should instead concentrate its remaining resources and influence in the country on working with the Afghan government to improve its governance, development, and security forces. There may indeed be a political outcome in Afghanistan, but only when elements of the insurgency, seeing that the state is here to stay, conclude that time is not on their side and their grievances are best addressed within the system. Such a peace is likely to be realized through the gradual reintegration of insurgents in hundreds of small agreements across the country, not around a negotiating table in Doha or anywhere else.
Marvin G. Weinbaum is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and is a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute. He served as an analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan in the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research from 1999 to 2003.
Assertions and opinions in this editorial are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
The Rack: "Enemy Inside the Wire: The Untold Story of the Battle of Bastion," Matthieu Aikins (GQ).
At least 16 people were injured in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Thursday as two different bomb blasts rocked the restive area (ET). According to Pakistan's Express Tribune, the first blast occurred inside a NATO shipping container near Jamrud's Karkhano market and the second explosion took place in Bannu's Zargara market, near a local girl's school. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for either attack.
After Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Karachi on Wednesday and announced that the Sindh Rangers, a paramilitary force, would help restore law and order to the city, Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan said that the country's security agencies had identified more than 450 criminals and militants who are wanted for various crimes, including extortion, kidnappings for ransom, targeted killings, and terrorism in the city, and that they would be the focus of impending security actions (Dawn, ET, RFE/RL). Khan added that a civil society group would oversee the Rangers' actions and that no action would be taken against innocent civilians (ET). Fourteen people were killed in Karachi on Wednesday, the day the government outlined the basic parameters of the security operation, and three suspected militants were killed in clashes with police personnel on Thursday, underscoring the city's fragile security situation (Dawn).
Younis Dagha, the Chief Secretary of Gilgit-Baltistan province, told reporters on Thursday that the suspected terrorist mastermind behind the attack on foreign trekkers in Nanga Parbat in June has been arrested (Dawn, ET). According to Dagha, Qaribullah, the former chief of the Pakistani Taliban's Chilas unit, was behind the attack that left 10 international hikers and their Pakistani guide dead at their Himalayan base camp.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a $6.7 billion loan for Pakistan on Wednesday, providing it with money needed to pay off previous loans (AFP, Reuters, RFE/RL). To secure the Extended Fund Facility loan, which is aimed at helping countries with "serious balance-of-payments problems," Pakistan committed itself to a number of economic reforms to bring down its deficit, reduce the frequent electricity shortages that plague the country, and improve its tax collection. The IMF's approval allowed for the release of a first installment of $540 million; the remaining amount of the loan will be paid out evenly over three years.
During a news conference with reporters on Wednesday, Lt. Gen. Mark A. Milley, a top U.S. general in Afghanistan, said that while "the U.S. and the international security forces from NATO have got a lot to be proud of...this war is not over...It is still being fought, day-in and day-out. And it is not yet won" (Pajhwok, RFE/RL). Milley acknowledged that the Taliban will likely be around for some time, but he doesn't think they have the capabilities or political support to regain control of the country. Milley's comments that "the conditions are set for winning this war" echoed those of Lt. Gen. John Lorimer, the top British commander in Afghanistan, who told the BBC that the Afghan security forces were proving to be an "effective force," despite an increasing number of casualties (BBC).
As the Afghan security forces have taken the lead in security operations in the country, a leading cause of the increased casualty numbers, Britain's Guardian newspaper reported on Tuesday that the forces are also being depleted as thousands of soldiers go AWOL or choose not to renew their contracts (Guardian). The report cites a recent U.S. government study that found the Afghan National Army had lost an average of more than 3% of its forces each month from October 2012 to March 2013. While most defections come from lower-ranking soldiers, who often have little loyalty to the forces, there have been some high-profile changes as well. Gen. Sayed Mohammad Roshandel, the head of the Afghan police's special forces units, reportedly traveled to Denmark earlier this summer to apply for asylum. And Latifa Nabizada, an army helicopter pilot who has been "hailed as Afghanistan's Amelia Earhart," took a desk job this summer after intense Taliban threats to her family. These defections, which total around a third of the Afghan security forces' strength a year, could undermine attempts to develop a trained and experienced cadre of soldiers as NATO forces prepare to withdraw at the end of next year.
Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS) released a statement on Thursday saying that its agents had shot and killed two heavily-armed gunmen who opened fire on worshippers at a Shi'ite mosque in Kabul (AP, BBC, Pajhwok, RFE/RL). At least three worshippers were injured but no deaths have been reported. While the gunmen were wearing Afghan police uniforms, the NDS said the gunmen were actually from Pakistan. Islamabad has not yet commented on this latest accusation that its government and intelligence service are helping militants carry out attacks in Afghanistan.
Day in the park
A few weeks after a Japanese-funded peace park and women's community center was opened in Afghanistan's Bamyan province, reports emerged that a similar U.S.-supported project is underway in Sheberghan, the relatively peaceful capital of Jowzjan province (RFE/RL). The park, which will be divided into a youth-only section and a women's-only section, will feature a swimming pool, a flower and vegetable garden, and a children's playground. While local men say they may let their wives visit the park every now and then, many women are excited to have a new place to gather. The project, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is set to open at the end of the year.
-- Bailey Cahall
MOHAMMAD KARIM/AFP/Getty Images
Several hours after the Washington Post reported that the 178-page summary of the U.S. intelligence community's "black budget," provided by NSA leaker Edward Snowden, showed increased surveillance of Pakistan's nuclear arms, the paper released a story late on Tuesday based an another leaked document that showed al-Qaeda's leadership created cells of engineers in 2010 that were tasked with finding ways to shoot down, jam, or remotely hijack the U.S. drones flying over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, killing their members and hindering their movements (AFP, Pajhwok). While there is no evidence to suggest that al-Qaeda has been able to interfere with the unmanned aerial vehicles, the report says U.S. intelligence officials have closely tracked the group's attempts to exploit the technological vulnerabilities of the weapons systems. The top-secret assessment, titled "Threats to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles," is detailed in the extensive Post report, though the paper admits that it is "withholding some detailed portions of the classified material that could shed light on specific weaknesses of certain aircraft" (Post).
Following the previous Post report about U.S. concerns over the security of Pakistan's nuclear facilities, the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad released a statement on Tuesday confirming Pakistan's commitment to "objectives of disarmament and non-proliferation" and describing its nuclear policy as "characterized by restraint and responsibility" (MOFA, Post). The ministry added that Pakistan has extensive physical protection measures, robust command and control institutions, and comprehensive export controls regulations that monitor its nuclear facilities and materials. While the statement did not specifically comment on the pattern of mistrust between Pakistan and the United States mentioned in the Post report, several Pakistani experts said the problem of mutual mistrust is well known and documented. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani physicist and critic of nuclear arms, said: "Of course the U.S. has put Pakistan under a microscope. Everyone knows that."
After weeks of increased violence in Karachi and calls by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement to turn the city's administration over to the Pakistani Army, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited the city on Wednesday and presided over a special cabinet meeting to discuss the situation (Dawn, ET). While Sharif admitted that the city's inhabitants had lost faith in the police force, and that state institutions had failed to restore peace in the city, he said handing control to the army was unlikely. He is instead in favor of handing control of the city's security operations over to the Sindh Rangers, a provincial paramilitary organization, until peace can be restored (ET). Pakistani newspapers also reported on Wednesday that Capt. Muhammad Nadeem, a senior navy officer and professor at the National University of Sciences and Technology, was shot and killed by unknown gunmen in Karachi, underscoring the city's fragile security situation; Nadeem's wife, who was wounded in the attack, is in stable condition at a nearby naval hospital (Dawn, ET).
Eight Afghan police officers, including the son of Gen. Mohammad Leqaa Andarabi, a former jihadi commander and a former provincial police chief, were arrested on Wednesday in connection to the accidental deaths of six children in the Doshi district of Baghlan province on Friday (BBC, RFE/RL). According to Afghanistan's Ministry of Interior, the officers are suspected of firing rockets into a pond to catch fish and hitting a crowd of children who were playing nearby (NYT). The case has been referred to a military prosecutor and it will be at least a week before the investigation into the incident is concluded.
While there are currently no confirmed candidates for next year's presidential election, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a key opposition leader, warned Afghan President Hamid Karzai against trying to influence the electoral process on Tuesday (Pajhwok). Recognizing potential concerns Karzai may have regarding his status once he is no longer in power - Afghanistan has not be particularly kind to its past leaders - Abdullah said: "We don't want the president to be worried about his future. Instead we wish him to live a life of dignity among the people after the end of his tenure." He says that can only be achieved if Karzai stays neutral in the contest to pick his successor. For his part, Karzai has said he will not interfere (Post). Peter Kaestner, a senior inspector in the U.S. State Department's Office of Inspector General, also released a statement on Tuesday saying that the United States is not backing any particular presidential candidate but will assist the Afghan government in ensuring the transparency of the April elections (Pajhwok).
A year after attempts to privatize Afghanistan's New Kabul Bank failed to draw acceptable bids, the country's Ministry of Finance released a statement on Tuesday saying that it was going to try again (AP, Pajhwok). The bank, whose near collapse in 2010 and subsequent bailout rocked the Afghan economy, was seized by regulators after an independent report revealed the bank was being run like a Ponzi scheme. Calls for registration will close at the end of September.
Birmingham's new library
A new nearly $300 million dollar library in Birmingham, England was officially opened on Tuesday by Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Pakistani Taliban for advocating girls' education last October (BBC). Yousafzai, who was treated at Birmingham's Queen Elizabeth Hospital and now lives in the city, said Birmingham was "the beating heart of England" and that the library "will continue to enlighten future generations." As part of the opening ceremony, Yousafzai added her copy of Paolo Coehlo's The Alchemist to the building's shelves, completing the library's collection of one million books.
-- Bailey Cahall
John Moore/Getty Images
Taliban militants attacked a U.S. military base in Nangarhar province on Monday, setting off bombs, torching NATO supply trucks, and shutting down a key road used by the coalition to move its equipment into, out of, and around the country (AFP, AP, BBC, Pajhwok, Reuters, RFE/RL, VOA). The Torkham base is home to NATO troops from several different countries, including the United States, and is an important stopping point for coalition vehicles. While three of the attackers were killed during the firefight, no Afghan or coalition soldiers died in the raid; and the attackers never entered the base. Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, confirmed that the group was behind the attack.
At least six people were killed and 24 were injured in Kandahar province on Saturday morning when a suicide bomber attacked a local branch of the Kabul Bank in Kandahar city (AJE, BBC, Post). While Afghan police and civilians were among those killed, it is unclear if there was a specific target and no one has claimed responsibility for the attack. In a separate incident, 12 people were killed in the Sangin district of Helmand province on Friday night when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb and was hit by several rounds of gunfire (AP). Omer Zwak, the governor's spokesman, said that while this type of ambush attack usually targets security forces, all of the victims were civilians. On Saturday, NATO also reported that a coalition service member had been killed by militants in eastern Afghanistan, but no further details were given.
As the weekly death toll from militant attacks in Afghanistan topped 100 victims, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the U.S. commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force, told Britain's Guardian newspaper on Tuesday that the country's security forces are losing too many men in battle (Guardian, Pajhwok, RFE/RL). He also suggested that Afghanistan's soldiers and police officers may need up to five more years of Western training and support before they can truly manage combat operations on their own.
Umer Daudzai, Afghanistan's new Interior Minister, disputed these concerns by telling reporters some time last week that the increased violence is unlikely to disrupt next April's presidential election or pose a major security challenge to Afghan security forces past 2014 (VOA). Daudzai, the former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, was appointed to the ministerial position by Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday, one day after Karzai appointed Rahmatullah Nabil as the acting head of the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's intelligence agency (AFP, NYT, Pajhwok, Reuters, RFE/RL). Daudzai replaces Ghulam Mujtaba Patang, who the Afghan parliament voted to dismiss in July due to his failure to tackle the country's worsening security environment.
Despite Daudzai's confidence in the Afghan security forces, more than a thousand representatives from all 34 Afghan provinces met in Kabul on Tuesday and called for delaying next year's presidential and provincial elections until 2018 (Pajhwok). Participants in the meeting said the ongoing violence would make it difficult for candidates to campaign across the country and for Afghan citizens to exercise their right to vote. The meeting was held two days after former interior minister Patang said 3,410 of the 6,845 polling stations across the country were under security threats.
Days after the Washington Post released a 178-page summary of the U.S. intelligence community's "black budget," the paper reported that it shows increased surveillance of "Pakistan's nuclear arms, cites previously undisclosed concerns about biological and chemical sites there, and details efforts to assess the loyalties of counter-terrorism sources recruited by the CIA" (ET, Post, RFE/RL). The disclosure, based on documents provided by Edward Snowden, showed that U.S. fears about Pakistan's nuclear program "are so pervasive that a budget section on containing the spread of illicit weapons divides the world into two categories: Pakistan and everybody else." While Pakistan's leaders have yet to comment on this latest report, it will likely strain the already turbulent relationship it has with the United States.
The legal woes of Pervez Musharraf continued on Monday when police filed a new murder charge against the former president (BBC, Dawn, ET, RFE/RL). Officials said the case relates to the death of Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a radical cleric, who was killed during a siege on an Islamabad mosque in 2007. Musharraf is currently under house arrest and also faces murder charges over the deaths of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto and Nawab Akbar Bugti, a Baloch tribal leader.
Nine Pakistani soldiers were killed and at least 10 were wounded in North Waziristan on Sunday when militants near the town of Miram Shah detonated a roadside bomb next to a military convoy that was traveling through the region (AP, Dawn, RFE/RL). While several sources said no one had claimed responsibility for the attack, Pakistan's Express Tribune cited a local newspaper that said the Ansarul Mujahideen militant group was behind the bombing (ET).
Near Miram Shah a day earlier, at least four people were killed in a U.S. drone strike that targeted a building and vehicle used by suspected militants (ET, Pajhwok). According to a local security official, the missile hit a compound in the Mir Ali district of North Waziristan's main town that had once been an Islamic school run by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the principal pro-Taliban warlord in the tribal region (Dawn, NYT). Pakistan's Foreign Ministry condemned the strike on Saturday, saying that it was a violation of the country's "sovereignty and territorial integrity" (ET).
When U.S. soldiers from the 327th Infantry's First Battalion returned to the Pech Valley this weekend, their first visit since 2011, they found an Afghan force that was not just holding ground, but having an effect on an area nicknamed "the Valley of Death" (NYT). The main road leading into the valley is relatively drivable and local residents say they feel safer now than they have in years. While de facto agreements between the security forces and the militants about what is and is not off-limits may be part of their success, an increased number of outposts and checkpoints are also helping the troops maintain control of the valley. Photo essay: "After U.S. Exit, Afghan Army Tames a Valley," New York Times (NYT).
-- Bailey Cahall
Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images
Editor's note: The AfPak Channel will be celebrating Labor Day on Monday and will resume its regular briefs on Tuesday, September 3rd. In the meantime, you can check out our updated "Ultimate AfPak Reading List" here.
A dozen of Afghanistan's most powerful men gathered with 2,000 supporters on Thursday to announce that they had formed a "grand coalition" to contest the country's 2014 presidential election with a to-be-announced single candidate (Pajhwok, Post). Several prominent Afghan leaders, including current President Hamid Karzai's brother, were missing from the stage however, and according to Pam Constable with the Washington Post, "The applause was tepid, and the rush to lunch was swift." The reaction to the announcement, which took weeks of private negotiations among Afghanistan's many political players, shows that the race for next April's elections remains wide-open. The deadline for declaring candidates in October 6, and campaigning will formally begin in December.
At least 20 people were killed and around 30 were wounded in Kunduz province on Friday morning when a suicide bomber attacked a group of mourners at a mosque in the Dashi Archi district (AP, BBC, NYT, Pajhwok, Reuters, VOA). The attacker pretended to be among the people receiving guests as residents paid their respects to the family of a local tribal elder who had died the day before. Sayed Sadruddin, the Kunduz district chief and apparent target, was among those killed. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, though suspicion has fallen on the Afghan Taliban after several days of multiple attacks across Afghanistan.
Reports emerged on Friday that a Taliban ambush of an Afghan police convoy along the Herat-Kandahar highway in Farah province a day earlier grew so intense that the police called in international air support (NYT). According to Najeeb Afghan, the governor's spokesman, the police were escorting government officials when the attack occurred and they called for backup when they ran out of ammunition during to the ensuing firefight. NATO's International Security Assistance confirmed that they responded to the call with airstrikes and evacuated the wounded.
Around 32 militants were killed in Helmand province on Friday in additional NATO airstrikes, according to Afghan officials (Pajhwok). Omar Zwak, the governor's spokesman, confirmed the airstrikes -- which may have occurred near a NATO-led military base -- but provided no further details. NATO has not yet commented on the incident.
Sahibzada Muhammad Anis, a Pakistani judge, overturned the conviction of Dr. Shakil Afridi on Friday, ruling that the tribal judge who had convicted Dr. Afridi had exceeded his authority when he sentenced him to 33 years in prison in May 2012 (BBC, NYT, Reuters). Samiullah Afridi, the doctor's lawyer, told reporters that his client would be retried in Khyber, Dr. Afridi's home district; he was previously tried and is currently being held in Peshawar. While Dr. Afridi was convicted on charges of aiding a banned Islamist group, many see the case as a proxy for Pakistani accusations that he helped the CIA search for Osama bin Laden by running a fake hepatitis vaccination program.
The polio virus was detected in 16 children in North Waziristan on Wednesday, prompting Pakistani health officials -- who are waiting for samples from 42 other children -- to warn of the potential for a serious outbreak (ET). Militants in the tribal region banned the presence of vaccination programs in June 2012, shortly after Dr. Afridi's conviction, alleging that the campaigns were covers for Western espionage. Pakistan is one of three countries in the world where the highly infectious and crippling disease remains endemic; Afghanistan is another. Bonus read: "Pakistan's health workers under attack," David Sterman (AfPak).
Five suspected militants were killed by Indian police forces and paramilitary troops in northern Kashmir on Friday when they were intercepted in the Najwan forests (AFP, BBC). According to Shahid Meraj, the police superintendent, the troops came across the militants around 20 miles north of Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir. Meraj also alleged that the men had traveled from the Pakistan-administered section of Kashmir a year earlier and were members of the Hizbul Mujahideen militant group. Pakistani officials have not yet responded to those accusations.
One child was killed and another was injured in Quetta on Friday when a toy-like bomb they were playing with exploded (Dawn, ET). According to initial reports, the children found the device near a shop in the Akhtarabad section of the Balochistan capital. There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the incident, but Baloch separatists have been carrying out bombings in the area since 2004 in their push for autonomy.
In an effort to help clear Pakistan's clogged courtrooms, Pakistani officials have created a mobile court that will mediate small civil cases, minor criminal cases, and juvenile cases across the country (Reuters). There are about 1.4 million cases pending in Pakistan and frustration over decades-long cases as led some litigants to turn to tribal jirgas instead. While these councils offer instant decisions, sentences can include being buried alive, gang-raped, or stoned to death. Court officials are hoping their mobile justice system, which launched on Tuesday, can offer an alternative. The mobile court heard 29 cases in Peshawar during its first day in action and the government hopes to launch 11 more buses by the end of the year.
-- Bailey Cahall
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
At least seven people died and nearly 60 were injured in Ghazni province on Wednesday when Afghan Taliban fighters attacked the base of a local Provincial Reconstruction Team (AJA, NYT, Pajhwok, RFE/RL). According to Col. Assadullah Khan Ensafi, the deputy police chief in Ghazni, the attack began around 4:00 p.m. when a truck bomb exploded at the southern entrance to the base. Between seven and ten Taliban gunmen then stormed the base's perimeter but were shot and killed before they could move further into the facility. Sgt. Peter Dean, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), confirmed the attack but did not have any information on foreign casualties. The base is staffed primarily by Polish soldiers, and Maj. Marek Pietrzak, a military spokesman in Warsaw, said 10 were wounded in the attack (AP). A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed responsibility for the attack in a letter sent to journalists.
Mujahid also claimed responsibility for an attack in Farah province on Wednesday that killed 15 Afghan National Police officers, including the commander of the 40-person unit, and wounded 10 others (Pajhwok, RFE/RL). According to Abdur Rahman Zhwandai, the governor's spokesman, the incident took place as the officers inspected security posts along the Herat-Kandahar highway (AP).
In Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, at least four Afghan civilians were killed and 15 others were injured on Wednesday when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives-laden vehicle next to a convoy of foreign troops (AP, NYT, RFE/RL). An Afghan police official said there were casualties among the coalition soldiers but an ISAF spokesman denied that report, saying that none of the targeted soldiers were killed or wounded (AJA). No one has claimed responsibility for the attack but Afghan officials are blaming the Taliban.
Reacting to a statement from Altaf Hussain, the leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), demanding that the Pakistani army take over the city administration in Karachi, the government has created a blueprint for a "targeted operation" intended to restore law and order in the city (ET). Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif held a special cabinet meeting on Wednesday to discuss the worsening security situation and weigh potential options for dealing with the increase in violence. During a press conference after the meeting, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the Interior Minister, said: "There is no need for a full-scale military operation...as scores of target killers, extortionists, and criminals have already been identified." He added that there were two operational plans under consideration: one would have the paramilitary Sindh Rangers lead the operation, the other would form a committee with representatives from the business community, media, and political parties who would then oversee the operation. The plan will be decided on at another special cabinet meeting to be held early next week.
While they wait for the government to decide between the ministry's two plans, law enforcement authorities in Karachi began conducting search-and-arrest operations on Thursday, taking several suspects into custody and seizing a number of weapons (Dawn). Members of political parties, including the MQM, were also detained in the operations, causing MQM members to walk out of the National Assembly on Thursday in protest (ET). Khan said the situation would be addressed but also asked that the Pakistan Peoples Party, which is currently leading Karachi's city administration, be given more time to deal with the security situation.
Pakistan's Senate committee on information and broadcasting approved a draft version of a "Freedom of Information Law" on Wednesday, after eight months of deliberations, and will submit it to the Senate Secretariat on Thursday (Dawn). Kamil Ali Agha, the committee's chairman, told reporters that the bill would give members of the media and the general population access to all types of information - classified and unclassified. Agha added that the bill covers all government departments, and any decisions those departments make will be placed on a website for public disclosure.
Pakistani officials, led by Foreign Secretary Jalil Jilani, concluded a two-day visit to Russia on Thursday, wrapping up a "strategic dialogue" that focused on economic, political, and security cooperation, as well as regional and international security concerns (RFE/RL). While the exact outcomes of the discussions are unknown, Islamabad has backed Moscow's bid to gain observer status in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and in turn, Russia helped Pakistan become an observer in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Buildings in Lahore, Sheikhupura, Gujranwala, and other nearby areas were evacuated on Thursday as an earthquake rocked the region (ET). The exact intensity of the quake and the scope of any resulting damage are not yet known.
Golfing in Swat
Imtiaz Hussain, the Deputy Commissioner in Swat, announced on Thursday that Pakistan's Kabal Golf Course is reopening for the first time since 1992, when increased militancy and other issues in the area shuttered the facility (Dawn). Kabal, the largest golf course in the country, is celebrating its re-opening by holding a three-day open tournament that includes 200 golfers, 81 of which are senior professional and professional players. Hussain said the tournament is designed to promote tourism in the alpine valley, and that they are hoping to "give a message to the people that Swat is peaceful now and they can come here without any fear."
-- Bailey Cahall
RAHMATULLAH ALIZADA/AFP/Getty Images
After extending his trip to Pakistan for another day to discuss ways to break the deadlock between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban over reconciliation peace talks, President Hamid Karzai returned from Islamabad with few concrete assurances of help (Post). While Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said he would help persuade the Taliban to move its political office from Qatar to either Saudi Arabia or Turkey, no specific statements were made concerning Taliban prisoner releases or insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan, two key items on Karzai's agenda (ET, Pajhwok). The two countries did sign two agreements, however, boosting bilateral cooperation on a number of issues, including communications and trade, and Sharif accepted Karzai's invitation to visit Kabul, showing a distinct thaw in the relationship between the two South Asian neighbors (Pajhwok).
Shortly after the bodies of five Afghan National Solidarity Program (NSP) aid workers and a local official who had been accompanying them were found in Herat province on Tuesday, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) - the NSP's parent organization - suspended its operations in the area to mourn the loss of its colleagues (Pajhwok, RFE/RL). The men had been kidnapped in the Gulran district of Herat on Sunday, though no one has claimed responsibility for either the kidnappings or the killings. The U.S.-based IRC has worked in Afghanistan since 1988 and has delivered humanitarian aid and development assistance to hundreds of thousands of Afghans; the NSP is considered a flagship Afghan government initiative to expand these efforts to rural communities across the country.
At least four Afghan civilians were killed and 15 were wounded in Helmand province on Wednesday when a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb near a coalition convoy that was traveling through Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital (AP, Pajhwok, Reuters). Omar Zwak, a provincial spokesman, said there were no immediate reports of foreign casualties, but witness statements suggest at least one coalition soldier was killed; a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, however, was unable to confirm those reports. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.
In the Bala Baluk district of Farah province, six drivers were killed and 35 coalition fuel tankers were left burning on Tuesday night when the 40-truck convoy came under mortar fire (Pajhwok). According to Abdur Rahman Zhwandai, a provincial spokesman, told reporters that one of the vehicles caught fire in the assault and that spread the fire to the other vehicles. There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the attack that wounded an additional 10 drivers and cleaners, as well as 15 local police officers.
Law and order
Seven people were killed and three others were injured in Karachi on Wednesday as the security situation in the city continued to deteriorate (Dawn). The deaths, occurring in a number of incidents across Karachi, came one day after the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) demanded that the Pakistani army come in to restore a sense of law and order. The MQM's call for help captured the attention of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has decided to hold a special cabinet meeting early next week to discuss the situation and the MQM's demand (ET). Pakistan's Supreme Court has also gotten involved, holding a hearing with Maj. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, the Director General of the Sindh Rangers, on Wednesday to discuss the lack of security in the city (Dawn). While the court held the police and Akhtar's rangers responsible, Akhtar said it was the militant wings of the city's political parties that were creating the problems (ET).
The Supreme Court of Pakistan dropped contempt charges against cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan on Wednesday, accepting his explanation that he never intended to insult the court's senior judges when he released a press statement suggesting that the judiciary had been involved in vote rigging during the nation's general election in May (Dawn, ET). Khan, the head of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf - Pakistan's third largest political party, called the court's and election commission's inaction regarding the rigging allegations "shameful," prompting the contempt charge (ET). Khan didn't deny using the term in his statement but said it was meant as a synonym for "unbecoming" conduct, not in its literal sense.
Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban last year after advocating for girls' education, will receive the International Children's Peace Prize on September 6 (BBC, RFE/RL). The $134,000 cash prize is presented by the Dutch children's rights organization KidsRights "annually to a child, whose courageous or otherwise remarkable acts have made a difference in countering problems, which affect children around the world" (ICPP). While Yousafzai has been nominated for the award before, the KidsRight executive committee unanimously decided that she would be the sole nominee this year.
Angelo Anderson, a U.S. Navy corpsman who was wounded in Afghanistan in July 2010, made his debut as a ballperson at the U.S. Open this week, sprinting across the court on a titanium rod that connects his knee and hip, and throwing balls to players with an arm reinforced by a titanium plate (AP). Anderson was shot twice during a routine patrol and spent three years undergoing intense physical therapy to restore movement to his knee and arm, which were severely damaged in the attack. An active participant in the Warrior Games, competitions for injured service members, Anderson is hoping to work as a physical therapist, helping other injured service members compete in Paralympic sports.
-- Bailey Cahall
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
As the United States draws down in Afghanistan, seeks to rebalance towards Asia, and remains enmeshed in the Middle East, deliberations continue in Washington on a post-2014 Pakistan policy. But such discussions tend to view Pakistan through a South and Central Asian lens, from the Indo-Pak nuclear dynamic grounded in Kashmir (once again heating up) to the more nebulous New Silk Road initiative. Few analysts are creatively assessing how Pakistan might fit into the U.S.'s rebalance to Asia given the key role of its neighbors, India and China, and the potentially stabilizing effect of including Pakistan in a wider Asian economic web. Such an analysis partly turns on a question that has drawn scant attention: exactly how does Islamabad view the rebalance?
Last month, I spoke on the evolution and elements of the rebalance policy during President Obama's first term at the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, a leading think tank in Islamabad. My remarks coincided with the leak of the Abbottabad Commission report, a Pakistani inquiry into U.S. Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in May 2011. Encouraging the audience of former senior diplomats, army officers, academics, and journalists to think beyond the terrorism-related concerns of the day, I inquired about how Pakistan perceives the U.S. rebalance to Asia and, irrespective of the U.S. posture, how does it intend to plug into the economic dynamism of the Asia-Pacific for its own benefit? Five views emerged that reflect the strain on Pakistan, and its relations with the United States, as it seeks to transcend its troubles and assess its position in the wider region.
First, to some, the rebalance is "old wine in a new bottle." The United States has always been engaged in Asia with its military bases both far and wide, so the talk of rebalancing is mere rhetoric. Moreover, Washington is incapable of acting strategically, as shown by its misguided forays into Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade, the latter of which has had dire consequences for Pakistan.
Second, others claim that the rebalance is "pro-India" and "anti-China." As the Obama administration calls India a "key partner" in the rebalance, Pakistan continues to hear from its "all-weather friend" China that the policy is containment, plain and simple. Pakistan wants no part of a policy that bolsters its enemy and hems in its friend.
Third, attendants argued that the rebalance is irrelevant. Pakistan's priority must instead be to get its economic house in order and to overcome its "global pariah" status. To the extent it can lift its gaze beyond its borders, it has enough to contend with India and Afghanistan.
Fourth, further responses suggested that Pakistan's own efforts to look east through its "Vision East Asia" policy have been less successful than hoped. Attempts to enhance engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), for example, have faltered; ASEAN continues to deny Pakistan full dialogue partner status. The reasons potentially range from a desire to ensure ASEAN's coherence to uncertainty about Pakistan's contribution to concerns about an unwanted import: militancy. China thus remains Pakistan's only viable avenue into the broader Asia-Pacific region. The same week I was in Islamabad, Pakistan's prime minister was in Beijing pitching a China-Pak economic corridor that would funnel in greater trade and investment.
Fifth, participants believed that Pakistan has little room to maneuver. The United States and China are great powers, while Pakistan is a small global player. It does not have the ability to act strategically in an analogous manner and meaningfully project itself into the Asia-Pacific region. Instead it is at the mercy of a new great game.
Given Pakistan's geography, travails, and anti-American sentiment, confusion and suspicion about the U.S. rebalance is understandable, just as the dearth of thought on how to tap Asia-Pacific's prosperity or apply relevant lessons is striking. Skepticism in Islamabad overlaps with that in Washington, where patience mutually runs thin given a fractious counter-terrorism partnership. Moreover, Pakistan is seen as a conceptual misfit in a policy anchored in the Asia-Pacific.
Yet the rebalance may be a more elastic concept and extend beyond the Asia-Pacific. In his remarks on "The United States and the Asia-Pacific" last month, Vice President Joe Biden underscored Latin America's role in the rebalance saying: "Our goal is to help tie Asia-Pacific nations together from India to the Americas." Meanwhile, others have argued that the rebalance should extend westward, beyond India, to include South Asia and the Middle East in an effort to match growing Chinese influence there.
Given this potential fluidity, the Obama administration should reassess how Pakistan relates to the rebalance as it searches for a coherent and constructive relationship post-2014. There may not be a fit but nonetheless, gauging and engaging Islamabad is a good place to start.
Ziad Haider is the director of the Truman National Security Project's Asia Expert Group. He served as a White House Fellow in the U.S. Department of Justice and as a national security aide in the U.S. Senate. You can follow him on Twitter at: @Asia_Hand.
Ng Han Guan - Pool via Getty Images
Calling for reinforcements
Altaf Hussain, the party chief of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), issued a statement on Tuesday demanding that the city administration in Karachi be handed over to the military (Dawn). Citing a worsening security situation, Hussain accused the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which controls the provincial government, of failing to protect the people in Karachi's Lyari neighborhood. Karachi, the capital of Sindh province, is home to multiple conflicts that often turn violent, including tensions between gangs and ethnic and political rivals.
PPP leader Syed Khursheed Ahmed Shah opposed the demand, saying that creating a military administration in Karachi could undermine democracy in the area and have larger unintended consequences (ET). MQM deputy Farooq Sattar continued the back-and-forth by saying that the party's demand for military supervision in Karachi was lawful and democratic under Article 149, Clause 4 of the Pakistani constitution, an article the Sindh government has used before to bring Army Rangers into the province (ET). According to an online survey by Pakistan's Express Tribune, 200 people (80%) have said that the army should be called in to help control violence in the city while only 50 people (20%) have opposed the move.
During a press conference on Tuesday, Chaudhry Abdul Majeed, the prime minister in Pakistan-controlled Azad Jammu Kashmir, asked the United Nations to stop the Indian army from firing shells across the Line of Control in Kashmir and demanded that the India recall its troops from the region (ET). Majeed's statements came as ongoing skirmishes between the two nuclear-armed neighbors entered a third week. On Monday, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, a Kashmiri separatist leader, sent letters to Sharif and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urging them to meet in New York next month during the U.N. General Assembly and to end the hostilities along the border (NY Daily News). He added that no one would gain anything if the security situation was allowed to worsen.
Lawyers for former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf presented a list of defense witnesses on Tuesday to the court in Rawalpindi that charged him last week in connection with the 2007 assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto (RFE/RL). The court accused Musharraf of failing to provide adequate security for Bhutto and charged him with murder, criminal conspiracy to murder, and facilitation of murder. He pleaded not guilty to all three charges.
Aid workers killed
Twelve Afghan civilians were killed on Monday by suspected militants in two separate incidents in the country's Herat and Paktia provinces, according to Afghan officials (AP). In Herat, the bodies of six National Solidarity Program workers were found in the Gulran district, two days after they had been kidnapped (Pajhwok). According to Wahid Qatali, a provincial council chief, it was the first attack targeting aid workers in the province. Rohullah Samon, a spokesman in Paktia province, told reporters that the bodies of six unidentified civilians were found by a road in the province on Tuesday but did not provide further details. No group has claimed responsibility for either attack.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the killings from Islamabad, while taking a swipe at his hosts by saying: "The killing of innocent engineers and workers shows that the Taliban and their foreign masters want Afghanistan to be a impoverished and underdeveloped country forever" (Reuters). Despite the hint of continued tension between the two countries, Karzai extended his visit to Pakistan by one day to continue in-depth discussions on the reconciliation talks with the Afghan Taliban (Pajhwok, RFE/RL). Aimal Faizi, a presidential spokesman, said the extended discussions were focused on how the countries could work together to make the talks a success (Pajhwok).
The Washington Post profiled the town on Tarok Kolache in its Sunday edition, revisiting the town nearly three years after it was leveled in a U.S. airstrike (Post). In 2010, the town was a Taliban stronghold and "a virtual factory" for the bombs killing and wounding U.S. soldiers; now the Taliban has fled but the town remains a sandy ruin. According to Niaz Mohammad, the village's de facto patriarch, the Taliban were "only fighting in the first place because the Americans were here." Army Col. David Flynn, the commander who ordered the air strike, said: "I think about Tarok Kolache every day. There were no good options there." While U.S. soldiers withdrew from the town earlier this summer, only a few villagers have returned to the area.
Women in mini-skirts
In a note posted to their Facebook page in July, the New York Times asked Afghans if Western-influenced laws and changes, like the proposed law on eliminating violence against women, were helping the country and the mixed results are in (NYT). While many submissions talked about the freedoms women enjoyed in the 1970s - several specifically referenced photos of their mothers wearing miniskirts - and suggested that these laws were just reintroducing Afghanistan to democratic and progressive values, others argued that the laws have little meaning for the portion of the population that has only known conflict.
-- Bailey Cahall
RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images
First official visit
Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrived in Islamabad on Monday for his first visit with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif since Sharif's election in May, and his first to Pakistan since 2011 (Dawn, Pajhwok, RFE/RL, VOA). The two-day visit is expected to focus on securing Pakistan's help in ending the war in Afghanistan by facilitating direct talks between Kabul and Afghan Taliban insurgents. Part of that facilitation will be releasing Afghan prisoners, including Taliban fighters, currently held in Pakistan, something Afghan officials say Karzai will discuss with Sharif. Speaking ahead of the talks, Karzai said he was "hopeful, but not sure" since previous visits to Pakistan have not succeeded in improving Afghan security (BBC, Pajhwok).
Early reports suggest that the visit between the two leaders is going well as representatives for Afghanistan and Pakistan have already signed two agreements that boost bilateral cooperation in communications, economics, security, and trade (ET, Pajhwok, Reuters). At a joint news conference, Sharif announced that: "I reaffirmed Pakistan's strong and sincere support for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. We fully agreed that this process has to be inclusive, Afghan-owned and Afghan-led." In his remarks, however, Sharif did not address facilitating talks between the Afghan High Peace Council and the Taliban, and closed his statement by discussing the economic agreement the two parties had signed.
During a news conference on Saturday, Karzai told reporters that he is in no rush to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, which will determine the size and scope of a U.S. presence in the country once the NATO combat mission ends in December 2014 (Reuters, RFE/RL). Speaking outside the presidential palace, Karzai said: "Although the Americans asked for October, we are not in a hurry and if the document is agreed upon during this government, good. And if not, the next president can discuss whether to or not to accept it." Karzai was referring to recent statements by U.S. military leaders who said they believed the pact would be signed later this fall.
A six-member military jury sentenced Staff Sgt. Robert Bales to life in prison without parole on Friday for murdering 16 Afghan villagers inside their homes last March (NYT). It took the jurors 90 minutes to deliberate between life in prison with no possibility of parole or life in prison with eligibility for parole in about 20 years; Bales's guilty plea in June removed the death penalty from the table. Bales will be dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Army for his actions. Many of the nine Afghans affected by the attack who had been flown to Seattle to testify at the hearing told reporters that they had wanted Bales to be executed and that the sentence did little to ease their anger and loss. Haji Mohammed Wazir, who lost 11 family members in the rampage, said: "We came all the way to the U.S. to get justice. We didn't get that" (AP, RFE/RL). President Karzai reacted to the sentencing by saying he wanted the United States to ease the victims' suffering by helping them achieve a better economic livelihood and continuing its efforts to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan (VOA).
One woman died and at least seven other villagers were injured in the Nakyal Sector of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir on Sunday when Indian forces fired across the Line of Control, according to Masood-ur-Rehman, the Deputy Commissioner of the Kotli district (AFP, Dawn). The woman was the fifth Pakistani citizen reportedly killed in the ongoing skirmishes between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. According to Pakistan's Express Tribune, the shelling continued Monday morning but no casualties have been reported (ET).
Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for the Pakistan Taliban, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on Saturday that the militant group will not negotiate with the Pakistani government, backtracking on a statement he made just the day before (RFE/RL). Shahid also condemned Asmatullah Muawiya, a commander for the Punjab Taliban, for praising Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for offering to hold peace negotiations with the country's militant groups (AP). Muawiya released his complimentary statement last Thursday, and while Shahid said Muawiya's views were his own, he added that they closely aligned with the group's leadership. It is unclear what precipitated the shift.
At least 11 people were killed in Punjab province on Friday as members of the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) party, a radical Sunni Muslim group, and Majlis-e Wahdat-e Muslimeen (MWM), a Shi'ite political group, clashed in the town of Bhakkar (RFE/RL). According to local police officers, shots were exchanged when the ASWJ accused the MWM of gunning down one of its members. Sarfaraz Falki, a district police chief, imposed a curfew in the area on Saturday and temporarily banned rallies and political meetings as security forces worked to pacify the town (RFE/RL).
Happy birthday to us
Earlier this month, the AfPak Channel celebrated its fourth birthday and is looking forward to bringing its nearly one million readers daily news updates and well-informed analysis on all things related to the AfPak region for a fifth year. Over the course of the last four years, the channel has produced nearly 1,000 Daily Briefs for over 100,000 subscribers and has published more than 1,000 individual articles covering everything from politics and religion to business and development. If you are interested in submitting a piece for consideration, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and don't forget to follow the AfPak Channel on Twitter: @afpakchannel.
-- Bailey Cahall
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
With U.S. and coalition forces withdrawing from Afghanistan, all eyes are on the country's presidential election, scheduled for April of next year. The country's post-Operation Enduring Freedom future is at stake, and the elections will -- potentially -- mark the first peaceful transfer of power between civilian governments in Afghanistan's history. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has the chance to establish his place in history as the arbiter of that transition, the father of the new Afghanistan. But he may have just signaled how far he is willing to go for leverage, and the results could be grim.
Speculation over who, if anyone, Karzai will support in next year's election has been building for months and with formal nominations due in less than a month, the guessing game is reaching a fever pitch. Last Wednesday, for example, Afghanistan's Pajhwok news service reported that during a meeting with political party and jihadi leaders, Karzai had endorsed Abdul Rasul Sayyaf for president, a 67-year-old Pashtun Wahabist commander who is allegedly responsible for, among other things, the 1993 Afshar massacre, an operation Human Rights Watch calls a war crime. One week later, the same media outlet cited Karzai's denial that he is backing any specific presidential candidates, though sources present at the initial meeting say his support for Sayyaf stands.
According to a source inside the presidential palace, Karzai's prospective ticket also includes two vice presidential nominees who enjoy credibility mostly, if not solely, from their time as jihadi commanders fighting against both the Communists and the Afghan Taliban. "Marshal" Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who currently serves as Karzai's first vice president, and Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, an on-again, off-again political candidate, both came to prominence fighting the Soviets in the 1980s. The ticket, in other words, is a caricature of Afghanistan's jihadist past and an homage to the old way of assigning political legitimacy just when it appeared to be expiring.
The good news, however, is that this ticket has virtually no chance of winning.
Tajiks and Hazaras won't vote for Sayyaf because of his war record, and his conservative religious views will likely make him unpopular among women and the more technocratic part of his own Pashtun ethnic community. Even in the most conservative, ethnocentric Pashtun areas, political support for Sayyaf will be weak, because those are the areas where the Taliban and other insurgent groups like Hezb-e Islami are popular. In those militant groups, Sayyaf is regarded as a traitor since he sided with the Taliban's avowed enemy, Ahmad Shah Massoud, up until Massoud's assassination on September 9, 2001. Sayyaf does have religious authority (he has the title mohadith, an expert in the acts and sayings of the Prophet), but he has no political base.
The bad news is that Karzai almost certainly knows this, so there is more to the endorsement than meets the eye.
Consider first that Karzai himself is at a critical juncture. One cannot lead a country like Afghanistan, especially during a decade like the one it's just completed, without making some enemies. Karzai faces legitimate, justifiable concerns about his legacy, his property, even his safety, any one of which might be in jeopardy once he no longer enjoys the protection and immunity afforded by the presidency. Afghanistan, after all, has not historically been kind to its former leaders, so Karzai is playing the cards he has; cards that include an administrative system that spans from the grassroots to the presidential palace -- think of it like a tribal "get out the vote" network -- and the ability to mobilize resources for the candidate he chooses. Karzai's endorsement could be decisive for the right candidate, so his decision to endorse Sayyaf is a stark reminder to anyone paying attention that Karzai is not to be trifled with. He's established the stakes, and now we're waiting for the ransom demand.
Meanwhile, until the demands are made and met, we can expect Sayyaf to exert an influence disproportionate to his actual political prospects. Some of the other names that have been circulated as potential presidential candidates are accomplished technocrats with sophisticated visions for their country's future, but standing on a debate platform next to an Islamic scholar with jihadist credentials, they will likely be compelled to apologize for their records, rather than compare their policies. Take, for example, Mohammad Hanif Atmar and Ashraf Ghani. Atmar has a sterling record running three different ministries, and Ghani is an accomplished academic, presidential advisor, and the man who literally wrote the book on fixing failed states.
But Atmar fought with the Communists while Sayyaf was leading a group of mujahideen against them and Ghani never fought at all. He studied in America, received his PhD, and became a professor, while Sayyaf was taking up arms to defend his country. Sayyaf, by his mere presence in the race, has the power to make serious candidates look like bad Muslims who shirked their duties.
Karzai's move is not a stupid one, and he is not necessarily deserving of scorn for simply doing what he can to protect his interests. But the problem it creates goes beyond Sayyaf's presence in the race for the presidency. Even once Karzai changes tack and endorses a more reasonable ticket -- which he likely will -- it's unlikely Sayyaf will go quietly into the night. He is a seasoned veteran of this game, and he will demand his own guarantee of influence in the next administration.
Karzai, then, is presenting everyone involved in Afghan politics -- especially serious candidates -- with two equally bad options: either standby and let Sayyaf reduce the political debate to a contest of jihadi prowess and Islamic piety, or perpetuate the mafia-style politics of influence-peddling to get him out of the race.
The real cost though -- the one Karzai may not himself be considering -- is what happens after his plan is realized, after he gets whatever guarantees he is seeking, and convinces Sayyaf to withdraw. When Sayyaf drops out of the race, Fahim and Mohaqiq, Sayaff's two vice presidential candidates, will look like they were strung along just so Karzai and Sayyaf could get what they wanted. They'll be compelled to save face, and they'll do what others have done before them in similar situations -- they'll rile up their ethnic bases (Fahim is a Panjshiri Tajik; Mohaqiq is Hazara) and stoke anger against Pashtuns, of which Karzai and Sayyaf, they will claim, are only the most recent examples. The same scenario unfolded during the 2009 elections, when Gul Agha Shirzai, a popular provincial governor and a Pashtun presidential candidate, dropped out of the race and his two non-Pashtun vice presidential nominees, Ahmad Zia Masoud (brother of famed Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Masoud) and Sayyed Hussain Anwari (a famous Shiite warlord) claimed it was a conspiracy.
While endorsing Sayyaf may seem like a harmless tactic for Karzai to extract guarantees for his future, if he doesn't dispense with it soon, it could become destructive. In a country with an already uneasy stability, the Sayyaf ploy could eliminate any chance the election has of being more than just a civil war fought along ethnic lines. And if that happens, the election may not represent the first peaceful transition of power between civilian governments in the country's history, but the spark that ignites a new era of ethnic violence.
Jeffrey E. Stern -- www.JeffreyEstern.com -- is a writer and development worker whose reporting from Afghanistan, Kashmir, and elsewhere has been published by The Atlantic, The New Republic, Esquire, Time, newsweek.com/The Daily Beast, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reporting for this piece was made possible by the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The opinions are the author's own.
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"Truly, truly sorry"
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a U.S. army soldier who has pleaded guilty to killing 16 Afghan villagers last year, addressed the court during his sentencing hearing on Thursday and offered his first apology for the attack (BBC, NYT, Pajhwok, Reuters). Calling his March 2012 rampage an "act of cowardice," Bales said: "I'm truly, truly sorry to the people whose families got taken away. If I could bring their family members back, I would in a heartbeat...Sorry just isn't good enough, but I am sorry." Bales spoke days after nine Afghans affected by the attack testified about Bales' brutality at the hearing in Seattle, and a day after family members tried to soften his image as a killer by sharing memories of an empathetic, caring child and a doting father (NYT). As Bales, who can still not explain why he carried out the attack, has already been sentenced to a life term, the hearing is to determine whether he will ever be eligible for parole, though even then, his release is not guaranteed.
After a three-day visit to New Delhi, Karim Khalili, Afghanistan's second vice president, told reporters on Friday that India is willing to equip and train the country's security forces beyond 2014, when the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan will end (Pajhwok). Meeting with Indian leaders to discuss security and economic cooperation, Khalili returned to Afghanistan days before President Hamid Karzai is set to visit Pakistan and have similar conversations with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Qari Attiqullah, a Taliban chief in the Khwaja Ghar district of Takhar province, was among four militants killed in Kunduz province on Friday during a pre-dawn raid by the Afghan Special Forces (Pajhwok). Syed Sarwar Hussaini, a police spokesman, said five additional suspected militants were detained during the operation, which is ongoing. While the Kunduz operation may be a slight setback for the Afghan Taliban, they have staged a bit of a comeback in Logar province by once again closing the roads that lead to the Azra district (Pajhwok). Previously closed by the militants for six months, the roads were just recently reopened by the Afghan security forces. According to Ghulam Yahya Ahmadzai, a Logar Council deputy, Taliban fighters have accused residents of assisting the security forces in the clearing operation (Pajhwok).
The Committee to Protect Afghan Journalists released its biannual report on Thursday and said it has registered 41 attacks against media representatives in the first six months of 2013 (Pajhwok). Najibullah Sharifi, a committee member, highlighted the attacks at a press conference, saying that most of the attacks involved government officials, the Afghan Taliban, and other illegal armed groups. Sharifi also noted that most Afghan media outlets are reliant on foreign aid and voiced concern about the challenges they would face after 2014, when much of that aid will be cut.
The cross-border clashes between India and Pakistan in Kashmir continued on Thursday, with reports from both sides about casualties along the Line of Control (AP, Dawn, VOA). The Pakistani military accused Indian troops of firing across the disputed border and killing two soldiers, one in the Rakhchakri sector and another in the Tatta Pani sector. There were also claims that Indian firing in the Nakyal sector injured a woman and child on Thursday (ET). Col. R. K. Palta, an Indian army officer, said that the Indian troops were only responding to gunfire from the Pakistani side that wounded a woman and a child as well (AFP). While the two nuclear-armed neighbors have occasionally accused each other of violating the 2003 ceasefire in Kashmir, the recent violence in the area has been more sustained than in previous years.
Despite the tensions in Kashmir, Pakistan released nearly 340 Indian fishermen from jails in Karachi on Friday in a gesture of goodwill (AP, AFP, Dawn). The fishermen boarded buses headed to Lahore and will then been handed over to Indian authorities at the Wagah border crossing on Saturday. According to Shuja Haider Mirza, a Karachi prison official, there are at least 97 Indian fishermen still imprisoned in the city. Syed Akbaruddin, India's foreign ministry spokesman, said far fewer Pakistani prisoners were being held in India and that there were no immediate plans to release them. The two sides frequently arrest and accuse each other's fishermen of violating their respective national waters in the Arabian Sea.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) announced the official results of the country's largest by-election on Friday and the ruling Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz party emerged as the largest victor, winning 18 of the 39 national and provincial assembly seats up for grabs (Dawn, ET). After faring poorly in May's general election, the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Awami National Party recovered slightly in the by-election, while the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party, which had come in second in the general election, came in near the bottom. Though the election results have been decided, the Peshawar High Court and the ECP have issued orders to withhold the election results in Lakki Marwat and Nowshera, two Khyber Pakhtunkwha province districts, after reports that women were not allowed to cast votes (AFP, Dawn, ET). Dost Muhammad Khan, the Chief Justice of the court, also ordered the arrests of any tribal members and individuals involved in keeping women from the polls.
Asmatullah Muawiya, the leader of the Punjabi Taliban, released a statement on Thursday welcoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's recent offer to hold peace talks with militant groups (Dawn). In the statement, Muawiya said: "If the present government takes an interest in solving matters seriously and with prudence, then there is no reason why jihadi forces active in Pakistan shouldn't respond to it positively." Shahidullah Shahid, a Pakistani Taliban spokesman, responded that Muawiya was expressing his own opinion but that it closely aligned with that of the group's leadership. However, Shahid added that the militant group's leaders will meet on Friday to discuss Sharif's offer but that they will never agree to lay down their weapons (NYT).
While much of the debate over the U.S.'s drone program centers on the strikes occurring in Pakistan and Yemen, Mother Jones magazine takes a look at the pilots - though many of them reject that title - who fly the unmanned aircraft from military bases located in the American southwest (MJ). Most of the pilots joined the U.S. Air Force hoping to fly fighter jets but now find themselves "overpaid, underworked, and bored." In describing the sights they often see, one operator said "It might be little things like a group of kids throwing rocks at goats, or at each other, or an old man startled by a barking dog." He added that they get an intimate sense of Afghan daily life: "Like I'll know at 5 a.m. this guy is gonna go outside and take a shit. I've seen a lot of dudes take shits."
-- Bailey Cahall
After months of speculation and recent news articles claiming Afghan President Hamid Karzai was backing former jihadi leader Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf, he told a delegation of the Afghanistan Women's Network on Wednesday that he is not backing any particular candidate in next year's presidential election (Pajhwok). According to a statement released by the presidential palace, Karzai said: "I don't support any particular runner. It is the right of the people to choose their next president through and independent ballot." That ballot may be a little smaller in April though, as Ahmad Zia Massoud, an Afghan politician with the National United Front, announced on Wednesday that a major coalition of political parties will be formed in a few days and will present a consensus nominee for consideration (Pajhwok). Formal nominations for next year's election are set to begin in less than a month.
At least one person died and 15 others were wounded in Farah province on Thursday morning when a bomb targeting Gen. Abdul Samad, the provincial spy chief, exploded near the office of the National Directorate of Security [NDS] (Pajhwok). A witness said the blast occurred when an explosives-laden rickshaw was detonated as Samad's car drove by, though an official said Samad survived the attack. Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, disputed that statement, saying that Samad and several over NDS officials were killed in the attack.
Afghanistan's population rose by 500,000 people over the past year, raising the national total to 27 million, according to a Central Statistics Organization (CSO) report that was released on Tuesday (Pajhwok). In its annual report, the CSO did a further demographic breakdown, showing the population split among males and females is almost equal - 13.8 million and 13.2 million, respectively. It also showed that the number of female students enrolled in school went up by 4.12 percent, increasing the total to 3.4 million.
A Japanese-funded peace park and community center for women opened in Bamyan province on Thursday, continuing efforts by local organizations to revitalize the area (Pajhwok). The project took a year to complete and was overseen by Arzo, a non-governmental organization focused education, healthcare, and creating "better livelhoods" in Bamyan. According to Marzia Arzo, the head of the organization, the 20-acre park is open to everyone and the women's center includes a carpet-weaving hall, a kindergarten, and a bathroom, providing local women with a meeting place and facilities they do not have at home. Bonus read: "Bamyan after the Buddhas," Whitney Grespin (AfPak).
Voting in Pakistan's by-elections began early Thursday morning with more than 500 candidates in the running for 15 National Assembly and 26 provincial seats (Dawn, ET). Given the small number of seats up for consideration, it is unlikely the results will change the make-up of Pakistan's central government, but they could serve as a litmus test for the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party and the new Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party. While the voting appears to be proceeding as planned, there have been reports that female voters in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province are being barred from polling stations, either because a ban imposed on their participation or an agreement between the political parties that they should not be allowed to vote due to existing social and cultural norms (Dawn).
Muhammad Ibrahim, the administrator of the Ganj madrassa that was economically sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department on Tuesday, disputed the agency's claims that the religious school has ties to militant activities and groups like al-Qaeda (ET). Speaking to Pakistan's Express Tribune on Wednesday, Ibrahim said that the allegations were "baseless" and that "the U.S. authorities should visit the seminary and see for themselves that it has nothing to do with militancy." He also requested that the U.S. agency share "any proof in this regard" with the madrassa and the media, "otherwise the claim will be considered fabricated and without any foundation."
Ghulam Jan, believed to be a key commander with the Pakistani Taliban, was killed in South Waziristan late Wednesday night when the vehicle he has traveling in hit a roadside bomb (Dawn, Pajhwok). According to Shahid Ali Khan, a local police officer, four of Jan's associates, including his uncle, were also killed in the blast. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Bring in the clowns
Eleven years ago, David Mason, a Danish dance instructor, founded Afghanistan's Mobile Mini Circus for Children to teach "cooperation and creativity to children scarred by years of war" (Reuters). Today, it is so popular that it is one of the few programs expanding in a country where international aid is dropping as coalition forces prepare to withdraw at the end of next year. The circus runs training centers in seven different Afghan provinces, has about 300 regular students, and manages an operating budget of nearly $500,000. The circus has toured in 25 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, reaching nearly 3 million people. According to Murtaza Nowrozi, an 18-year-old juggler, the circus provides a good alternative to a life on the streets.
-- Bailey Cahall
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
Erstwhile coup-making general and former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf was indicted on murder charges Tuesday in connection with the 2007 assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. While the anti-terrorism court (ATC) in Rawalpindi had named Musharraf in the case in early 2011, and declared he was a proclaimed offender in August of that year, today's indictment marks the first time that a former military officer has had to answer to criminal charges in a Pakistani court of law. As such, one can only hope that the focus remains on the merits of the case, and that Bhutto's death and the events surrounding it are not drowned out in a political circus.
Bhutto was assassinated on December 27, 2007, as she left a political rally in Rawalpindi, the Pakistani capital's twin city and the headquarters for the Pakistani military. According to official reports, in addition to Bhutto, 24 others were killed and 91 were injured when a gunman opened fire on the former prime minister as she headed to her car and a bomb exploded near the scene.
It was the second bloody attack on Bhutto after her return from political exile. Just weeks earlier in Karachi, Bhutto was attacked hours after she touched down on Pakistani soil and though she miraculously escaped death, 149 of her Pakistan Peoples Party workers were killed and 402 supporters and bystanders were injured in multiple bombings.
Bhutto had returned to Pakistan after eight years of self-imposed exile to take on two pressing issues that were endangering Pakistan as a nation: the increasing radicalization and strength of militant outfits; and the growing interference of the Pakistani establishment and its intelligence agencies in matters of domestic politics and international concern.
After Bhutto's assassination, the Pakistani government requested that the U.N. Secretary General form a commission to investigate her death. The commission began its work in July 2009, and completed its exhaustive report on March 30, 2010.
While the U.N. Commission Report authored by Heraldo Munoz, Marzuki Darusman, and Peter FitzGerald noted Musharraf's culpability in Bhutto's killing, saying "The federal Government under General Musharraf, although fully aware of and tracking the serious threats to Ms. Bhutto, did little more than pass on those threats to her and to provincial authorities and were not proactive in neutralizing them or ensuring that the security provided was commensurate to the threats," it also noted the security failures by the local police and the involvement of the Pakistani intelligence services in the ensuing investigations - particularly the hosing down of the scene and thereby washing away all traces of evidence.
What was made even clearer by the report was that Bhutto faced threats from a number of sources, including "Al-Qaida, the Taliban, local jihadi groups and potentially from elements in the Pakistani Establishment. Yet the Commission found that the investigation focused on pursuing lower level operatives and placed little to no focus on investigating those further up the hierarchy in the planning, financing and execution of the assassination."
Ultimately, the three-member U.N. panel said Bhutto's death could have been avoided if Musharraf's government and security agencies had taken adequate protection measures, and it urged Pakistani authorities to carry out a "serious, credible" criminal investigation that "determines who conceived, ordered and executed this heinous crime of historic proportions, and brings those responsible to justice."
Just days ago, Munoz reiterated his findings, writing in Foreign Affairs: "In Bhutto's case, it would seem that the village assassinated her: al Qaeda gave the order; the Pakistani Taliban executed the attack, possibly backed or at least encouraged by elements of the establishment; the Musharraf government facilitated the crime through its negligence; local senior policemen attempted a cover-up; Bhutto's lead security team failed to properly safeguard her; and most Pakistani political actors would rather turn the page than continue investigating who was behind her assassination."
He continued: "Probably no government or court of law will be able or willing to fully disentangle the whole truth from that web. It may well be that Bhutto's assassination will be another unsolved case in the long history of impunity in Pakistan, and that the controversy surrounding her assassination will endure as much as her memory."
As gratifying as Musharraf's indictment - a move towards justice - is, the issue with the entire case against the former president is that he alone has been accused, stands charged with Bhutto's murder, and will, at the very least, face trial; even imprisonment is likely if the powerful military establishment does not balk at the sight of one of its own being treated as a mere civilian.
Let's hope that the Pakistani military and justice system treat this trial on its merits and do not move it into a personal or political realm. Justice has long been denied to the Bhutto family by the courts and it is time for the courts to judge those responsible on the facts of the case alone.
Farahnaz Ispahani is a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., and a former Pakistan Peoples Party member of Pakistan's parliament.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
Pakistani security forces seized nearly 100 tons of potassium chlorate, a common bomb-making chemical, and detained 10 people on Tuesday night during a raid in Quetta, Balochistan (BBC, RFE/RL). According to Col. Maqbool Shah, a senior commander for the Frontier Corps, the raid came a day after two men were arrested in Quetta while transporting 15 tons of potassium chlorate in a truck; the two men later led officers to a warehouse that was stocked with the chemical, as well as detonators, guns, and ammunition. While the stockpiles have not been linked to any particular militant group, potassium chlorate was used in two bombings by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi earlier this year.
A separate raid by security and intelligence services in Lahore on Tuesday morning broke up an illegal telephone exchange that may have been used by al-Qaeda (Dawn, Pajhwok). According to news reports, the exchange may have facilitated communications related to the kidnappings of Dr. Warren Weinstein, a U.S. national; Shahbaz Taseer, the son of slain Punjabi Governor Salman Taseer; and several other people. Hundreds of thousands of cellphone SIM cards, as well as weapons and explosives, were seized in the raid. Six suspects from the Dawood and Hassan Gull terrorist groups, which have links to al-Qaeda, were taken into custody.
The U.S. Treasury Department imposed economic sanctions on the Ganj madrassa in Peshawar on Monday, saying in a statement that it "serves as a terrorist training center where students, under the guise of religious studies, have been radicalized to conduct terrorist and insurgent activities" (BBC, Pajhwok). The Treasury said that it was the first time a madrassa had been the target of sanctions, which forbid Americans from having any business interactions with the facility and freeze any of its assets that come under U.S. jurisdiction. According to the Treasury statement, the madrassa was used as a base for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and is headed by Fazeel-A-Tul Shaykh Abu Mohammed Ameen Al-Peshawari, who has been classified as a terrorist by the United States and the United Nations since 2009 for his support to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. There has been no reaction as yet from the madrassa's staff.
A Pakistani army captain was killed and another was seriously wounded on Tuesday night when Indian troops shelled the Shakma sector of Kashmir, the latest casualties in more than two weeks of back-and-forth firing between the two neighbors along the area's Line of Control (AP, BBC, Dawn, ET). Pakistani troops said the Indian actions were "unprovoked," but that they responded with a gun battle that lasted about three hours. On the Indian side, an army official said Indian troops came under heavy mortar and light-machine gun fire from the Pakistani side in the Kargil region and that "under intense pressure... we fired back" (Reuters).
The first of nine Afghan witnesses took the stand in Seattle on Monday in the sentencing hearing of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a U.S. soldier who has pleaded guilty to killing 16 Afghan civilians last March (AP, BBC, NYT). Mohammad Haji Naeem, who was shot in the face by Bales, told the court: "This bastard stood right in front of me! I wanted to ask him, ‘What did I do? What have I done to you?'... And he shot me." When pressed by military prosecutors to provide more details about the attack, he wept and left the stand. The Afghan witnesses were flown to Seattle on tourist visas by the U.S. military, and are the first to testify in a hearing that will determine whether Bales, who will be serving a life sentence, will ever be eligible for parole.
Gen. Heinz Feldmann, a spokesman for NATO's International Assistance Security Force (ISAF), told Afghanistan's Pajhwok news service in an exclusive interview on Tuesday that coalition forces have vacated 90 percent of their bases ahead of next year's withdrawal (Pajhwok). According to Feldmann, "ISAF once had over 800 small and big military bases, but the number has now fallen to less than 100." While he wouldn't give specific information about how many bases have been handed over to Afghan security forces, Feldmann did say that they are working with the Afghan finance ministry to decide which bases should be put under Afghan control.
Abdul Hadi, the head of the Independent Election Commission in Helmand province, told reporters on Wednesday that residents in the province are increasingly taking part in the country's voter registration campaign, though there are still security concerns in some districts (Pajhwok). According to Hadi, 13,000 individuals in 11 districts have been registered to vote since the registration drive began in May. Insecurity seems to be restricting registration efforts in several northern districts, where many voters lack identification cards and need local elders to verify their identities so they can receive the cards, but those residents do seem interested in voting, if it can be safe. Brig. Gen. Juma Gul Himmat, a deputy police chief in Helmand, said that security in most districts had improved and would be further strengthened by Election Day.
A city with no addresses
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Radio Free Afghanistan profiles a Kabul mailman who is tasked with delivering the mail in a city with few street names and house numbers (RFE/RL). While the Afghan government has launched a two-year plan to create a new address system using GPS coordinates, Omeed and other mailmen like him must rely on landmarks and often unreliable directions from local residents in their attempts to deliver letters and packages across the city.
Update: In front of a sold-out crowd of 6,000 people, Afghanistan's soccer team beat Pakistan 3-0 in the first international game played in Kabul in over a decade (BBC, Pajhwok, Reuters, RFE/RL, VOA). The "friendly" match was the first game between the two countries in Kabul since 1976, and was billed as a sign that Afghanistan is starting to return to a level of normality after decades of war.
-- Bailey Cahall
BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
A Pakistani court indicted former president Pervez Musharraf on Tuesday, charging him in connection with the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (AP, BBC, Dawn, ET, Pajhwok, Reuters, VOA). Chaudhry Muhammed Azhar, a prosecutor in Rawalpindi, said the court filed three separate charges against Musharraf, including murder, criminal conspiracy to murder, and facilitation of murder. The indictment marks the first time a former military leader has faced criminal proceedings in Pakistan. Musharraf pled not guilty and was escorted back to the villa where he has been under house arrest since April due to a number of cases stemming from his nine-year rule.
According to the New York Times, the case against Musharraf seems to rest largely on a statement by Mark Siegel, a Washington lobbyist, who told prosecutors that Musharraf made a threatening phone call to Bhutto before she returned in Pakistan in 2007 (NYT). Siegel said Bhutto warned him in an e-mail that if she were killed, the blame should fall on four different people, of whom Musharraf was one. With the exception of the Siegel statements, the prosecution has not made the basis of the charges against Musharraf public. August 27 has been set as the next court date to present evidence.
During his first televised policy speech since assuming office in June, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif hinted on Monday at his government's desire to hold talks with Taliban militants in the country, though he left the military option on the table should they reject those efforts (NYT). In particular, Sharif said: "Like every Pakistani, I want an early end to this bloodshed, whether it is through the process of dialogue or heavy use of the state force," a contradiction political analysts were quick to point out. While he blamed the government, security services, and the judiciary for failing to crackdown on terrorism, the speech was light on specific security measures or reforms that could be taken to address the problem (BBC, Dawn, ET).
One senior Afghan government official told Afghanistan's Pajhwok news service on Monday that Maulvi Attaullah Ludin, the deputy chief of the High Peace Council, is poised to become Afghanistan's next attorney general after Muhammad Ishaq Aloko was removed for meeting with Taliban negotiators in Qatar without the Afghan government's approval, while another official told Reuters that President Hamid Karzai has not yet signed the dismissal notice, leaving Aloko in the post (Pajhwok, Reuters). The Pajhwok source told reporters that Karzai consulted close aides, jihadi leaders, cabinet members, and other high-ranking officials about Aloko's replacement, and while many participants supported Ludin's appointment, no formal decision has been made. According to Aloko's supporters, his meeting with the Taliban concerned the whereabouts of his brother who was kidnapped by the group, not the peace process.
Four Afghan political parties joined forces on Tuesday and announced the creation of a new coalition called the National Trust Front, an alliance aimed at resolving Afghanistan's problems and ensuring transparency in the 2014 elections (Pajhwok). Mohammad Akbari, a parliamentarian from Bamyan province, said: "Our aim is to protect the core national interest and ward off threats to the country through unity and solidarity." Fazal Hadi Muslimyar, the Senate chairman and not a member of the alliance, was present at the press conference and echoed Akbari's words, calling on all political forces to work together to confront the challenges facing Afghanistan.
The sentencing hearing for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a U.S. soldier who killed 16 Afghan civilians during multiple pre-dawn raids on a village in Kandahar province last March, began on Tuesday and he is expected to face several survivors of the massacre and relatives of the dead who are outraged that his life will be spared (AP). Bales pleaded guilty in June so the sentencing focuses on whether or not his life sentence will offer a chance of parole. The Army has flown in nine villagers from Afghanistan who will testify about how the attacks have affected their lives. If the jurors sentence Bales to a life sentence with parole, he would be eligible for release in 20 years, though there's no guarantee that he would receive it.
"A poet's job"
By day, Matiullah Turab, one of Afghanistan's most famous Pashtun poets, makes a living repairing Pakistani caravan trucks but by night, he writes poems that provide a voice to Afghans who have grown cynical about the 12-year war and those involved (NYT). According to Turab, "A poet's job is not to write about love. A poet's job is not to write about flowers. A poet must write about the plight and pain of the people." Because of this philosophy, Turab's poems appeal to a wide range of Afghans, including President Karzai (though he has often been criticized by Turab), and new poems posted on YouTube quickly become the most-watched among Afghans.
-- Bailey Cahall
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Bonus read: "Regaining the public trust," Omar Samad (AfPak).
Afghan President Hamid Karzai removed Attorney General Muhammad Ishaq Aloko from his position after he met with members of the Afghan Taliban's negotiation team without the Afghan government's permission (Reuters). An unnamed government official told Reuters, which reported the story on Monday, that Aloko had been instructed by the palace not to attend the meeting, which occurred in Dubai earlier this month and included members of the government's High Peace Council.
The Qatar peace process has been deadlocked since the Taliban opened their political office in June and a Taliban official claimed on Sunday that the group is exploring options to relocate it to another Islamic country (ET). While the official said Taliban representatives would remain in Doha, another member said the group has established contacts with Turkey; the Afghan government recently indicated that it will only be a part of the peace process if the Taliban office is moved to either Turkey or Saudi Arabia.
In an effort to jumpstart the peace process, and at the request of the Afghan government, Islamabad might free more Taliban detainees, according to a Pakistani official (ET). The official told Pakistan's Express Tribune that the release of more Taliban prisoners would be on the agenda when President Karzai visits Pakistan later this month (Pajhwok, Pajhwok). Pakistan has freed 26 Taliban prisoners since November 2012 but further releases were halted as relations between the two countries deteriorated. Kabul has long asked for the release of all Taliban prisoners.
Afghanistan celebrated its 94th Independence Day on Monday with a series of events across the country (Pajhwok). The day began in Kabul with a 21-cannon salute from the Ministry of Defense and President Karzai laid a wreath on the Freedom Monument. A number of world leaders called Karzai to wish Afghanistan peace and stability, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry who said, "...the U.S. shares your commitment to a strong and sovereign Afghanistan where Afghans enjoy security, peace, prosperity, and dignity for generations to come" (Pajhwok).
Three people were wounded and about 200 shops were destroyed in the Siah Gird district bazaar in Parwan province on Monday when a gas container exploded and a fire ripped through the area (Pajhwok). The district has no fire department and the shops were destroyed in mere minutes. According to Mohammad Masoom Mujaddedi, one of the affected shopkeepers, the losses from the fire are around $2 million.
At least 15 people died in Afghanistan on Saturday in multiple attacks across the country (AFP, BBC). Nine building contractors and one policeman were killed in Herat province when militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons attacked their camp early Saturday morning, while in Helmand province, five civilians died and three were wounded when the van they were traveling in hit a roadside bomb. Three women were also killed in Helmand province on Friday by an improvised explosive device, though further details were not given. While no group has claimed responsibility for any of the attacks, Afghan officials blamed "enemies of Afghanistan," their phrasing for the Afghan Taliban.
As India and Pakistan continued to trade accusations over firings along the Line of Control in Kashmir this weekend, analysts noted that while there is a "weary familiarity" to these latest clashes, they are being exacerbated by the impending withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan (NYT). According to the New York Times, the tensions come after a nearly a decade of relative peace following a 2003 ceasefire, and the military exchanges have been more serious. The military actions are threatening new efforts to normalize relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, and, at least in Pakistan's case, show that the military is still powerful enough to operate independently of the civilian government.
Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan's powerful army chief, is expected to step down in November after six years in the post, and the speculation over his replacement is beginning to pick up (Reuters). According to Reuters, Kayani has to come up with a shortlist of three candidates and send the names to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for approval, and while no one will comment on potential successors publicly, a few names are starting to emerge. Among of the possible contenders are Lt. Gen. Rashad Mahmood, the current chief of general staff, and Lt. Gen. Haroon Aslam, the most senior army official after Kayani. Some have even suggested that Kayani may stay in the position for a few more years.
Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, a Muslim cleric who accused a Christian girl of blasphemy and was later arrested on similar charges, was acquitted by a Pakistani court on Saturday (AFP, BBC). The girl, Rimsha Masih, was arrested in August 2012 for allegedly burning pages of the Koran but the case against her was dismissed; she later fled with her family and is currently living in Canada. Chishti was accused of desecrating the Koran and tampering with evidence, but he was acquitted after the witnesses withdrew their accusations and the prosecution failed to make its case.
Abdul Karim Tunda, an alleged member of the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, was arrested by Indian police on Friday near the country's border with Nepal (VOA). The 70-year-old Tunda, listed as one of India's 20 most wanted militants, was carrying a Pakistani passport at the time of his arrest.
For the first time in 10 years, Afghanistan will host an international soccer match on Tuesday when it plays Pakistan in a "friendly" exhibition game that will be more symbolic than competitive (AFP, ET). Sayed Aghazada, the Secretary General for the Afghanistan Football Federation, said the match, the first in-country game against Pakistan since 1977, "represents a major highlight for football in our country." Ahmed Yar Khan Lodhi, Aghazada's Pakistani counterpart, agreed, saying: "This is a very symbolic game for the whole football community in south Asia which confirms that our sport can contribute to promote a positive relationship between neighbor countries." The teams, ranked 139th and 167th in the world, respectively, will take the field Tuesday afternoon in front of a sold-out crowd of 6,000 fans.
-- Bailey Cahall
FAISAL AL-TIMIMI/AFP/Getty Images
Despite the recent repudiation of elections by the Afghan Taliban's fugitive leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and despite the increased bloodshed experienced by Afghans this year, there is a growing public desire to see the election process move forward and a historic and peaceful transfer of power and legitimate order.
Signs of growing enthusiasm are not only detected among the political elites and interest groups, but also in civil society, youths and women groups, the private sector, rural community councils, and in the way new and traditional media are covering the issues.
If we assume that next year's presidential and provincial elections will take place as planned, one of the main challenges that Afghanistan will face is security, and making sure that enough polling centers are open across the country to assure the viability of the exercise. Another test will be maintaining the positive momentum that is rising, investing as many Afghans as possible in the process, and making the vote as inclusive and transparent as possible.
This effort not only requires widespread public awareness programing, but also overcoming the public trust deficit that exists toward Afghan political and electoral institutions. Above all, it requires political will by the country's leadership not to hinder the process or constitutional order.
Thus far, it appears that the newly formed Independent Election Commission (IEC), responsible for managing the elections, is making a sincere attempt to regain the public trust and avoid a repeat of the 2009 electoral debacle.
The head of the IEC, Yousuf Nuristani, in an in-depth interview with TOLOnews this week, conveyed several key points that give hope and are essential to the successful management of elections:
Nuristani has raised the bar for electoral oversight and now has to deal with three types of pressures:
As Mullah Omar's Eid message clearly indicated last week, any hope that may have existed for Taliban participation in the elections should be dashed. The message stipulated that not only do the radicals within their ranks continue to want to impose their will on the population through power-sharing deals with other ethnic groups, but that their supporters outside the country are leery of seeing a democratically elected government emerge in Afghanistan.
Contrary to the wish of most Afghans, the message also made it clear that the Taliban will go to any length to prevent a continued U.S./NATO presence, albeit small and for a non-combat role, in the country post 2014.
Another sign of forward-moving impetus in the country's political life is its political dynamism. Political actors realize that time is not on their side, and they need to interact, form teams, and eventually build coalitions that could introduce candidates for the presidential election by early October, when the nomination process will be complete. Forming these teams and coalitions will not be easy unless some contenders are ready to lower their expectations of being at the top of a ticket, and instead focus on agreeing to work on common reform agendas.
To offset this political drive, Taliban diehards have and will continue to use psychological tactics, including the use of violence, kidnappings, and targeted assassinations, to dampen the enthusiasm that is emerging in the country. We have seen several troubling examples of such tactics lately with attacks on members of parliament and their families.
With a segment of society disinterested in the political ruckus, the Taliban are aiming to either draw them to their side or enlarge the pool of neutral observers, and by doing so undermine the 2014 elections.
It is now up to motivated political elites and institutions such as the IEC and ECC to build up the nascent momentum, counter the Taliban narrative, and rebuild the public trust through legitimate decisions and practices. The Afghan people, as well as the international community that has invested heavily since 2002, are watching. The country's political actors cannot afford to lose either or both.
Omar Samad is Senior Central Asia Fellow at New America Foundation, President of Silkroad Consulting, and former Afghan Ambassador to France and Canada.
Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images