Tag Archives: Taliban

Taliban Folklore in Pakistani Media

Pakistani weekly The Friday Times has an interesting debate on Taliban and Pashtuns in their edition for this week–Jan 27-Feb 02. I contributed a piece. Below is a slightly different version of the article. 

The dominant discourse in mainstream Pakistani media on issues of foreign policy and national security has always been based on the narrative of the military establishment. Most Pakistani analysts, both right-wing and liberal, believe the Taliban is a nationalist movement motivated by Pashtun alienation in current power structure in Afghanistan. Be it the ‘experts’ of primetime TV talk shows or op-ed pages of Urdu and English newspapers, one always comes across that mantra.

This narrative is a product of the Pakistani military establishment’s ‘strategic depth’ policy, and was propagated internationally by former military dictator Pervez Musharraf. Addressing the European Union parliament in September 2006, he said the Taliban represent Pashtuns and they could spark a ‘national war’ in Afghanistan. Domestically, opinion makers say that the Afghan Taliban are representatives of the Pashtun.

They say the Afghan Taliban have grassroots support in the south and southeast, and the movement is a reaction to the lack of Pashtun representation. But they also say the Afghan Taliban are a genuine resistance force fighting an ideological war against foreign invasion. The two views do not coincide.

They would never say Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan represents Pashtuns of FATA, or that the insurgency is a nationalist movement motivated by the grievances of the tribes. They call TTP a terrorist organization. And this is where the contradictory notion of good Taliban and bad Taliban comes into play. The Afghan Taliban are a resistance force representing Pashtuns, while their ideological brothers TTP, who also claim allegiance to Mullah Omar, are terrorists.

Ironically, those who claim that the Afghan Taliban are a Pashtun nationalist movement are not Pashtuns, such as Hamid Mir and Orya Maqbool Jan of Urdu media, or Ejaz Haider and Najam Sethi among the liberal voices. Pashtun intellectuals and journalists from conservatives like Rahimullah Yousafzai and Saleem Safi to liberals like Farhat Taj and even some Pashtuns who have been part of the military establishment such as Asad Munir, former head of ISI and MI in FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, deny that.

The folklore of Taliban nostalgia prevailing in mainstream Pakistani media that Mullah Omar had brought peace to Afghanistan is also not shared by the Afghans. The Taliban killed thousands of people until there were no rivals and no one to resist their brutality, and there was rejoice in Kabul after their government was toppled in 2001.

Afghans do not see the Taliban as a nationalist movement based on the Pashtunwali code, but influenced by Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan. They are not even a unified group. Not even all Afghan Taliban call themselves Pashtun nationalists. Although they are predominately Pashtun, many among them are from other ethnic groups, particularly in Northern Afghanistan. Local insurgent groups have multiple motivations. Some join the resistance against the perceived foreign invaders, while others fight for local purposes, such as clan rivalries and personal interests. Then there are those who fight for money.

Working on a research project in Northern Afghanistan in August last year, I met some insurgents who were not ethnic Pashtuns, but Turkmens. They told me they were paid $500 to $600 a month by a Taliban commander in Mazar-e-Sharif. That is more than what some of my colleagues were being paid by an NGO. Some of the Taliban men are opportunists who benefit from the narcotics industry and seek Taliban’s shelter.

“Unlike the late 70s and 80s when Afghanistan experienced a national resistance movement against the Soviet occupation, the Taliban’s claim for Jihad against Americans does not resonate with a majority of Pashtuns,” according to Afghan political activist and former chief of staff at Foreign Ministry Wahid Munawar.

The central leadership of all major insurgent factions is based in Pakistan, be it the Quetta Shura of Kandahari Taliban, the Haqqani Network in Waziristan, or the Hizb-e-Islami of Hekmatyar. The commanding cadres of the movement have gone to madrassas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Southern Punjab or Karachi. Balochistan and the tribal areas are recruiting centers for Afghan Taliban. While traveling on the two borders, I regularly meet Taliban who are on their way to Quetta for rest, after a month or two of fighting in Helmand or Uruzgan. Majority of the suicide bombers in Afghanistan are traced to the tribal areas or Balochistan. What cultural or political grievances can they have about the Pahstuns of Afghanistan? The Taliban have destroyed the very foundations of centuries old Pashtun customs such as respect for tribal elders and the Jirga system.

“Taliban draw their support mostly from a tiny minority of Pashtun partly based on ideological grounds,” says Rafi Fazil, an Afghan student and activist. “There is also an element of fear – given the vacuum created by the absence of government in Taliban controlled areas – that plays a key role. Not every Pashtun who sympathises with the Taliban actually subscribes to their violent ideology. Those who do, and are prepared to take part in violence, constitute a tiny minority.”

Though Afghan Taliban brand themselves as a nationalist movement fighting for ‘independence’ and withdrawal of foreign troops, they are not supported by majority of Pashtuns, let alone other ethnic groups in Afghanistan. If there are free elections, the Pashtuns of Afghanistan would reject the Taliban, like Pakistani Pashtuns vote for the liberal Awami National Party.

President Hamid Karzai received a large number of votes from the Pashtun south and southeast. The nationalist Afghan Mellat is a popular party among urban Pashtuns. There is no truth to the statement that Pashtuns lack representation in the current power structure in Afghanistan. In fact, non-Pashtun ethnic politicians complain of the opposite – that Pashtuns hold most key ministries in President Karzai’s administration.

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Taliban’s Domestic Fantasy

Media punditry after Taliban confirmation of opening a “political office” in Qatar paints the future of a political settlement for the end of conflict in Afghanistan very optimistically. After years of denial and doubts when the idea of negotiations with the Taliban were proposed seriously for the first time, it is indeed a major development that two parties to the conflict: the United States and Taliban militants have put aside their preconditions of talks such as complete disassociation from Al-Qaeda and acceptance of the Afghan constitution and on the Taliban part, full withdrawal of all foreign troops. However, there are many problems which, if not dealt properly, can end all the excitement of a political settlement into the last abyss of uncertainty and eventual descent into chaos for Afghanistan.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid says it loud in his media statements that militants do not consider the Afghan Government as a party to the talks, let alone the current political opposition who are mainly the prominent and fiercest rivals of the Taliban. Optimists might say that these are initial game of words and will change when militants have a proper “address” in Doha, and responsible figures sitting there to talk to. As I have always said on these pages, the biggest problem of the conflict in Afghanistan when it comes to a political settlement will not be external, but rather internal factors and domestic stakeholders.

Whatever reasons have caused the positive change in thinking of the Taliban leadership to agree on direct talks with the US, it shows their extreme political immaturity still persistent to ignore the fact that Taliban have more serious problems of acceptability within Afghan society than with the international community.

Long before there were any foreign troops in Afghanistan, Taliban could not reach to an understanding with any faction of the forces resisting them, among whom the former Northern Alliance was prominent. Were they politically mature enough, the Taliban leader Mullah Omar could avoid the bloodshed at the peak of their victory in Afghanistan, when they controlled over 80 percent of the country, and the forces resisting them either retreated outside or fought to their last bullet and drop of blood, but could not, despite attempts, come to an understanding of the sort of political deal.

Today Taliban have the same mentality. In his statement, Taliban spokesman say Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban shadow government and the United States are only parties to the talks. The biggest problem is this mindset of the Taliban leadership with the fantasy that most people of Afghanistan support their brand of Sharia and extremist political ideology. They might enjoy some grassroots support in some insurgent-controlled parts of the country in South, but they will always be unacceptable for majority of the population in Afghanistan with their brutal ideology and Islamo-fascist mindset. If they are not naïve, and the change of mind for talks with Americans is an honest move, the Taliban leadership have to be open and transparent about the process. They have to consider the fact that they have been resisted in the past and will be fiercely resisted in future, if a political settlement of the US and NATO withdrawal narrative is imposed on us with current mindset of the Taliban.

The strategy of Obama Administration towards a political settlement has cracks in its very fundamental approach to ignore the fact that Taliban have more internal problems in Afghanistan than with international community.

Media leaks in Washington suggest that the White House has decided, on the Taliban demand, to release five notorious former Taliban commanders from Guantanamo Bay. In the first detailed media report about how western diplomats contacted with Taliban, the German Der Spiegel says Tayeb Agha, the secretary of Mullah Omar was taken to Munich from Qatar on a Falcon 900EX aircraft of German Foreign Intelligence BND in November 2010. The report further says the first deal towards opening of a Taliban office in Qatar include release of Bergdahl, an American soldier kidnapped by the Taliban in June 2009 from Paktika, to be exchanged for those five commanders from Guantanamo.

The release might take time in a long process of approval from the US Congress, but the reports suggest Obama Administration’s approach has no red lines or any principles of accountability and transparency. They will be releasing those notorious Taliban commanders who are wanted by the UN for war crimes.

All of the five commanders were in contact and cooperation with Al-Qaeda. One of them is Mullah Fazl, former Taliban Chief of Army and Deputy Defense Minister who is responsible for massacres of thousands of civilians in Mazar, Bamyan and Yakawlang from 1998 to 2001.

According to the Guantanamo files of detainees released by Wikileaks, Abdul Haq Wasiq, Taliban deputy minister of intelligence, “utilized his office to support Al-Qaeda…and arranged for Al-Qaeda personnel to train Taliban intelligence staff.” Another prisoner is Mullah Noorullah Noori, former Taliban Governor-General of Northern Zone. He is wanted by the UN for war crimes. The Wikileaks file says, he is “associated with members of al-Qaida.”

When these commanders will be released in a murky process, the exclusive approach of the Obama Administration will provoke the Afghan groups who fiercely resisted Taliban and oppose their extremist ideology today, to start preparing for worst days to come. Last week three prominent figures of former Northern Alliance in a meeting with some US congressmen in Berlin expressed these concerns openly to the international community.

On the other hand, President Karzai also needs to avoid overreaction. His order to transfer control of the Bagram Prison from international troops to Afghan officials is an attempt to create influence cards in the process of talks with Taliban. Many Taliban prisoners are in Bagram, and believing to have been left out, President Karzai has ordered transfer of the control of Bagram prison to be in position of influence against the Taliban. If the Taliban are honest about negotiations, President Karzai should avoid muddying the waters with reactionary moves. However, at the end of the day, most important is that Taliban realize and admit the fact that they have more internal problems than with external actors.

Meanwhile, there has been a mysterious silence from Pakistan. Analysts speculate ISI’s approval of the talks saying that there have not been any attempts to stop Tayeb Agha from meeting American officials in Germany and Qatar. The best that Afghans can expect of Pakistan is that Islamabad does not interfere in this process. Their support for the Taliban and prior interference during the civil war and Jihad against Soviet Union in Afghanistan has doomed us to the current situation for the last three decades. Now it’s time they keep away and let us resolve our conflicts.

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New Policy for Negotiations with Pakistan?

Op-ed published Daily Outlook Afghanistan, Oct. 04

The 11-minutes speech of President Karzai to the nation live on RTA last night was expected to announce a strategy or roadmap about the post-Rabbani peace, the strategic partnership with the US, or making a sense of his vague statements regarding direct talks with Pakistan, instead of Taliban. But he repeated the same rhetoric, which he has been saying after the assassination of Ustad Rabbani.

He called another Loya Jirga, to ‘decide’ about the US strategic partnership and fate of negotiations. Listing the recent deeds of the Taliban, whom he used to refer as his “angry brothers”, their serial assassination campaign, including the murder of his own brother, President Karzai said, “one-sided desire and efforts for peace will not bear a result and peace can only be made with those who believe in it.” So, after all these Jirgas, commissions and regional meetings, and to mention the joint commission with Pakistan, now we come to know that everything is in a dead end. However, there was a hint of what the new policy might look like. He said, “We have to fight with determination against those who do not believe in peace”. Though not making it clear what the framework of his “direct talks with Pakistan about Taliban” would be, President Karzai added, “Pakistan has not cooperated with us, which is unfortunate. We need to reconsider peace. In reality, we need to deal with governments, not with their proxy groups.” Clearly he was referring to Taliban’s Quetta Shura and Haqqani Network as proxies of Pakistan. And probably if there is any such direct talk with Pakistan about Taliban, Islamabad will certainly deny presence of the Haqqani Network in North Waziristan and that of the Quetta Shura in Balochistan.

Pakistan has been demanding a “role” in what they call the endgame in Afghanistan. And President Karzai’s “direct talk” is more of an offer, than a reaction for them. But it comes after the failures of joint Af-Pak commissions and exercises of Kabul-Islamabad visits in the past year. More importantly, Rawalpindi would not like to involve the US in such a “direct talks”, resultantly, rest assured not to expect anything positive out of it.

There are certain things that President Karzai should make clear with Pakistan. For now, there is no framework or a new strategy on how to proceed. When the Afghan-Pak Joint Peace Commission was established in April after the visit of Pakistani power trio—the Army Chief General Kayani, ISI Chief Shuja Pasha and Prime Minister Gilani—in Kabul, much hopes had been tied, by President Karzai and his advisors who are to be most blamed for a policy which has produced nothing in last six months, except the fact that we have lost many high-profile figures. It was President Karzai who had requested inclusion of military and intelligence officials of both countries in that Peace Commission, of which Ustad Rabbani was also a member. Now seeing the total failure of the Joint Peace Commission, that involved the military and intelligence of Pakistan, what could be a new strategy that President Karzai calls for direct talks with Pakistan, instead of the Taliban? Actually the Joint-Commission was a practice of the same.

Then and now, President Karzai thinks his efforts to persuade militants to denounce violence will only work if the military establishment of Pakistan supports it. It did not work during the last six months, and will most probably not work in future, because the perception of Pakistan’s military-intelligence about their “role” in Afghanistan is like a fifth province of their country.

Kabul says the Taliban leadership of Quetta Shura is hiding in Pakistan, the Haqqani Network has sanctuary in North Waziristan, and most suicide bombers come from that region. But Pakistan is not only in complete denial of these all, they also do not admit the fact that not only Haqqani Network, but terrorists with links from Xinjiang to Chechnya are in North Waziristan, and Pakistan Army has categorically denied any military operations there.

For his new policy of “direct talks with Pakistan instead of Taliban”, most importantly President Karzai needs to make nice with the US. The strategic partnership should be finalized as soon as possible. Calling a Loya Jirga is nothing, but a hurdle and waste of time to discuss the strategic partnership, or policy about Pakistan. There is the Wolesi Jirga and Senate, which must be prioritized for such national decisions.

The new policy should make certain things very clear; Pakistan should be urged to persuade the Haqqani elements and all other terrorists to leave North Waziristan or join negotiations with Kabul, otherwise Pakistan should launch military operations there. They must ask the Taliban leadership of Quetta Shura to either join a respectful peace process with Kabul, mediated by the help of ISI, or leave Pakistan.

Kabul can better deal and fight with determination if these elements have no safe havens in Pakistan. In return, Kabul and Islamabad should discuss the legitimate interests and demands of Pakistan in Afghanistan. Pakistani officials have been talking about a post-US withdrawal Afghanistan. The US has more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, and more than 50,000 will remain long beyond 2024, so Pakistan need not to make “strategic depth” plans about a complete US withdrawal.

Afghanistan and the US have similar concerns about Pakistan, and President Karzai’s administration, while in a cold war with Washington, cannot achieve any of the above. It is also important for the US to get serious with their so-called carrot and stick policy towards Pakistan. It has been just the carrot so far, with more than $20 billions of aid, mostly to military, but at the end, a threat from Pakistan that Washington might lose a so-called ally in the war on terror.

To add a note at the end of this column about the inquiry delegation of Rabbani’s assassination, led by Defense Minister Rahim Wardark, the inquiry committee is supposed to visit Islamabad soon, but it seems this will be just another visit, seeing the headlines in Pakistan press that “Pakistan’s Foreign Office laughs on Afghan evidence”. The delegation will achieve nothing by going to Pakistan.

Even if there is strong evidence to prove Quetta Shura and elements from within ISI are behind the assassination of Ustad Rabbani, there should be no expectation that Taliban leaders will be arrested. They can be moved from Quetta to Karachi, or some other place. However, President Karzai has said if Pakistan does not cooperate in the investigations, the case will be taken to the UN, which might produce some satisfactory results.

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Random Thoughts on 10th Anniversary of 9/11

My Outlook Afghanistan op-ed Sept 11, 2011

Today is the 10th anniversary of 9/11 attacks when Al-Qaeda hijackers carried out the worst terrorist attack in recent history killing thousands of innocent people. Afghan and international media outlets have given extensive coverage reporting about the impact of 9/11, particularly focusing the war in Afghanistan. I have had several feature interviews, mostly recalling the personal memories and thoughts about the post-9/11 decade and Afghanistan.

On September 11, 2001, I was in Quetta city of Pakistan, the place which is infamous in the Western media as the hideout of Taliban’s “Quetta Shura”. It seemed like the entire city was talking about that huge attack, albeit in a way that mocked the US supremacy. Most people in that deeply conservative city were saying that it was a reaction to the American imperialist moves and injustices in the world.

We here in Afghanistan had experienced worse than 9/11 attacks in our everyday life during the three decades of war and crisis, particularly in the darkest era of our history under the rule of Taliban regime. For instance, just two days before the incident, a resistance leader was killed by two Al-Qaeda suicide bombers. I remember it was no less than breaking news for Afghan refugee Diaspora as tragic as that of the 9/11 for Americans and the world. Taliban had massacred thousands of people in Mazar-e-Sharif, Bamiyan and other parts of the country. We had seen much horrible scenes during the street battles in Kabul. Thousands of people were killed.

It was very tragic, but personally I have always thought 9/11 was like a blessing for the people in Afghanistan because as a consequence of this attack, the US came here and toppled the forces of evil known as the Taliban regime. I don’t mean to be happy for loss of thousands of lives on 9/11, but in a way it brought attention of the world to the atrocities of Taliban in Afghanistan, only when Americans experienced a day of destruction that we had gone through for years.

We had already lost our twin towers before 9/11. World Trade Center was a symbol of American capitalism. When Taliban destroyed the giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan, we felt like our twin towers, the symbol of past-glory and civilization had been destroyed. Whenever I visit the site of destroyed Buddhas in Bamiyan, I cry for this atrocity of the Taliban. And I dream the day when like Americans, we will be able to rebuild our twin towers of history—the giant Buddha statues.

Today after 10 years, when we recall those days, life in Kabul is more than good. Despite the insecurity threats and militant attacks that keep our daily lives in a constant security fear, millions of Kabulities have a normal life, which is much better than the days of Taliban and prior to that the street battles during the factional war among Mujahideen.

Today after ten years, the worst of our worries are all about security and nation-building in this country. Nowadays with the talk of the US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, people have already started fearing about return of the 90s era of civil war. We are still not certain about a genuine peace in this country. However, despite being very uncertain, I hope the international community will not let Afghanistan down once again, as the US left us on the mercy of our neighbors after supporting the Mujahideen during the resistance against Soviet Union. If the United States and the world had supported Afghanistan to get on a track of political stability after the Soviet withdrawal, we would not have seen the nightmares of civil war and dark days of Taliban, who provided safe havens to Al-Qaeda masterminds of 9/11.

We have had great achievements during the last decade in Afghanistan. Ten years ago, the entire infrastructure in Afghanistan was destroyed. But over the last decade we have had the kind of development in our economy, infrastructure and government institutions that we lacked over the last two centuries.

Afghanistan has never experienced a peaceful transition of power in its history, but we have a democratic government selected by the votes of people. We had two presidential and parliamentary elections. We have a strong number of Armed forced to defend our borders and maintain security in parts of the country.

After the Soviet invasion and civil war, all defense forces of Afghanistan had been shattered and destroyed. Today we have an Army of more than 150,000 troops, trained by NATO countries. We have a police force of similar number, trained by the coalition countries. The contribution of NATO and ISAF has been immense and great in rebuilding Afghanistan. If it was not their presence, western countries would not have contributed in the reconstruction of this doomed country.

However, there are failures in the mission which ISAF had been mandated by the UN to fight in Afghanistan. They have not been successful in eliminating terrorism and rooting out the international Jihadi terrorists from Afghanistan. With the military might and advance technology, this should have been possible by now.

As there are talks of ISAF and NATO troops’ withdrawal, with deteriorating situation, rising militancy and political instability, the future looks uncertain. If they withdraw from Afghanistan without leaving behind a management which could defend us from becoming an international terrorist harboring place, the return of 90s era is inevitable.

The situation will get out of control very quickly if there is a complete lack of interest by the international community to stay involved in Afghanistan. The biggest challenge for the future of Afghanistan is not corruption or good governance; it is religious extremism, militancy and the cancer of Jihadi terrorism. We also do not have political stability, something we did not have for the entire history of Afghanistan.

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Al-Qaeda Reprisal Attack in Quetta

my Outlook op-ed published on September 08, 2011

Western media is doing extensive 9/11-week coverage. I have had several interviews in the past week, remembering personal memories and experience of that tragic day on September 11, 2001 when Al-Qaeda bombers destroyed the twin towers and the following events changed lives of people around the world, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although we have gone through war and crisis in Afghanistan for the last three decades, the post-9/11 has been very different for this region.

The war in Afghanistan has secured western countries with Al-Qaeda being dismantled and other terrorist networks with global Jihadi agenda to attack western countries weakened, but it has made the region in South Asia more violent and insecure. Bomb blasts and suicide attacks have become part of routine life in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and we experience regular 9/11.

I am not to approve the general rhetoric of the religious-political circles making the argument against Afghanistan war and the presence of US troops in the region as sole reason behind the suicide attacks and blasts. Nor this column is about my personal experience and thoughts on 9/11. It’s just a coincidence that I am in Quetta nowadays, in the week of 9/11, as I was here on that tragic day 10 years ago.

Yesterday once again I saw this city in bloodshed. A group of suicide bombers, including Afghan nationals, attacked residence of the Director of Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) killing 26, including his wife. Brigadier Farrukh Shehzad Commander of the FC got injuries, and 26 were killed, including a Colonel and several other personnel of the FC.

Around a hundred others were wounded. Quetta is the provincial capital of the Baloch separatist insurgency-hit Balochistan. Usually, after any attacks in the city, the initial suspicions are either about the Baloch separatist nationalist groups who target Pakistani security personnel, or the sectarian Al-Qaeda allied outfits such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi who target the Hazaras.

The latter is more common in Quetta, while Baloch insurgent-attacks are mostly in the Baloch-dominating districts of Balochistan. The latest such powerful suicide-car attack targeted the Eid prayers in a Hazara area of the city last week. As usual, it was claimed by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a sectarian outfit allied with Al-Qaeda.

Despite being under regular attacks, it was not surprising that a car with more than 50Kgs of explosive material got to the gate of FC Commander, in a very sensitive area close to Balochistan Chief Minister and Governor houses, city court, Govt. secretariat and anti-terrorist court. The Afghan and Iranian consulates are also close by. Though Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik claims there are over 100 CCTV cameras installed in Quetta, yet again sectarian terrorists kill a person every other day in crowded parts in the center of the city.

According to security officials, there were six suicide bombers. An explosive-laden car struck to the wall of FC Commander’s house, and one of the bombers made it into the gate. Two of the attackers are reportedly Afghans, one named Ahmad Gul from Kunduz with a Refugee Card. Both are said to be of Uzbek ethnic.

There is a big number of Afghans living in Quetta. Most of them get the Refugee Registration Card from Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). Found with a card, the bombers might have been living in Pakistan, and certainly not going from Afghanistan for the attack.

Tehreek Taliban Pakistan has claimed responsibility. But there are different reports about it, some quoting TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan as saying this attack is to avenge arrest of the Al-Qaeda operatives two weeks ago from Quetta, and others reporting that it was to avenge death of five Chechen nationals killed by personnel of the FC in May in Quetta.

Frontier Corps is a Pakistani paramilitary force led by officers of Pakistan Army. FC personnel had taken part in the ISI-led operation against Younas Al-Mauritani who was arrested along with two other Al-Qaeda operatives days before Eid from Satellite Town of Quetta. It is very likely that yesterday’s attacks were an Al-Qaeda reprisal. Quetta is no doubt a very strategic hideout for members of Al-Qaeda and Taliban Shura. It is very likely that, as TTP spokesman threatens, more reprisal attacks are carried out by Al-Qaeda in Quetta.

Such attacks are also aimed at threatening security officials who lead investigations against arrested terrorists, or conduct search operations in those notorious areas. There have been several similar attacks on offices and homes of high officials of security forces in Quetta. One reason that Pakistani intelligence agencies and security officials avoid operation against the known Al-Qaeda and Taliban hideouts in the city is the fear of deadly reprisal attacks. Though Quetta is the regional headquarters of ISI, but they are more focused on the Baloch nationalist groups and insurgents in the province, than Al-Qaeda operatives and Taliban leaders in the city.

Although the US and Pakistani media dubbed reports of Al Mauritani’s arrest as a sign of cooperation and ease of tensions between CIA and ISI, the US should ask General Kayani to launch an intelligence crackdown in Quetta. It is impossible to launch a military operation in a highly crowded small city, but Al-Mauritani is not the last Al-Qaeda leader hiding in Quetta. Despite being known as the home of Taliban’s Quetta Shura, the city has been less under radar for hideouts of Al-Qaeda operatives. It is a very strategic place for them. The city is close to Afghan and Iranian borders. There are notorious places in the city with Uzbek, Chechen and other foreign nationals living in large numbers, such as Ghaus Abad and Uzbek Bazar.

The religious parties, particularly Jamiat Ulema Islam (Ideological Faction) has huge support in the city and towns around Quetta. They are unashamed of their open-ideological support for Al-Qaeda and Taliban. One can read slogans in favor of Osama bin Laden by JUI Nazriyati (ideological) on walls of Quetta. When Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad by the US Special Forces, JUI-N had taken out protest rallies holding Bin Laden photos. Later I heard from my contacts that funeral-prayer events were held for Osama in several towns around Quetta by JUI-N supporters.

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Mullah Omar’s Eid Message

Outlook Afghanistan op-ed published on Sept 07, 2011

An Eid message on behalf of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar has been released by the propaganda website of the Islamic Emirate. The Al-Emara website claiming to represent the shadow Islamic Emirate of the Taliban has been very active with propaganda reports and disinformation. Though they are much updated about attacks, and post news reports mixing the content with some true information and more-than-half propaganda, I have rarely taken Al-Emara seriously.

They publish posts in five languages: Pashtu, Dari, Urdu, Arabic and English. I have always doubted those who are behind the online propaganda forums and twitter account of the Taliban are based across the border in Chaman or some other Pakistani city. NDS had told the media recently about many Zabihullah Mujahids, who talk with journalists and spread the Taliban propaganda regularly from Chaman city. Otherwise, how could one believe that the US intelligence agencies and NATO forces would have been unable to trace their calls and locations?

Starting with triumph tales of Taliban, the one-eyed Amir-ul-Momaneen’s Eid greetings was more of a policy speech, in which he is using a different language. There is no criticism of the Karzai Administration, talks have not been denied, and he also ‘assures’ the Taliban government will be a ‘pure Islamic system’ inclusive of all ethnic groups and segments of the Afghan society.

Apparently it sounds an all-optimistic message, but not really. The first reaction I read was from Ahmed Rashid. Recently he has been sounding more like a Taliban apologist than an analyst. Reading his blog post on New York Review of Books, one thought as if the Taliban had taken a 180 degree u-turn, and Ahmed Rashid is all-out optimistic about the process of talks.

He says, “Coming at a time when violence is at its worst and bloodshed in Afghanistan being committed both by US forces and the Taliban, this message seems a hopeful sign that talks and a negotiated settlement to end the war are a possibility.” But just a few days later, in a talk at the War Studies Department of Kings College London on Monday, he expressed different views in contradiction to his writings.

The statement on behalf of Mullah Omar was indeed their propaganda at its best. The long message is sub-headlined in different parts addressing all the people of Afghanistan, Afghan Diaspora, writers, students, journalists, Taliban Jihadis and those in Government administrations.

It tells us the ‘military’ success of Taliban against coalition and Afghan forces saying the Badr Operation this year has been the most successful, inflicting huge physical and material loss to ‘the enemy’. It doesn’t mention the Afghan Government in particular, but the word ‘enemy’ is used for the international troops as well as Afghan administration. The statement says, “the extermination of high level officials of the enemy both in north and south of the country, …give us a good news of an imminent victory and a bright future.”

It is clearly pointing to the serial assassinations of high-profile Afghan officials, including the brother of President Karzai. I don’t understand what is positive to Ahmed Rashid, when the US and Afghan Government lobbies at the UN to remove Taliban names from terrorist sanctions list, separates them from Al-Qaeda, but the response is a terror campaign of targeted-killing of the Afghan officials. President Karzai has ordered release of hundreds of notorious Taliban militants from prisons, but Mullah Omar ‘warns’ officials of the Karzai Administration to “join” and “support” the Taliban.

Mullah Omar announced “the Jihad will continue unabatedly” even after the withdrawal of bulk of US troops announced by President Obama. He added that “the presence of foreign invading troops…is the cause of current imbroglio in the country.” The esteemed Amirul Momaneen should tell us, why Taliban provided safe havens to foreign Arab Jihadis? They were invaders on this land for a large part of the population. One should ask him, why the US troops came to Afghanistan in the first place? Contrary to the propaganda that Mullah Omar wants the people of Afghanistan to believe, it was because of him that the US troops had to come to Afghanistan to fight international terrorists and their Taliban hosts.

When the Bush Administration asked Mullah Omar to handover Osama bin Ladin after 9/11, why did he reject? He is saying all those who take part in the process of approving US military presence either through a Jirga or parliament are traitors. What about those who not only approved the presence of foreign Jihadis in Afghanistan, but also provided them with free hand in using Afghanistan as a launching pad for terrorism around the globe.

Today Afghans visiting any country—including the so-called Muslim Ummah leaders who were early financiers and diplomatic supporters of the Taliban—are suspects and doubted for terrorism; we suffer all this humiliation around the world because of the deeds of Taliban and Mullah Omar.

Should we believe Mullah Omar and the Taliban, whom we have experienced for a dark era, with one statement on internet? If they are against foreign presence, Mullah Omar in his next message of Eid-ul-Azha must denounce all international terrorists in Afghanistan announcing disassociation of the Taliban with Al-Qaeda and other terror networks via a public statement, with an honest addition of apology from the nation for the atrocities we experienced under their rule. But it doesn’t exclude them from trials and accountability for the war crimes.

Today Mullah Omar is assuring us that people of all ethnicities will have share in power and the “Islamic Emirate” will have peaceful relations with regional countries and the world. How to believe this? Without the intervention and presence of foreign troops, Afghanistan would have been under an absolute and dark rule of Taliban with a graveyard peace until today, and millions of Afghan taking refuge in other countries. The American intervention in Afghanistan has been more than a blessing to get rid of a terrorist state and government, for the anti-Taliban constituency and peace loving progressive people of Afghanistan.

The people of Afghanistan never want to go through the nasty experience of a dark period under the Islamic Emirate once again. The day Mullah Omar released a statement with a logo of’ Islamic Republic’, it will be considered a change in their mindset, and we can hope for an intra-Afghan debate about a future with Taliban being part of the democratic process and system, otherwise the Eid message is nothing more than another piece of propaganda from Al-Emara websites.

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A Gesture of Reconciliation…

My op-ed on Daily Outlook Afghanistan, August 21, 2011

“We attacked the buildings [of British Council] because we want to remind the British that we won our independence from them before and we will do it again…It was signal for the British and their allies on the Independence Day that invading forces are to be doomed to destruction as the British Empire had been destined to failure 92 years ago.”

The above lines are from the statement released by Taliban’s Al-emara propaganda cell online, after the early-morning attack on the compound of British Council in the heart of Kabul, in a street in Karte Parwan. It was Friday and the Independence Day of Afghanistan when a group of six paradise-seeking suicide bombers entered the gate of the compound after an explosion that killed two poor road-cleaners of Kabul Municipality. The terrorists besieged the building for about 9 hours, killing 12, mostlyAfghans.

They were trying to find out two panicked female teachers—one British and the other South African—inside the safe room of the building. These teachers teach English and help Afghan students get scholarships in UK. It’s not important to mention the nationalities of those killed, or being inside the compound, or the purpose and timing of Taliban attack. The fact is that militants continue terror and there is no sign of change in their brutal tactics.

The Taliban statement said,

“The enemy claims that the civilians, too, have been killed in the martyrdom operation aimed at the Brits as is usual for the invading forces and their puppet to do, can be fully denied due to the fact that the attack came at about 4:30 am, the timer there was no civilians within the facility and the surrounding areas.”

They are denying that any civilian was killed. If forces of evil have any concern at all, families of the two poor Municipality workers should be visited. They cleaned drains and roads of Kabul early in the morning, but this Friday proved their last duty. They were the first victims of this brutal act of cowardice. With the first explosion blast at the gate, there were two bodies of Municipality workers lying down on the road. No wonder Talibani logic says the greater cause of killing infidels is more important than taking lives of only bread-winners of poor families. Their children might have been waiting that morning for their fathers, but only to receive dead corpses.

A day before the attack on British Council, the UK Ambassador in Kabul Sir William Patey tweeted a photo with former Taliban Ambassador to Islamabad Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef at the Iftar dinner organized by the British Embassy. With the Flickr link of photo, he said, “at Iftar I hosted. Good to see former TalibZaeef leading prayers—a small gesture of reconciliation.” I was reading this when the statement of Taliban, which I have quoted in the beginning, appeared on my twitter timeline. I thought the international community, and more importantly our leading allies in this war the UK and US, are too much optimistic about the ‘reconciliation’. Earlier this week, Sir William Patey expressed support for Taliban participation in the Bonn conference. In a press conference he was saying the Afghan Government can invite Taliban in Bonn conference, it is up to them, not the world community.

It was indeed a welcoming stance, supporting Taliban participation in Bonn. But militants responded with a deadly attack on the British Council. It was not a gesture of reconciliation. The government, peace council and the international stakeholders were beating the drums of talks and reconciliation so loud, but do we know of any progress so far? Actually there is no progress at all! According to recent reports, SayedTayed Agha, the purported Taliban negotiator who is the secretary of Mullah Omar has gone missing for the past three months. With this, the proponents of talks about talks with Taliban are also mute.
What if this ‘process of reconciliation’ and talks with Taliban fail to mark a political settlement to end the conflict in Afghanistan? What if Taliban continue terror, with deadlier tactics and increasing pace, until 2014 when a big number of the US and NATO troops will withdraw from Afghanistan? The problem is that the international community has put all efforts and focus on the ‘reconciliation’, without a Plan B for the post-withdrawal situation. What is the alternative?

Even if talks with Taliban make success and an eventual deal made with the Mullah Omar-led Quetta Shura, it will not bring ultimate peace in Afghanistan. There will be many militant groups that the Afghan national security forces will have to fight with, even if the internationals leave and forget Afghanistan. President Karzai has stopped calling Taliban ‘brothers’ after the death of his brother, but with his lack of will during all this period; it will be a difficult situation ahead, when he is gone from the Place but his ‘angry brothers’ still shedding blood. The Afghan security forces have to get prepared for a long fight.

After the transition and transfer of security to Afghan forces, there have been several attacks in Kabul, where Afghan Special Forces have failed to control the situation. From the similar attack on Intercontinental Hotel to the latest one on British Council, without help of ISAF troops, Afghan forces have not proved themselves, giving us little hope for post-2014.
The Administration of President Karzai label the problem as international community’s failure to defeat militants, but actually it is lack of competence, political will and honesty in the Afghan leadership to fight militants. What the international community has to be blamed for is their ignorance of real supporters and roots of terrorism.

Unless the militants are not effectively targeted in all their safe havens and roots in the Af-Pak border region and serious action taken against those who support terrorism as state-policy, there will be Jihadi militancy in Afghanistan and South Asia. No matter how many gestures of reconciliation be tried by the international community and Afghan Government, it is very obvious that militants are not going to stop terror.

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Why a Breakthrough is Unlikely at Bonn II

On 5 December, on the tenth anniversary of the Bonn Agreement, Germany will host the Bonn II conference. A preparatory meeting was held in Kabul on 27 June 2011 with representatives from more than 50 countries, under the auspices of the International Contact Group (ICG). At the meetings it was decided that Afghanistan will chair the conference and that there will be one delegation from Kabul. This means that President Karzai will chair the conference. He will also decide about the composition of the Afghan delegation. All previous high-level conferences on Afghanistan have been chaired by the UN and/or the host country, with the Afghan government as a co-chair. Still, it is hard to believe that Karzai will really be setting the agenda.

Read more here my guest post for Afghanistan Analysts Network.

 

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Taliban Denial of Talks

Daily Outlook op-ed published July 26

A latest Taliban video released by the Al-emara studio has been uploaded online. The 45 minutes video features attacks, RPG firings, blasts and interviews of Taliban commanders in Kunar province. It focuses on the talks about talks with Taliban, strongly denying the media reports that some Taliban officials had direct talks with the US. The overall message and theme of the video is mainly rebuttal of reports on Taliban talks, saying its war propaganda by the US. The video also asks media not to report on these false claims. It also features Taliban songs praising their Al-Badar operations started in spring this year.

The video starts with a statement saying the reports of talks with Taliban are a war tactic and propaganda. It further says the US on one hand talks about negotiations with Taliban, while on other hand there are discussions of long-term military presence in Afghanistan. It asks, how could talks be possible in such a condition? The video message requests international media not to report about the false propaganda spread by the CIA through its favorite American outlets.

It’s not the first time Taliban propaganda cell, al-emara or their so-called spokesmen have made such claims. However, it’s new that al-emara has particularly focused their video release on the talks with US, with interviews of Taliban commanders about this. The video is apparently in Kunar, and commanders interviewed are fighters from there. Al-emara does not mention Taliban or particular militant groups in their statements or messages. They use the word “Mujahideen” for themselves. Therefore, it is not clear whether the commanders are from the Al-Qaeda affiliate Haqqani Network, or Taliban’s Quetta Shura.
The reports about direct talks between the US and Taliban in Munich made headlines in local media in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In recent weeks, Taliban propaganda sources have been denying those reports. The name mentioned in these reports is of Sayed Tayeb Agha, Mullah Omar’s personal secretary. It was reported that he has been meeting American officials in Munich and Doha with the approval of Mullah Omar. It could be possible that the Taliban leadership involved in talks have kept it secret from their field commanders, or simply do not want to admit before they reach to a conclusion.

The reports of talks have already created an atmosphere of distrust among the ranks of mid-level Taliban leadership. In recent months, we have witnessed scores of Taliban fighters laying down their arms and joining the peace process in different parts of the country. One reason for Taliban propaganda cells to deny the direct talks could be to end the distrust spread among their commanders by calling the talks a CIA-propaganda.

Recently in a trip to Quetta, brother of a Taliban commander in Zabul, my home province, told me there is a “martyr” from every Noorzai and Kakar tribe of the province, “how could Amir-ul-Momineen end all our efforts in a deal”, he responded to my question about the direct talks of Tayed Agha with the US officials. “If he [Mullah Omar] had to do this, he should have handed over Osama to America in 2001″, he told angrily.

Even if the Taliban leadership of the Quetta Shura approve of talks, there will be many elements among their own commanders to oppose such a move. However, if the leadership council comes to an understanding, such elements won’t be influential to keep the entire insurgency strong.

The denials such as the latest al-emara video could also be propaganda by Al-Qaeda to disrupt the process of talks, before it makes an initial success. Most Jihadi online propaganda forums and websites are run by Al-Qaeda elements, and al-emara is part of that. It’s obvious that Al-Qaeda will fiercely resist the US and Afghan Government attempts to separate Taliban from them. Those Taliban who have been named in media reports to have talked directly with the US will be a high target of Al-Qaeda. They might have already launched the strategy to fail such attempts, and create hurdles in talks with Taliban by all means, including disinformation propaganda.

However, if the reports of direct talks are to be believed, the process is very slow. It has been almost a year now, since the first these meetings were reportedly held. If after several meetings and direct talks, there is no sign of a progress, I am skeptical of any such hope in future. Contrary to what should have happened, we witness a rise in suicide attacks, and assassinations of Afghan officials claimed by Taliban. If there is any possibility of success on talks, the process should not have been a unilateral appeasement of the insurgents through moves like the names of more than a dozen former Taliban being delisted from the UN sanctions list, but in response, Taliban increasing suicide attacks and terror campaign.

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Security Assessment and the Transition in Balkh

People are still in shockwave after the assassination of General Daud Daud, Police Chief for Northern Zone. It has not only deep psychological impact on the security perspective of people in the North, but also insecurity has deteriorated since. Cases of murders and crimes have increased in Mazar-e-Sharif city. The other day when I was passing by a busy square early in the morning, a mine blast rocked the city, luckily no one was killed except some injured. The news spread fast, further scaring the already low security confidence of people. Such blasts are rare in Mazar city, where people credit Governor Ata Muhammad Noor for the relative security and development.
Nobody knows where the investigation of Daud’s death has reached, or if there was such a thing at all. There were serious questions of security breach inside the Takhar Governor’s compound. Who changed the venue of that meeting in the morning, which was supposed to be held at the PRT compound? If not the Interior Ministry from Kabul, at least Governor Ata himself should have ordered a thorough investigation. The impact of Daud’s assassination is visible in the increasing sense of insecurity among people in the North. Governor Ata has limited his public appearances. In events where he used to give speeches previously, now written messages are read or a representative sent. He rarely goes to events outside his compound, and all officials visiting him must go without arms. His guards are close aides, and common soldiers from security forces are not fully trusted. In such an environment, you can imagine the concerns of a common person.
Officials in Kabul beat the drum of transition, and Mazar is on the list of 7 areas to be transferred to Afghan security forces. The control is set to be transferred next month. In-charge of the Transition, Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai was here two weeks ago. In a joint press conference with Governor Ata, they ‘hoped’ the transition will be a success. I visited many districts of Balkh Province during the past week. The general sense among masses is of an uncertain situation and fear of insecurity.
Previously there had been reports of insecurity and Taliban influence in four districts of Balkh including the ancient town of Balkh, Charbolak, Chemtal and Sholgara. But now incidents of insurgent insecurity have gripped Kaldar, Dawlatabad, Shor Tepa and Nahr Shahi districts also.
For instance, In Kaldar district of Balkh, which borders Uzbekistan, Taliban almost rule at night. Insurgents have ordered the telecommunication companies to shut down their signals at night; otherwise their towers would be blown up. The companies abide by this and cell phones do not work at night.
A friend of mine, who works for a Non-Governmental Organization, says he has been receiving calls from a Mullah Jabbar introducing himself as a Taliban commander in Mazar, and asking to leave the job with the NGO. According to Taliban spokesman, their shadow governor for Balkh is Mullah Abdul Karim, son of Mullah Abdul Jabbar. It’s not clear if the Jabbars are the same.
My friend says Mullah Jabbar asks him to join Taliban as an informant in Kaldar District and he will get paid in dollars more than that of his NGO salary. Offering him $500 a month, the Taliban commander also threatens with death if he ignores the offer. He is afraid, because already insurgents have killed his one female colleague a couple of months ago, and the NGO office was once burnt at night. But he will not succumb to Taliban threats, because being a resident of the district, he despises insurgents and don’t want their growing influence.
There had been rocket attacks on Kaldar District Governor office two months ago. All those feared “Taliban” in the area are local people with commanding orders and support from other networks of insurgents in the south and southeast.
I attended sermon of a Mullah in Kaldar. It was a routine talk and he was saying wherever the Americans go; they bring more harm than good. Sermons of Mullahs are the most effective channels of spreading conspiracy theories. The Mullah was saying the US has come in Afghanistan to loot our natural resources. Giving an example, he said everyday two helicopters land and take off from a hill in Marmul District, which has been a mining place in the past. The Mullah was way different than what I had expected in such a place. He didn’t talk against the Government, or about violence against foreign troops.
People traveling between Mazar to Jawzjan fear the increasing insecurity in Charbolak District on the highway. The district is known for an insurgent hideout where many incidents of armed battle between insurgents and security forces have occurred. Vehicles are stopped on the highway, and it has increased the sense of insecurity among masses.
The ancient town of Balkh District some 20 kilometer from Mazar city can easily go to insurgents if the situation gets deteriorating. During the resistance of Northern Alliance forces against Taliban advancement in 90s, Mazar fell to Taliban several times because of local support from Balkh town, which is strategic to the defense of the city. Today there is visible Taliban influence in the district.
Similarly, Chemtal District is the worst insurgent influenced in the Province. Many INGOs have phased out their operations from there due to increasing attacks. Same is the situation in Nahr Shahi and Kashinda districts. Meanwhile, incidents of insecurity have increased in Dawlatabad district too.
With above picture, the situation is bleak. Governor Ata reiterates the same reasons for the deteriorating situation. He says due to the negligence of North by international security forces, the US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas and the military operations in south and southeast, insurgents have been moving to North. Influence of Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami insurgents is growing, and Al-Qaeda affiliated activists of Uzbekistan Islamic Movement are also in the area, Governor Ata says.
The unclear transition strategy further adds to the uncertainty of the situation ahead. Ground assessment makes it obvious that Afghan forces are not fully capable of security control. In none of the abovementioned districts, there is enough number of police deployed. Given this, there is no risk calculation in the transition strategy. Let’s suppose after months of security transfer, the situation gets out of control and Balkh becomes the other Kunduz, what will be the choice for international security forces? Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai can better answer this question.

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